One of the most interesting publications for pianists in recent months is ‘A Piece a Week’ – the first two books in a new series by popular author Paul Harris.
The books appear within the best-selling ‘Improve Your Sight Reading’ series, are aimed at players working towards grades one and two respectively, and are beautifully presented by Faber Music.
Reviewing these books seems to me to require two tasks – firstly to identify who they are for (and the concept behind them), and secondly some comments about the actual material included.
Who are these books for?
Let’s start with the concept. Each book includes a set of what might be called “quick study” pieces which players are encouraged to learn, one a week. The aim is to help players improve their essential notation reading ability, with a suggestion that this will help them improve their exam sight-reading result.
In a short but useful introduction the author explains:
“We need to encourage pupils to spend more time literally looking at notation! That’s the purpose of this book. It’s a one-a-week or, at most, one-every-two-weeks collection of pieces that will be especially useful when a pupil is moving towards a grade exam.”
In practical terms, these pieces exist somewhere between “repertoire” (that is, pieces that are at the performance level of the player, and which are learned using a variety of strategies) and “sight reading” (short pieces that are much easier than the performer’s level, but which must be realised unprepared using only the notation). So the pieces included in ‘A piece a week – Grade 1’ should be easier than Grade 1 exam repertoire, but more difficult than sight-reading tests, with an expectation that the pupil learns them from the notation within a short time-frame.
Whether this is a good strategy is something that teachers will want to consider for themselves, but personally I have found that use of such “quick studies” can be very helpful for some players. A drawback of including this approach more widely has undoubtedly been the lack of suitable graded material designed for this purpose, so Paul Harris is to be commended for meeting this need.
But is this need a universal one among players, or should the books be used as a strategic resource when necessary? Given that time spent on ‘A piece a week’ probably equates to less time spent practising scales and standard repertoire, many teachers will be concerned to ask this question. Paul explains the need as he sees it:
“One of the main reasons why so many young musicians can’t sight-read is simply because they don’t spend enough time actually looking at and processing notation. It’s not uncommon to spend many weeks (perhaps even longer) learning just one or two pieces. The pieces are really learnt by ear and tactile memory – the notation becomes more of an aide-memoire, symbols that nudge kinaesthetic memory.”
As a highly experienced examiner and adjudicator, Paul is well placed to make this general observation and to spot current learning trends.
Personally, I have always placed a strong emphasis on notation reading and sight-reading, but in more recent years I have particularly stressed the importance of introducing notation “sound before symbol“. I have found that since embracing this approach, those students who come to me as beginners have made better connections between musical sound and written notation, and their sight reading has significantly improved. Exam results for my students confirm this to be the case.
However, I also teach many “transfer” and “self-taught” students, and too often their notation reading is weak, corresponding to Paul’s observation. I feel a two-pronged approach of incorporating aural learning for repertoire as well as judicious use of “quick studies” to reinforce independent learning is likely to be effective in addressing these players’ needs, and I can see Paul’s books playing an important role in this.
My point is that teachers need to think carefully about whether ‘A piece a week’ is the right approach for each student on a case-by-case basis, rather than adopting it for all. For some players these books represent an unnecessary diversion – but for a great many they will prove invaluable.
What is included in the books?
So what do the books actually include? To get the physical product details out of the way first, each of the first two books in the series contains 32 pages, printed on white paper, with staples and an attractive cover. The typesetting is immaculate, printed in black-and-white, and including basic illustrations.
The Grade 1 book includes 26 short pieces, plus three activities pages. The latter basically feature puzzles such as a word-search, crossword, and “detective work” matching clues to pieces in the book.
The pieces range from 8 to 20 bars in length. Many include black keys, a note range beyond five notes, pitches up to two ledger lines either side of the stave, and in some cases both hands in the same clef. Most pieces are in common time, with a few in three time, and one in compound time. In terms of difficulty level, they are too easy for actual repertoire choices at Grade 1, but in some cases only just so. I would expect ‘A piece a week’ to be most useful in the run up to taking Grade 1 itself, rather than too much earlier.
Importantly, most of the pieces are great fun to play and listen to, adding considerably to the appeal of the book.
The Grade 2 book again includes 26 pieces, but there is only room for one activities page given the longer length of the pieces, which are up to 40 bars long.
There is quite a wide variety of level here, and the pieces are not organised “progressively” in order of difficulty. A couple of the pieces include cross-stave playing (that is, the left hand and right both written on the top stave, for part or all of the piece). The book includes the same explanatory introduction as the Grade 1 book, in which Paul offers some simple teaching tips.
What I like most about these books is their willingness to move outside of the territory that many tutor books and beginner pieces too rigidly stick to. Exploring a wider range of notation – and of the instrument itself – will potentially throw up any holes in a player’s musical understanding.
Playing through the pieces, I was also really pleased with the amount of variety from one to the next, and the imagination of the music itself. This is further helped by the illustrations and excellent piece titles, that will help to engage younger players in particular. And details of dynamics and articulation are spot-on throughout.
A word about tonality. It seems to me clear that Paul Harris is consciously distancing himself from exam-board sight-reading requirements here, which is perfectly fine given the particular niche he has defined for these books. Most of the pieces in the Grade 1 book are either without definite key, or in the keys of C, G and F major. There is just one piece in D minor, and none in A minor or D major, even though these keys are required by the ABRSM Grade 1 sight-reading syllabus. Similarly, the Grade 2 book avoids G minor, a syllabus requirement, but includes a piece with five flats.
It needs to be strongly stressed that in spite of Paul’s belief that the books will contribute to a better sight-reading result, they eschew specific exam requirements. Those looking for material that will more specifically address exam sight-reading preparation should look instead to Paul’s core ‘Improve Your Sight Reading’ series (also from Faber Music).
While not all players will have need of these books, a great many will benefit from using them, and ‘A piece a week’ admirably fills a gap in the market for outstanding “quick study” material.
I would love to see Paul Harris and Faber Music publish further books in the series to cover up to Grade 5 at least.
Paul is without question one of the top educational composers around, and personally I am in awe at his continuing ability to produce creative and imaginative music with such frequency and consistency, bringing out several new publications each year!
‘A piece a week’ lives up to the excellent standards Paul Harris and Faber Music have previously set, and for which they are so well known. I would say that the series is a genuine “must have” for all piano teachers.
Used wisely, and with pupils according to their needs, ‘A piece a day’ is a resource that could transform the notation reading ability and medium term independence of many young players worldwide.