Sheet Music Review
ABRSM’s three Piano Star books (published Autumn 2016) have been a huge and well-deserved success, appealing to children and their teachers alike.
So I was thrilled to hear that there would be two more additions to the series (which have just been published) – Piano Star: Five-Finger Tunes, and Piano Star Grade 1.
According to ABRSM:
The new books, Piano Star: Five-Finger Tunes and Piano Star: Grade 1, are packed with a wealth of useful teaching material which children will love to play.
The Piano Star series is part of ABRSM’s commitment to producing a wider range of early years resources and aims to inspire young pianists and help them to develop their musical skills. The five Piano Star books are designed to take young pianists from the end of their first tutor book to Grade 1 standard.
The series now offers over 120 new compositions and arrangements from leading educational composers and are brought to life with imaginative titles, eye-catching full colour illustrations and fun activities.
Let’s take a look at each of the two books, and see what they add to this popular series.
Piano Star: Five-Finger Tunes
Piano Star: Five-Finger Tunes is the work of David Blackwell, who has been the series editor for all five books.
According to ABRSM, this book offers an earlier introduction to the Piano Star collection, with new arrangements and compositions that are ideal for learners who have completed a first tutor book.
David Blackwell explains:
“Piano Star: Five-Finger Tunes can be used before or in parallel to Piano Star 1, consolidating note-reading and developing confidence in playing basic hands together in different positions in the middle of the piano, leading naturally to the pieces in Piano Star 2.”
Looking at the material in the Five-Finger Tunes collection, it is certainly easier than Piano Star 1 at the start, but the difficulty develops along comparable lines.
The obvious difference here is that the Five-Finger Tunes collection has a more overt pedagogic foundation, which I have no doubt will be warmly welcomed and appreciated by teachers everywhere. Explaining the core concept, we are told:
“The collection of fun, creative pieces gradually introduces different hand positions beyond a focus on Middle C, helping learners move towards playing any note with any finger and develop confidence in playing hands together.”
Teachers will understand that this is a hugely important step, especially for children whose first tutor book only used a very limited range of notes (for example, a single hand position in each hand).
To help with this pedagogic goal, the books include a lovely visual representation of hand positions next to the title for each piece, showing the LH position in orange, and the RH position in blue, as in this example (in which RH 2 isn’t used in the piece):
Throughout the book, ten different combinations of hand positions are introduced, and the final six pieces use varied hand positions. It is good to note that this also involves the introduction of keys (without key signatures), including minor tonalities, which adds a musical depth not always found in tutor books at this stage.
This certainly fulfils the goal of enabling pupils to play ”any note with any finger” – the concept of the book is in my view a simple, and effective one, brilliantly executed here.
The pieces themselves are varied and enjoyable, and are beautifully presented in keeping with the whole series. Tim Budgen is back on board as illustrator, and those who have enjoyed his outstanding artwork in the first three books will find his latest pictures equally imaginative and at times humorous!
All of the pieces can be enjoyed as solos, but several include optional teacher duet parts too, and there are a couple that can be played as solos, duets or trios, in which all the accompanying parts are suitable for younger players. Several pieces are accompanied by extension ideas to stimulate musical learning and creativity, and most also include words, encouraging students to sing.
Best-selling author and teacher Karen Marshall provided pedagogic advice and support. She comments:
“Piano Star: Five-Finger Tunes is an excellent addition to any student’s repertoire library. Careful opportunities have been found to build confidence playing hands together, and David has provided some very creative compositions that children will love to play and most importantly love to practise.”
Piano Star Five-Finger Tunes could, in my view, be used either to supplements a method series, or as an alternative route for learning once an initial primer has been completed.
Either way, I would say that the range and pleasure of these pieces ensures that the book is a highly attractive choice.
Piano Star Grade 1
Before telling you more about the Piano Star Grade 1 book, I must for the sake of transparency acknowledge that of the 25 original new pieces included in this collection, one was commissioned and composed by me. It has been an privilege and a pleasure to contribute once again (I composed several pieces for the previous three Piano Star books), but it’s only right to issue this disclaimer before telling you why I am really excited about this new collection!
As you can see from the cover, David Blackwell was joined by co-editor Karen Marshall for this addition to the series.
Karen introduces the book:
“Piano Star: Grade 1 follows on from Piano Star 3, and provides a collection of repertoire around Grade 1 level. The collection of 25 pieces includes folk, classical, contemporary and jazzy material that has been tried out – and approved – by children. The new books will capture the imagination of young pianists everywhere.”
Those familiar with Piano Star 3 will know that it comprises a collection of brilliant and imaginative pieces moving towards Grade 1; the items in this new collection may not be consistently more difficult, but it seems to me that more focus was placed on developing pieces which match the specific difficulty and requirements of Grade 1 examination repertoire, albeit without in the process losing their imaginative impact.
This is quite an achievement, and it is testament to ABRSM’s vision, to the success of David and Karen’s editorial partnership, and to the contributions of all the composers that this collection is an absolute triumph.
Those composers include such well-known and accomplished educational writers as Paul Harris, Mike Cornick, June Armstrong, Alan Bullard, Peter Gritton, Nikki Iles, and Heather Hammond as well as contributions from the editors themselves.
And the book culminates with a hugely enjoyable, and previously unpublished trio for three piano students (at one piano) composed by the late Christine Brown.
I should also mention that three other pieces here include duet parts, but that (unlike the other books in the Piano Star series) the emphasis in general is on solo piano pieces in this collection. In keeping with the series as a whole, however, there are creative activities attached to a number of the pieces to further develop understanding, creativity and broader musicianship skills.
Though perhaps invisible to the eye, Piano Star Grade 1 is underpinned by a clear pedagogic foundation, and the wonderful musical variety throughout the book is the fruit of considerable effort to achieve a well-balanced and enjoyable collection.
Summing up my view of the Piano Star series as a whole, I would say that ABRSM have more than achieved their stated aim of “producing a wider range of early years resources and aims to inspire young pianists and help them to develop their musical skills.”
These publications, quite simply, take their place among the best products that ABRSM have yet produced.
Piano Star doesn’t simply offer 120 new compositions and arrangements – there’s a consistency of quality here that makes these collections absolutely essential, and the extras, including the great illustrations, additional musical activities and general “fun factor”, set these books apart from the crowd.
The careful progression of the five books is another notable achievement. I’ve certainly heard many teachers mutter about the difficulty of grade one, and question whether ABRSM provide sufficient support and motivation for younger beginners. Those concerns are fully and finally put to rest with this exceptional series.
Simply put, Piano Star offers colourful pieces, vividly presented.
Of course, any collection of this kind will include pieces that stand out as “favourites” – but what I have found particularly impressive with the Piano Star range is that my pupils seem to select different favourites, rather than all opting for the same few. This really highlights the range and consistency of the music, while also showing how using material such as this can help pupils build on their prior musical experiences and develop their own musical taste and personality.
And while most pupils won’t want to work methodically through the whole series (any more than most pupils want to work methodically through a method book series), there is plenty of material within each of these books to justify their purchase.
Even more so given the very affordable price of £5.95 per book!
My only concern here is that my teenage and adult beginners will begin to feel envious that the younger players are being offered such a rich and tasty musical feast – I must hope that ABRSM will turn their attention to this rapidly growing market next!
The Piano Star series is available now from ABRSM stockists everywhere. More details are available from the ABRSM website here.
All images: Tim Budgen / ABRSM, used with permission.