Sheet Music Review
Lang Lang may be the most famous classical pianist on the planet, but in recent years his interests and activities have certainly not been confined to the concert platform. His talent and charisma has inspired millions to take up the piano; in China alone the “Lang Lang Effect” is credited with encouraging over 40 million children to start lessons.
September 2014 saw the launch of the Lang Lang Piano Academy, a partnership venture with Faber Music that initially resulted in five volumes of ‘Mastering The Piano’, bringing together graded repertoire with an emphasis on technical development. And now we have ‘The Lang Lang Piano Method’, another series of five books, this time providing a structured piano method for beginners.
The first three books in this series are launched worldwide on March 8th 2016. I am pleased to be giving this in-depth review, with thanks to Faber Music for kindly allowing me access to the materials in advance.
The Lang Lang Piano Method
Aimed at 5-10 year olds, The Lang Lang Piano Method is a series of five books progressing from complete beginner to around Grade 1 level. The books are accompanied by online audio tracks, including exclusive performances by Lang Lang of the “concert pieces”, as well as teacher accompaniments for the early pieces and pupil certificates for completing each level. The audio is available both in MP3 format and on YouTube.
Lang Lang – and the inspiration he provides – is clearly the unique selling point of this method series right from the start. A cartoon Lang Lang brings the books to life, taking young pianists step by step through each section. The books aim to develop the right and left hands equally, enabling children to play concert pieces early on in the learning process and establishing good dexterity. Lang Lang says,
“I have loved making my new series for complete beginners and presenting a way of learning the piano that 21st century children can relate to. I hope including the cartoon character helps kids to have fun and engage with the lessons.”
The first three books each comprise 32 full colour pages in landscape format. It is immediately clear that Faber Music have made a considerable effort to produce books which manage to be colourful and vivid while maintaining clarity of both presentation and notation. Susan Clarke is to be commended for great page design, as are Lauren Appleby and Thinkstock for the illustrations.
In addition to the ever-present cartoon Lang Lang, other colour illustrations tie in with piece titles, and these are generally grouped around themes – for example Robots, Space, Jungles, China – each developed over two pages. These mini tableaux contribute enormously to the overall interest, both visually and musically.
Taken as a whole this represents tremendous value, especially considering the books retail for just £4.99, placing them among the least expensive on the market. But what will most interest teachers considering using the books will be their musical content and the method itself…
The Level 1 Book
Cartoon Lang Lang greets us, saying:
“Hi, I’m Lang Lang! Welcome to the wonderful world of the piano. Learn to be a superhero pianist like me!”
This sets the tone, and the theme of superpowers prevails each time new skills are introduced, encouraging children to believe in their ability to follow Lang Lang’s role model. I can certainly see pupils being excited by the positive image of classical music that this presents.
After introducing the piano keyboard and finger numbers for each hand, the first book essentially comprises four 6-page sections. The first introduces the “C” five-note position in each hand, the second switches to the “G” position, the third to “A minor”, and a final section entitled ‘Putting on a Concert’ includes pieces in each of these five-note positions. I like the way this encourages young players to realise the joy of sharing music with others, right from early on in their development.
Midway through the book we read:
“Your superhero status has been upgraded so you’re ready to read the grand stave: the right- and left-hand staves joined together.”
Exciting stuff! And although hands aren’t actually playing together, there is considerable interplay between them by the final section of the book.
In terms of the pieces themselves, Level 1 comprises almost entirely new pieces, the only well-known tunes included being “Ode to Joy” at the start and “When the Saints”, which appears as the final concert piece at the back.
The Level 2 Book
Here the pieces start to involve playing independent parts hands together. Consistent with Lang Lang’s stated aims it seems that considerable effort was put into composing pieces in which the hands are treated very equally.
The second book also introduces thumb-under technique, and I particularly like the way this is presented. Initially the finger numbers are colour highlighted where the thumb passes under, and where other fingers pass back over; thereafter these finger numbers are circled to draw attention to the position changes.
Use of the sustain pedal for special effects is introduced mid way through the book. For those younger children who can reach the pedal at this age, it is nice for them to have this experience of it.
The pieces in Level 2 grow considerably in complexity, most including detailed articulations and dynamics. Towards the end of the book sharps, flats and naturals are also introduced.
As before, nearly all the pieces in this book are originals composed specially for The Lang Lang Piano Method. For the most part I found these to be enjoyable and creative additions to the beginner repertoire.
And Level 3
The third book starts with a simple Theme and Variations based on Mozart’s K331 (barely recognisable, but still nicely done). This sets the scene for a book in which several well-known classical melodies start to make a simplified appearance. Alongside these, players are introduced to pieces in Boogie-Woogie and Calypso styles. Overall I found Level 3 a significant step up in terms of musical interest.
A growing emphasis on technique includes the addition of scales (C and G majors, A minor, all one octave) and their key signatures. The concept of intervals is also expanded on.
As with the first two books, there are a couple of theory work pages included, as well as the occasional full-page colour reproduction of a classic oil-painting … Lang Lang suggests these should be looked at while listening to his online recordings of more advanced pieces. These artworks are a quirky but enjoyable addition, and again underline Lang Lang’s commitment to inspiring children’s enthusiasm for culture.
Levels 4 and 5 are scheduled for publication later this year, and it will be interesting to see how they bridge the (fairly small) remaining gap to Grade 1 standard.
At this point a few things are worth noting about the method and progression in the books, not necessarily as criticisms, but as observations to inform those teachers who want a more detailed appraisal of how the Lang Lang Piano Method might differ from the alternatives they already use, and as advice about how to approach using the books in practice.
Firstly, the books don’t specifically encourage music-making beyond the written notation, for example through musical games or improvisation. None of the pieces includes words for pupils to sing, and there isn’t much emphasis on aural development. From the middle of the first book onwards there are no teacher accompaniments or duet parts. Most teachers will want to address these important musical foundations, so will need to supplement The Lang Lang Piano Method with other materials.
In the first book, while all the pieces are written within five-finger positions, the finger numbers are given for nearly every note change. I would be concerned to check that the pupil isn’t simply reading the numbers rather than the notes themselves. I also wonder whether some five-year-old beginners will be able to fluently read 18 notes after just the first book. Notation is introduced here at a far quicker pace than in any other method book I can think of for this age group, and I suspect that most children will again need supplementary material.
When planning for this, teachers will want to bear in mind the unusual choice of initial notes taught: the first book introduces the bass clef notes from bottom line G up to top space G, but not A, B or Middle C. In fact, Middle C and its adjacent notes are not introduced at all in the bass clef until the Level 3 book.
It’s also worth noting that none of the first three books contain a page reminding pupils of all the notes learnt so far – once introduced, each note must be remembered or else pupils must dig back to find them. I suspect most teachers will therefore find it useful to produce (or source) a simple note chart for their pupils. Including bass clef Middle C in the chart would also help pupils visually connect the relationship between treble and bass clefs.
The Lang Lang Piano Method introduces note values far more slowly that pitches. At the end of the first book players are still only using quarter-notes (crotchets) and half-notes (minims) plus one, two and four beat rests. The whole-note (semibreve), dotted-half (dotted minim) and eighth-notes (quavers) are all left until the second book. Time signatures are not introduced until half way through the first book either. The pieces prior to this are all written with bar lines, some in four, some in three time, but without time signature. Teachers used to alternatives may find this unusual.
It seems to me that this all presents an interesting opportunity to Faber Music. Should they decide to supplement the “Method” books with a series of “Fun Books”, for example including more well-known pieces alongside a note chart for revision, other musical activities, singing and games, this could perhaps develop into a more comprehensive approach.
In the meantime I suspect that The Lang Lang Piano Method will be welcomed by teachers more as an additional resource that, within a broader teaching strategy, will inspire their students.
Lang Lang has a well-established commitment to inspiring children to engage with classical music and take up the piano. And to my mind that is where The Lang Lang Piano Method fits into a bigger picture. Ultimately, the unique selling point here is Lang Lang himself – and the inspiration he can provide.
Factor in their great visuals, fresh new pieces and low cost, and these books are sure to win many friends.
You can find out more about The Lang Lang Piano Method on the Faber Music website here:
You can now also read my review of the Level 4 and 5 books here.