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‘Magic Beans’ is the latest collection of easy piano pieces by Ben Crosland, and will be published on Saturday 5th March 2016.
Having received an advance copy from publisher Editions Musica Ferrum, I am delighted to offer this first in-depth review of the book…
Editions Musica Ferrum
Editions Musica Ferrum is a young publishing company founded by award winning composer Nikolas Sideris in Greece in 2012, and now based in London UK.
At a time when a growing number of composers self-publish, and with a number of independent publishers challenging the dominance of the established big publishing houses, Nikolas has differentiated Editions Musica Ferrum by aiming clearly at the quality end of the market, producing scores that are often a work of art in themselves, such as the stunning piano duet book ‘Fairyland in Treble’ and the equally fabulous ‘Beauty & Hope in the 21st Century’.
Explaining his philosophy, Nikolas writes:
“It is said that contemporary concert hall music is sometimes difficult to approach and remains inaccessible in some ways, not only limited to pricing or distribution. Editions Musica Ferrum addresses those issues by funding interesting composers, and publishing fascinating and accessible works. Music that is beautiful, engraved in handsome scores that are worth owning, (with approachable prices) and materials that are readily available online or in music stores.
Editions Musica Ferrum has a deep understanding of the needs and rights of the composer as well as the demands of performers in terms of score quality and clarity. Drawing on decades of experience in score development and preparation, all the elements of production, from physical elements such as paper selection and binding to visual elements such as layout and spacing, have been taken into account to be sure that every score that reaches our customers is of the highest order.”
With his commitment to excellence and his adventurous musical spirit, it is no wonder that Nikolas has already attracted more than 50 composers to join Editions Musica Ferrum, representing a range of musical styles.
While many of the publications in the rapidly growing catalogue are aimed at concert performers, there is also much to explore for learners and players who are less advanced, and the ‘Beans’ series by British composer Ben Crosland has become particularly and deservedly popular.
Full of Beans
‘Magic Beans’ is the fourth book in this series, and for the benefit of those who haven’t come across the previous books it would be useful to offer a quick survey of them.
Written over a two year period, the collections ‘Cool Beans! Vol.1 : Dreams, Themes and Love Songs’ and ‘Cool Beans! Vol.2 : Jazz, Blues and Latin Grooves’ were both released in early 2014. The pieces range from ABRSM Grade 2 to 6 level, with most around Grades 3-4. They are aimed at teenagers and adults, and intended as inspiring repertoire that players can dip into between grades, or simply as their ability develops. These pieces were split into two books reflecting different musical characters, allowing each collection to have its own consistency while still offering a wide variety of music.
‘Easy Beans’ followed, and was written to inspire the beginner students from around age 11 that Ben teaches in local schools. The pieces here range from pre-Grade 1 to around Grade 3, and again it is assumed that they will be slotted into a broader musical development at regular intervals throughout those years of development.
Discussing the series as a whole, Ben notes:
“In all volumes, my main focus has been on variety (students are easily bored by collections that sound too similar), consistency of quality, and a sense of progression.”
Introducing ‘Magic Beans’
‘Magic Beans’ is the latest addition to the series; according to Ben it is intended as inspiring repertoire for young students (6-12).
On first inspection it is great to see that the book follows the house style established for the rest of the series, with each piece including a charming illustration by Magdalena Lewinowicz (who also illustrated ‘Cool Beans Vol.1’ and ‘Easy Beans’).
The notation is printed slightly larger than in the adult publications from Editions Musica Ferrum, and on the same high quality cream paper, giving maximum clarity. There are 28 pieces in the book, which is certainly a very generous amount of music for a collection of this kind.
At the rear of the book there are three pages of Teaching Notes which I am sure piano teachers will find particularly helpful. These are similar to those included in the front of the previous books in the ‘Beans’ series. Interestingly, beside the piece names in the Teaching Notes there are suggestions that some pieces can be taught by rote, while others by reading, and in some cases using either approach. Ben mentioned to me these are intended as suggestions only.
When I sat down to play through the collection I was hooked from the first piece, ‘A Leaf on the Wind’, which explores the black keys of the piano in a dreamy pattern that could, as Ben suggests, easily be taught by rote to a student within a few weeks of starting lessons.
This is followed by a simple duet ‘Spinning Around’, in which the student plays in a “C position”, but written in the upper octave, rather than Middle C as favoured by so many tutor books. ‘Haunted House’ is equally easy, but very effective, while ‘King for a Day!’ places the melody in the left hand, and includes lyrics for singing.
As the book progresses it becomes clear that there is no lapse in quality, and that there are no fillers here. Each piece is a gem.
None of the pieces places technical demands that exceed Grade 2, and most are around Grade 1. But musically (and in terms of notation) they are more imaginative and demanding than a lot of repertoire at this level, which makes these pieces stand out from the crowd. The imaginative element and emotional range suggested by the piece titles is largely spot on for the intended age group too.
The pieces are written in an easy contemporary style that children will quickly identify with and enjoy. However there is also a level of integrity in the writing that quietly reveals the true craftsmanship of the composer.
Clearly much thought was also given to the educational merits of the pieces (and the composer credits a number of highly respected teachers who he consulted with), but in no way does this detract from their musicality, imagination, or the sheer joy of playing these works.
Recordings of all the 28 pieces are available on the publishers website by scanning the QR code included in the book, or following the web link provided. The recordings are of the same high quality as for previous titles in the series.
Teaching in the UK, it seems to me that many children (and their parents) can get very caught up in the importance of a systematic progression, preferably measured by jumping through the hoops offered by various examining boards. Collections such as ‘Magic Beans’ pose a challenge to this mentality by providing music that exists simply to be enjoyed, helping pupils simultaneously develop enduring musical skills and a love of music that will last long after they finish their schooling.
While some might find it difficult to decide how to fit these pieces into their overstretched curriculum, those of us who believe that music exists to be enjoyed will find much in this collection to celebrate. From start to finish, these are simply wonderful pieces, and in my view they deserve a place on the music stand next to the educational collections by Burgmüller, Schumann, Bartók, and the many other great composers whose pieces for children transcend a narrow-minded approach to music education.
To summarise, the ‘Beans’ publications establish Ben Crosland as a major voice in educational composing. The whole series is outstanding, and ‘Magic Beans’ easily lives up to the very high standards set by its predecessors.
Not only that, but ‘Magic Beans’ brilliantly fulfils the Editions Musica Ferrum goal of providing “fascinating and accessible works”, brought together in an edition that is indeed “beautiful” and “engraved in handsome scores that are worth owning”.
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