Sheet Music Review
Piano Stories from Trinity College London Press is, without doubt, one of the most pleasant surprises to make an appearance in my post-bag recently, and for those who use the Trinity Piano Syllabus with younger children the series is an absolute godsend.
What is Piano Stories?
Piano Stories is a brand new series of four music books which directly tie into the Trinity Piano Syllabus 2018-20, with one book for each of the grades from Initial to Grade 3 inclusive. Each book is designed to be used alongside the existing grade repertoire books which Karen Marshall and I reviewed here upon their publication last year.
According to the publishers:
“Piano Stories is a collection of musical activities to be used by teachers and students preparing pieces for the Trinity College London Piano Syllabus (2018-20). Through stories, illustrations and explorative exercises, the activities aim to spark musical imagination, engage students’ interest and aid the learning of pieces in a holistic way.
The ideas are not exhaustive and teachers are highly encouraged to build on these activities to help students discover a wider world of sounds on the keyboard and nurture their sense of achievement and ownership of the music.”
I will unpack what this means in practice in a moment, but first off let me start by saying more about the presentation and … just WOW! To say that these books are attractive would be an understatement.
When reviewing the main syllabus books last year I commented on their Initial Grade by noting:
“Trinity’s Initial Grade … quite simply looks like another exam book, lacking the immediate appeal that can be such a critical part of hooking in the younger child’s enthusiasm.”
As if to show they are listening, Trinity have produced what undoubtedly rank as some of the most visually appealing and quite simply stunning books for children that I’ve encountered. They really are an absolute treat, with lavish full colour throughout, and superb illustrations from the hand of Methanan Sivayathorn.
I would challenge any teacher who works with younger children to hold these books and not fall instantly in love with them.
Which immediately raises the question, “can the musical and pedagogic material possibly live up to the presentation?”
From Concept to Content
And the simple answer is YES.
The basic concept of these books is very simple: to create a narrative world in which each of the published exam pieces exists, and then to build a range of musical and educational activities around that narrative. A “Piano Story” for each piece.
For each piece, this typically comprises a three- to four-page colour spread in which a simple story is told (and basically, these are sanitised fairy stories) – each “activity” designed to move the narrative forward while also introducing the primary musical elements of the exam piece.
If this sounds somewhat contrived … well, truth be told, it is. But brilliantly and charmingly so!
The activities are as inspired as they are varied, and include everything from basic theory games and puzzles through to ideas for improvisation, duets, technical exercises, enjoyable colouring projects, ideas for developing creative musicianship – even dance and physical movement make an appearance en route.
Using the material from the selected exam pieces, author Nithicha Sivayathorn weaves a taut musical thread that includes, for example, composing new pieces and creating games which use the rhythms to be encountered in the exam piece itself – and always wrapped up in the main story narrative such that when the pupil progresses to the exam piece itself, they will come to it with an imagination that is already fired up and ready to go!
The appeal here is such that I suspect pupils using the Piano Stories books will eagerly learn all the pieces from the syllabus, rather than simply those chosen in the build up to the exam itself.
However, this inevitably raises important questions about the boundary between syllabus and curriculum. Some teachers won’t want their core teaching to be so closely aligned to an exam syllabus, or to follow so prescriptive a path.
Likewise, it would be easy to carp that many of these ideas are the basic components of teaching younger children which teachers should already be using, and which shouldn’t require a separate publication. But this point seems pretty moot to me – the biggest deal here is not so much the teaching and learning activities themselves, but the skill with which they are integrated into the immersive storylines and beautifully presented narrative.
The truth is that we can surely all benefit from exposure to genuinely brilliant creative teaching ideas such as are on offer here. I am in no doubt that younger players will absolutely love the whole package here – and develop wonderful musical foundations through exploring the material.
The Audio Content
I should mention here that the publications also boast audio content, accessed via third-party website SoundWise.com, and activated by entering a code of jumbled upper- and lower-case letters and numbers. This also requires registration on the SoundWise site, either by setting up an account from scratch or by allowing them access to your Facebook profile info.
The files themselves provide recordings of the teacher duet parts for pupils to play along to and other useful backing tracks. These are very helpful, but I couldn’t help feeling that Trinity might have made life easier for everyone by simply hosting these files with open access on their own site.
Questions, Questions …
Given my effusive praise thus far, are there any flies in the ointment? Well, there are just a few minor points that teachers may want to note …
Firstly, at the risk of being indelicate, there’s the issue of cost. Assuming pupils are buying their own copies of Piano Stories and will likewise need the Exam Pieces book, this more than doubles the outlay. Not a particular problem in my view – but a good friend has reminded me that for some of her children and families this could prove a deal-breaker.
Secondly, the books are quite age-specific. I suspect that many children will outgrow the ingredients here well before they reach Grade 3 piano. Teachers will need to be particularly sensitive to this point, I feel.
Thirdly, it is noticeable that, while the activities certainly support holistic learning, there is very little mention of scale or key – musical building blocks which should surely be well understood by Grade 3. Given that these are too often taught in dull and repetitive ways, these highly imaginative and immersive books could have provided a creative antidote here, especially as in many cases they include such an excellent emphasis on music theory and historical understanding. An opportunity somewhat missed.
Small niggles aside, the Piano Stories publications are just stunning. Beautifully and thoughtfully produced, they offer a rich and varied curriculum for younger pupils working on the Trinity exam pieces.
Trinity have with these books produced one of the most innovative and useful resources that I have seen from an exam board, and are to be congratulated on such a bold and visionary move.
And for players of a suitable age who like the concept and are hooked in by the stories themselves, the execution of the Piano Stories concept is superb. Here is proof, were it needed, that the simple ideas are often the best.
Indeed, the material here is genuinely exemplary, encouraging a breadth of musical learning that is perhaps rare. It would be quite hard to go wrong using any of the ideas here, and even those who don’t use the Trinity syllabus would benefit from taking a look at the imaginative pedagogy on offer.
This of course underlines another point – which is that Piano Stories, as a component of Trinity’s broader offer, significantly adds to the attraction of using the Trinity syllabus with younger beginners, and the books offer a unique selling point that sets Trinity apart from its competitors.
Put simply, the Piano Stories books are pretty unique – and uniquely pretty! Do check them out straight away!
Find out more from the Trinity College London website here.