It’s a Piano Thing is a new publication from Boosey & Hawkes comprising two books of original repertoire by Irish composer Ailbhe McDonagh.
McDonagh is well known in her home country as an educational composer whose works have included commissioned pieces for school ensembles as well as educational piano pieces. She is also well known as a professional cellist who performs internationally and teaches at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.
Her piece Anastasia (included in the second of these books) was first published while McDonagh was still at school, appearing as a Grade 4 piece in the RIAM Local Centre Examinations (the Irish National Grade Examination System).
The two collections offer 36 piano solos presented in progressive order of difficulty, the first book being suitable for beginners and up to around UK Grade 2 (Elementary), while the second includes pieces up to around Grade 4 (Intermediate).
The books have an attractive, contemporary presentation with tasteful covers and a black-and-white interior on quality off-white paper. The music engraving is clean and clearly presented, and includes ample fingering throughout, all carefully considered and pedagogically suitable.
There are performance comments about each piece, which are addressed to the player, but are written in adult language (perhaps more aimed at the teacher). The comments are nicely detailed and draw attention to key points such as articulations, rests, use of swing quavers, and so on.
Each book includes a CD recording of all the included pieces, performed by the composer, and these are also available as digital audio files online. You could use these to have a listen ahead of purchasing the books, and it is good that students are given both audio formats.
It’s a Piano Thing 1
The pieces at the start of the first book make ideal preparatory pieces, each just two lines long, and with hands mostly playing separately, and resolutely in five note positions.
Complexity of coordination develops across the first eight pieces, and with an older beginner (especially one who reads some music, for example if they play another instrument) this could even suffice as their core pedagogic music during the first half term or so (alongside other playing away from notation of course).
The ninth piece, Autumn Leaves introduces movement across a wider note range, including simple thumb under/finger over technique. Cleverly, this is also the first piece to require extended legato phrasing; it is clear that McDonagh gave considerable thought to pedagogic issues when composing the pieces and organising their structure as a collection.
As the book progresses, it quickly moves through Elementary to beyond Grade 1 level, and reaching around Grade 2 by the closing number Prankster, which is entertainingly rumbustious.
Highlights along the way include the yearning Cast Away, which includes a LH part with two simple voices (another cunning pedagogic plan!), evocative Snow Dance, jazzy Cool Cat Stroll (bound to be a student favourite I think!) and more serene Hang Gliding. Personal favourite is perhaps No Homework Day though, with its infectious melody and sense of carefree joy.
I would say that the ideal age group would be “older children” to “younger teens”, given the combination of child-friendly piece titles but more mature presentation.
Throughout the collection, there is an inspired matching of piece to title, each exactly hitting the spot. McDonagh’s imagination locks into the mundane everyday parts of a modern child’s life, equally and deftly avoiding both the obscure and the contrived.
It is this, perhaps above all, that left me feeling extremely happy with the collection, confident in recommending it without reservation.
It’s a Piano Thing 2
If I enjoyed the first volume of It’s a Piano Thing, how much more impressed was I by the second! All of my comments and praise from the first book carry over here, but on top of those strengths I would say that It’s a Piano Thing 2 is easily one of the better original repertoire collections for intermediate players that I’ve seen.
Every one of the 14 pieces is a gem, and it seems unjust not to comment on each of them in turn. Space being what it is however, I must limit myself to briefly waxing lyrical about the quirky Night Cat, gorgeous Secret Garden, infectious Marimba Dance, evocative Gagaku, irresistible Razzle Dazzle, reflective Cloudscapes …
Okay, you get the picture! The book is great from start to finish, packed with distinctive new compositions. This is superior music, and not just another batch of pastiches.
There seems to be an inexhaustible thirst for new educational piano music at present, and the market is undeniably swamped with good new material. There’s no way any teacher could (or even should) try to stay on top of it all, or incorporate every new publication that arrives on the scene.
However, It’s a Piano Thing really does stand out from the crowd. The 36 pieces can be interspersed over several years of learning, without detracting from the student’s commitment to playing music from other genres or composers, making the two books a very solid, long-term recommendation.
Meanwhile the less patient player, hungry to play through the whole collection, may find here a range of enjoyable challenges which are underscored by solid pedagogic content, leading to accelerated progress as a musician, from beginner through to an upper intermediate level.
I would expect that many of these pieces will undoubtedly also crop up in exam syllabi and local festival programmes for several years to come.
Boosey & Hawkes are to be commended for investing in this talented young composer, and with the support of such a distinguished publisher, I for one hope that these pieces make their mark and take up a permanent place in the easy piano repertoire.
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