Sheet Music Review
Concluding my review of Levels 1 and 2 of Hans-Günter Heumann’s new method series, Piano Junior (published by Schott), I wrote:
“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.”
Those who followed my suggestion and took a look for themselves will be keen to hear that Level 3 is now available. Once again, there are four books, covering Lessons, Duets, Performance (additional pieces) and Theory. Let’s take a look…
What is Piano Junior?
Quoting from the marketing blurb:
“Piano Junior is a superb piano course for beginners. It’s creative, it’s interactive, it’s colourful, it has its own website with additional online material – and most importantly, it really works!
Its characters, PJ the friendly robot and his sidekick Mozart the dog, motivate and encourage children throughout each level. The course is available as core Lesson Books, along with supplementary Theory, Duet and Performance Books at each stage.”
My review of Levels 1 and 2 largely agrees with this assessment, and gives a lot more background to the series – before reading on, you may want to recap that review here.
Welcome to Level 3
The Level 3 publications maintain the quality and same style of presentation that are familiar from Levels 1 and 2.
The Lesson Book is 88 pages, lavishly illustrated in full colour throughout. The Theory Book is in black and white with spot colour, while the Duet and Performance books are black and white, while still including cartoon illustrations.
The Lesson Book 3 includes a further set of cut-out Flash Cards for developing reading, several pages of “finger fitness” exercises at the rear of the book, and a glossary of important words and signs that children (and their parents) are bound to find very helpful.
Schott Music are to be commended for resisting any temptation to scale back production costs as the series progresses to the higher levels (where demand might be expected to drop). Their commitment to avoiding compromise speaks volumes in terms of their confidence in Piano Junior, which I believe is well-judged and fully justified.
And indeed, Lesson Book 3 is, to my eyes, the most stunningly presented book of the series so far, the winning design of the previous volumes now growing to maturity – it looks quite simply stunning.
The additional website content has also grown, now including freely downloadable audio tracks for all the pieces in the Lesson Book 3 and Duet Book 3. Taken as a whole, the website content is among the best I have seen for any method series, both in terms of quantity and quality – it is truly outstanding, and very much sets a new standard for others to follow.
By the end of the second Level, pupils will have learnt rhythm notations up to and including quavers (eighths) and dotted crotchets (quarters), pitch reading from Bass Clef C below Middle C, up to Treble Clef D on the fourth line, as well as a good many performance directions, dynamics and articulations. All this is summarised at the start of Lesson Book 3 as a recap for those moving up from Level 2, and as an aid to support those transferring to Piano Junior after using another method.
A full pedagogic overview of this Level, and the whole Piano Junior series, can be downloaded freely from the Piano Junior website here, and makes for very useful reading.
As with the previous Levels, Piano Junior Lesson Book 3 adopts a multi-faceted approach to learning which skilfully brings together and develops:
- aural: with regular ear-training exercises
- visual: with sight-reading
- tactile: with clear explanations of the technical aspects of playing
- creative: with exercises in composing and improvising
The range, suitability and interest of the composing activities especially impresses here – the commitment to embedding and linking these to technical, musical and reading development is beyond exemplary.
Another significant strength here is the emphasis on developing a secure and healthy playing technique. Explanations, pictures and finger exercises appear in tandem throughout, each perfectly complementing the others.
Understanding music theory remains to the fore. By the end of Level 2, pupils had learnt about the intervals of the 2nd up to the 5th. At Level 3, learning about the intervals of the 6th, 7th and octave is integrated with learning extended hand positions and thumb-under techniques – bringing these together makes it possible for technical development and musical understanding to grow naturally and securely.
The second half of Lesson Book 3 expands on this growing foundation by introducing Primary Chords I, IV and V, along with Dominant 7th chords, in the keys of C major and A minor, including the introduction of popular chord symbol notation.
As expected, these appear alongside arpeggio and broken chord patters, with complementary creative exercises and composing tasks. Scales of C major and A minor are also introduced (natural minor first, followed by both harmonic and melodic, each explained in easy-to-understand but accurate terms).
This is a perfect moment to mention Theory Book 3, which further enhances and develops the material that is found in the Lesson Book 3.
An ideal partner to the Lesson Book, Theory Book 3 is packed full of engaging tasks, quizzes and games which are never dry paper exercises, but which tie in perfectly with the musical content the pupil is learning at the piano.
Indeed, the level of integration here is a brilliant example of how creativity, performing skills and musical understanding can all be learnt in a complementary, simultaneous manner.
My particular reservation with the earlier levels of Piano Junior was the paucity of good songs – those tunes where the child is encouraged to sing along, using provided words. And at Level 3, as earlier, much of the repertoire provided can be broadly described as “method pieces”, written for pedagogic purposes only.
That said, having now used Piano Junior Level 1 with a young beginner, I found that she enjoyed the music throughout. And by the time we come to Level 3, many more of the pieces are based on well-known classical and folk melodies. My former concerns, then, are largely aleviated.
If you wish to supplement the pieces contained within the Lesson Book 3 itself, once again the Piano Junior series delivers a Performance Book 3 and Duet Book 3.
As with the previous levels, I am not personally persuaded that the Performance Book 3 is a necessary purchase. However, it does contain some very attractive music, with arrangements of some of the best known melodies that children typically play at this level, and some enjoyable new pieces.
The Duet Book 3, meanwhile, offers an invaluable addition to the one-piano,. four-hand repertoire at this level, with 14 enjoyable originals and arrangements of pieces by Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Diabelli, Schubert, Brahms and Waldteufel.
Still largely missing from the series, however, are pieces in contemporary popular styles.
The teacher who commits to using the Lesson Book 3 might therefore prefer to supplement the music by looking further afield, for example the ABRSM’s brilliant Piano Star books, June Armstrong’s imaginative Safari, which is ideal for rote learning, or Ben Crosland’s fabulous Magic Beans.
Piano Junior is developing into a distillation of the very best in piano pedagogy – developed over several generations, and now brilliantly condensed and presented for the 21st century child.
No one method series is perfect of course, nor will please all. While there is so much here to commend, there are inevitably niggles. The lack of an emphasis on singing is one, and the overall approach might be seen by some as too earnest and prescriptive. The visual appeal, too, will no doubt be a matter of taste, inspiring some but not others.
Older children may well prefer Get Set! Piano, or one of the many popular alternatives, while teens and adults will need to look elsewhere altogether (Heumann’s Classical Piano Method series for adults offers many of the same benefits found here).
But there can surely be no denying that younger beginners who learn using this method will have a brilliant foundation for their future musical development, whichever way their musical interests develop.
In particular, the emphasis on music theory, keyboard harmony and composition all combine to lift this method significantly above many others. The imaginative thought and thorough approach given to developing a natural playing technique is also, I think, second to none (at least in terms of the mainstream publications available).
In conclusion then, Piano Junior 3 is a welcome addition to this outstanding series, and all I can hope for now is that the Level 4 publications, due next year, will provide the icing on an already tasty cake!
For more information, freely downloadable resources and to preview the audio recordings for the whole series, visit the Piano Junior website here.