Sheet Music Review
As Pianodao has become more widely regarded for its independent reviews, I find myself with a mounting pile of material sent for me to look at, most of which is really very good indeed.
That said, some products genuinely stand out from the crowd, because they are innovative, unusual, speak to my particular interests, or are just excellently done.
Melanie Spanswick’s Play it again: Piano books 1 and 2 are all of the above, and easily stand out in the crowd. In this review I will do my best to explain why I think that is.
Who is it for?
One of the first questions I ask myself whenever looking at a new sheet music product is – “who is this aimed at?”
This new publication by the popular author, teacher and composer Melanie Spanswick, brought to us by Schott Music, makes its target market crystal clear from the outset, with a subtitle, ‘The perfect way to rediscover the piano’ and a back cover description that reads:
“Aimed at ‘returning’ players who have spent some time away from the keyboard, Play it again: Piano gives you the confidence to revisit this fulfilling pastime and go beyond what you previously thought you could achieve. Each piece in this two-book course is accompanied by constructive and easy-to-understand practice tips to help get your fingers speeding comfortably across the keys once again! The Piano Technique and Theory sections will help secure a fuller understanding of music and technique.
If you often find yourself saying ‘I used to play the piano…’ but wish you still did, then Play it again: Piano is the resource for you!”
As we shall see in more detail in a moment, the two volumes between them cover the full range of the eight grades offered by leading UK exam boards, meaning that the returning player can either recap from the start, developing good new habits while revising well-loved music and encountering new pieces, or else jump straight in at the level that suits them.
The outstanding quality of these books is immediately apparent. The high gloss card covers contain 116 and 120 pages respectively, printed on high quality paper with a slight sheen to it, with very good binding that both allows the books to lie flat on the music stand while also being durable.
The design itself is simply beautiful – and I mean seriously very good indeed – and at a first skim through the books it is clear that they include a wealth of nicely engraved sheet music alongside plentiful text.
Just on the notation, I should mention for fellow purists that pieces from the Baroque and Classical Eras are (presumably) based on previous Schott Music sources, which in most cases include the addition of dynamics and phrasing rather than taking a clean urtext approach. Most pieces also include more than enough fingering suggestions, most of which are solid.
Explaining the rationale in more detail, the cover of Book 1 states:
“Book 1 will reunite you with the keyboard using original pieces from the piano repertoire and tips on how to get you playing fluently once again. This book ranges progressively from around UK grades 1 to 4 (elementary to intermediate)”
while the second book introduces itself:
“Book 2 is for the more confident ‘former’ piano player or for those continuing their journey from Book 1. This book ranges progressively from around UK grades 5 to 8 (intermediate to late advanced).”
The bulk of each book is split into four sections, each covering one level.
In More Detail
Each book starts with a technique primer section, offering four pages of good advice, including clear photographs. This covers posture, hand positions, flexibility and alignment. Both volumes follow this with three pages of general tips about practice, including some excellent suggestions for working on scales, arpeggios, finger warm-ups, and sight-reading.
At the rear of each book there is a short section about Music Theory. In the first book this covers basic reminders of note values, time signatures, clefs and pitch, and key signatures, while in the second book the reader is treated to clearly explained information about scales, intervals, the circle of fifths, ornaments, chord progressions and cadences.
Between these useful resources, the bulk of each book is taken up with the pieces at each of the eight levels, four per book. Each piece is preceded by (at least) two full pages of advice covering:
- Preparation (usually incorporating a suitable scale or short exercise)
- Practice Techniques (offering invaluable and often creative advice)
- Interpretation (usually a short suggestion or two about creating the right mood)
The core concept here is not dissimilar to the “How to Play…” column that Melanie (and others) regularly write for Pianist Magazine, equipping readers with the insights that they need to unravel the learning of a new piece. But the execution here is perhaps less discursive, with the three-point format giving clarity and cohesion to the excellent material provided.
A key question is whether this rich resource provides sufficient information for the adult player to work alone, without the help of a teacher. It does not claim to do so, but some adult returners may approach the course with that in mind. Personally I believe that it provides an outstanding source for independent learning, but without replacing the need for a good teacher’s diagnostic expertise, support and guidance.
Crucial to the success of the books is, of course, the included repertoire.
The diversity of repertoire selected for the two books is superb, and covers so many bases that the supporting writing is able to equally deal with a very broad range of piano playing styles, techniques and piano playing issues.
Here, then, is the full list of included pieces:
Elementary (Grades 1-2)
- Henry Purcell: Air in D minor
- Christian Petzold: Minuet in G
- Henri Bertini: Andantino
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Sick Doll
- Edward Elgar: Salut d’Amour
- John Kember: Calypso
- Elena Cobb: Super Duck
Late Elementary (Grades 2-3):
- Jeremiah Clarke: King William’s March
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Allegro in B-flat major
- Robert Schumann: Soldier’s March
- Cornelius Gurlitt: Allegro non troppo Op.82 No.65
- Ludvig Schytte: Study Op.108 No.25
- Scot Joplin (arr. Spanswick): Maple Leaf Rag
- Tim Richards: Jump Shuffle
Early Intermediate (Grades 3-4):
- J.S. Bach: Prelude in C minor BWV999
- Henry Lemoine: Study in F major Op.37 No.20
- Charles Gounod: Les Pifferari (The Italian Pipers)
- Fryderyk Chopin: Prelude in A major Op.28 No.7
- Trad. arr. Barrie Carson Turner: The Sailor’s Hornpipe
- John Kember: Mississippi Rag
- Bill Readdy: Three ‘Outasight’ Mice
Intermediate (Grades 4-5)
- Muzio Clementi: Sonatina in G major Op.36 No.2 (first movement)
- Carl Czerny: Study in C major Op.849 No.29
- J.F.F. Burgmüller: Ballade Op.100 No.15
- Mozart, arr. Heumann: A Little Night Music Kv525
- Erik Satie: Gymnopédie No.1
- Jürgen Moser: Fried Chicken
- Melanie Spanswick: Karma
Late Intermediate (Grades 5-6)
- C.P.E. Bach: Solfeggietto in C minor H.220
- Ludwig van Beethoven: Für Elise WoO59
- Felix Mendelssohn-Batholdy: Song Without Words Op.30 No.3
- Hermann Berens: Study in F major Op.88 No.18
- Elena Cobb: Lavender Haze
- Melanie Spanswick: Seahorse Dream
Early Advanced (Grades 6-7):
- George Frideric Handel: Allegro from Suite in G major HWV441
- W.A. Mozart: Allegro from Sonata in C major Kv545
- Beethoven: Adagio Sostenuto from Sonata Op.27/2 “Moonlight”
- Johann Baptist Cramer: Study in C major Op.50 No.1
- Johannes Brahms: Waltz in A-flat major Op.39 No.15
- Sven Hormuth: Sweat Feet Stomp
Advanced (Grades 7-8):
- Franz Schubert: Impromptu in A flat major D.935 No.2
- Stephen Heller: Warrior’s Song Op.45 No.15
- Claude Debussy: The Girl with the Flaxen Hair L.117 No.8
- Trad. arr. Barrie Carson Turner: Londonderry Air
- Joaquín Turina: Fiesta Op.52 No.7
Late Advanced (Grade 8+):
- J.S. Bach: Prelude & Fugue in C minor BWV847
- Fryderyk Chopin: ”Raindrop” Prelude Op.28 No.15
- Scott Joplin: The Entertainer
- Sergei Rachmaninov: Prelude in C-sharp minor Op.3 No.2
This is a fascinating selection on many counts.
Firstly, it is clear that at most levels the author made a point of selecting one or two contemporary pieces in popular and jazzy styles, as well as pieces equally representing Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th Century playing and compositional styles. And at almost all levels, there is a technical study.
Secondly, the list is a reminder of the many fabulous composers within Schott Music’s own catalogue, naturally represented here, including Tim Richards, John Kember, and Barrie Carson Turner. But it is also refreshing to have two of Melanie’s own compositions – the minimalistic ’Karma’ and more lyrical ‘Seahorse Dream’ – included here.
These have been licensed from EVC Publications along with two favourites by Elena Cobb. All four pieces are great, providing a wonderful and refreshing contrast, with the latter’s Lavender Haze a particularly lovely discovery.
And thirdly, for any adult or later teen player looking for a broad selection of really popular and appealing pieces to work on between grades, these are near perfect anthologies, including an ideal mix of lesser known material and contemporary pieces alongside several of the most evergreen favourites of the traditional repertoire.
There is undoubtedly a significant and growing market of piano players returning to the instrument later in life, having learnt as children, and looking to progress their skills as adults.
Melanie Spanswick’s Play it again: Piano in my view exactly hits the spot for these players, and deserves to be a huge success both for her and Schott Music.
It is abundantly clear that a huge amount of thought, work and expertise has gone into each and every element of these superb books, and it’s all paid off handsomely: Play it again: Piano is simply one of the most brilliantly conceived and stunningly produced sheet music publications of recent years.
I write lots of reviews for the benefit of readers, but this inspiring series has passed the ultimate test: I will certainly be recommending and using these books with lots of my own students in the coming months and years, and I’m really looking forward to it!
The Schott Music website include publicity material and Tutorial Videos with Melanie Spanswick.
The books are available worldwide. UK purchasers can order from the Schott Music Store online here.