William Gillock: A centennial retrospective
"To provide a musically thrilling experience."--Willam Gillock, on the purpose of student piano literature
I often ask my piano pedagogy students to take a few moments to reflect on their motivations for being a music major. After all, studying music is challenging and time consuming, and there's no clear-cut promise of financial riches at the end of the path.
Most of us are able to trace our inspiration back to musically thrilling experiences. An astounding performance that held us in rapture. The realization that we could produce these beautiful sounds in our own playing. The euphoria of making music with other accomplished musicians. These musically thrilling experiences are what drive us, and they make our musical lives worth living.
William Gillock may have understood this better than anyone. His music, in my opinion, is pure inspiration. To students, Gillock's music sounds like the "real thing" and serves as an organic stepping stone to the great masterworks. As Gillock himself says, "If a piece seems worthy of the effort… the pupil is more likely to give willingly—even enthusiastically—the time and thought necessary for a beautiful performance."
In my experience, the music of Gillock accomplishes these goals as well as, if not better than, any other pedagogical composer. His pieces have motivated thousands, and they will continue to do so, providing both joy and satisfaction to young musicians. On this occasion of his 100th birthday, Clavier Companion is honored to pay homage to William Gillock, a true pedagogical treasure.
A biography of William L. Gillock (1917-1993)
William Lawson ("Bill") Gillock was born July 1, 1917, on his paternal grandparents' farm in rural Lawrence County, Missouri, the first of two sons of Claude M. Gillock (b. 1888) and Carroll G. Lawson Gillock (b. 1898). A year later, the family moved to Bowers Mill, followed later by a move of the actual house to LaRussell, Missouri, which was precipitated by flooding along the Spring River. LaRussell, a small town halfway between Joplin and Springfield, then became the home of the Gillock family. Another son, Robert Daniel, was born in Bowers Mill April 15, 1919.
Father Claude M. Gillock graduated from high school in Carthage, Missouri, and started life after college as a teacher. After several years of teaching, he returned to college to study dentistry, and, after graduating, served as LaRussell's dentist for more than fifty years. (Robert D. Gillock also became a dentist after serving in the Navy during World War II, and practiced dentistry in the Veteran's Administration in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He died in April 1978.)
The Gillock household in LaRussell included music: Bill Gillock's father was a music lover and played several instruments by ear, including the piano. Also an enthusiast of photography, he captured the two boys, aged five and three, in front of the family Story & Clark upright. Young Bill picked out tunes by ear, and his father supplied a sort of harmony. Bill started piano lessons around this time; every week he and his family drove fifteen miles to Carthage for lessons.
After graduating from high school, Gillock entered Central Missouri Methodist College in Fayette as an art major. Encouraged in the liberal arts curriculum to also study piano, Gillock was accepted as a student by N. Louise Wright, who urged him to take theory and other music courses. She also encouraged him in his first compositional attempts through weekly composition lessons. "She…got me started writing student literature…smaller pieces that children could play."He wrote thirty pieces, and, on Ms. Wright's urging, sent them to G. Schirmer, who accepted five for publication. For these he was paid $10 for each piece. She also advised him to sell his pieces outright rather than through a royalty contract, and he continued the process, at the same rate, with other publishers, including F. Summy (the forerunner of Summy-Birchard), Elkan Vogel, and McKinley Music. This arrangement continued until the early 1950s.
Although he never considered himself a strong graphic artist, Gillock did complete a bachelor's degree in art at CMMC in 1939. He destroyed most of his artwork, and much of the rest has been lost. It is rumored that several of the covers of his early pieces, such as "Sing, Little Pussycat," were his original artworks, but there exists no documentation of this.
After graduating from college, Gillock taught school from 1939 to 1942 in Fayette, Missouri. During World War II, Gillock relocated to New Orleans to work in drafting for the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation. (He was exempted from active service due to a medical condition.) He lived for a short time in a rooming house, then moved to the French Quarter, where he played for a while in a small jazz band. The specifics of the personnel and the venues of their performances are lost, but it is said that the combo played occasionally at The Court of Two Sisters, which originated their famous "Jazz Brunch" about this time.
After the war, Gillock worked for an advertising agency in New Orleans until an opportunity to develop a teaching studio appeared. He had already begun to be known in the city as an accompanist and improvisational pianist, and, when a local radio station lost its resident teacher, Gillock's application to fill the post was accepted and his teaching career began in earnest. During this time, Gillock continued to compose, and had a number of pieces accepted for publication.
Gillock took time off from composing between 1946 and 1953. He began his independent teaching studio in 1950 by moving to a home on Solomon Place, in a quiet neighborhood near City Park. There he converted a front parlor into his teaching studio, with a small waiting room in the foyer. The Mason and Hamlin grand that he had bought earlier was shipped to his family's home in Missouri, and he purchased a Steinway "M" for his new studio.
Many of the most successful and popular of Gillock's compositions were to flow from his pen during the years on Solomon Place, including "Sleigh Ride" (1955), Festival Album (1956), and Fanfare and Other Courtly Scenes (1957). But it was the debut of the Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style (1958) that was the defining moment in his career as a composer. From its first appearance, it was a best seller and a favorite among both teachers and students.
Gillock began at this time the strenuous task of workshop touring. Sponsored by his then main publisher, Willis Music Company, he travelled around the country demonstrating his pieces in music stores, and generating sales of the music. He also began a rigorous schedule of judging for festivals and contests sponsored by both the Piano Guild and the Federation of Music Clubs. It was during one of these tours that Gillock met and befriended his future partner, Ken Newsome, an independent piano teacher and music dealer in Dallas.
Gillock moved to Dallas in 1970, and eventually settled, with Ken Newsome, in a newer home in the suburb of DeSoto, Texas. His teaching was now limited to just a few students, and included some who came from great distances to study his music with him. One of these people, Hiroko Yasuda of Tokyo, Japan, travelled to DeSoto several summers in a row, staying for just a week or ten days. She eventually was the driving force behind the formation of The Gillock Society of Japan, which continues to hold festivals of Gillock's music in a number of smaller communities throughout Japan.
In the Fall of 1992, RCA Victor released a recording of Gillock compositions performed by Hitomi Ito, a rising Japanese pianist who coached with Gillock during four days in March of 1991, followed by the exchange of many tapes. Gillock was pleased with the result, and especially pleased to be recorded on such a prestigious label. He wrote, "Considering [Ito's] highly reserved cultural background… I think many of her performances a remarkable accomplishment. Doesn't the Victor logo look impressive?"
The release of this recording was indicative of the appeal of Gillock's music to students and teachers of other cultures; his pieces were becoming known worldwide, and were—and continue to be—particularly popular in Japan.
Gillock spent much of his time during the late '60s, '70s, and '80s composing, as the vast output for those years testifies. 1969 was an especially fruitful year, with more than ninety titles, including multiple-composition collections such as Piano All the Way (in three volumes). Some of these were done with the collaboration of Ken Newsome, whose Oak Cliff Music Company was running smoothly by then. Gillock also wrote a number of four-hand pieces, transcriptions of other composers' music, and collections of favorite hymns and of carols.
In 1992, Gillock was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and found he was losing strength daily. During this period, he reduced his activity to a minimum. Between 1992 and his demise in 1993, he wrote only three brief pieces (and they may have been re-workings of earlier ideas); his adjudications and teaching stopped altogether. During the summer of 1992 and 1993, requests from Hiroko Yasuda for lessons were referred to his former student, Henry Doskey of North Carolina, and she travelled there for coaching on Gillock's pieces. The results, which were transmitted to Gillock through letters and tapes by Yasuda, led Gillock to name Doskey "the authoritative interpreter and judge of authenticity of stylistic treatment" in his music.
William L. Gillock passed away on September 7, 1993. A memorial service that he designed was held on September 14 in DeSoto, Texas. Gillock chose the music for this service, called "A Celebration in Music of the Life of William Lawson Gillock."
Gillock was active in musical organizations throughout his life, and served as officer in many. He was a member of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, and collaborated with the Guild staff on its instructional videotape for adjudicators. Among the offices he held were President of the Louisiana Federation of Music Clubs, President of the Dixie District of the National Federation of Music Clubs, Member-at-Large of the Board of Directors of the Music Teachers National Association, and Junior Chairman of the Southern Division of MTNA. After moving to the Dallas area, he was the first and only judge for the first twenty-one years of the Junior Pianists' Guild, a Dallas organization that involved more than 1,400 students. As a member of the Dallas Southwest Music Teachers Association, he made the initial contribution to its Scholarship Fund, which was renamed in 1994 as The William L. Gillock Scholarship Fund.
William Gillock was always generous with his expertise; he mentored a number of young composers and scholars by encouraging them in their efforts. Of particular note were composers Lynn Freeman Olson and Glenda Austin, whose friendship with Gillock resulted in a simplified version of New Orleans Jazz Styles. His editorship of the "Commissioned by Clavier" series (for Clavier magazine) in the early '90s, and his participation as a judge for the Lynn Freeman Olson Composition Awards (along with Louise Bianchi, Marvin Blickenstaff, Martha Hilley, and Joanne Smith), were evidence of his dedication to excellence in writing for piano students.
Teachers know that a Gillock piece in a student's repertoire will be successful, and that his understanding of the characteristics of historical styles offers training in piano music of every type. Besides bearing clever titles, his charming pieces appeal to students of all ages. He felt that composers should write music that students want to study, and that students will practice more and progress more rapidly when that is true. In addition to their melodic appeal, the music often presents challenges of both a technical and musical nature, and it is always structurally sound. Gillock devoted himself completely to composition for the piano, and his love for the piano's sound is always apparent.
Photos from the private collection of the Gillock Family are used with their permission. All rights reserved.
"In Memoriam William Gillock" and "A Reminiscence of William Gillock," Piano Guild Notes Nov./Dec. 1993.
"William Gillock: Teacher and Friend," American Music Teacher Apr./May 1994.
"The Gillock World Tour," American Music Teacher Feb./Mar. 2010.
The Music of William Gillock, DMA document, University of Oklahoma, 2006.
Gillock, William L.
Notes to Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style, 50th Anniversary Edition, 2008.
Letters to Henry Doskey, 1965–1993; "to Becky," 1979 (source: Ken Newsome).
"The Last Interview with William Gillock," Clavier Sept. 1993.
A letter from William Gillock to a piano pedagogy student
transcribed and edited by Henry Doskey
March 29, 1979
Many, many thanks for your good letter and your invitation to contribute whatever pearls of wisdom I may have found useful in composing supplemental pieces for piano students…
Will you permit me to philosophize a bit…? Since you have taught so much of my music, you are probably more aware than I that the composition process with me is far more intuitive than intellectual. Your request for an insight into what really happens has caused me to analyze and soul-search for answers that I had given little or no thought to previously. Thanks for "shaking me up!" I may have something of interest to talk about on my next workshop tour!
The first question I have asked myself is: "What are the functions of supplemental literature that the usual pieces in reading books or other 'study' books do not serve?" The answers, in the order of their importance to me, are:
1) To provide a musically thrilling experience at a level that is playable for a particular age, musical understanding, and technical advancement. I believe more pupils have learned to play well because of exciting literature than for all other reasons combined. If a piece seems worthy of the effort…the pupil is more likely to give willingly—even enthusiastically—the time and thought necessary for a beautiful performance. The well-chosen, self-motivating supplemental piece provides the opportunity to achieve artistry and refinement of detail in performance. Whereas the pieces in the reading or study books generally focus the attention of the student on a visual or technical experience, the supplemental piece should be an experience in thrilling sound—the ultimate goal of all his studies. And on the subject of thrilling sound, I feel it is the responsibility of the teacher to see that the pupil hears his piece played well. Sound can be taught only by imitation. At first, the teacher will need to lead the pupil phrase by phrase, even note by note; but from these specific experiences the pupil will learn to generalize. This type of teaching can be successful…only if the pupil's heart is in the learning process. This requires a piece that he wants desperately to be able to play well.
2) To provide an experience that will lead to the later understanding of master works… Especially written pieces in the styles of the master composers, or periods of musical history, or in various forms, serve an obviously useful purpose. I call this type of piece "something to grow on."
3) To reinforce reading concepts and/or technical skills and help them to become a fluent part of the musical vocabulary or physical accomplishments. My teacher, N. Louise Wright, used to say "Theory is not worth two cents unless it has an immediate musical application."
What makes some pieces more successful than others? This is a question that I think can never be answered completely. The subtle turn of a phrase, a bit of colorful harmony, the unexpected surprise, and exciting rhythmic treatment—to what and how the taste and personality of the young musician responds—who knows?
Aside from musical qualities that are indefinable and elusive. And which have different meaning to different people, there is one qualification that I would demand of all pieces I would teach in the early years: they must be pianistic. They must feel as if they are written for ten fingers and eighty-eight keys. For this reason, I never permit a piece to be published until I have played it several times a day for at least a month. During that time, I often re-arrange or simplify to make the piece easier to play. However, one rule I observe religiously is never to sacrifice musical quality to simplification. This, again, is something that N. Louise Wright instilled in me.
I think I am always trying to write pieces that sound harder than they really are because I know these are the ones teachers take to their hearts and cherish, and children love them for public performance.
In my writing for the early levels, I like pieces that have a natural rhythmic flow. The pupil must, above all else, achieve this…and I see no point in complicating the pursuit of it. I especially avoid in my writing for the first three years pieces where the downbeat occurs on a rest or a tie. I like to use strong accents and crisp staccato touches. Rhythmic subtlety, such as in AEOLIAN HARP or FRENCH DOLL, is for a select few.
A singable melody is also characteristic of my work. Because melody has been an important part of the evolution of music in our western culture, it has a wide appeal. We relate to the "song and dance" of the folk music in which so much of our culture is rooted.
As to which comes first in my composing, the concept or the musical idea, the ratio over the nearly forty years of my career would probably be about 50–50. If I am writing a study [course] book…or pieces meant to supplement such a book, the concept would come first. But I would discard any idea that seemed lacking in musical interest, no matter how well the educational concept might be served. A piece that does nothing more than make an educational point is deadly dull. Many of the studies of Streabbog, Duvernoy, Czerny, for example, are not worth the time and effort… On the other hand, most of the Burgmüller studies are musically satisfying, in addition to being first-rate educational experiences.
It seems to me, however, that my most successful pieces started with the musical idea and were developed without much thought to grading. Because my pieces are generally very patterned, there is little danger of going beyond the general level of the first theme, though I'm sure I consciously avoid the temptation to use an occasional measure or two that would require an extraordinary effort on the part of the player.
The success I've had with most of my grading may be due to the fact that I am a pianist of meager means. As I have always said, "If I can play the piece, surely any reasonably well-coordinated pupil can also play it—often better than the composer."
As to key variety, I have been aware since the early 1960s of the need for easy supplemental pieces in many keys. And I have found working in a variety of keys both stimulating and inspirational. An idea may come to me in the key of F-sharp minor that would never occur in F minor, due, I suspect, as much to the feel of the key under the hand as to the different sound. Some of my most satisfying compositional experiences have come from working on the "Accent" books (MAJORS, MAJORS & MINORS, and THE BLACK KEYS) and the LYRIC PRELUDES. I must confess, however, that if I think in terms of the musical sound of the cash register my mind locks in on C, G, and F—and maybe A minor!
One closing thought that has nothing to do with composition: if I ever teach again I would require every pupil to own a cassette recorder. I would record his piece at the tempo I want him to practice, counting aloud or singing the words. I think so much time is wasted in home practice because the pupil doesn't remember the sound he is working for and the practice tempo. The most disheartening experience is to struggle with notes and rhythms, not knowing what the end result should be. In our eagerness as teachers to develop independent readers, I think we often neglect the aural aspects of learning—and in the final analysis music is absolutely at the mercy of the ear.
Becky, I thank you for the opportunity to express my thought, opinions, and prejudices…
William L. Gillock
Favorite Gillock pieces
selected by Henry Doskey
"By a Sylvan Lake" (1942/1970)
Essence of Spain
"Dancing in a Dream" (Festival Album, 1955/1970)
"Fog at Sea" (Accent on Solos 3, 1969)
"Fountain in the Rain" (1960)
One of the greats
An introduction to Debussy
Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style (1958)
Gillock's signature masterwork; essential
Whole tone scales explored
New Orleans Jazz Styles (1965)
More New Orleans Jazz Styles (1966)
Still More New Orleans Jazz Styles (1967)
Fun for all; great introduction to America's music
Piano All the Way, Levels 1-3 (1969)
A strong beginning method
"Polynesian Nocturne" (1963)
Classic Gillock, luscious
Seven Pieces in Seven Keys (1983)
Something for everyone
"Sing, Little Pussycat" (1955)
Measured glissandi, words to sing
"Sleigh Ride" (1955)
Helped to make Gillock famous; fun to play
Strong enough for any occasion
"Star Dancers" (1944)
Another early gem
"Starlight Waltz" (1954)
Hollywood music for piano (think Fred Astaire); great recital piece