Alison Mathews’ excellent collection Treasure Trove (reviewed here) has proved a big hit with my students who have been working through it, and I’m delighted that publishers Editions Musica Ferrum have now brought out another collection composed by her: Doodles.
It is very clear straight away that this publication explores very different terrain to Treasure Trove however. So what is the concept here, and do I think it works? Let’s find out…
Let’s start by watching the official promotional video:
Doodles has the subtitle, ”Easy reading pieces for piano in 4 difficulty levels”.
A quick flick through the book reveals a consistent format, with four single-line pieces per page, untitled, but each preceded by a “doodle” illustration conveying an imaginative mood or potential narrative.
Here’s a sample page, courtesy of the publisher:
“These mini pieces were written to engage pupils, even the least confident, creatively in independent reading. They are intended to be easily read and quickly learnt, encouraging expressive playing through exploration. They can be used for sight-reading, or as short independent studies that they can put their stamp on.”
It is quickly apparent that these are fabulous little pieces, eminently suitable for quick-study in a lesson or for pupils to learn independently at home, so developing their reading skills. But equally, there is surprising and considerable flexibility in how they should be played, with the pupil encouraged to explore different octaves, dynamics, and expressive interpretation. They offer a good opportunity for young players to begin exploring the full range of the piano, and as Alison suggests:
“The pieces could even be used as a starting point for improvisation, or composing by changing elements on repeat or creating an answering phrase.”
The excellent creative opportunities are further underlined by the structure of the book into four Levels.
The Four Levels
Each level includes 32 Doodles pieces, and I soon spotted that each section includes the same set of doodles for inspiration. Less obviously, each Level is divided into 4 themes; moods, sweets, weather and underwater.
Comparing like for like, the pieces at each Level generally include identical performance markings, structure, and common thematic elements, while using progressively more advanced notation and musical ideas.
Alison once more explains:
“The difficulty level progresses gently through the book, from five-finger positions in levels 1 and 2 to moving around freely by level 4. Similarly, the difficulty of rhythm and level of accidentals used increases as the levels progress. This means pupils at even the earliest stages of reading can enjoy freedom and exploration within secure boundaries.”
With a little imagination, teachers will be able to use this material in a wonderfully flexible way, enriching learning by focussing on the development of literacy and creativity in tandem, side by side within those same secure boundaries.
Even at Level 1, where the notation is limited to the five note range with each hand centred around Middle C, and where hands are playing individually rather than together, there is considerable scope for using alternative octaves, transposing the music, exploring and improvising creative embellishments.
And reference to the later versions of the same Doodles can be used to inform and enhance this process of musical adventure.
In short, I think that the concept here is one of those simple-yet-brilliant light-bulb ideas that pupils will grasp with real enthusiasm, and which will empower teachers to take lessons in a myriad of exciting directions – and all starting from a clear focus on learning notation and literacy.
Expanding on this, publishers Editions Musica Ferrum explain:
“The students can browse through the book and choose their favourite theme, advancing through the levels as and when they feel more confident in their reading. Advice for improvisation or expanding of the pieces is included in the score. The pieces start with a simple 5 finger hand position, using single notes and include the use of different techniques and articulation, which increase with the difficulty, for example; legato, staccato, dynamics, tremolandi and glissandi.”
Editions Musica Ferrum publications are, as I’ve said here many times before, always a delight, made with great attention to detail and designed to be works of art in themselves. Doodles is no exception to this rule, and it was an expected joy unpacking the review copy when it arrived.
One surprise, however, is that this new publication doesn’t follow the typical house style – the pages are printed on white paper rather than the usual cream, and the cover is in a sturdy laminated card.
And what an eye-catching cover it is, too!
Bearing in mind that the pieces are to be learnt from notation rather than by ear, and that pupils are encouraged to develop their own versions of each piece, it is no surprise that there aren’t recordings for this publication.
However, there is this very helpful YouTube video in which Alison outlines how the book can be used:
In her video, Alison explains that these three strands are hugely important in her teaching, and I would certainly echo the sentiment and say they are central to my own:
- Developing confident, independent readers;
- Developing ideas, exploring the whole piano, and being creative;
- Encouraging pupils to play expressively, with attention to the musical details.
It really does show that this book was written in the context of real-world teaching – and teaching of the highest order. Doodles is quite simply an educational triumph.
It’s easy for teachers to fall into the trap of thinking that creativity, awareness of keyboard geography, sonic experimentation, and aspects of piano technique are best taught away from written music. Indeed, it seems that it may be becoming increasingly fashionable to separate literacy from creativity, reading pieces from rote pieces, repertoire from improvisation, and so on.
Alison Mathews, I believe, shows us a far better way with this publication, demonstrating beyond doubt that a more integrated approach is not only desirable but fully possible – an approach in which literacy, technique, amusement, musicality, curiosity and creativity can all be fostered alongside one another, and in a way which fundamentally addresses the teaching of music reading.
As such, Doodles is perhaps not simply a hugely enjoyable collection of mini reading pieces – the book could for many teachers prove to be a landmark revelation.
Personally, I can’t wait to start using the book with my own students – I have very high hopes that it will very quickly become a studio favourite!
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