Paul Harris’s series of A Piece a Week books have been appearing at regular intervals over the last three years. As Faber Music now bring us the Grade 5 book, it seems appropriate to consolidate my thoughts into a single review.
I’ll start with a reminder that the books appear within the best-selling ‘Improve Your Sight Reading’ series. That said, these are not sight-reading practice books per se. While useful in the practice of sight-reading as a discrete skill, the books aim to assist in the broader development of music literacy.
In the review which follows, I will first explain the concept behind A Piece a Week, before then commenting on the actual material included in the books, including a few observations about their effectiveness based on my extensive use of them within my own studio.
Who are these books for?
Let’s start with the concept. Each book includes a set of what might be called “quick study” pieces which players are encouraged to learn, one a week. The aim is to help players develop their essential notation reading ability, with a suggestion that this will help them improve their exam sight-reading result.
In a short but useful introduction the author explains:
“We need to encourage pupils to spend more time literally looking at notation! That’s the purpose of this book.”
In practical terms, these pieces exist somewhere between repertoire (that is, pieces that are at the performance level of the player, learned using a variety of strategies) and sight-reading (typically, short pieces that are much easier, but which must be realised unprepared using only the notation).
So the pieces included in A Piece a Week – Grade 1, for example, should be easier than Grade 1 exam repertoire, but more difficult than the corresponding sight-reading tests, with an expectation that the pupil learns them from the notation alone, and within a short time-frame.
Whether this is a good strategy is something for teachers to consider, but I have certainly found that use of such “quick studies” can be very helpful for some players. A drawback of including this approach more widely has undoubtedly been the lack of suitably graded material designed for this purpose, so Paul Harris is to be commended for meeting this need.
But is this need a universal one among players, or should the books be used as a strategic resource only when necessary? Given that time spent on A Piece a Week perhaps equates to less time practising scales and standard repertoire, many teachers will be concerned to ask this question.
Paul explains the need as he sees it:
“One of the main reasons why so many young musicians can’t sight-read is simply because they don’t spend enough time actually looking at and processing notation.
It’s not uncommon to spend many weeks (perhaps even longer) learning just one or two pieces. The pieces are really learnt by ear and tactile memory – the notation becomes more of an aide-memoire, symbols that nudge kinaesthetic memory.
So we need to encourage pupils to spend more time literally looking at notation!”
As a highly experienced examiner and adjudicator, Paul is well placed to make this general observation and to spot current learning trends.
What is included in the books?
So what do the books actually include?
To get the physical product details out of the way first, each of the five books contains 32 pages printed on white paper, with staples and an attractive cover. The typesetting is immaculate, printed in black-and-white, and the books include basic line-drawing illustrations.
Each book includes a very helpful Introduction in which Paul offers teaching tips. I recommend that colleagues take their time to read and reflect on this carefully – it’s really good advice!
I’ll now say a few words about each of the five books in turn…
The Grade 1 book includes 26 short pieces, plus three Activities Pages. The latter feature puzzles (a word-search, crossword, and “detective work” matching clues to pieces in the book).
The pieces range from 8 to 20 bars in length. Many include black keys, a note range beyond five notes, pitches up to two ledger lines either side of the stave, and in some cases both hands in the same clef. Most pieces are in common time, with a few in three time, and one in compound time.
In terms of difficulty level, they are too easy for actual repertoire choices at Grade 1, but in some cases only just so. I would expect A Piece a Week to be most useful in the run up to taking Grade 1 itself, rather than too much earlier. In that context, however, Paul has done a good job of judging the right level.
Importantly, most of the pieces are great fun to play and listen to, adding considerably to the appeal of the book.
The Grade 2 book again includes 26 pieces, but there is only room for one Activities Page given the longer length of the pieces, which are now up to 40 bars long.
There is quite a wide variety of level here, and the pieces are not organised “progressively” in order of difficulty. Many particularly focus on one aspect of notation and musical understanding, so as teachers familiarise themselves with the material, they may wish to target and select particular pieces out of sequence.
One thing which I particularly like is Paul’s willingness to move outside of the territory that many tutor books and beginner pieces too rigidly stick to. Exploring a wider range of notation – and of the instrument itself – will potentially throw up any holes in a player’s musical understanding.
Playing through the pieces, I was also really pleased with the amount of variety from one to the next, and the imagination of the music itself.
This is further helped by the illustrations and excellent piece titles, that will help to engage younger players in particular. And details of dynamics and articulation are spot-on throughout.
Each of the 27 pieces here takes up a full page and is a highly enjoyable journey of musical discovery. Titles – including such as Ants and aardvarks, Ghosts in a hurry, Agent TX9 goes undercover and Zero Gravity – are imaginative, engaging, and in several cases humorous. Many provide interesting challenges that pupils are sure to find stimulating.
In fact, I can’t help feeling that pupils who have learnt these pieces largely on their own during the week will start to demand more from the repertoire and exam pieces they are more generally fed at this level – these pieces really do raise the musical and imaginative bar.
Those familiar with the first two books will note minor differences here. Firstly, because each piece here essentially fills the page, the illustrations are more subtle than in the previous two books, although they retain the same simple style. Secondly, the Activity Pages present in previous books are dispensed with here.
A Piece a Week Grade 4 continues to maintain the brilliant standards of the previous books, the 27 pieces once again an imaginatively varied bunch. Paul has a particular knack for hitting upon inviting titles, this time including such as The old monastery in the mist, Strictly sequins, Haydn comes to tea, A hint of Einaudi, Blackpool Rock and Q Box pro.
Paul also has a very special gift for composing short pieces which are not only musically engaging and memorable, but which also have the DNA of pedagogic intention running through them.
As well as covering a necessary and meticulously selected range of notations (based on a careful study of Grade 4 exam syllabi), the pieces here are equally useful in their attention to the development of technical and musical skills for the intermediate pianist, and explore a wide range of sounds, moods, keyboard geography and musical style.
This brings us to the latest release in the series, neatly leading to Grade 5 level. Once again Paul has sneakily and masterfully incorporated all the requirements of the exam syllabi at this level, using them as a springboard to creating enticing and memorable music.
Most of the pieces here still fill a single page, with just a couple venturing to a page and a half. In my view they should be as manageable as they are enjoyable for players at this level, without becoming a burden or significantly curtailing time available for other music and learning.
And I really cannot imagine a better way to tease out any remaining reading challenges than by inviting my students to try out one of these super-enjoyable pieces between lessons each week (or fortnight).
Used judiciously, the A Piece a Week series is a resource that could transform the notation reading confidence and medium term independence of many players worldwide.
Indeed, I have regularly used the early books in the series with my own students, and can confirm from experience that they succeed in their aims. I have also found them particular useful for transfer students who hadn’t been adequately educated by their previous teachers.
Looking forward, while there may be scope for books in the Grades 6-8 range, I am more especially keen to see one aimed for players at Prep Test / Initial level, where there is clearly a particular need.
To conclude, I would say that the series is a genuine “must have” for all piano teachers. Paul is without question one of the top educational composers around, and personally I am in awe at his continuing ability to produce creative and imaginative music with such frequency and consistency!
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