ABRSM’s Piano Star series of books for children have been warmly received since their introduction a couple of years ago, their pieces regularly appearing in student concerts, festivals, the Prep Test and Grade 1 exams.
Last year the original series of three progressive books of fresh new repertoire grew to include a book of “Five Finger Tunes” at the entry level, and a “Piano Star Grade 1” book at the upper end. And now there’s another addition: the Piano Star Theory primer is published this week. Let’s take a look…
What is Piano Star Theory?
Piano Star Theory is billed by the publishers as “an activity book for young players in the early stages of learning the piano.”
They go on to say,
“Packed full of engaging exercises and games, it can be used alongside any beginner piano tutor to help develop a student’s understanding of musical notation. The imaginative activities link to practical music-making, building aural awareness and boosting the confidence of young musicians.”
The book’s key features include:
- Written and practical theory activities, covering the note values, rests, pitches, time signatures and other symbols most commonly found in beginner piano tutors;
- Short, specially written pieces which can be sung, clapped or played;
- Quizzes, puzzles and a Piano Star Theory board game;
- Colourful illustrations and fun stickers.
The book content is written by the highly-experienced and inspirational Kathy and David Blackwell, and in keeping with the Piano Star series, vivid colour illustrations throughout are by Tim Budgen.
The 52-page book is a genuine joy to behold, both in terms of its lovely presentation and, on first impressions, its innovative and genuinely very impressive content.
So what makes this book special?
Many of the method book series for beginners include one or more theory books in their range, which are often useful as primers, and as a way of quickly introducing theory into lessons using a book that matches the look and feel of the main method, and hopefully integrates effectively with it.
Some teachers are fiercely loyal to their method of choice, and will want to continue using the full range of resources it offers, including theory and accompanying repertoire books.
But just as Piano Star offers a non-denominational repertoire alternative that teachers from different pedagogic streams can enjoy with their students, so too Piano Star Theory provides a mainstream, universal theory primer that in my view deserves to be used very widely.
But here’s the big news: Piano Star Theory actually takes a Very Special approach to the introduction of music theory, and one that is perhaps made more possible because of it’s inclusive pedagogic slant.
The special approach here is essentially the degree of musical integration with which every concept, every activity is designed and introduced.
In short, it seems to me that Piano Star Theory has succeed more than most in offering a genuinely practical and musical approach to literacy.
Ultimately, of course, music theory and practice diverge to become their own areas of study (I’ve yet to see anybody effectively integrate Tenor Horn transposition into a practical, musical piano lesson!). But at their foundation, their overlap and need for integration is surely compelling.
The really striking thing, when first flicking through this book, is the paucity of written work included.
The authors and publishers have helpfully included colourful icons throughout to identify practical rhythm activities (which involve clapping and/or playing), pieces that can be played (or sung), and “counting bubbles” which consolidate pulse and timing as musical and physical activities rather than just dull maths exercises.
At no point does Piano Star Theory introduce music or notation concepts in a way that is dry or academic, and this certainly sets the book significantly apart from most of the competition.
That said, Piano Star Theory does include sufficient text and explanations for parents with a hazy understanding who want to support their child’s learning through the week. This, it seems to me, is essential for any publication with this scope and remit.
There are so many genuinely brilliant ideas permeating this whole publication that listing them all would take a book in itself. So here’s a single example to whet your appetite, and hopefully give an inkling of just how musically intelligent Piano Star Theory is:
Drawing note stems correctly is hardly riveting stuff, right? But there are rules which must be followed, and they are important. And this is exactly how most theory books introduce this: RULES practised as written homework. Some books are a little more imaginative than others, but this is the first where I’ve seen singing added to the mix!
Sung to the immortal melody of The Wheels on the Bus, the Blackwells include a song about which way the stems go, with the drawing of stems integrated into the song words on the page. The Stem Song is a brilliant idea, and illustrates how music theory can be integrated into lessons in a way that is musically relevant and a whole load of fun.
The really key word in the book description is this one: Activities.
Piano Star Theory is a multi-sensory approach which involves movement, singing, playing, drawing, quizzes and yes, a few more traditional theory exercises thrown in (albeit cunningly disguised!).
Sometimes when looking at a beginner piano method book, I wonder whether I’m looking at a theory book, such is the impact that notation has in learning. Piano Star Theory turns the tables on this accepted convention: here is a theory book which looks like a music book, even a piano method, and is creatively engaging and fun.
I can certainly imagine children aged about seven and upwards becoming truly absorbed in Piano Star Theory. And surely, this is how learning should be.
By taking a time-tested universal approach to notation itself, combining it with current ideas about child development and connected, holistic learning, ABRSM have produced a radical and absolutely brilliant resource.
Happily, I believe that the book will easily work alongside any good method book, too, appealing to a broad church of educators by consolidating the literacy aspect of learning while enhancing every aspect of musicality.
The authors claim it will “boost confidence” and I think that is spot on.
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