Connections for Piano is a series of eight books which between them offer a staggering 185 original compositions by wildly popular educational composer Christopher Norton.
Originally published for the North American market by Frederick Harris Music, the series has now been republished worldwide by Norton’s own in-house publishing company, 80 Days Publishing.
In this review I will offer an overview of the series, as well as explaining how the new product slightly differs from the original FJH incarnation.
Let’s start by exploring the basic concept of the series. According to the publishers:
“Christopher Norton Connections for Piano is a collection of pieces in popular styles that is ideal for students and teachers looking for a sound pedagogical supplement or alternative to the study of classical piano literature.”
They go on to outline the unique selling points of the series as follows:
- Esteemed composer Christopher Norton has created over 180 original new pieces especially for Connections.
- Connections corresponds by level to many of the world’s examination boards so that students from many countries can enjoy and benefit from the books.
- Each book in the series showcases a variety of appealing styles such as jazz, rock, blues, Latin, swing, country, funk and reggae.
- With recordings available online, students can feel what it’s like to play a style with their own band.
- Connections resonates with students of all ages by giving them relevant, modern music that they will want to play.
A Word About Levels …
I’ll give my view on whether Connections for Piano succeeds in these aims in my conclusion below, but for now it’s important to discuss the levels of these books, in order to avoid any confusion.
Connections for Piano was actually developed around Canada’s RCM exam system, whose 10 Levels inevitably don’t quite align with the 8 Grades of leading international board ABRSM or its main competitors.
The fact that Connections for Piano appears in 8 books potentially adds to the confusion – suffice to say that these 8 books do not correspond to the levels of the UK/international Grades. While Connections for Piano Book 1 includes pieces which seem to me suitable for ABRSM Grade 1 level, none of the pieces in Book 8 appear more difficult than about Grade 6, meaning that the rate of progress is in more measured steps.
My advice to teachers in the UK (and elsewhere where these international boards are the most recognised) would therefore be to see Connections for Piano as its own progressive sequence rather than as an adjunct to the exam system as we know it.
The Product Range
Connections for Piano originally included three components –
- The 8 Repertoire books themselves;
- “Activities” – helpful notes and creative exercises for each repertoire piece;
- Recordings – multiple tracks for each pieces, available online.
When originally published, the Activities appeared as a separate publication, while the recordings were a freely available download from the publisher’s website. With the new edition, this changes.
The Activities aren’t currently available, although I am assured that the publisher is looking into the best way of presenting this material in the future. And I am sure that additional resource would make the series even more unique and enticing.
The Connections for Piano music books, meanwhile, appear largely as before.
The glossy covers are certainly striking, and the print quality is excellent. The crystal clear notation enjoys a suitably sized and well-spaced music font, and there are helpful fingering suggestions throughout all 8 books.
The recordings are apparently now better organised – but come as a separate commercial download product.
The publisher tells me that improvements here include track names which display more clearly and with a cover image appearing, just as a CD cover might when playing back on some players.
The multiple tracks feature instrumental accompaniments for each piece:
- at a practice tempo, without piano
- up to speed, without piano
- at a practice tempo, with piano guide
- up to speed, with piano guide
There are a few free samples available on the 80 Days Publishing website here, from which you can gauge for yourself the quality as well as hearing some of the music itself.
This brings us neatly to a consideration of the actual music – which as expected is brilliant!
Each book has between 20 and 30 pieces, which are arranged sequentially to emphasise the variety of style, mood and character of the music while supporting progressive learning.
The pieces are listed at the front of each book and categorised into four types:
Character, Lyrical, Swing, Latin.
Picking out favourites from the list of 185 compositions would perhaps be moot, because these books each offer such an embarrassment of riches!
Christopher Norton is, of course, one of our very best educational composers. It is no surprise that the quality of composing throughout all eight books is exceptional, offering a seemingly endless new supply of fabulous pedagogic material across the whole range of books.
Important though the underlying progression and pedagogy are within the Connections for Piano concept, the success of the series ultimately hinges on the music itself having widespread appeal and variety; taking in all 185 pieces, it would be hard not to admire again the consistency, craftsmanship and musical inspiration that underpins all of Christopher Norton’s music.
Stating the obvious here, 185 original compositions is one heck of a lot of new music, and some may feel in danger of drowning!
However, as source-books for varied and accessible, stylish, modern repertoire that will resonate with students of all ages, Connections for Piano is an undoubted success.
Teachers, Festival and Concert organisers, and examination boards will all benefit from exploring these books and cherry-picking choice favourites to suit their needs. And with such abundance of both quality and quantity, those choices might prove difficult!
While teachers and students looking for (as the publishers put it) “a sound pedagogical supplement” might I suspect balk at such an investment, any one of the books could in isolation suit a student who needs to take a detour – temporary or otherwise.
Ultimately, Connections for Piano in my view succeeds best of all as an “alternative” for those students who wish to play more exclusively in the popular music styles which Christopher so excels in writing. And I believe that teenage and amateur adult players – working with or without a teacher – will find plenty of inspiration exploring these materials at their own pace.
In conclusion, then, Connections for Piano is a unique and impressive resource!
Find out more and purchase from 80 Days Publishing here.