Get Set! Piano Christmas Crackers

Featured publications are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Seasonal music has long-held a special place in peoples’ lives, enriching festivities, underpinning our devotion (both religious and to one another), and fostering community. So it’s no surprise that most piano method series add a Christmas book to their range sooner rather than later.

If Get Set! Piano Christmas Crackers has taken longer to arrive than might have been expected, it is because the authors have taken their time to create more than just another Christmas songbook. Christmas Crackers has ambitious pedagogic aims.

Flicking through the pages of Christmas Crackers, it is immediately apparent that this is a Christmas book with a real difference, including so much more than just the same seasonal classics.

What’s inside the Crackers?

Anyone interested in this book is going to be curious to know which of their favourite carols make an appearance, so here’s the complete list of the 32 tunes. Notice that the authors have separated them into two sections, suitable for those working through Get Set! Piano books 1 and 2 respectively:

Carols and pieces for Get Set! Piano book 1 (beginner level):

•  Good King Wenceslas
•  Jolly old Saint Nicholas
•  O come, all ye faithful
•  Up on the housetop
•  Jingle bells
•  Away in a Manger
•  Infant holy, infant lowly
•  Under Bethlehem’s star so bright
•  The holly and the ivy
•  The first Nowell
•  O little town of Bethlehem
•  We wish you a merry Christmas
•  Once in royal David’s city
•  Hark! the herald angels sing

Carols and pieces for Get Set! Piano book 2 (Preparatory to Grade 2):

•  Silent night
•  Deck the hall
•  The Virgin Mary had a baby boy
•  Ding dong! merrily on high
•  God rest you merry, gentlemen
•  Huron carol
•  Patapan
•  The bells of Christmas
•  More Christmas bells
•  Gabriel’s message
•  Christmas is coming
•  Cantemos a Maria
•  While shepherds watched their flocks
•  Mary rocked her baby!
•  I saw three ships
•  Y Gelynnen (The Holly)
•  We three kings of orient are
•  Go, tell it on the mountain

The standout feature of so many of these arrangements is that they combine an astute awareness of what really works on the piano, with a solid pedagogic foundation, more about which in a moment.

The pieces are fun to play, sound great, and are educational at the same time. Many of the carol arrangements include duet parts, and all include the words for those who wish to sing along.

More than just Carols …

Regarding the larger educational vision that makes this publication of unique interest, co-authors Karen Marshall and (for this addition to the series) David Blackwell write:

Unpacking the pedagogic content, they explain:

The attention that the authors have given to progression is indeed fantastic. Opening the book at page 2, for example, we find Good King Wenceslas written in the closed position around Middle C, with only one hand playing at a time.

By Up on the housetop (page 5), quavers have been introduced, and both Under Bethlehem’s star so bright and The holly and the ivy (pages 12) include simple use of hands together.

As the book progresses, the difficulty is stretched exactly as advertised, with scale patterns, dotted rhythms, semiquavers and so on progressively introduced. In fact, the authors have deliberately selected tunes which allowed them to cover a comprehensive pedagogic range.

For example:

  • Introducing the C major scale? Here, Hark the herald angels sing includes it in a bespoke introduction;
  • Introducing syncopation? Try The Virgin Mary and a baby boy …;
  • Ready to learn about compound time signatures? Gabriel’s message is on hand to help, while I saw three ships and We three kings consolidate understanding a couple of pages later.

It’s this level of care and planning which elevates Get Set! Piano Christmas Carols above so many competing books.

And there’s more…

The clever ordering and arranging of carols by difficulty level isn’t the end of the story here.

The book is also full of additional content that might be described as “instructional”: text boxes add loads of interesting “fun facts”. There are practice tips too, which are child-friendly, engaging and genuinely helpful. The book also includes creative activities and suggestions for teachers.

There’s a fair few theory exercises embedded here too, much in the same vein as the co-author Karen Marshall’s recent books, The Foundation Pianist. Within and around the music notation itself, there are spaces for identifying note names, writing the meaning of simple musical signs such as dynamics, identifying the key, and so on.

Of special note, three appearances of “Musical Crackers” provide two-page spreads focussing more directly on tuition. These include quick study sight-reading material, theory games, composing/improvising activities, a round, and the aforementioned introduction of compound time.

In short, the book is chock-full of great ideas, creative approaches, and fun suggestions – all given an engaging and often amusing festive twist.

The Publication

The book matches the style and presentation of the Get Set! Piano series as a whole. Like the “Pieces” books in the series, it is printed in black-and-white throughout, but with enjoyable visuals and lovely characterful illustrations by the brilliant Julia Patton.

Get Set! Piano Christmas Crackers Review

With so much content crammed into just 40 pages, it’s not a surprise that the pages are full to the brim; for some, the aesthetics here might seem crowded, while others will rejoice in the treasury of great content spilling off the page.

The overall production is excellent, and the printing has great clarity. Notation is well presented, although the teacher duet parts are often rather small for those of us whose eye-sight is in decline!

In any case, I would suggest that teachers acquire a copy for themselves and closely study the full content – with such riches on offer it would be very easy to skim past something vital, or miss one the great many little suggestions that pepper the book!

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully I’ve given you a good flavour of what Get Set! Piano Christmas Crackers is all about, and what is included. It really is a great book!

Before signing off, I would like to mention another point, following up on the authors’ claim that the book can be used alongside other tutor methods. As a busy teacher using other method books, I absolutely support that claim.

With so many popular and solid method books on the market, students can really benefit from the ‘alternative voice’ available by dipping into supplementary material written and composed by different writers to their usual method. And Get Set! Piano Christmas Crackers offers an absolutely ideal opportunity for exactly this.

I’m also impressed that the variety of difficulty included ensures that the book is a great investment for any child. I have already found in recommending it to a family I teach that one child will be learning pieces from the second half of the book this Christmas, while their younger sibling is having fun learning the first carols at the start of the book. This undeniably represents excellent value, especially given the modest price tag of just £7.99.

In a crowded market, Get Set! Piano Christmas Crackers really does offer something different, interesting and hugely valuable. There are many good Christmas collections in the shops now, and to say that this is “the best” would be a moot point; closer to the truth, I believe that in offering a genuinely unique and brilliantly educational approach, this book is special.

Don’t just take my word for it though: have a closer look for yourself!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.