ABRSM “Piano Mix”

The latest series of new piano music books from ABRSM promises “great arrangements for easy piano”. Does it deliver?

When ABRSM launched its 2009-2010 Piano Exam syllabus they boldly announced their plans to start including arrangements as well as specific piano repertoire in the earlier grades:

“The inclusion of arrangements is a significant development for the piano syllabus, bringing it into line with the syllabuses for all other instruments. Arrangements of movements from Classical symphonies, suites and concertos, such as Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, sit side by side with popular music and the lively TV theme tune, Top Cat!

This widens repertoire choices at the lower grades, and more importantly introduces young pianists to the wider world of other non-pianistic genres.”

At the time, ABRSM had invited submissions of easy piano arrangements from its considerable pool of examiners, no doubt providing a significant resource from which they have now compiled three new repertoire books aimed at pianists up to around Grade 4 level.

The three books in the Piano Mix series are compiled and edited by David Blackwell, and are:

  • Piano Mix 1 (Grades 1-2) – 24 pieces / 28 pages
  • Piano Mix 2 (Grades 2-3) – 25 pieces / 32 pages
  • Piano Mix 3 (Grades 3-4) – 24 pieces / 48 pages

The first thing that struck me about these books is that they are deliberately presented as material to be done between grades, and for its own sake, rather than as preparation towards a grade. While this is not uncommon from other publishers, it is refreshing to see ABRSM adopt this approach, as it underlines the importance of developing a more well-rounded attitude towards enjoying music on a broad level, rather than becoming too focussed on preparing material for assessment purposes.

As you will note from the banner image that heads this review, the presentation is colourful and vivid. And as one would expect from ABRSM, the typesetting, printing and binding are all top rate. David Blackwell has edited the three books to the industry-leading standards that are consistent across all ABRSM publications, so that teachers can be confident that these books are in all respects a safe bet.

In terms of the pieces selected for arrangement, David writes in his introduction:

“The purpose of this collection is to bring a selection of pieces from a wide range of non-piano repertoire – orchestral, chamber, operatic, ballet, choral and vocal – into the hands of early grade pianists. A variety of non-classical pieces, including spirituals, folk songs, TV themes, marches and jazz pieces, completes the span of music plundered.”

In reality, the vast majority of the pieces are classical (and often not the most well known classical pieces), with a handful of folk songs included in each book. There are a couple or jazz pieces in each book, most of which are arrangements by the brilliant Nikki Iles, and live up to her high standards. I could only count two TV Themes, both included in Piano Mix 2, and just one show tune, ‘Consider Yourself’ from Oliver, included in Piano Mix 3.

Those hoping for a more balanced mix of genres might be disappointed, especially in the case of the first book in the series, and it would certainly have been nice to have seen more show tunes and perhaps even a couple of chart hits (as has happened in the exam syllabus, with arrangements of songs by Eric Clapton and Joni Mitchell appearing in recent years).

The arrangements are for the most part creative, lie well under the hands, and are expertly moderated to match the criteria for the grade levels indicated. A few are by David Blackwell himself, with contributions from other established names such as Christopher Norton, Peter Gritton (whose ‘Simply Classics’ books from Faber Music cover similar ground) and Alan Bullard.

The majority of the arrangements are, however, by ABRSM examiners. I was particularly impressed by the quality throughout, and especially taken with several brilliant arrangements by Nancy Litton, Anne Marshall, Nicholas Scott-Burt and Martin White, all of whom show tremendous flair and intuition in their piano writing.

Throughout the series, all arrangers do a superb job of preserving the core content and character of the original music, while providing a simple pianistic version.

The pieces in Piano Mix 1 are perhaps the least varied in the series, but while some seem to me to be “fillers”, there are still many good arrangements here. I particularly enjoyed playing through Nancy Litton’s sensitive arrangement of the famous Brahms ‘Lullaby’, Chris Norton’s take on Gounod’s ‘Funeral March of a Marionette’ and a great version of Bob Carlton’s ‘Ja-Da’ arranged by Nikki Iles.

Piano Mix 2 is a genuine feast of great arrangements, with much better variety ranging from Martin White’s arrangement of the Andante from Haydn’s popular Trumpet Concerto through to Peter Gritton’s entertaining ‘Match of the Day’. Arrangements in Piano Mix 3 are expectedly the most imaginative, and include an interesting take on Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ by David Blackwell and a version of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ that is guaranteed to put a smile on everyone’s faces!

At the foot of each page, there is a brief comment about the background of the piece, together with a “Did you know?” piece of additional fun trivia. These are both helpful and engaging, and provide a good context for the music. For example, following Purcell’s ‘Trumpet Tune’ from ‘King Arthur’ we are told:

“The English composer Henry Purcell served at the Royal Court in London as chorister, instrument-tuner, music copyist, organist and composer. This tune is taken from his dramatic work ‘King Arthur’ (1691) which tells the story of the heroic British king.

Did you know? Although many characters and stories are connected with King Arthur – the wizard Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table, pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone – no one knows for certain if he actually existed.

I would have liked to see some suggestions for listening included at this point. Most students, including children, are good at finding recordings to listen to and watch on YouTube, Spotify and elsewhere, and most of the pieces included in the Piano Mix series will be easy enough to trace, but there are a few exceptions. John Dowland’s ‘Lute Song’ in Piano Mix 1, for example, is not properly identified as the song ‘Come Again’.

I think that it would have been helpful to have included full source information for all the pieces, suggestions for recommended recordings, and for additional listening (such as other pieces by the same composers). This is however a very minor quibble, and any competent teacher will be able to “fill in the gaps” where needed, encouraging their students to develop a deeper knowledge and love of music in the process.

It’s important to stress in conclusion that all the arrangements in these books are fresh, unavailable elsewhere, and that together they make a fantastic addition to the easy piano repertoire. Many of these pieces are likely to appear in school concerts, local music festivals, and as exam syllabus alternatives in the years to come, making the Piano Mix series an essential purchase for any piano teacher, as well as a valuable addition to the music collections of students and amateur pianists everywhere.

David Blackwell concludes his introduction by saying:

“Performance of different repertoire on the piano remains a satisfying musical experience, and we hope that these new arrangements will provide pleasure and delight to pianists of all ages.”

I certainly believe that will be the case, so “mission accomplished”!

Piano Mix 1-3 are available from music shops now, and from the ABRSM Online Shop.

 

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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