Sheet Music Review
Over the last couple of decades I have enjoyed the privilege of teaching many teenage beginners, but have often found it difficult selecting the best material for them. These days we have become somewhat spoilt for choice when it comes to child-friendly beginner material, but music and method for the teenager remains a bit more thin on the ground.
Composer and teacher Marcel Zidani believes his new publication Hey Presto! Pedal your way to Piano Perfection offers a solution to the problem of older beginners losing interest due to musically dull method books. Describing the book as a “Fast-track Piano Method for ages 11 to Adult” which will help the beginner “sound like a pro in minutes”, he writes:
“You will find that this method is a modern approach to learning the piano and is designed to help beginner pianists create a professional sound very quickly. With the use of the sustain pedal, a good piano teacher and the creative writing of this composer, you will be inspired to complete the course.”
From the outset, it is clear that the unique selling point of Hey Presto! is the immediate use of the sustain pedal. But just how does this work in practice?
Hey Presto! is a 38 page book in landscape format, printed in black and white, and with a beautiful soft cover (designed by Phil Kroll – see image above). Immediately impressive, the presentation is professional, carefully designed, and notation is cleanly presented. The only minor lapse is that some of the graphic files explaining music notation appear slightly pixilated.
Simple explanations of notation appear throughout the book, but the focus is on the 38 pieces that make up the core material. The method is embedded in these pieces, with a minimal use of supporting explanation where needed.
Read and Play
The “method” employed by any tutor book is often narrowly discussed in terms of how notation is introduced – for example, whether this starts with the hands focussed just around Middle C, or beginning with the black keys, and whether notes are recognised with the help of spotting intervallic relationships, landmark notes, finger numbers, letter names, mnemonics, and so on.
In this case, the first couple of pages introduce the piano keyboard, the “Great Stave”, time signatures with 2, 3 and 4 beats, notes values for 1, 2, 3 and 4 beat notes, and every pitch from F under the Bass Clef stave right up to G above the top Treble Clef line. And then it’s straight into the music.
Early pieces are just one or two lines long. Initially they centre around Middle C, but by the sixth piece this is no longer the case, and by the eighth piece five note positions have been abandoned in favour of stretches of a sixth and full chords in the left hand. By this point, quavers and notes with up to three ledger lines have also all been introduced.
Some may wonder whether such a pace of notation learning can be achieved, but I’ve often found that teenagers learn music notation without much fuss, and given that the emphasis of Hey Presto! is clearly on getting quick results, I would expect some older beginners to feel inspired and quickly absorb the basics.
However, I am less happy when explanations are simplified to a point of being inaccurate, as for example on page 9 of Hey Presto! where we read:
“When you see the sharp sign # placed before a note, play the very next black note to the right.”
Personally, when introducing accidentals I always explain the concept of tones and semitones, and never find it a problem for students to understand the point; realising that B# and C are the same key on the piano is often a “light bulb moment” for students.
The Sustain Pedal
From the start, the pupil is instructed to hold down the sustain pedal for the whole of pieces. Marcel Zidani suggests that this is the basic fix which will encourage the teenager’s musical engagement and progress.
The first piece includes the notes C and E in the RH, together with A and C in the LH, thus restricting the harmony to a straightforward A minor triad. This is a clever approach which enables the pedal to be held without any dissonant notes blurring together, although personally I find that starting off with pieces where the melody notes move by step (seconds) rather than skips (thirds, as here) helps players considerably when first reading notation.
That said, Piece 2 ’Reverb in 3′ includes the same three notes, but now joined by G and F in the bass, creating a wash of sustained resonance which may indeed appeal to the target age group, but which some teachers will feel is simply wrong. By Piece 6 (which, like many of the pieces in the book has no title) semitone clusters are being caught within the pedal’s sustain, which seems to me a little odd.
Later in the book, the author expands pedalling technique to include release and changes of pedal. In one or two pieces the teacher is permitted to advise pedal changes, and from Piece 18 ‘A Folk Song’ the author himself starts to recommend them. At the start of Piece 22 ‘Sunshine Melody’ he writes:
“From here on try to achieve a cleaner sound with changes of pedal, although you can still play to the end without changing if needed.”
Some pieces in the second half of the book include traditional pedalling marks highlighting where changes are needed, but many leave it to the pupil and teacher to consider pedal changes themselves.
The 38 pieces which make up the book are all originals composed by Marcel Zidani, whose evocative style will surely appeal to the target market.
The back cover and inside title page both state “Listen on YouTube” but no link is provided. After searching I found just two of the pieces on Marcel’s YouTube channel. Marcel tells me that there will be more videos in due course, but that he is not currently planning to post videos of all the pieces in the book, so the claim on the cover seems rather misleading.
To give you a flavour of the music in Hey Presto! here is one of the more melodic pieces from near the end of the book, entitled ‘Your Song’, and played by the composer:
For the most part, the pieces in Hey Presto! are more pattern based, and place harmony rather than melody to the fore. This chimes with the current popularity of the music of Ludovico Einaudi and “post-minimal” composers, and with the sort of exploration that can happen in the school classroom.
Another bonus is that this chord based approach will foster the skills that a developing keyboard player might use when playing in a band with their friends.
Successful method seeks to achieve far more than simply introduce notation and pieces which appeal to the student. I’ve always felt, however, that it is the teacher’s job to understand the many other necessary areas of musical development and supplement what is contained in any method book accordingly.
Hey Presto! essentially just offers a fast-track approach to notation reading, allied to the set of progressive pieces, but without attempting to address other areas of technique or musicianship.
The creative teacher will however find that these pieces provide a genuinely excellent and engaging springboard to exploring improvisation and composing tasks in particular.
If I have one particular concern in terms of technique, it would the issue of touch. While basic touches of staccato and legato are discussed, it concerns me that with so much of the tone pulled into the sustain pedal’s enormous orbit, beginners will not be encouraged to pay nearly so much attention to the quality of their touch as I would suggest they should, nor to listen with sufficient alertness.
Hey Presto! certainly offers an innovative approach, and I suspect that teachers will respond in a variety of ways, some embracing the method, others not.
While children and adults tend to like a structured method book, I find that teenagers can be keen to avoid one, instead racing towards the repertoire that appeals to them. In that context Hey Presto! scores very highly. Although the notation learning follows a steep curve, I feel the pieces could prove sufficiently appealing to older beginners that they will be enthusiastic to move through the progressive range of learning goals that are embedded in them.
That said, and at the risk of stating the obvious, if the main selling-point of the method is the use of the sustain pedal, why should teachers not simply apply that idea using the method book they prefer?
It seems to me that Hey Presto! might have scored even more highly had it offered pieces where the sustain pedal worked universally without blurring harmony to such an extent.
I am however leaning towards the view that while this book might work as a core learning book for some teenagers, it could equally prove to be useful as supplementary material for others. Marcel’s pieces are generally excellent, and certainly provide an interesting alternative to standard method book fare.
Overall then, I recommend that teachers have a look at Hey Presto!
Why not try it with the next teenage beginner, perhaps as a method in itself, or at least as a book of creative, musically interesting contemporary pieces?
Find out more about Hey Presto! from the publisher’s website here.