“Grade by Grade”

Sheet Music Review

This innovative new series of books from Boosey & Hawkes makes the bold claim to be “the complete resource for the grade ‘x’ pianist”. But does it live up to its aims?

The last year has seen an influx of book series written to help pianists expand their musical learning between taking grade examinations. These range from the didactic (such as Lang Lang’s “Mastering the Piano” series) to those which simply offer supplementary graded repertoire (such as ABRSM’s recent “Encore” series and “Piano Mix” books).

Boosey & Hawkes have pitched their latest offering, Grade by Grade, somewhere between these approaches. There are five books in the series (covering Grades 1 to 5, but not of any specific exam board) compiled by performer and composer Iain Farrington. Each book is built around Iain’s selection of pieces drawn from Boosey’s extensive catalogue, alongside “aural awareness” exercises, scales work, improvisation and sight reading. The books have a high quality but uniform appearance, and include a professionally recorded CD. The latter includes excellent demonstration performances of all the pieces, as well as material for the aural awareness tests included in the books.

A good collection of pieces?

The repertoire included is taken from the many Boosey & Hawkes publications aimed at the developing pianist. This includes well known “classical” pieces by Bartók, Shostakovitch and Kabalevsky as well as more recent educational material by Christopher Norton, Hywel Davies and Carol Barrett. The latter is also represented by her enjoyable arrangements of extracts from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and the books also include arrangements of folk songs and three songs from The Sound of Music, presumably a favourite of Iain’s!

Iain has contributed some interesting original pieces to each book, generally in a minimalist style favouring pedalling effects. There’s a pleasant smattering of Elizabethan pieces which is nice to see, but core classical and romantic repertoire is largely absent.

This assortment of repertoire is eclectic to say the least, but represents in my view one of the series’ main attractions.
The selection provides a useful alternative to the established favourites repeatedly found in other such series, and I am sure that teachers will welcome this as a breath of fresh air!

However, it needs mentioning that the books lean heavily towards the modern, with free dissonance featuring in a significant proportion of the pieces and arrangements. This will be warmly welcomed by many, but does not represent the typical variety found in a good exam syllabus. Grade by Grade 5 actually contains nothing written prior to 1900, and thus resembles a whole book of ABRSM “List C” pieces.

Fingering

I am also a little concerned by the conspicuous absence of fingering in the majority of pieces.

The Contents page of each book includes the following disclaimer:

“Note: All fingering has been added by composers or arrangers or taken from first published editions. Fingering has not been added to pieces where such markings do not feature in the original source material.”

I do not think that the editors have stayed true to this principle. For example, Bartók’s famous “Round Dance” from “For Children” contains no fingering in Grade by Grade 3, even though the composer included exhaustive fingering in the original. It is also worth noting that Iain Farrington himself chooses to include no fingering in his own pieces or arrangements, even at Grade 1 level.

A good teacher will of course work out suitable fingering with their students, but the player who enjoys a piece from the CD and tries to learn it independently is unlikely to arrive at the carefully considered fingerings of Bartók, or those of a good editor. I suspect many teachers will find this general lack of fingering advice frustrating.

Whatever the editorial intention (and it’s worth remembering that even ‘Henle Urtext’ editions usually include editorial fingering!) I find the inconsistency from one piece to the next strange, and out of step with exam materials at these levels.

What else is included?

Turning to the supplementary material, the intention here seems to be to cover the preparation for the supporting tests included in exams by the major boards. The difficulty with this aim is that each board has rather different requirements.

In the case of aural awareness tests, those included in Grade by Grade 1 almost exactly match the requirements of ABRSM Grade 1, while in Grade by Grade 4 they are closer to those of Trinity College. In Grade by Grade 5 the only aural awareness tests included involve commenting on a piece, as is done in ABRSM Grade 5 Test C. These tests are a valuable addition to the books, but it is a little disappointing that they are not introduced in the context of specific pieces about to be learnt: a “simultaneous learning” approach closer to that advocated by Paul Harris would have been useful here.

The “Scale Spot” pages, while again not covering full syllabus requirements, include exercises that are certainly helpful. This is a nice feature, serving as a reminder (should one be needed!) to integrate technical work at each level. Similarly, the inclusion of sight reading material will hopefully ensure that preparation isn’t left until two weeks before the exam.

I particularly like the inclusion of improvisation exercises in all five books. These are very effectively integrated alongside the pieces, drawing on some of the same compositional elements. In each case, the improvisation work suggested is challenging but adds a fresh creative dimension to the material, giving the student ideas that can be developed at length into the future.

Grade by Grade 5 includes for the first time the appearance of Music Theory. This comprises a single exercise in the style of the “General Exercises” found at the end of Eric Taylor’s well known “Music Theory in Practice” books. Page 30 reproduces a piece previously learnt on Page 10 (why not incorporate theory at the time of learning the piece?) followed by analytical questions at Grade 5 Theory level. Curiously, the written instructions inform students that the answers appear on Page 41, in case they get stuck!

Taken as a whole, these supplementary learning materials are certainly useful and add high quality content to the package. However, they sometimes feel tacked on, and certainly don’t provide the “complete resource” promised. Overall I would have preferred everything to have been more obviously integrated with the actual repertoire, which would have been significantly more useful, and which works so well for the improvisation exercises.

Some conclusions?

While I have some reservations with these books, they are outweighed by the considerable strengths that the series offers. I will definitely be using the books with selected students, particularly those who respond well to more adventurous repertoire.

Grade by Grade is ultimately a tremendous resource offering a great repertoire selection that will enhance any library of piano music. The additional resources included will hopefully appeal to many, and are certainly worth exploring.

Boosey & Hawkes must be commended for attempting a project with such magnificent aims. While not really a “complete resource”, the books richly benefit from their attempt to be so, and surely represent one of the more interesting and better resources now available for developing pianists working through the earlier grades.

I very much hope that teachers will rush to acquire a set of the books, and decide for themselves which pupils will benefit the most from the repertoire included and general approach taken.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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