Sheet Music Review by Karen Marshall
Many Pianodao readers will already be familiar with the wonderful, creative and pedagogically rich compositions by June Armstrong.
Andrew’s previous reviews on her work can be found here:
- Safari: Adventures for Piano
- Sea World: Impressions for Piano
- Stars: 14 Constellations for Piano
- Six Little Preludes & Fugues
- Rayan’s Duet Book
Having had much success on examination syllabuses including with Dusty Blue from Paint Box (set for LCM Grade 1 and ABRSM Grade 2), Unicorn from Stars (ABRSM Grade 3) and Sails from Stars (LCM Grade 4), June has just celebrated having sold over 5000 books to date.
Her latest book reviewed here, Alphabet, is her 16th publication.
This new collection is for Elementary Piano, and I would say in terms of the UK Grades it is Pre-Grade 1 to Grade 1. June herself suggests beginner to Pre-Grade 1, although I would clarify this after trying it with my own students by saying the book is best accessed at the end of a first Primer book.
A level of reading and co-ordination is required to truly get the most out of this lovely collection.
What is special about June’s compositions?
Let’s hear about June’s composition from her website:
“After having taught the piano for over 20 years, specialising in teaching music which engages the imagination and enhances the development of flair and listening, it was natural that she should want to write music that stretches the development of interpretation, even – or especially, at an early age. A desire to compose piano music for young people learning to play the piano, specifically focusing on atmospheric playing, developing both a tonal palette and a sensitive pedalling technique, led to the creation of her first collection, Strangford Sketchbook, which was completed in 2010.”
From a teacher’s point of view, I think that what is so special about June’s work is the rich pedagogical content of her music.
Her website explains this:
“Pieces or Studies? The pieces contained in many of the books are also technical studies as well as being character studies. They address a wide range of technique and expression and are challenging in their interpretive goals. June has particularly enjoyed teaching the music of Janina Garscia, Walter Carroll, Burgmuller, Peter Sculthorpe, Petr Eben, Takacs, Turina, William Gillock, Jon George and Haflidi Halgrimsson.”
So what about Alphabet?
June describes her latest publication as:
“An exciting new collection for all fans of Toy Box, Safari and Sea World. Alphabet explores a broad range of technical and interpretive issues for the young pianist, imaginatively presented in titles such as A for Angel, D for Daydream, H for Harp, M for Moonbeam, Q for Quarrelsome, S for Storm, V for Volcano and Z for Zephyr.”
The book is certainly not a disappointment; rather I would say a bit of a triumph!
With 26 pieces included, the book has an attractive, simple cover matching June’s other publications: a white background with a square image, this time of a merry go round horse.
Inside the publication, June details videos and free audio tracks available from her website and YouTube channel. Here’s a sample You Tube video of the popular piece with my students, I is for Icicles:
This service is very useful to teachers and students a like. You can hear the music before you buy it.
She has also produced this particularly useful Guide to Alphabet:
The music engraving is clear on the page, and tempo markings accessible to all, including terms such as Stormily, Quietly and Gracefully.
June provides a very useful section at the beginning of the publication where she outlines the purpose of the pieces and gives advice on learning and performing all the miniatures in turn.
Here’s a taster:
“Welcome to Alphabet, a collection of early piano pieces highlighting a broad range of technical issues for the developing beginner pianist. Finger dexterity, staccato and legato touch, fluency of hand, wrist and arm movement, hand independence, arm crossings, simple hands together co-ordination, development of a secure underlying pulse and atmospheric sound painting, both dramatic and lyrical, are all addressed in a simple, direct and easy to access way.”
And for a specific piece:
“M for Moonbeam – Moonbeam is probably the most challenging piece in Alphabet. Congratulations if you are learning this! You need to feel the silent second beat very securely. For a lovely touch, play the F sharp in bar 8 with the left hand and final D with the right.”
What did my students think?
The interesting thing for me was that beginner adult learners liked the book just as much as children; the book appeared ageless. The neutral design and content seemed to encourage younger students to be particularly attracted to the content, and I got the distinct impression it made them feel more ‘grown up’ as if they were playing ‘proper’ music now.
I think the collection is very cleverly constructed: June manages to write music that develops technical skills which few other books at this level achieve.
As a composer and editor myself in this area, I have found educational composers can struggle to write pieces that are musically engaging while being accessible and packed with teaching content.
Here are some examples of this:
Moving out of hand position:
- C for Carousel: easily moving out of hand position, both hands move a tone.
- F for Fan stays in a static position till the end but when it does move, it moves in octaves using the triad shape so well established in the rest of the piece.
- M for Moonbeam is static in one hand but moves in the other. Just 8 bars long though, and slow in tempo to make things possible.
- Other useful pieces in this area include I is for Icicles and H for Harp amongst others.
- D for Daydream sees frequent hand-crossing as does,
- N for Night, where the LH also crosses over into the treble. Almost like a little study, this piece can be learnt easily and is an excellent exercise in students noticing changing clefs.
Finger work and legato, staccato touch:
- J for Jolly Roger is super for developing even quaver finger work, as is S for Storm.
- Z for Zephyr tests fingers with semi-quavers
- V for Volcano is excellent for finger dexterity with chromaticism, along with A for Angel, developing legato touch
- D for Daydream features couplet slurs
- L for Lullaby incorporates larger legato phrases.
- Check out B for Banjo and K for Kangaroo for staccato touch, and O for Olé exploring both.
Balance of the hands and finger independence:
Here I think Q for Quarrelsome is something quite special. Moving quickly between the hands in quavers over a semi-tone, this piece also includes some accented notes in the opposite hand. Well worth learning!
Developing expressive musical playing:
Many pieces fit this category: R for Rainbow, H for Harp and W for Water Fountain along with many others that I’ve already mentioned all come to mind. Some beautiful miniatures.
Co-ordination and correct use of the arm and wrist:
Throughout the book many pieces develop these core skills.
Having been very positive, is there anything I think could improve this already brilliant publication? Well, I do think it works very well as is!
To be super picky I’d perhaps prefer to have the notes on the pieces on the actual piece page they relate to (at the bottom perhaps).
I agree with the limited markings on the page in terms of dynamics and articulation (mentioned in June’s introduction) but do feel perhaps that towards the end of the book some single accidental key signatures could be used.
Teachers should also be aware that music is not presented in degree of difficulty, but many pieces are similar in difficulty (especially if rote taught).
All of that said (and as a reviewer, I am always instructed by Andrew to critique!) the real litmus test for me as a teacher is whether I will be recommending purchase by my students. The answer here is yes!
Huge congratulations, June! This is an outstanding publication; one which I am sure will ably help piano teachers to support their students’ technical foundation while also (very importantly) developing expressive musical playing that will encourage them to keep playing the piano!
Alphabet is available now from Pianissimo Publishing here.