I first reviewed Connections last spring as, then, a series of eight repertoire books offering a staggering 185 original compositions by the wildly popular educational composer Christopher Norton. First published for the North American market by Frederick Harris Music, the series had just been republished worldwide by Norton’s own in-house company, 80 Days Publishing.
Since writing my original review, Books 9 and 10 in the series have now been released, each including a further nine Christopher Norton originals suitable for advanced players.
In this review (which supersedes and replaces the original one) I can therefore offer an updated overview of the full series…
The “Connections” Concept
Let’s start by exploring the basic concept of the series.
According to the publishers:
“Christopher Norton Connections for Piano is a collection of pieces in popular styles that is ideal for students and teachers looking for a sound pedagogical supplement or alternative to the study of classical piano literature.”
They go on to outline the unique selling points of the series as follows:
- Esteemed composer Christopher Norton has created over 200 original new pieces especially for Connections.
- Connections corresponds by level to many of the world’s examination boards so that students from many countries can enjoy and benefit from the books.
- Each book in the series showcases a variety of appealing styles such as jazz, rock, blues, Latin, swing, country, funk and reggae.
- With recordings available online, students can feel what it’s like to play a style with their own band.
- Connections resonates with students of all ages by giving them relevant, modern music that they will want to play.
Regarding the point that Connections for Piano “corresponds by level to many of the world’s examination boards”, the series was in fact developed around Canada’s RCM exams, whose 10 Levels inevitably don’t quite align with the 8 Grades of the leading international board ABRSM or its main UK competitors.
While Connections for Piano Book 1 includes pieces which seem to me suitable for ABRSM Grade 1 level, only when we get to Books 9 and 10 do we find pieces suitable for Grade 8, meaning that the rate of progress is in slightly more measured steps.
My advice to teachers in the UK (and where these international boards are the most recognised) would therefore be to see the Connections series as its own progressive sequence rather than as an adjunct to the exam system as we know it.
The Product Range
Connections for Piano originally included three components –
- The Repertoire books themselves;
- Activities books, with notes and creative exercises supporting each piece;
- Recordings: multiple tracks for each pieces, available online.
The Repertoire books appear largely as before, the two brand new additions matching the series presentation. Their glossy covers are certainly striking, and the print quality is excellent. The crystal clear notation enjoys a suitably sized and well-spaced music font, and there are helpful fingering suggestions throughout all 10 books.
The Activities appeared as a separate publication, but these books are apparently no longer available (although they are still mentioned on the back covers).
As for the Recordings, when I initially reviewed Books 1-8 last year, the audio tracks had to be purchased as a separate product; now however they are included via a code which opens up access to download from the web, which is most welcome.
The multiple tracks in the earlier Books feature instrumental accompaniments for each piece:
- at a practice tempo, without piano
- up to speed, without piano
- at a practice tempo, with piano guide
- up to speed, with piano guide
By the later Books in the series, audio content is limited to Performance Tracks including piano and backing, and Backing Tracks for playing along to.
There are a few free samples available on the 80 Days Publishing website here, from which you can gauge for yourself the quality as well as hearing some of the music itself.
This brings us neatly to a consideration of the actual music – which as expected is brilliant!
The first eight Books include between 20 and 30 pieces, which are arranged sequentially to emphasise the variety of style, mood and character of the music while supporting progressive learning. In the final two Books, there are just 9 pieces, but these are far more extended arrangements.
In the original 8 Books, the pieces are categorised into four types: Character, Lyrical, Swing, Latin. This construct is however abandoned for the final 2 Books, in which a broader range of styles are introduced.
Picking out favourites from the list of 200+ compositions would be moot given that the books offer such an embarrassment of riches.
Christopher Norton is undeniably one of our very best educational composers. It is no surprise that the musical quality here is exceptional, offering a seemingly endless new supply of fabulous pedagogic material across the whole range of books.
Important though the underlying progression and pedagogy are within the Connections for Piano concept, the success of the series ultimately hinges on the music itself having widespread appeal and variety; taking in all of these pieces, it would be hard not to admire again the consistency, craftsmanship and musical inspiration that underpins all of Christopher Norton’s work.
At risk of stating the obvious, 200+ original compositions is one heck of a lot of new music, and some may feel in danger of drowning!
However, as source-books for varied and accessible, stylish, modern repertoire that will resonate with students of all ages, Connections for Piano is an undoubted success. Teachers, Festival and Concert organisers, and exam boards will all benefit from exploring these books and cherry-picking choice favourites to suit their needs.
And while those looking for “a sound pedagogical supplement” might I suspect balk at the investment, any one of the books could in isolation suit a student who needs to take a detour – temporary or otherwise.
Indeed, since writing my earlier review last year, a couple of my adult students have each been very happily working through a Connections Book at their level, and are really loving it.
And so to conclude, I feel that while offering an abundance of great material, Connections for Piano succeeds best of all as an “alternative” for those students who wish to play more exclusively in the accessible contemporary music styles which Christopher so excels in writing.
The full series is available from Musicroom here.
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