Sheet Music Review
The Intermediate Pianist series is a fresh and ground-breaking approach which is full of brilliant musical ideas. It’s sure to enable pianists to play with greater understanding and engagement, and comes very highly recommended.
Over many years of teaching, I have repeatedly heard mention of national statistics showing a huge drop off of children learning an instrument at around Grade 3 level, or “intermediate”. This phenomenon has been recorded in schools instrumental lesson uptake (often coinciding with the move to senior school) as well as by the exam boards – and there are probably quite a number of reasons to account for it (both good and bad).
I have often wondered whether teaching and learning resources have anything to do with this…
For beginners we now have a simply huge array of creative teaching methods, repertoire books and resources suitable for different age groups and learning styles. But once a pupil progresses beyond about Grade 2, the variety rapidly diminishes, and most players will predominantly use just the specific repertoire they are learning, supported only by examination materials.
This is all very well, but I suspect that many students – and a fair few teachers – would feel more secure about progress were they offered a more obvious support structure and curriculum through the intermediate phase.
And that is precisely the need which authors Karen Marshall, Heather Hammond, and publishers Faber Music hope to meet with their new series, The Intermediate Pianist.
Before reviewing The Intermediate Pianist in depth, I must mention that the authors informally sought my opinion during the later stages of finalising the books. My feedback took the form of a few minor suggestions – nothing that prohibits me giving you what in good faith is a completely impartial review.
There are three books in The Intermediate Pianist series, offering a complete course that incorporates repertoire, technique and musicianship.
According to the publishers:
This piano course has been specifically written to help students progress through the tricky intermediate stages of learning the piano. Through the carefully chosen repertoire, quick-learn studies and pieces, key technical information and musicianship activities, students will develop the skills that they require. Note-reading will be improved, technique developed, and a greater understanding of style and music theory will be achieved.”
The term Intermediate is here defined as UK Grades 3-5, and there is one book approximately pitched at each of those three assessment levels.
Within each book, the material is organised into chapters that are each designed to take the typical student around one month, although some chapters are longer than others.
Each chapter focusses on a specific musical style, and contains a variety of the following elements:
Quick Learn: At least a grade below the ability level, these pieces and studies consolidate skills, maintain interest and improve note reading
Repertoire: Specially selected pieces give experience of the style of music covered in each chapter
Technique: Exercises and activities to develop the key technical skills
Challenge: Imaginative ideas to deepen musical understanding
Activities: Things to do to prepare for the pieces and develop musicianship
Theory: A range of exercises to improve theory alongside playing ability
Recital Pieces: Pieces perfect for performance, unconnected to the style of each chapter.
There are graphical icons for each of the above elements, used throughout the book to add visual interest and show how these different aspects of learning are woven into the material side by side.
The core aim of the series is described by the authors thus:
“We hope you find The Intermediate Pianist a journey of discovery that brings a love of music from many different periods and styles.”
Six Reasons to Get Excited!
Reviewing Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond’s excellent Get Set! Piano tutor series a couple of years ago, I offered six reasons to get excited about that publication, and it seems appropriate to do the same here, and not just for old times sake! So here goes…
1: The books provide a complete curriculum
Perhaps the biggest news is that these books really do offer a curriculum that can be employed to break the mould where piano lessons have grown stale or formulaic. The new teacher will find here an excellent model of how to teach students working at this level, while older-hands like me will find plenty here to challenge us to try something a bit different.
Flicking through the pages, there is a fairly even balance between pieces to play and other activities, with plenty of teaching content, exercises, puzzles and music theory throughout all three books.
And it doesn’t take long to understand that the core strength of these books is their determination to present music in context, rather than simply dropping a new collection of pieces.
There’s questions, activities and information all through these books, with the solid purpose of encouraging the intermediate player to think about, understand and engage with the music they are playing. And I think that these books really do succeed where so many others … well, don’t.
And in particular, I would say that these books do a great job of bridging the gap between a tutor-book beginner approach and the independent learning of the advanced player.
The Intermediate Pianist is the missing link!
2: The series will help players really ‘GET’ music
As mentioned, each chapter covers one musical style (or technical focus), and those covered in each book are:
1: Swing • Using the sustain pedal • Tango • March • Minuet • Lullaby • Jig • Boogie • Blues
2: Ragtime • Polka • Story-telling • Ballads & Nocturnes • Reggae • Gospel • Waltz and 5/4 time • Baroque Dance Suites • Pop piano
3: Riffs and ostinato • Latin dance styles • Theme & Variations • Music for film, TV and theatre • Mazurkas & Romanticism • Impressionism • minimalism • Fugue • ornaments
The range here is impressive, and even more so given that in most chapters the authors fulfil their goal of including a ‘Recital Piece’ in a contrasting style – this really maintains the interest and musical diversity.
Just occasionally there’s a minor lapse – the Latin dance styles chapter in the third book provides four pieces, all original compositions by Heather in, you guessed it, Latin styles. A contrasting classical ‘Recital Piece’ would have been welcome here.
But taken as a whole, the core concept works well and is superbly executed. I am in no doubt that the student who works through the series will be better equipped with stylistic knowledge, an understanding of how music works, and so be more able to communicate musical ideas more effectively in their playing.
And of course there will be significant knock-on benefits when it comes to their performance in aural tests and listening assignments too.
3: The Intermediate Pianist is about joined-up learning
So how does the integrated learning on offer here work?
Starting at the beginning, the first chapter of The Intermediate Pianist Book One introduces Swing. The player is invited to watch a performance of Bobby Darin playing Mack the Knife, noting the off-beat finger clicking and joining in. This is followed by a short exercise in a swing style, and then Heather’s new piece Black Cat Swing. Here the player is invited to consider what dynamics to use and experiment with alternatives, stimulating creativity and stylistic awareness.
There’s some theory exercises next, focussing on scale and key, before some Bass Clef revision which centres around typical Swing vamps. I would add in some improvisation work at this point, using and transposing those vamps while exploring blues scales in the RH. The chapter ends with Rebikov’s The Bear, a great Bass Clef-dominated piece that should be fairly easy for a player at this level, and which provides the stylistic contrast needed.
To give another example, how lovely to see Christian Petzold’s Minuet in G (from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook) reproduced here without a load of editorial dynamics or phasing!
Once again, the player is invited to experiment and write in their own dynamics with their teacher. Quite apart from providing an authentic score, this encourages a better understanding of the Baroque style, and is stimulating in terms of creativity and interpretation. (It is a minor pity that this isn’t applied consistently though – François Couperin’s La Bourbonnais in Book 3 is replete with editorial dynamics and phrasing, but oddly devoid of the ornamentation that has been explained in the preceding chapter.)
4: The books include some great new music
As mentioned, about half the music included is brand new, composed by Karen and Heather.
While most of the pieces here are consciously pastiches written to convey the tropes of different playing styles, these are none-the-less fantastic additions to the teaching repertoire.
Highlights from Book 1 include Black Cat Swing, a wonderfully idiomatic piece. Wow! is equally likely to establish itself as a favourite, and Bubblegum Boogie, Flying Scotsman Blues, Rainbow Reflections and Sam’s Jam are also strong pieces.
From Book 2, in addition to the tenderness of Upon Reflection, I must mention Heather’s highly enjoyable piano duet arrangement of Howard Goodall’s theme tune from the TV comedy quiz Q.I. – a brilliantly unexpected delight! Special mention must also be made of Karen’s cleverly constructed Wondrous Wizard. And Summer Cha-cha and Summer Jazz Waltz are among the highlights of the third book.
5: They include loads of old favourites too!
But it’s not just about the new music – the old favourites are here too, with original versions of beloved stalwarts such as Bartók’s Sorrow, Burgmüller’s ever-popular Arabesque and Schumann’s Soldiers’ March in the first book through to Tchaikovsky’s Mazurka, Satie’s Gymnopédie No.3 and the high drama of Chopin’s Prelude in C minor in book three.
I really like the fact that the pieces in each book deliberately offer a range of difficulty to both challenge and consolidate the player’s development.
Also it’s wonderful to have such an engaging range of styles, with effective and enjoyable new pieces nestling between established core pedagogic repertoire pieces, giving them fresh context.
It’s worth noting that for those who want a wider range of popular classical repertoire, Karen has been careful to avoid any overlap with ABRSM’s Encore series, making these books an excellent companion set.
And those who warm to Heather’s excellent compositions here may well want to explore her Cool Piano series from Kevin Mayhew and her more recent publications from EVC Music.
6: The publication itself is fantastic!
Faber Music have done a stellar job of producing a series of three books which are eye-catching and clearly presented throughout.
The shiny card covers, staple binding, engraving and print quality all seem to me well done, and I have no doubt that the books will stand up to plenty of use by the intermediate students for whom they are designed.
These are books which quite simply jump off the shelf and beg to be bought. Why resist?
Though not a direct follow-on from Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond’s acclaimed best-selling tutor series Get Set! Piano, those who loved the one will likely also warm to the other. Both these series are borne from the same underlying ethos of placing enquiry, enjoyment and multifaceted learning at the centre of the young pianist’s journey.
I fully and firmly believe that this series offers a genuine solution to the noted problem of intermediate students opting out of learning. And that solution is a simple one: the tremendous power of music itself.
If that power is often diminished, excused or ignored, this stunning series puts music back where it belongs – centre stage, supported by the understanding and insight necessary to properly appreciate and be captivated by it.
Ultimately, whether used as a core curriculum or as a wonderfully varied source of additional repertoire, The Intermediate Pianist books get right to the heart of what learning music is really all about. This truly could prove a milestone publication – don’t miss it!
For more information, visit the Faber Music website.