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Composer June Armstrong has now published more than a dozen collections of original solo piano music through her business Pianissimo Publishing, and is especially known for Toy Box (aimed at beginner to pre-grade 1 standard) and its sequel Paint Box (pre-grade 1 to grade 1), the most popular of her previous collections.
Aimed at “beginner to pre-grade 1 standard”, Safari revisits the level of Toy Box. So let’s grab some insect spray and go on an adventure…
Music of the Imagination
The most striking aspect of this collection is the brilliant and vivid portrayal of the subject matter. June explains in her introduction:
“Safari is a journey through a day in Africa. The day begins at dawn and ends under a starlit sky. Along the way we encounter the landscape of the savannah and many of the animals that live there. Thinking about the picture of the scene, or the character of the animal, will help you create a mood and atmosphere for each piece. Have a wonderful adventure!”
In the crowded market of pre-grade one piano music, these pieces are surely among the most deliciously evocative that I have yet encountered. And June’s own website tagline, “Music of the Imagination”, has surely never been truer than here.
But you can judge for yourself by listening to her YouTube recordings of the complete album while reading the rest of my review:
Listening through these pieces, teachers might wonder,
“Hang on a minute – beginner to pre-grade one, you say?”
When I first flicked through the score, that was my first impression too. The pieces throughout use a huge range of notes, many including lots of ledger lines and covering a significant range of the piano. There is use of semiquavers, triplet quavers, direct pedalling, use of the Una Corda pedal, detailed phrasing and dynamic markings, and multiple accidentals. Several of the pieces have no bar lines, and use elements of graphic notation. Surely these pieces weren’t written for beginners?
But on closer inspection – as well as reading the simple, but very helpful, introductory notes to each piece which are published at the front of the book – I realised that most are simple to play from a technical point of view. In general they stick to five note positions, although many move up or down and octave. Several of the pieces are strictly limited to the use of the black keys, a popular approach with beginners.
And then the penny dropped – these pieces are ideal for combining rote teaching with the introduction of new notation, linking sound and symbol in a creative and very natural way.
The Pianist’s Development
What I love even more is the fact that these pieces encourage and assist in the positive technical development of the beginner player. As June told me,
“I believe in ease of movement over the keyboard right from the beginning and you can’t do that with just reading.”
- Imaginative five-note exercises become brilliantly picturesque pieces that grab a player’s attention when they are titled ‘Hyenas hunting’ or portray a ‘Mirage’.
- Including pieces which shift quickly from one octave to another is a great way to facilitate the development of note finding, and recognition of the geography of the keyboard, while also developing wrist and arm movement and flexibility.
- Use of vivid imagery unlocks the player’s attentiveness to tone quality and the instrument’s potential for “sound effects”.
- Introduction of the sustain and una corda pedals at this early stage (where available) reveals the extraordinary sound world of the modern acoustic piano from the earliest stages.
It is difficult to imagine the beginner who would not, as June puts it, “have a wonderful adventure” discovering the world of the piano using this brilliant material.
Of all June Armstrong’s publications to date, I would say Safari is among the most essential for all piano teachers to investigate. Although the market for pre-Grade 1 repertoire is somewhat saturated, Safari offers something genuinely different.
While June’s music could be described as “niche” I would do so reluctantly, wishing that music of such creative originality and artistic integrity was rather the norm. As authentic expressive works, the pieces of Safari: Adventures for Piano certainly offer a refreshing contrast to the often clichéd made-to-order fare that populates so many method books at this level.
And I think that Safari: Adventures for Piano is a fabulous way for new players to discover approaches to technique and playing that would otherwise remain off-limits until much later in their development.
As such Safari can be strongly recommended to teachers looking for inventive repertoire and a fresh stimulus for creative teaching. The book will suit players of all ages, and particularly older children who can reach the pedals and have an enquiring approach to the instrument.
Safari: Adventures for Piano is quite simply a brilliant publication!
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