I’ve seen a number of good music teachers recommending Samantha Coates’ How to Blitz ABRSM Theory book on forums, and having obtained a set to take a closer look myself, I can see what all the fuss is about.
I met and interviewed Samantha Coates at this year’s Music Education Expo show in London, and she explained that in Australia, her homeland, the incumbent theory books she grew up with were (ahem!) rather dry.
Her criticisms surely apply equally here in the UK, where the official exam-board workbooks can similarly suck the joy out of a lesson, and have a surprising ability to make a bus timetable from 1976 look like a relatively exciting proposition.
Coates found a solution by producing her own course:
“What I wanted was an alternative, a theory book that essentially had the same content as this other boring book that I grew up on, because it was written for the same syllabus. So I just thought, there’s got to be a more hip and groovy alternative.
I wanted a text that was conversational and user-friendly, and light-hearted, and in language that is not formal…
“I think the word “somewhat” should never appear in any child’s tutor book! I just wanted it to be much more casual.”
Happily, with publisher Chester Music on board, she has brought out adapted versions for the UK market, tailoring the content to match the requirements of our leading exam board.
So let’s find out just how different the How to Blitz ABRSM Theory books are. What distinguishes them from the official alternatives, and what are their advantages? Importantly, have they succeeded in making music theory more relevant and interesting for piano players?
There are in total eight books in the Blitz Theory range. The core books of the series are How to Blitz ABRSM Theory Grades 1-5, each of which is a sturdy workbook. The books have cheerful covers in a range of colours, such as:
Each book comprises 64 pages (72 in the case of the Grade Two book). They are attractively presented, and boast:
- everything you need to know (and nothing you don’t) for the 2018 syllabus;
- more information, revision exercises and worksheets than any other theory textbook;
- clear and easy introductions to new concepts;
- revision tests, quizzes, games and more.
As well as the workbooks, Coates has produced two smaller handbooks. The first of these is How to Blitz Four-Part Harmony, a small 24-page booklet which offers a superbly clear introduction to its subject, using both roman chord symbols and figured bass to explain common chords, inversions and progressions.
The second is in my view less useful; The Blitz Key Signature Table is a 16-page booklet which encourages students to learn a simple memory formula for remembering key signatures. Teachers who are unsure how to teach this may well find the advice here useful, but it’s not a book I can imagine sending my students off to purchase.
The series also includes a theory primer workbook called How to Blitz Beginner Theory, which claims to offer “perfect preparation for any theory syllabus in the UK”, and comprises a 48-page workbook with its own certificate at the back. Like the Graded books, How to Blitz Beginner Theory is printed in black-and-white throughout.
As I won’t be returning to this book later, I’ll simply say here that for those using the series as a whole the Beginner book is a useful addition, but for younger children in particular I think the recently published Piano Star Theory book from ABRSM (reviewed here) offers a more colourful and creatively holistic alternative.
How the Blitz Series Succeeds
Having considered the basic outline of the series, I am now going to focus on the five core theory workbooks and highlight the areas where I think How to Blitz ABRSM Theory particularly has the edge over the alternatives.
1: Appealing Format
While the official ABRSM theory workbooks don’t make any concessions at all for younger learners, the How to Blitz ABRSM Theory books have clearly been designed to be child-friendly and genuinely engaging.
This is underlined by the use of funky fonts, inclusion of small cartoon illustrations, and helpful diagrams which present theory concepts in a simple and approachable way.
Most impressive of all, the chatty language used throughout works really well, and quite brilliantly humanises theory teaching and learning for the contemporary setting.
2: Enjoyable Content
This thoughtful approach to the layout extends to the material itself, no section becoming a dull slog, each page offering something new and different, and all adding up to an astute mix of written exercises, enticing puzzles, games and quizzes which consolidate knowledge.
A striking example of Coates’ creative approach is the “Test Paper… sort of”. Appearing at the back of each of the five Graded books, this is a mock-up of an ABRSM Theory Paper that has been completed by a candidate, but which includes numerous mistakes throughout. The student must mark this paper, spotting all the mistakes.
What a superb and enjoyable way of assessing understanding! And to back it up further, a blank version of the same Test Paper can be freely downloaded from the Blitz website, so that the student can have a go at getting 100% themselves!
3: A Comprehensive Resource
Although the Blitz Theory series includes the two bite-sized handbooks mentioned above, these are certainly optional, necessary only for students struggling with a specific topic. More generally, the five core How to Blitz ABRSM Theory workbooks include, as advertised, everything, the student needs.
This is a contrast to the official ABRSM books, which ultimately need supplementing with the two AB Guide to Music Theory books in order to provide the information needed for passing a Grade 5 examination.
It’s great to see, for example, that How to Blitz ABRSM Theory Grade 5 includes tables showing all the vocal and instrumental ranges, a full ornaments chart, and five attractively presented pages explaining the quirks and terminology associated with each instrument of the String, Woodwind, Brass, Percussion and Keyboard families.
I’ve seen some mention that the Blitz Theory books have a higher retail price than some of the alternatives, but remembering that these books have roughly twice as many pages as the official exam-board ones, and include all this necessary information, I feel the investment is very easily justified.
4: Updated for 2018
It’s very odd indeed, but sadly necessary, to point out that ABRSM have not yet updated their own workbooks to match the requirements of their syllabus since modifying (but not modernising) it in 2018.
Kudos to Samantha Coates and Chester Music for wasting no time in doing so. When it comes to getting value for money, it’s good to know that when buying these books you aren’t paying for page-after-page of vocal score and melody writing exercises which are essentially redundant in terms of the current syllabus.
Considering these advantages together, each important in its own right, it seems to me that the How to Blitz ABRSM Theory books really are the ones to go for, offering the most engaging content and best value for money.
I have previously praised Paul Harris’s innovative Improve Your Theory series (see my review here), which also demands to be investigated. Which is better, then?
Harris perhaps offers a more holistic approach that attempts to merge theory learning within the practical instrumental lesson. It’s ambitious stuff which largely succeeds, so long as the student has an inquisitive attitude.
Samantha Coates takes a more straightforward approach, but she is no less creative in reimagining exciting activities that seem likely to pique the student’s interest.
Like Harris, she unashamedly follows ABRSM’s sometimes arcane exam syllabus to the letter. So the books sadly don’t introduce useful knowledge of common chord symbols, pentatonic or blues scales, modes or grooves. Instead, the student learns how to transpose for cor anglais, write in the tenor clef, and regurgitate more than 300 Italian, French and German terms (many of which are rarely used in actual music; I guess somebody at ABRSM got carried away!).
But despite the obvious and disappointing limitations imposed by a syllabus that’s well past its sell-by date, Coates dishes up a satisfying and enjoyable feast of activities which I believe will ensure effective and worthwhile learning rather than merely exam success.
Realistically, there are many students here and elsewhere who learn music theory specifically to jump through an examination “hoop”; at least that they can now do so using a resource that is “somewhat”… much more fun!!