When I reviewed Hans-Günter Heumann’s Piano Junior series on the launch of the first two levels in January 2017, I was full of praise, concluding:
“My own view is that Piano Junior has in many respects raised the bar, in some ways perhaps even setting a new standard by which piano courses for children will be judged.”
With the launch of the Level 3 books later that year, I wrote in my October 2017 review:
“… all I can hope for now is that the Level 4 publications, due next year, will provide the icing on an already tasty cake!”
Well, Piano Junior 4 is now with us! And so, with interest suitably piqued, let’s have a taste and see whether it is as sweet as hoped …
Having written two previous reviews of the Piano Junior series – Piano Junior – the Big Review and Piano Junior level 3 – there’s a danger of repeating myself, so I will keep this brief by simply saying that once again:
- There are four books: Lessons, Performance, Theory and Duets
- The overall presentation matches the previous levels, including the same cartoon characters by Leopé (who – like The Simpsons, have neither aged a day, nor put on a fresh set of clothes!)
- The Online Content again includes demonstration audio tracks for all the content, as well as a series of video demonstrations, and is a significant asset to the method.
I will also reiterate that the pedagogy is thorough and modern in the best sense – a multi-faceted approach which is at once:
- aural: with regular ear-training exercises
- visual: with sight-reading
- tactile: with clear explanations of the technical aspects of playing
- creative: with exercises in composing and improvising
Carolyne True, Melanie Spanswick and Sally Cathcart (of the Curious Piano Teachers) are again credited as consultants who advised and supported the development of the whole method.
Piano Junior Lessons Book 4
The final Lessons book in the Piano Junior series offers a fairly rapid progression that builds on the careful foundation of the previous three books.
The Lessons Book itself retains the appearance and gloss of the previous three, and is presented in full colour across 96 pages, with lavish illustrations and each new notational element subtly shaded in the score to highlight it when introducing a new piece.
At the centre there is another sturdy booklet that can be cut into Flash Cards suitable for this level, and at the rear of the book there is another section of Finger Exercises.
A reminder that the pedagogic progression for the whole Piano Junior series is available to download here.
From this you’ll see that having completed the Piano Junior series, a young player will have a formidable musical foundation and experience of piano playing – with the skills and understanding developed in Level 4 somewhat fast tracking the player to around ABRSM Grade 3 level.
The 15 Units of Lesson Book 4 are each devoted to a new concept, in most cases a scale/key. You will get a clear overview if I simply reproduce those Unit headings:
- Unit 1: G Major Scale (note, all scales are introduced with hands together in both similar and contrary motion, as well as with their primary chords and cadences)
- Unit 2: Two-part writing
- Unit 3: E minor Scales (all minors are introduced with Natural, Harmonic and Melodic versions, with a visual/notation representation of how they link to the relative major)
- Unit 4: F Major Scale
- Unit 5: Mirror-Image Cs (this relates to the use of “Landmark Notes” in music reading, and introduces the lower and higher ledger line Cs in both clefs)
- Unit 6: D Minor Scales
- Unit 7: D Major Scale
- Unit 8: Syncopation
- Unit 9: Swing Rhythm
- Unit 10: B Minor Scales
- Unit 11: Bb Major Scale
- Unit 12: G Minor Scales
- Unit 13: Semiquavers/16th Notes
- Unit 14: Dotted Quavers/Dotted 8th Notes
- Unit 15: Chromatic Scales
Many of the pieces within each Unit are, as you would expect from the concepts covered, around ABRSM Grade 2 level, such as the well-known Graupner Bourrée from the Anna Magdalena Notebook, and Tchaikovsky’s Sick Doll.
Towards the end of the book, some pieces are harder. There’s the first section (not simplified) of Für Elise, Fučík’s chromatic scale infested Entry of the Gladiators and (again unsimplified) the C Major Prelude from Book 1 on Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier. These certainly offer a fitting close to what has been a very strong introduction to piano playing.
Piano Junior Performance Book 4
Supplementing the musical diet of Lesson Book 4, the Performance Book 4 offers 25 additional pieces. And given the faster pace of Lessons Book 4, I think there is a stronger case for additional materials here than there was at the earlier levels.
Within the Lesson Book a purple icon is used to highlight when these pieces might be introduced so as to tie in with the each new concept developed within the overall course. This integration is, to my mind, the Performance Book’s chief strength, and the main reason that teachers might recommend it rather than branching out towards other, perhaps more attractive collections.
As a repertoire collection for players at around Grade 2-3 level, Performance Book 4 is appealing if unremarkable, including such well-worn favourites as Schumann’s First Loss and Handel’s Impertinence alongside level-appropriate arrangements of popular tunes such as The Entertainer, In the Hall of the Mountain King, La donna è mobile and La Bamba.
As with the previous Performance Books at levels 2 and 3, the presentation follows the style of the Lessons Book, but is in black-and-white throughout.
Piano Junior Duet Book 4
Offering further supplementary material – this time for one piano, four hands – the Duet Book 4 has a similar look, feel and format to the Performance Book 4, with a varied selection of 14 pieces presented with black-and-white illustrations featuring the Piano Junior cast of characters.
For the most part, it seems to me that the student could take either Primo or Secondo part, although oddly none of the Duet books in the series offer any advnice about this or other aspects of duet playing.
As with the Performance Book 4, the Duet book is linked to the Lessons Book in that the latter includes icons suggesting which Duet will support learning at regular intervals throughout the course.
Again, this is a unique selling point for this collection, although the material here would be worth investigating by any teacher who is on the lookout for good Duet material for younger students at around Grade 2.
Piano Junior Theory Book 4
The Theory Books that accompany the Piano Junior series are, in my view, one of the method’s greatest strengths.
Unlike the Performance and Duet books, the Theory Books use spot colour, both to add visual appeal and to support and underpin visual learning.
As well as traditional writing exercises and puzzles, the book integrates aural training, includes further pieces, sight-reading practice, instruction on improvising and “Composer Corner” activities.
In short, I believe this is a great resource for teaching Music Theory to today’s students!
While solidifying an understanding of all scales and keys up to and including four sharps or flats, the book introduces semiquavers and 6/8 time signatures, among many other important aspects of notation.
Particularly impressive, it includes a far stronger emphasis on learning basic harmony than is often the case at this level (due no doubt in part to the fact that ABRSM don’t include this meaningfully until Grade 4 Theory upwards – some of the exercises here are closer to Grade 6).
From the first tentative efforts at drawing a treble clef in the Theory Book 1, through to the far more advanced content of Theory Book 4 – which actually lays a pretty good foundation that covers most of the useful theory that a young pianist should be familiar with – this is a series which is strikingly good, meaningfully structured, accessible and progressive.
Theory Book 4 completes what could easily – and well – be used as a standalone Music Theory course. In short, the Piano Junior Theory Books really are a triumph, and should perhaps be investigated by piano teachers who don’t use the Piano Junior method as well as by those who do.
Who is it for?
When reviewing any product here, one of my first aims is to define who it is for – but in the case of Piano Junior 4 this wasn’t as easy as usual.
I never personally use a method series beyond the second book (and rarely beyond the first) as I prefer to move as soon as possible towards using a variety of resources tailored to each student’s interests and needs. It’s an issue I wrote about in my post The Problem with Method Books.
For those who prefer to stick with a more prescriptive method throughout the first 2-3 years of learning, Piano Junior 4 naturally completes this series with aplomb.
By this stage though, many young pianists (and their parents) may be looking towards the graded exams, and I would suggest that ABRSM’s Piano Star books or Trinity College’s outstanding Piano Stories would provide an ideal supplement or perhaps replacement for much of the content here, offering as they do such a brilliant bridge between a method and the more loosely structured progression supported by the graded exam system.
At earlier levels of Piano Junior I have advised that the Lessons and Theory books are essential purchases, while the Performance and Duet books are perhaps more of an optional extra. Here, I feel there are better reasons for the young pianist to supplement the Lessons book with the well-structured material of the Performance and Duet Book 4.
As this is the Series Finale! it is perhaps a good moment to look back and give a general conclusion about where Piano Junior fits in the wider pantheon of piano method books…
Any review is, of course, just an opinion. My gut feeling about Piano Junior as a whole is that it offers a fairly mainstream approach with a healthy emphasis on literacy, music theory and classical pieces, but with an added bonus of some excellent encouragements to compose and develop improvising at the piano.
The focus on developing healthy technique from day one is also exemplary, and offers a more helpful approach than many of the other method books I’ve seen. The emphasis on learning to recognise, understand and use chords from an early stage is also very welcome, supporting a much needed element to our teaching.
These strengths must be offset by the conspicuous absence of singing from the earliest stages, a noticeable weakness here when compared to some other methods (such as the brilliant Get Set! Piano series which I currently tend to use).
Given that my instinct is to steer away from method books as early as possible, it is perhaps all the more surprising and interesting that I am happy, again in this review, to recommend Piano Junior, and to find myself drawn towards adopting these books with my own students.
Ultimately, while no method could appeal to all, I believe that Piano Junior easily qualifies as one of the better series around, offering a well crafted, beautifully holistic and astute contemporary approach to teaching the piano to younger beginners. Now that the series is complete, do have another look!