The name Melody Bober may be a new one to many readers here in the UK, but in North America she is well known for her popular Grand Solos and Grand Duets for piano series, among others, published by Alfred Music.
And based on her latest series of collections, Solo Xreme, perhaps it’s time for her to gain wider recognition here too! Let’s take a look…
Solo Xtreme so far comprises three books, each containing ”9 X-traordinary and Challenging Piano Pieces”. These first three books are advertised at three levels (approximate UK Grade equivalents shown in brackets)
- Book 1: Early Elementary to Elementary (Prep Test)
- Book 2: Elementary to Late Elementary (approaching Grade 1)
- Book 3: Late Elementary to Early Intermediate (Grade 1 – 2)
The Solo Xtreme books have soft card covers with an attractive design that’s calculated to enthuse:
According to the composer:
“The term “extreme” is often used in sports to indicate feats that go beyond the ordinary. The pieces in Solo Xtreme were written to encourage students to achieve similar feats.”
She goes on to explain in more detail:
“Many pieces encountered by young pianists consist of single-line melodies that stay in one location on the keyboard. The pieces in this series move beyond this, challenging beginning students to change locations, cross and-over-hand, play harmonic intervals and accidental, use the pedal to create colour and moods, and vary articulations.”
Whether or not these claims strike a chord will, I suspect, very much depend on what other materials a teacher uses – here in the UK we have a long tradition of interesting music and resources for beginners which include these types of features and creativity. These are, however, goals that I suspect teachers everywhere will applaud and welcome.
The music itself (which I will come to in a minute) is nicely engraved, with a larger-than-average music font suited for the younger player. The downside is that there are several pieces which include page turns, some with da capo and dal segno repeats back a page; I suspect the typesetters were unable to avoid this minor irritation as a necessary compromise.
Fingering suggestions are included in all three books – neither too little, nor too much. Throughout, the suggestions are well-conceived, pedagogically sound and wholly reliable. Given that some excellent collections are marred by poor fingering suggestions this is a relief, and certainly adds to the strength of my recommendation.
Most of the pieces in the first two books include (highly enjoyable) teacher duet parts, which are printed in a smaller music font underneath the corresponding pupil parts. In the third book, all nine pieces are solos.
A few pieces include written instructions; one – The Old Typewriter – features a more extended introduction describing what a typewriter is for those too young to know.
Solo Xtreme Book 1
So what of the music itself?
Solo Xtreme Book 1 contains nine pieces in which both hands are for the most part in five-note positions, sharing a single note melody between the hands. There are occasional chords, at which point both hands play together. The RH is mostly focused around the standard Middle C position, while the LH adopts positions between Middle C and that an octave lower.
There are occasional accidentals, and as in many easy pieces at this level, the wider geography of the instrument is explored using the 8va sign for one or both hands. More rarely, the hands cross, further extending the range.
Rhythmically, the pieces are basic, using just crotchet, minim and semibreve – no quavers yet. Two of the pieces are in 3/4 time. A couple of pieces include some simple syncopations. Further interest is added by the inclusion of plenty of articulation (legato, staccato, accents) and dynamics.
Given these limitations, the compositional terrain has been well-explored by many other composers, so I was impressed to discover that these are such interesting pieces.
There are a number of reasons for the collection’s success here.
Firstly, Bober gently pushes against her self-imposed boundaries in most pieces, while never insurmountably adding to the difficulty for the player. The octave shifts, added accidentals and use of crossing and overlapping hands all contribute to an enjoyable extension of musical possibility.
Secondly, Bober makes highly effective use of harmony, incorporating sixth and seventh chords to an extent that is somewhat unusual in such basic pieces, but which will resonate with the popular chords most children will be used to hearing in the music on TV and video games.
This trick is even more effective where the teacher adds a duet part – one of the standout pieces (for me) is Enchanted Forest Waltz, which particularly benefits from some lovely harmonic twists. The teacher duet parts genuinely add to the musical effect elsewhere too, and in Chitchat the teacher part is essential for effectively establishing the key of G major.
Another favourite for me, The Old Typewriter includes instructions to “tap bell” at appropriate moments in the piece, thus amusingly evoking memories of the titular machine itself.
I suspect that Blues Band and Beach Fun! will also both be popular with pupils – the latter concluding with accented Cs at opposite ends of the piano – and I personally found Kitesurfing delightful.
Solo Xtreme Book 2
The pieces in Solo Xtreme Book 2 continue in a similarly imaginative vein.
Here the pieces stray further from the (extended) five-finger positions of Book 1, although only in La Celebración does the RH move permanently away from the C position – indeed, this particular piece, while lots of fun, seems to me noticeably more difficult than the others in the collection.
Quavers appear in just two of the pieces, although pedalling is now used in most. Several pieces use accidentals to evoke chromatic movement, dissonance, a blues feel, and in Night Whispers to introduce minor tonality for the first time.
For me, the highlights include the cleverly effective Goosebumps Boogie, entertaining Stealth Mode, and the joyous sustained harmonies of Holiday Bells – but my favourite of all has to be the duet Taco Time!, a fabulous cha-cha which I predict will be a huge hit with students!
Solo Xtreme Book 3
As I played through the pieces in Solo Xtreme Book 3, Mrs. Eales came into the studio to enquire what the music was, and to say how much she was enjoying it (a rare occurrence when I am reviewing!). Such is the appeal of these pieces …
As previously mentioned, all nine pieces this time are piano solos. While they would be enjoyable and accessible to players prior to Grade 2 level, they continue many of the tricks from the previous books, with hand-crossing a-plenty, and lots of geographical exploration of the instrument.
While the previous two books rarely strayed from the confines of C major, here the pieces cover F, G and D majors, as well as D and E minor. As such they would tie in week with typical Grade 1 scales and key requirements, and some pieces particularly reinforce good pedagogy in this respect…
The exciting Ride Like the Wind, for example, is a great piece for consolidating E minor tonality, scale and arpeggio patterns, and if ever teachers are struggling to find a rationale for teaching arpeggios and chords to beginners, the lovely and harmonically lush Roaming River provides it.
Or for developing finger dexterity in tandem with scales work, try the exhilerating Rollerblade Race and equally enjoyable Saturday Stomp, the climactic moment of which is a two octave D major scale!
While blending technical development and pedagogy with musical enjoyment in this way is commendable on every level, for me the even greater highlights of this collection are the beautifully melodic Sonoran Sunset and the simply delicious Gentle Rain, both of which extend awareness of lush harmonies and expressive phrasing with novel finesse.
So far I have highlighted the many strengths of these collections, and have done so enthusiastically. But are there any drawbacks?
Perhaps the obvious drawback for any collection of new music for players at beginner to elementary level is that many (unfortunately in my view) will be engrossed in method books, while others may be daunted by the sheer amount of material currently coming to market. So how do these books stand out?
In answer to that question, I suspect that the market for these books will (rightly or wrongly) be somewhat determined by their cover image and stated aims.
Younger children will undoubtedly find books such as ABRSM’s outstanding Piano Star series or the highly recommended Emil Hradecký: Two-Part Piano Miniatures more engaging, while older teens and adults may prefer material with a more sober presentation.
Solo Xtreme, meanwhile, will undoubtedly appeal to slightly older beginners and pre-to-early teenage children, and perhaps 9-14 year-olds in particular. I’m looking forward to introducing these pieces to my own teaching repertoire for boys and girls at around these ages.
Happily, it seems to me that there is a real need for more engaging material suitable for this particular age-group, and I really think that Solo Xtreme hits the spot very nicely indeed!
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