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Hans-Günter Heumann is nothing if not prolific. Only a few weeks ago I was reviewing his excellent Mystery Piano collection (read my review here) collection, follow-up to his popular Fantasy Piano which I have previously reviewed. And let’s not forget that in the meantime he has published the 16 books that make up the Piano Junior method series!
Somehow he has also now found the time to write Piano Playground, two new books of “playful pieces” brought to us by Heumann’s regular publishers, Schott Music.
Let’s take a look…
Piano Playground 1
The first book in the new Piano Playground series is billed as “very easy to easy”, and the 30 pieces are delivered in Schott Music’s house-style, with beautifully presented, well-spaced notation on cream paper, housed in an eye-catching, colourful, child-friendly cover:
According to the composer,
“Alongside working with a piano tutorial method, this Piano Playground with 30 new pieces written for piano is ideal for lessons and concerts. The collection is presented in progressive order of difficulty, for use in the first two years of tuition. These pieces are fun and easy to learn – and bound to go down well with any audience.”
The presentation has much to commend it, but bearing in mind the target age-range it would have been nice to have included illustrations in the main body of the book, whether in colour or line drawings.
30 Playful Piano Pieces
The pieces are in my view something of a mixed bag. I couldn’t help wondering whether a few of them had been left over from other collections, and dusted down for this one. That said, there are certainly some real gems here…
The collection begins with Tick Tock / Metronome, in which the child’s hands stay in the infamous “Middle C position”; thankfully, the thumbs don’t collide. The staccato imitation of Maelzel’s ubiquitous invention adds interest, and what a perfect opportunity to introduce children to that instrument which will torment them for years to come!
Clog Dance and It’s Popcorn Time follow, in which the LH moves to the lower C position, the former with a simple LH drone, the latter with an easy LH pattern underpinning a fairly catchy RH melody, the use of sforzandi bringing the title to life.
As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the pieces will stay within or near a five-note position, albeit with quite a wide and interesting variety of positions. Fingering is proved, helping the player establish the range of each piece.
In those few pieces that venture beyond a single position, fingering is once again given, although I would have preferred suggestions which avoid encouraging players to hop from one note to the next with the same finger.
One of the qualities of this book which make it a stronger recommendation is the variety of musical style on offer, despite the limited technical difficulty. Highlights for me include the enjoyable Mexican Hat, the pensive lyricism of Rainy Weekend, the evocative phrygian modality of Spanish Flamenco Dancer, the exoticism of Arabian Bazaar and the swaggering rhythms of On the Pirate Ship.
It’s certainly fair to say that these pieces are educational pastiches, but they are effective as such, especially given the limitation of staying close to five-note positions. And indeed, Heumann’s pedigree as a pedagogic composer shines through. I expect younger players will find them great fun to play!
The seventh piece in the collection, Butterfly, adds a notable surprise to the mix with the introduction of sustain pedal. For the most part it is used as a special effect here, although several of the subsequent pieces require full-blown legato pedalling, often with a simile instruction, leaving the player to follow the harmonic shifts.
Given the pieces are aimed at younger near-beginners, this seems to me a rather unexpected technical requirement, and will challenge smaller players in particular. On the plus side, the use of the pedal adds considerably to the effectiveness of the pop-lyricism of Follow Your Dreams, and the delightful arpeggio patterns of Water Games.
Piano Playground 2
The second collection in the series offers another ”25 Playful Piano Pieces” and is instantly recognisable as the sequel to the first book:
Although the book itself follows the style of its predecessor, a couple of points are worth noting.
Firstly, while Piano Playground 1 featured 30 brand new pieces, this second instalment includes a mix of new compositions and pieces collected from previous Heumann publications, including Piano Junior 3, Piano Junior 4 Performance, Fantasy Piano, Mystery Piano, Piano Piccolo and Modern Piano. Only 11 of the pieces here are brand new (although this includes several of the highlights).
Secondly, the appearance is brighter on two counts. The cover itself looks even more tremendous with its vivid orange base colour, and the insides are printed on white paper rather than Schott’s more usual cream, as was used for Piano Playground 1. Much as I love the cream paper, I can’t deny that this second volume looks fresh, contemporary and appealing.
Like the first book however, Piano Playground 2 includes no illustrations, teaching tips or information about the pieces, all of which would have been welcome.
25 More Pieces
The pieces themselves are billed as ”easy to intermediate”, which certainly fits. The book would work well between UK Grade 1 to 2, while as “quick study” material it would be fun for players at around Grade 3.
As with the previous book, pedalling is included in several of the pieces. Ample, well-judged fingering is provided throughout.
Musically, the numbers culled from the Fantasy and Mystery Piano collections are in the contemporary minimal style that so appeals to players at present, and in which Heumann excels, while other pieces here include a mixture of character pieces, classical pastiches, and more upbeat jazzy numbers: Cool Jazz Cats and My Horse and Me are both sure to be hits, as is the entertaining Energy Rock!
Another highlight is the Modern Sonatina à la Clementi, whose three movements offer blues, pop ballad and boogie-woogie, while Arabian Fairy Tale is surprisingly evocative, underlining once again Heumann’s expertise as an educational composer who is able to say much with just a few notes. Wave Games and The Great Wall of China are similarly imaginative.
Plate Spinning exemplifies the pedagogic care that the composer has taken to include a range of different techniques; here, balancing the repeated RH chords with the LH melody will be more of a challenge than pupils expect, but certainly an enjoyable and rewarding one.
There are one or two duds perhaps; Mazurka in D minor stands out as a pastiche that wasn’t needed (alas, Heumann doesn’t quite muster the melodic genius of the Tchaikovsky piece he riffs on here!), but there is certainly more than enough appealing material in this collection to again keep students, teachers and parents happy indeed.
In an increasingly crowded market, teachers will become necessarily selective in their choice of repertoire. I suspect that some may be put off by the relatively sober presentation inside these publications, which would be a pity.
Fans of Heumann are sure to love the new pieces, while the publication offers newcomers an enjoyable cross-section of his work. The best pieces here are genuinely great, and will surely enliven the musical development of young players.
Given the wide range of moods and styles that the series encompasses, it is an easy recommendation for younger players who need fresh music to get their teeth into before launching into the more difficult intermediate stage of their development.
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