Sheet Music Review
The current decade is proving to be a significant one for beginner tutor books, with new publications appearing thick and fast. In many cases these are a breath of fresh air following on from several years in which ageing “favourites” have maintained market dominance.
Latest arrival, Piano Junior from Schott Music, is one of the most ambitious yet. The series progresses through four levels, with four books at each, totalling a projected 16 books. The series is written by the well-known German composer and author Hans-Günter Heumann, with support and advice from experts Carolyn True, Melanie Spanswick and Sally Cathcart.
The first two levels are now available. Levels 3 and 4 will follow later, and I look forward to reviewing them in due course.
An overview of the course
A huge commitment goes into the creation of a comprehensive method series, and Piano Junior certainly reflects that. Here is a short introductory video from Schott Music which will give you some insight into the publications:
Author Hans-Günter Heumann outlines his goals as follows:
“Piano Junior is a creative and interactive piano course for children from the age of 6, which progresses in small manageable steps. It is a fun and satisfying approach to playing and learning about music, encouraging quick and noticeable progress…
“This innovative course stimulates and encourages creativity through regular, integrated ‘Corners’, such as Composing, Improvising, Action, Playing, Technique, Ear Training, Memory, Sight-reading and Music Quizzes. In this way solid musical knowledge and technical ability its acquired.
“The experience of learning the piano is multifaceted: aural – with regular ear-training exercises; visual – with sight-reading; tactile – with clear explanations of technical aspects of playing and, above all, creative – with exercises in composing and improvising.”
He goes on to explain that the music throughout the method will draw on folk tunes and children’s songs, classical masterpieces, jazz and pop melodies. Giving an overview of the content he explains:
“In addition to the Lesson Book (which includes Exercises) at each level there is also: a Theory Book, in which valuable information from the method is worked through and consolidated in a playful, imaginative way. There is also a Duet Book at each level, to provide motivation for playing the piano with others, and a Performance Book with great repertoire, which is fun to play.”
Links to the relevant material in the supplementary books are sign-posted with colour icons in the core Lesson Books so that teacher, pupil and parents can all keep track of progress.
The Lesson Books also include colourful Flash Cards, stapled at the centre of each book. Made of laminated card, these not only include notes to identify, but also other symbols (such as dynamics, accidentals, Italian terms), and rhythms to clap. They form a growing collection as the pupil works through the four books, and are a superb addition.
The series tag-line announces: “Piano Junior – A Creative and Interactive Piano Course for children”. This nicely draws attention to the forward-thinking methodology and presentation, particularly highlighting the supplementary online materials. These include:
- Audio recordings (on acoustic piano) of all the pieces in the Lesson and Duet Books (but oddly, not the Performance Books)
- Video demonstrations of key points from the Lesson Book 1 (only, at present)
- ‘Rhythm Checks’ (additional clapping exercises)
- ‘Workouts’ (additional technical and warm up exercises)
- Sight-Reading exercises (downloadable sheets)
- Blank Manuscript paper
- Certificates of Merit for each Level
These materials are not “interactive” in the literal sense, but they certainly make great additions to the content.
Before moving on let me introduce PJ the Robot and Mozart the pet dog, colourful characters created by illustrator Leopé. They appear throughout the books, as well as “hosting” the online content. PJ and Mozart become a reassuring presence throughout the series without becoming a distraction.
Piano Junior certainly scores highly for visual appeal – it really is magnificently presented. Top marks to Schott Music for their considerable investment in the series, reflected not only in the quality of published materials but also in the clarity, consistency and professionalism of the online content.
In terms of product then, Piano Junior puts much of the competition to shame. But what of the pedagogy and musical content?
Considering beginner piano technique first, I find Piano Junior refreshingly helpful. Near the start of Lesson Book 1 there is a full-page colour picture of the inside of an upright piano, complete with a cartoon illustration of the key action that children will easily understand. Instructions about balanced posture, relaxed curved fingers, and even breathing are included. Wow – at last!
Heumann introduces tunes on the black keys first, before moving to the C to G positions with hands an octave apart. These positions avoid uncomfortable ulnar deviation of the wrists as a starting point.
More surprising are the full-page introductions to using arm weight, finger-based movement and “arm resting”. Useful red arrows are included throughout the rest of Lesson Book 1 to indicate suggested arm/wrist movements that link to the phrasing in the pieces, all helpfully and clearly explained.
Each Lesson Book ends with a few pages of “Daily Finger Fitness” exercises, which are another useful inclusion.
For those of us that place importance on a good foundation in natural technique, this is all highly welcome. To those who perhaps give less thought to technique at this level, the focus it receives here might prove revelatory!
My only quibble is that I would have liked to see some focus on developing a non-legato touch. But regardless of tutor book used, this is something a teacher can introduce in lessons.
Learning to Read
Piano Junior introduces notation in stages, starting by using notes without the stave, but showing step movement up and down, as seen in this video from the website. Notice that the pupil at this point can read up/down step pitch and finger movements, plus note durations:
While some pupils might use the online video for rote learning, only a careful selection of pieces are available this way, ensuring that the learner doesn’t rely only on this approach.
Once white keys and note names have been introduced, the intervallic approach to reading continues, but when introducing clefs Heumann also shows ‘landmark notes’ (i.e. G in the ‘G clef’, and F in the ‘F clef’). This is brilliantly visual, with bright red G and F lines respectively to help the child identify with the concepts of clef and related pitch.
The careful introduction of all aspects of music notation is a standout feature of these books, and to my mind Heumann has provided one of the best child-friendly introductions to reading music that I have seen.
Teachers might be concerned that initially sticking to a five note position could pose the danger of children associating finger numbers with specific notes. This is where the excellent ‘Playing Corner’ boxes come into their own. Heumann uses these to suggest transposing tunes into different note positions, and even writes in different fingerings where appropriate.
The Grand Stave doesn’t appear until Lesson Book 2, but when it does, Heumann very cleverly draws the connection between the notes learnt in Lesson Book 1 and Middle C. First he introduces A and B in both clefs, and then reveals the “Magic Note Line” for Middle C in the bass clef, showing how this works as a “mirror” between the two staves.
The Theory Books
This is a good moment to mention the Theory Books in the series. Providing a properly integrated and accessible extension to the core Lesson Books, these consolidate musical concepts through aural games, colouring and puzzles, duets, sight-reading, and of course written work in the more traditional sense.
I love the fact that these Theory Books are rooted in musical engagement, with an approach which seems to me firmly based on teaching sound before symbol. And the bite-sized activities here will surely prove enjoyable for even the youngest beginners.
Aiming to reinforce the musical literacy that is already a strong feature of the Lesson Books, I think the Theory Books are an essential add-on.
With so many pedagogic boxes ticked, it’s tempting to leap out of my chair, loudly shouting “Bingo!”, and declare Piano Junior the new king of the piano method castle. But wait …
Where’s the Songs?
If there is one weakness that bothers me, it is the lack of singable tunes in Lesson Book 1. While there are a few folk songs, the majority of the pieces are Heumann originals, and inevitably sound like “method pieces” written simply to introduce a new note or concept.
While most pieces have imaginative titles, such as Pirate’s Melody and Busy Bumblebee, in many cases a link between title and tune is hard to spot, and disappointingly few include words to sing.
The danger is that, with strong and varied pedagogic content but a dearth of familiar tunes, children might not “feel the magic”. Only time will tell, and I think teachers should in any case always try to be attentive to pupil response when adopting any new method.
I hoped that Performance Book 1 might come to the rescue at this point, but none of the pieces here have lyrics, and nor does the book include more well known tunes. To be honest, I am not convinced Performance Book 1 really adds much value to the series, given the generous content in the 80-page Lesson Book 1.
Thankfully, the Duet Books tell a different tale…
As with the Performance Books, these are printed in black and white. Here we find established beginner duets by classical composers nestling alongside popular tunes such as Aura Lee (better known as Love me Tender) which appears in Duet Book 2.
In my view the Duet Books include some of the best musical content of the whole series, and I certainly recommend investigating them.
They also offer the advantage that older siblings, friends and parents may be able to play the duet parts with pupils between lessons, enriching their musical experience.
For the pupil progressing quickly through the Lesson Books, the Duet Books won’t perhaps seem essential, but for many I suspect they will add the variety necessary to ensure that Piano Junior is, overall, a satisfying musical package.
My advice would be to mix the best musical content from the Lesson and Duet books, without becoming overwhelmed by too much content in the process, and always carefully gauging pupil response and musical engagement.
The Piano Junior level 2 books distinguish themselves from level 1 by adopting a portrait rather than landscape format. Psychologically this is a fitting reward for the progressing child, but it is also necessary to accommodate the bigger pieces.
The continuing introduction of notation works well. Including sharps and flats allows (among other things) for an exploration of blues and jazzy styles in the pieces. There are also far more well-known folk and classical melodies in Lesson Book 2, which elevate musical enjoyment.
While most of the ‘Corners’ in Lesson Book 1 related to technique and playing, in Lesson Book 2 ‘Composing Corners’ start to dominate. These include exercises in improvisation, transposing and completing pieces, as well as writing. As always they might not suit all children, but in my view they are excellent, and certainly make good on the promise that Piano Junior is a “creative course”.
I began by acknowledging the huge amount of work involved in creating a comprehensive method series, and it gives me great pleasure to see that Hans-Günter Heumann and Schott Music have so enthusiastically and skilfully embraced that challenge.
I get the sense that the author positively delighted in spinning multiple plates, deftly sewing a tapestry that addresses the “multifaceted learning” identified in his introduction.
With its combination of promoting a natural piano technique, good music reading, integrated musical understanding and creativity, Piano Junior is surely among the better piano resources available for this age group. Superbly presented and keenly priced, it also represents outstanding value for money.
Of course there isn’t a method that will perfectly suit all students, or that teachers will unanimously agree on. Some teachers won’t like Piano Junior, and for a variety of reasons – some of which I have touched on in my own criticisms. I advise exploring the online content to get a good flavour of the series before committing.
However, I have often said that teachers owe it to themselves and their students to have a few different methods to draw on, remembering that one size does not fit all. And I strongly recommend that teachers consider including Piano Junior among their options.
My own view is that Piano Junior has in many respects raised the bar, in some ways perhaps even setting a new standard by which piano courses for children will be judged.
You can find out lots more about Piano Junior on the publisher’s website.