Around this time last year, Faber Music unleashed The Intermediate Pianist series, co-authored by Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond. It was a solid success, warmly received by teachers and students alike, and in the Pianodao review I wrote:
“The Intermediate Pianist books get right to the heart of what learning music is really all about. This truly could prove a milestone publication – don’t miss it!”
As many readers will know, The Intermediate Pianist deservedly went on to win Best Print Resource at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence 2018.
This Autumn, it’s a joy to welcome the arrival of The Foundation Pianist, two companion books in Faber’s growing Piano Trainer series. This time, Karen is joined by new co-author David Blackwell.
Let’s see what’s included, and consider how these books might fit into a rounded curriculum for young pianists…
The Core Concept
The Foundation Pianist is subtitled, ‘A technical and musical curriculum for pianists at post Grade 1 level’ (the second book, post Grade 2). The books can be used alongside other material, but provide a clear structure for focusing on core musical techniques and understanding between the early grades.
Karen Marshall and David Blackwell explain their vision for the series in the Introduction to the first Book:
“The Foundation Pianist is a set of two books for students who are past beginner stages and who want to develop a technical and musical foundation in order to progress to the intermediate stages of playing.
This book includes five chapters that can be studied over a few months. Each chapter explores a different piano technique through a variety of elements, including a daily exercise, a sight-reading piece and repertoire by the great composers alongside newly written educational music.
There’s also an exciting section called ‘Musical time travel’ that takes the player on a journey to different musical periods of the past and introduces them to the style of that time…
Our aim is to help develop a generation of pianists who understand basic piano technique and the musical time periods of the pieces they are playing.”
This is an ambitious brief, but it seems to me straight away that these books offer the possibility to significantly improve the quality and depth of teaching and learning for elementary pianists.
While this series might not suit the youngest players, I would say that the books should work for students from around age 10 upwards.
As a series, The Foundation Pianist thus perfectly fills the gap between Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond’s excellent Get Set! Piano method books and their series The Intermediate Pianist, which covers Grades 3 – 5.
Overview and Chapters
The general structure of the series is built around chapters whose particular focus is as follows:
The Foundation Pianist Book 1:
- Musical sentences.
Phrasing, legato, and the use of dynamics. The Renaissance period
- Finger Workouts.
Even finger work, patterns and shapes. The Major Scale. The Baroque Period.
- Articulation activation.
‘Couplet’ slurs. The Classical Period.
- Melody and Accompaniment.
The Harmonic Minor scale. The Romantic Period.
- Part Playing.
Chord voicing. The Contemporary Period.
The Foundation Pianist Book 2:
- Interpretation and expression
Tone production. Ledger Lines. The Medieval Period.
- Keyboard Geography.
Hand crossing. The Baroque Period. Arpeggios.
The Melodic Minor scale. The Classical Period.
- Legato thirds and sixths.
Chords and the use of the wrist. The Romantic Period.
Rhythm and metre. Jazz.
Within each chapter, the same six elements recur, helpfully signposted with visually appealing icons. For a more thorough overview of the material included, let’s look at each in turn …
1: Daily Workout
The Daily Workout presents a short exercise, just a few bars long, focussing on a particular aspect of musical technique that should be developed by the elementary pianist. These cover pulse, phrasing, control, dexterity, evenness, articulation, balance, voicing, crossing hands, legato thirds, and so on.
These exercises are completely ‘on point’, with obvious musical benefits, and written concisely enough to not take up too much time. Some are original, while a few are excepted from Czerny, Türk, et al.
Most are in the key of C major, but I would personally suggest pupils have a go at transposing them to other keys relevant to the scales, chords and repertoire being studied. Teachers may of course wish to try this for themselves first!
A particular strength of the sight-reading exercises provided is that excellent care has been taken to integrate them effectively into the overall chapter theme, encouraging holistic learning.
Sight-reading is perhaps a misnomer here however; these short pieces might better be considered ‘quick study‘ pieces for the student to learn at home, without hearing them played (i.e. using only the notation).
Even used this way, teachers will still need to take care to ensure their pupils understand the notation of the piece before taking it home for solo study. For example, the first sight-reading piece in Book 1 is written in the key of B flat, which a player fresh from Grade 1 might not understand or have encountered before.
While the included examples don’t constitute a comprehensive resource, there is hopefully enough material here to ensure that sight-reading doesn’t slip from the agenda during the formative stages of a pupil’s development.
Each chapter includes at least one work from the core pedagogic repertoire, with composers such as Purcell, Mozart, Schubert and Bartók appearing together with educational favourites by Clementi, Gurlitt and Rebikov.
This is a great way of ensuring that the books have, at their heart, a consistent representation of the best-loved, time-tested classics.
It’s useful to note, too, that Karen Marshall has been careful to avoid overlap with her fabulous Encore books for ABRSM, so that both series can be used as companions, side-by-side.
4: Musical Training
The Musical Training sections are a brilliant addition – innovative, varied, holistic and genuinely helpful. The main emphasis here is on understanding and applying music theory.
Activities include filling in boxes to identify notes and translate expression marks in given pieces, spotting sequences, patterns and naming chords in a piece, and even composing an eight-bar melody to a given verse. In the second book the written activities are joined by improvising at the piano (around the pentatonic scale), and a page explaining some of the different wrist movements used in playing.
Some of the theory required here is arguably a little advanced for elementary players, but I really love the way that the Musical Training sections develop understanding and challenge pupils to engage with music writing.
And once again, the way these exercises integrate with the other material in each chapter is really inspired.
Special mention must be made of the Scales Generator pages. These are photocopiable pages which provide space for the pupil to work out scales in different keys, using the pattern of tones and semitones as their basis. There is a greyed-out keyboard too, where they can write in the finger numbers used for the scale.
5: Musical Time Travel
The Musical Time Travel pages are another particularly distinctive and welcome inclusion. Presented with a timeline in the margin that helps the pupil connect each era to the overall progress of musical development (see example, along with more sample pages, here), each Musical Time Travel page details the main elements of important historical styles, listing major composers and the instruments of the time.
There’s also some great suggestions for online listening, with a small space for the student to write their response to the character of the music. How brilliant!
Although the same periods reappear in the second book, the content of the pages is different, digging deeper into elements of style and form. Quite apart from fuelling the elementary pianist’s imagination, these pages offer much needed forward preparation for GCSE Music, recognising style and period in ABRSM aural tests, and so on. These pages will inform all future listening and performing; they have immense value here.
6: Time Pieces
The time pieces in each chapter are, in many respects, a summation of the content.
They are, of course, linked to the Musical Time Travel pages, but also develop the playing techniques and other aspects of musicianship encountered in the chapter.
Many of the Time Pieces are arrangements by David Blackwell, providing a broader insight into the world of classical music by presenting tunes from madrigals to symphonies, and from opera to jazz. When added to the Repertoire pieces already included, their inclusion means that there are at least two rich and carefully selected pieces in each chapter, cementing the books’ value as a repertoire resource for elementary players.
David is undoubtedly one of our finest educational writers, and his arrangements here are well conceived for piano players at this level. He has ably filled the space formerly occupied by Heather Hammond, proving to be a superb writing partner.
Perhaps, in the absence of Heather’s popular, latin and jazzy numbers The Foundation Pianist has a somewhat more traditional classical feel overall.
But those who complete these books before they approach The Intermediate Pianist will be far-better musically equipped to enjoy the full, exciting range of styles included there: in my view, the two series complement each other brilliantly.
As always, a word about the books themselves.
Presented in a style familiar from The Intermediate Pianist, the books have attractive glossy covers, housing well-presented content on white paper. The layout is clear, attractive to the eye, and engaging.
Clearly a significant effort has been made here to ensure good spacing throughout, while giving the material a unified look and feel, with familiar icons and headings guiding the user through the book.
In short, these publications are exemplary.
In a year of outstanding educational resource and sheet music releases, The Foundation Pianist is in my view the real blockbuster that no teacher will want to be without as we enter the new school year.
Perhaps my best recommendation is to note that in the two weeks since my review copies arrived, I have sent three of my own students off to purchase copies, which is fairly unprecedented.
The Foundation Pianist, in the final analysis, has the potential to revolutionise musical teaching and learning for all who embrace it.
Ultimately, this is a series founded on a commitment to not only cherishing that transformative power of great music that drew many of us to become players and teachers in the first place, but to integrating all aspects of learning into a logical, intelligent, elegant and holistic programme.
Students using these books will have the joy of discovering fabulous music alongside learning to play it securely, and with the sort of understanding that will both fuel their imaginations and enable them to progress quickly and securely to higher levels of pianism and musical engagement.
Teachers should in my view set aside the time to properly study these texts, marvel at how the authors have developed meaningful musical connections at every stage, and adapt their teaching to provide the richer feast that The Foundation Pianist lays out.
For many, I suspect, these books will be a genuine revelation – a light-bulb moment that will impact our teaching immeasurably into the future.
Teachers will surely recognise their immense debt to Karen for providing such a brilliant (and affordable) range of resources, while students using these carefully devised materials will surely appreciate her warmth as their constant companion helping to guide their development as musicians.
Faber Music must also be given special praise here for their commitment to the development and promotion of this material, and their ongoing support to The Piano Trainer series. From the superb editing of text and music, to their formatting and overall presentation, they have delivered a stunning product.
But for David Blackwell and Karen Marshall, simple applause seems inadequate here: on the basis of The Foundation Pianist they must surely be fêted as heroes of contemporary piano education!
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