Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Ode to Edna Mae Burnam

In my studio, she is known as "good old Edna Mae." It's a rare day that her contributions are not part of my teaching agenda. I've looked for other options, but her technique series called "A Dozen A Day" (ADAD) has yet to be surpassed.

The first time I came in contact with ADAD was as a student member of my college's Sigma Alpha Iota chapter. We were participating in a larger effort to aid visually impaired students in obtaining access to her system. We did it by hand - yes, I'm dating myself - with pencil erasers that were crimped to form the oval shape of note heads. We traced them on large staff paper and filled in the note heads as required. It was tedious work, and it got sent on to the Library of Congress for copying. Any teacher requesting these materials for a student could get them.

By now, this is an antiquated method by anyone's measure. We have machines to enlarge printed works and reproduce them proportionately. We have access to scores through digital devices. However, thanks to Edna Mae's creativity, the contents of ADAD remain timeless.

When Edna Mae Burnam wrote Book One in 1950, she had reached the 43rd year of her 100 years on Earth. She was teaching young students who needed technique at relatively easy levels that would appeal to them, their parents, and their teachers. She gave the short patterns names related to exercises, like jumping, hopping, swinging, rolling, and kicking. Her publisher, Willis Music, didn't understand these names, so she drew stick figures to illustrate the connections. She didn't expect them to show up in the book, but Willis really liked them. To this day, every exercise has a non-gender specific character accompanying each element.

As an Alexander Technique teacher and a Licensed Body Mapping Educator, I have come to appreciate these characters on a larger scale. Not only do they tag the patterns with joyful illustrations, they also show the whole body. The whole body! Every illustration is a reminder that we play with the whole body, not just our fingers and hands.

Fortunately for Edna Mae, her Book One was a success. It had one problem: teachers wanted easier levels that could be started almost from the first lessons. Thus was the Preparatory Book born, and then the Mini Book. From there she built three more advancing levels to match her lesson series, Step by Step. Over time, Step by Step proved less popular, but ADAD is still going strong.

How did she make it so good? First, she built the technical exercises in well-designed steps. They build the basic movements required in advancing piano literature, no matter the method. Second, she made them short. It's almost as though she knew that 70 years later our attention spans would shrink. Third, she made them easy to transpose. First year students can transpose these exercises to multiple patterns with ease. And, fourth, they have a spirit of fun to them. Some of my students add faces and hair to the stick figures, and some of them color them. Again, the non-gender specific drawings were ahead of their time, and they can be adapted by any willing student artist.

Good old Edna Mae confirms my belief that making something easy and effective is an act of brilliance. Few notes but lots of practical movements. Imaginative titles and characters. Efficient use of practice time. Hail to you, Edna Mae Burnam!

To see a video interview of her, go to this URL: