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Karen Marshall’s Piano Trainer Series for Faber Music, which includes The Foundation Pianist (with David Blackwell, reviewed here) and The Intermediate Pianist (with Heather Hammond, reviewed here), has reached its conclusion with the publication of The Advanced Pianist (Books 1 and 2, with Mark Tanner).
Taken as a whole, the complete series of seven books can be used as a core curriculum that can be interspersed with the eight grades of the UK examination boards, or used standalone by those skipping exams.
In this review I will firstly take a look at The Advanced Pianist before drawing a few conclusions about the Piano Trainer series as a whole…
The Advanced Pianist – an overview
The two books in the Advanced Pianist series cover respectively Grade 6+ and Grades 7-8. According to Marshall,
“The Advanced Pianist books have been written with the express aim of empowering developing pianists to truly understand and interpret the music they are playing and provide material that gives a musical and technical foundation for advanced repertoire – Grade 6 and beyond.
Each book includes five chapters that can be studied over several months. Each chapter explores a different musical period through a variety of elements, including historical and musical context and a range of repertoire by a featured composer. There’s also an exciting section called ‘Concert Pianist’, which provides advanced playing tips and wise commentary from the pianist Mark Tanner. The music deliberately spans a range of difficulty levels, so some pieces can be learnt in just one or two weeks, whilst others are more challenging.”
Marshall goes on to explain that the chapters contain a variety of signposted elements as follows:
- Technical Gym: an exercise or study to develop an aspect of technique: finger work, agility and articulation.
- Activities: things to do to prepare for the pieces and develop musicianship. Answers are provided on the publisher’s website.
- Musicianship: creative ideas to increase musical understanding and theory.
- Repertoire: a piece of music from the piano repertoire by a great composer.
- Reading Room: quick study pieces to help sight-reading skills.
- Composer Gallery: focus on a key piano composer of the period, followed by three pieces by that composer.
- The Concert Pianist: hints and performance tips from the professional concert pianist Mark Tanner.
It must be clear from this introduction that the Advanced Pianist books are ambitious indeed, seeking to provide a fairly comprehensive programme of study for those using them.
The author also points out:
“The pieces have been grouped loosely into musical periods but inevitably some overlaps have occurred. Technical, Musicianship and Reading Room pieces are not necessarily of the period of the chapter.”
I was initially confused to spot a piece by Granados in a chapter covering the Classical period; on reflection, it’s a nice touch that each chapter doesn’t too slavishly stick to just one period, as this adds needed contrast and diversity to the overall content. Even so, there’s nothing to stop players and teachers picking and choosing from throughout the book at will, knowing that the material is all appropriately tailored for the level.
The five periods covered in each book (which are matching) are:
- Early music and the Baroque period
- The Classical period
- The Bridge period (linking Classical to Romantic)
- The Romantic Period
- Contemporary Music
From all this, readers will note that the overall thrust centres on imparting an informed overview of the history of keyboard styles, highlighting the great composers and serving up a few of their most remarkable and suitable works.
Exploring the content…
Providing background context and information to pieces has always been a central element of my own teaching, so I am pleased that these books offer such an engagingly written compendium of knowledge and understanding for pupils to explore in their own time.
Each chapter begins with insight into the actual keyboard instruments which were common at that time, tracing the family’s development from harpsichord, through early fortepianos and modern pianos, to the digital instruments that are now so popular. Book 2 goes into more detail about how this translates into specific approaches to performance of the music.
Technical Gym, Reading Room and Musicianship pages follow, before we reach the midway point of the chapter; hereafter the “featured composer” is introduced with a detailed biographical sketch and technical tips from “the Concert Pianist” (Mark Tanner).
In most cases, the chapter is completed by the inclusion of three pieces by the featured composer. Often two of these are quite short, supporting the main headliner.
In some cases, as highlighted in Marshall’s introduction, the additional pieces by each composer are easier, too. For example, Schumann’s Humming Song from the Album for the Young, and Bartók’s Jeering Song from For Children both appear in the first book, although they are early intermediate level.
Here’s the list of featured composers, and in each case the most significant of their pieces featured:
The Advanced Pianist Book 1:
- Domenico Scarlatti (Capriccio in G)
- Joseph Haydn (Allegro in F)
- Franz Schubert (Andante in C, D.29)
- Robert Schumann (Eintritt from Waldszenen)
- Béla Bartók (Romanian Christmas Carol)
The Advanced Pianist Book 2:
- J.S. Bach (Prelude and Fugue in B flat from Book 1 of the 48)
- W.A. Mozart (Sonata in G K.283, first movement)
- L. Van Beethoven (Sonata in A Op.101, first movement)
- Frédéric Chopin (Nocturne in C sharp minor op.posth)
- Claude Debussy (Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d’été)
This balance of music works well in providing the player with an accessible introduction to the styles, idioms and music of each of these central composers.
It must also be noted that each chapter additionally includes an engaging variety of other repertoire selections representative of the period covered; indeed these pieces are in some cases more substantial than those of the featured composer.
Highlights from the first book thus include Diabelli’s Sonatina in G major Op.151/1, Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and Grieg’s Poetisches Tonbild Op.3/5; while A Maske by Giles Farnaby, Hummel’s To Alexis, Mendelssohn’s Duetto No.6 Op.38, Satie’s Danse de Travers No.2 and Turina’s fabulous Sacro-Monte No.5 are all enjoyable inclusions in the bumper-sized second.
A real strength of these books is that they don’t limit themselves to pieces which are already somewhat tired from over-exposure elsewhere; Marshall and Tanner have unearthed some gems, and included a number of pieces which may be new to teachers as well as players (and a few welcome originals of their own).
Another particular strength that I really must highlight here: the Concert Pianist feature accompanies each and almost every piece, Tanner adding seasoned, illuminating comments, practical and interpretive tips, and insightful suggestions throughout the series.
As with the previous Piano Trainer books, the covers themselves are as lovely as they are eye-catching, and I think that students will be immediately drawn by their vibrant appeal.
The insides are, as before, printed on white paper with a clean yet engaging presentation. Handy icons signal the different elements of each chapter, which appear as advertised and with a systematic thoroughness.
Two things especially distinguish these books from their predecessors in the series. Firstly the books are larger, sporting 64 and 88 pages respectively. And secondly, there’s more in-depth text, including the aforementioned composer biographies.
The music engraving is clean and clear throughout, and I’ve yet to spot any misprints in the scores themselves. Fingerings are included throughout, and are mostly very helpful and welcome.
Overall, it is immediately clear that an enormous amount of thought and effort have gone into ensuring these publications are aesthetically pleasing and have superior clarity of design.
Overall, for those looking for a carefully structured and progressive approach to learning the piano, the PianoTrainer series offers not just a beautifully paced curriculum, but also a wealth of background context to fully furnish a lifelong understanding and love of music.
There is surely a place in the market for such well-structured, engagingly written and handsomely presented material that supports teachers and learners by providing a systematic and comprehensive introduction to the world of classical piano playing.
I’ve certainly found that a number of my own students have responded well to the step-by-step learning format offered by the earlier titles in this valuable series, enjoying the variety of music and secure, measured progress that the books offer. I look forward to using The Advanced Pianist with others.
I hope that the PianoTrainer books find wide currency with students everywhere, but in any case I would strongly urge teachers to collect the set and study these books with intent. They really show a most excellent way to help our students develop their musical understanding and engagement.
Taken as a whole, the PianoTrainer series surely ranks as one of the more useful, worthwhile and well-executed contributions to the piano pedagogy library in recent years.
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