Sheet Music Review
‘Stars: Fourteen Constellations for Piano’ is the most recent publication from piano teacher and composer June Armstrong‘s Pianissimo Publishing. The pieces are for piano solo, in a contemporary style, and the level of difficulty is aimed at between grades 3 to 5.
The book joins the growing library of works from June, which include some dozen books to suit players from beginner level (‘Toy Box’ and ‘Paint Box’) up to and including the higher grades (‘Causeway Coast Fantasy’, ‘The Girona Suite’ and ‘Strangford Sketchbook’).
Taken as a whole, June has produced an impressive, growing catalogue of piano music written in a modern musical language which will appeal to players of all ages, and which reflects her motto “Music of the Imagination”.
What is included?
So what of the latest addition to the catalogue?
‘Stars’ has a simple but sturdy cover in the Pianissimo Publishing house style: a plain background framing a striking, colourful image, in this case of a galaxy. There are 32 pages, including a two page introduction to the pieces which gives a little background to each and some performing tips. The pieces themselves are almost all two pages long (there are no page turns) and the music typesetting is clean and well spaced.
Audio tracks are free to download (with or without purchasing the book) from June Armstrong’s website, and can also be streamed as YouTube videos. Here they are for you to listen to now as you read on :
If you buy the books directly from June’s website (see link at the end of this review) postage and packaging is free within the UK and Ireland, and less expensive than most publishers for worldwide customers – at time of writing just £2.00 for Europe and £3.00 for the rest of the world.
To sweeten the deal still further, customers from outside of the UK or Ireland are immediately emailed a “temporary digital copy” so that they don’t need to await delivery before getting down to playing the pieces.
Finally, as an alternative to the above, digital studio licenses are available for teachers worldwide, either for whole books or individual pieces. Full details are on the website here.
With such a generous and inexpensive range of possibilities, June has made it easy for piano players around the world to quickly access her works, and the business model here seems to me to provide a perfect balance of options.
The first thing that struck me as I sat down to play through these pieces is that June knows considerably more than I do about astronomy!
Each piece has an expressive English title followed by the Latin name of a constellation. As astronomy isn’t my field I will assume these are all accurately done, but I must admit the inquisitive side to my nature was piqued and wanted to research the subject. I suspect that June would be pleased if her pieces inspired that same sense of curiosity in others, and I can imagine that several players will be asking for a telescope when it’s their next birthday!
Listening through the YouTube playlist above, I am sure you will be struck – as I was – by the variety of mood. The tranquility of ‘Great Dog’, ‘Queen’ (beautifully melodic) and ‘Northern Crown’ soon give way to the jaunty canter of ‘Pegasus’, the gorgeous flow of ‘Sails’, and the menace of ‘Dragon’.
June composes with an evocative contemporary style, conjuring atmospheres of mystery, wonder, excitement and serenity from one piece to the next. She includes dissonance, chord clusters, pedalling effects and a post-tonal approach to harmony – but always keeping an approachable musical language. These are pieces which will surely enlarge player’s musical experience while building on foundations they are intuitively familiar with.
I was interested to read on June’s site:
“The pieces contained in many of the books are also technical studies as well as being character studies. They address a wide range of technique and expression and are challenging in their interpretive goals. June has particularly enjoyed teaching the music of Janina Garscia, Walter Carroll, Burgmuller, Peter Sculthorpe, Petr Eben, Takacs, Turina, William Gillock, Jon George and Haflidi Halgrimsson.”
Technically, the pieces nicely fit the level that the composer is aiming for while including some techniques that will be new to players. For example, ‘Pegasus’ includes a passage in which the RH plays in thirds using legato scale fingerings that might normally come later, but which work perfectly well here. I am really pleased with the way the composer pitches the pieces at an appropriate level without conforming to it too literally.
My only reservation here is that the book is rather inconsistent in its offering of fingering to help the player. Some pieces include ample fingering while others contain little or none. ‘Noah’s Dove’, for example, is a challenge in terms of the stretches needed; some ideas about fingering here would probably help players and teachers alike.
I have no doubt that ‘Stars’ will be a big hit with my students – and not just the children. The overall presentation and extra-musical subject matter will surely also make these books highly appealing to adult players, and it is refreshing to find creative and inspiring music that’s suitable to share across all ages.
I thoroughly enjoyed all of these pieces, and in an increasingly crowded field of good piano music they stand out as a hugely worthwhile and imaginative addition to the intermediate pianist’s repertoire.
It came as no surprise to find so many widely respected piano teacher friends commending June’s publications on her website here, and I have great pleasure in adding my own recommendation to theirs.
By now it will be clear that I have become a fan of June’s music, and with that I am off to explore more of her publications – and I encourage you to do the same. Warmly recommended!