Sarah Watts is an established educational author and composer with a great reputation for writing catchy pieces in popular contemporary styles. Piano teachers will perhaps best know her for her piece ‘Strange things Happen’, selected for ABRSM Grade 2 piano in 2013, and recently reappearing as one of the highlights of ‘Encore Book 1’.
Perhaps not yet so well known are the “Hot Keys Piano” tutor books which Sarah has written in collaboration with pianist, educationalist and examiner Rebecca Holt. Aimed at beginners aged 7 and above, I suspect that these books will particularly appeal to peripatetic piano teachers working in schools, and to their students. We’ll see why as I take a closer look…
The ‘Hot Keys Piano’ series comprises ‘Tutor Books 1 and 2′ – each including a CD – and ‘Hot Keys Piano for Secondary and Adult Starters’, which is essentially a ring-bound omnibus of the other two books, including both CDs.
Publishers Kevin Mayhew describe the books as:
“…a colourful and contemporary new piano tutor that combines good technique with fun and imagination.”
‘Tutor Books 1 and 2’ are certainly colourful (the ‘Secondary and Adult Starters’ edition is actually black and white!) although the bold graphics are mostly functional – for example, highlighting teacher duet parts, playing tips and piece titles – rather than cute illustrations linked to the pieces. This has the advantage of making the books less age- or gender-specific, ideal for use in schools, as well as allowing space for music notation to be a generous size.
‘Tutor Book 1’ begins by introducing both treble and bass clefs. Middle C is introduced using the thumbs of each hand as in so many other tutor books, but here the treble stave is printed in red, while the bass stave is printed blue. This could be a real help to students in getting the hang of reading both staves together, and I liked this idea a lot.
As the book progresses, notes are introduced one at a time, alternating between hands until the initial five note positions have been taught. The concept of fingering is introduced early on, but none of these pieces includes any fingering at all, nicely ensuring that the student doesn’t rely on finger numbers as an alternative to note reading.
With five notes introduced in each hand and clef, students are then introduced to playing hands together, initially with easy contrary motion patterns, and still without any written fingering. For introducing notation in a no-fuss manner I think this is all spot on.
Towards the end of ‘Tutor Book 1’ the student is shown how to (in the words of the authors) “swivel” the thumb under the hand, after which the remaining notes for the first octave of the C major scale are introduced, and fingering starts to be included in the pieces.
The remaining pieces in the first book strictly follow the C major scale fingering pattern, without using other hand positions or tonalities, but ‘Tutor Book 2’ quickly introduces the concept of the arpeggio. Within a few short pages, sharps and flats have been introduced too, and the player has been required to move fully away from the comfort of the C major position.
As ‘Tutor Book 2’ progresses, the student learns about quavers, semiquavers, dotted rhythms, compound time and towards the end, minor tonality. All of this material works well, and by the end of ‘Tutor Book 2’ students will be well on their way towards Grade 1 piano.
What about broader musical skills?
Before moving on from considering methodology it is worth noting that there are no music theory exercises (or “puzzles”) in either book. Nor are there specific sight-reading or aurally-based activities. However, one particular strength and innovation of the books is that from the very earliest stages there are suggestions for improvisation.
These tend to include a vamp for the teacher to play, along with an instruction such as:
“Ask your teacher to keep playing this bar. Make up your own tune on top using just C and D.”
In ‘Tutor Book 2’ the Dorian mode and major pentatonic scales are also introduced within the simple improvisation exercises. The inclusion of these creative activities at regular intervals throughout the books is great to see, and nicely complements the schools music curriculum while at the same time supporting the ongoing development of piano playing skills.
To summarise, the method behind the ‘Hot Keys Piano’ series includes some distinctive and clever ideas, and while for the most part these don’t radically depart from what is essentially a mainstream approach, they dovetail nicely with typical classroom music activities.
The Music beyond the Method
All the music included in ‘Hot Keys Piano’ is new and original. In some respects this is great, because Sarah Watts is such an outstanding educational composer, and taken as a whole the music included in the series represents a great addition to the beginner repertoire.
However, it is worth pausing for thought here. There are no folk-songs, no arrangements of well know classical tunes, popular songs, or carols for Christmas. Some teachers may rejoice in the absence of ‘When the saints go marching in’, but in terms of motivating pupils and (just as important) engaging the interest of parents, this could prove to be a significant drawback.
That said, the pieces really are great. There is good variety, and I have no doubt that students will enjoy playing all the music offered here. The progression from one piece to the next is also spot on.
There are also some great duet parts for the teacher. When using other methods I have often found myself simply improvising my own duet part, but in the case of these pieces I can see myself sticking to the printed music because the teacher parts really are enjoyable to play, and it makes sense to play the same duet parts that are recorded on the CD for the pupil to use at home.
About those CDs
‘Tutor Books 1 and 2’ each come with a CD including two versions of each piece. Firstly, a “practice track” includes recordings of both student and teacher parts, played at a slightly slower tempo. This is followed by the “performance track” featuring the teacher part alone, at tempo. This can be used by the student at home or in concerts where the teacher isn’t present, such as school assemblies or class performances.
There are also some “improvisation tracks” in which the aforementioned teacher vamp parts are recorded so that the student can explore improvisation at home – another particularly welcome inclusion.
These tracks include backing drums, bass and in some cases bigger arrangements. Musically they are mostly quite mainstream and I was a little surprised by the lack of stylistic variety, but they certainly add further to the overall appeal of the package. It should also be noted that MP3 downloads are available for those who prefer that format to the CD itself.
Tutor book preferences will always be quite personal, and most teachers like to have more than one tutor they use and refer to. In that context, I would certainly recommend trying out this series.
‘Tutor Books 1 and 2’ in particular seem to me particularly well suited for piano students learning in school. As well as complementing the schools music curriculum so well, the no-frills approach would match the compact lesson time and format generally available, and the CD would provide very useful support at home (including the ability for parents to hear the duets).
I was rather less convinced by the ring-bound omnibus ‘Hot Keys Piano for Secondary and Adult Starters’, as it barely differs from the children’s books. I suspect that were the authors to write an adult tutor book from scratch it would actually look rather different to this!
While I am happy using other resources in my private practice, were I still working in schools as a peripatetic teacher I would be keen to try using ‘Hot Keys Piano’ as my main method. With that in mind, I highly recommend that peripatetic teachers take a look for themselves!