“Get Set! Piano” comprises two method books, two books of supplementary pieces, and extensive free website materials, all brought to us by Harper Collins. Aimed at younger beginners, the books claim to cover everything that pupils would need to know prior to taking Grade One piano (with any of the main boards).
Upon receiving the books, I was immediately struck by the high quality presentation, with lively cartoon pictures throughout (by Julia Patton), clear and uncluttered presentation, and superb music engraving. Paper quality, printing and binding are all top quality, as one expects from this publishing house.
For any teacher working with young beginners, the choice of tutor book is one of the most significant decisions that will underpin teaching and learning. Quite rightly, all teachers must follow their own path; a good teacher will be confident in their own knowledge and playing ability, have a well thought approach to pedagogy, and a style that fits their own personal and musical character. They will naturally want to use materials that match their values and approach as closely as possible.
At the same time, all students are different, bringing their own unique blend of strengths and weaknesses, ability and challenge, and their own style of learning. One size certainly does not fit all, and the teacher who recognises this will usually want to be able to draw on a range of different tutor books in order to best meet each student’s needs. Personally I have tended in recent years to rely on Pauline Hall’s “Piano Time” books, though these are not without drawbacks that sometimes need working around.
When looking through the “Get Set! Piano” books in some detail, these were the comparisons that were uppermost in my mind. To take its place as a resource I will use, any new book must either be sufficiently exciting to replace my existing tutor of choice or sufficiently different to carve its own niche alongside the other books I regularly turn to.
Let me say without delay that “Get Set! Piano” succeeds on both these senses – so much so that I anticipate using as my main tutor for children beginning lessons.
With this in mind, and rather than continue a regular review, let me share six reasons why “Get Set! Piano” has me so excited.
1. The pace, progress and underlying pedagogy is as close to perfect as I have seen in a beginner tutor for children.
For teachers, this will always be a primary consideration. We have seen time and again how faulty pedagogy, bad pacing or poor structuring can present genuine roadblocks to pupil progress, and we are of course keen to avoid the pitfalls that we have spotted when using other tutor books.
Karen Marshall is trained in Kodály methodology, which underpins these books without ever being dogmatic, intrusive, or even explicit. Indeed, in the “Teacher’s Guide” download she cites the influence of piano teachers from an earlier time – Mrs. J. Spencer Curwen and Joan Last to name a couple. Karen Marshall tells me that she and Heather in fact analysed over 40 methods, old and new.
While integrating the best of past teaching practice, the authors also advocate a multi-sensory approach, including a wide variety of teaching strategies that are bang up to date with a modern understanding of education. Ultimately the effect of this is a learning path which is clear, brilliantly integrated, easy to understand, and yet profound in its depth of thinking. Reading through the books and supplementary resources I actually found myself moved and inspired by the quality of the teaching and learning content.
2. The pieces are consistently great, and pupils are encouraged to be creative, imaginative and develop musicality.
I will only use a tutor book if the music is good! During these early stages, when pupils are just beginning to read music and play five-note tunes, it is difficult to provide music which is inspiring and enjoyable to learn. And as teachers we need to be careful to ensure our musical expectations are in any case realistic. But too many tutor books are filled with dull and unimaginative music. Get Set! Piano is well ahead of the pack in this respect.
Even the very first two-note tunes are fun and musical. According to the “Teacher’s Guide”:
“The tutor book begins by introducing D in the treble clef and B in the bass clef. These two notes are easy to remember; one sits at the bottom of the treble stave and the other one sits at the top of the bass stave. This minor third interval has been nicknamed the ‘mother’s call’ as it is easy on the ear. Many simple tunes can be enjoyed just using these two notes, meaning that the students can experience playing musical pieces right from the start.”
It’s worth adding that pupils are also encouraged to make up their own tunes using these notes, and even write them down. This attention to musical detail permeates all four books, as well as the additional downloads.
When road testing the material with their own students, Karen and Heather would apparently reject any tune that didn’t score 8/10 with their own pupils. One would of course expect that the author’s own pupils would like their music, but having played through all the pieces myself (at least in my head!) I would say that I cannot think of another tutor book that contains more stimulating musical content. And the choice of imaginative titles throughout underlines the sense of fun and musicality that is in abundant evidence throughout the whole series.
3. Get Set! Piano emphasises rhythmic development in a way too often overlooked.
From those I have seen, used and reviewed over the years, tutor books tend to fall into one of two mistakes, either emphasising notation reading as the driving force of the whole method, or having a weak approach to this in lieu of a more musical emphasis. In the case of the former (and I would put the “Piano Time” books that I routinely use in this category) a notation driven approach can sometimes lead to poor rhythmic development, because significant challenge and overall focus is too regularly on reading and coordination rather than timing and musicianship.
Get Set! Piano, quite simply, provides the best balance I have seen in this respect. Notation is introduced in a natural and progressive way (avoiding, for example, the mistake of including unnecessary and redundant finger numbers) but never at the expense of a foundation in true inner musical understanding. The emphasis given to developing the sense of pulse (again using a multi-sensory approach) is exemplary – and from a personal point of view I know that using this material will help me to address a shortcoming in my own teaching practice which “Piano Time” has not helped with.
4. Get Set! Piano provides a fully and properly integrated approach, rather than a jumbled set of good, but tacked on, ideas.
The popular tutor books on the market may well be full of great ideas, but too regularly these appear as add-ons rather than being built into the core of the material. Sometimes – as I believe it the case in Denes Agay’s particular fixation on intervals – high concept takes precedence over the basic developmental flow. In other cases, such as the more gargantuan series like “Piano Adventures”, “Piano Time” and the “Bastien” books, segregated activities spill across a huge range of books that the student needs to work through in order to gain a complete and well-rounded approach.
Throughout “Get Set! Piano” however, the core DNA running through everything remains the same – pulse, rhythm, notation reading, music theory, physical technique, aural development, creativity, and above all fun. So that the repertoire books include theory quizzes, the tutor book includes puzzles and physical games, the scales book download includes pieces … none of these are introduced in isolation at any stage. It all adds up to one brilliantly integrated learning package, and every part of it simply makes sense and properly belongs together in a way which I believe is unprecedented. Nothing is superfluous, and nothing is tangential.
5. Did I mention the Online Resources? This content adds up to several full colour music books which can be downloaded free of charge – even if you aren’t using “Get Set! Piano” as your main resource!
The Get Set! Piano website includes the following, all presented as freely downloadable PDFs in full colour:
- Additional Pieces – 27 pages.
- Teacher’s Guide booklet
- Teacher’s Duet parts for all the pieces (Some are included in the book itself, others are online only. Personally I improvise my own duet parts anyway.)
- Note Finding Quizzes
- Music Theory Games / Quizzes
- Certificates for students completing each book
And for Get Set! Piano Book 2:
- Get Set! Piano Extra Concert Pieces (love the emphasis here!) – 35 page book
- Get Set! Piano Scales, Arpeggios and Broken Chords – a 20 page colour book including all the scales requirements of the major exam boards as well as additional scales-based pieces
- Get Set! Piano Theory Quizzes, Note Finding Quizzes, and Student Certificate
EDIT 2016: Pianodao is now a home for all these free downloads. You can find them all right here.
It would be an understatement to say these add considerably to the overall package – they are fundamental to it. The Scales book is the best of its kind I have seen, the pieces are of the same high standard as those in the printed books, and it is clear that much thought and love has gone into every aspect of these materials. That they are available free to all is extremely generous, and adds considerable value to what is already a less expensive book than most of its rivals currently on the market.
You may be wondering whether, with so much excellent material available free online, a student could get all they need by supplementing the core Tutor Books with the downloaded extras, and so not bother buying the “Get Set! Piano Pieces” books. The basic answer is, I think, that yes they could. But why would they want to? The whole point of the whole series is that it is FUN, so why limit the enjoyment and exploration?
6. Ah yes – Get Set! Piano is FUN!
And it seems to me perfectly tailored to the imaginations and culture of today’s child.
Perhaps that is the greatest boon of all. How often have we struggled to find the spark that ignites a young child’s musical imagination and switches them on to a lifetime of loving and learning music? Get Set! Piano will, I believe make it easier than ever before to ignite that early enthusiasm while laying the very best foundations for an ongoing musical education.
It seems almost embarrassing as an independent reviewer to write in such glowing and apparently one-sided terms about any publication. Surely I must have some reservations? Well okay – but they are very minor!
Firstly, I should point out to American readers (etc) that the books are avowedly British throughout, not simply using the English words for note values, but also including phrases such as “dripping tap” rather than “faucet”. Perhaps an Americanized version will follow at some point?
Secondly, related to that, “Get Set! Piano Tutor 1” introduces “Crotchets (quarter notes)” and such on page 6, but when further note values are introduced later in the book the international alternatives are no longer shown in brackets. This seems to be a minor inconsistency, and personally I would have liked to see those international terms used in brackets throughout.
Thirdly and lastly, while “Get Set! Piano Tutor 1” briefly introduces the A natural minor scale, which is great to see, this is not followed up in the “Scales, Arpeggios and Broken Chords” download, where I would have very warmly welcomed the inclusion of all natural minor scales.
These tiny misgivings aside, it is clear that I am excited by “Get Set! Piano” and plan to use it with all younger beginners who come to me from now on. This of course means that in a year or so I should hopefully be able to come back with a follow-up article, and let you all know how it goes! Hopefully my enthusiasm will be undiminished of course!
But don’t wait – go ahead and order up a set of these tremendous books, and check out all the great resources on the “Get Set! Piano” website – you really won’t regret it!