Paul Harris’s series of A Piece a Week books have been appearing at regular intervals over the last few years. Faber Music have just released the Grade 6 book, so let’s consider the series as a whole…
I’ll start with a quick reminder that while the books appear in the best-selling Improve Your Sight Reading series, they are not sight reading practice books per se. Rather they aim to support the broader development of music literacy.
In this review I will first explain the concept behind A Piece a Week, give an overview of the actual material included in the books, and explain how they develop to offer superb material across the range of playing levels from UK Grade 1 to the new Grade 6 book.
Who are these books for?
So let’s start with the concept. Each book includes a set of easy “quick study” pieces for pupils to learn, one a week.
The aim is to help players develop their essential notation reading ability, the by-product being that this will help them improve at sight-reading.
Harris explains in the first book:
“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 and sight-reading. So, for example, the pieces in the Grade 1 Piece a Week book are easier than Grade 1 exam pieces, but more difficult than the corresponding sight-reading tests.
The idea is that the player is set one piece to learn each week, without in this case hearing a demonstration performance or being able to find and listen to a recording. Harris suggests playing the pupil a few bars of the piece at most.
At the next lesson, discussing and playing through the piece will quickly reveal any reading problems, mistakes and misunderstandings. Gaps in learning can be plugged, and solid progress is virtually guaranteed.
I have certainly found that “quick studies” used in this way can be very helpful; the main drawback has been the lack of suitably graded material written and designed for this purpose, so I am grateful to Harris for meeting this need.
But is this a universal need 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 no doubt ask this question.
Harris 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.”
As a highly experienced examiner and adjudicator, Harris is well placed to make this general observation and to spot current learning trends.
With my own students, having initially used the series in a targeted manner where obviously needed, I have found myself adopting it more widely with both children and adults. It seems to me that the ease of finding online videos of standard repertoire pieces and learning them by rote has made it more imperative than ever to ensure students are equally equipped to read notation accurately and fluently.
What is included in the books?
Each has 32 pages printed on white paper, with staples and an attractive cover. The typesetting is immaculate, printed in black-and-white, the earlier books incorporating basic line-drawing illustrations.
In the helpful Introduction that starts each book and evolves steadily across the series, Harris offers important teaching tips; I recommend that colleagues take their time to read and reflect on these carefully, because the advice here is both superb and essential.
The first book in the series includes 26 short pieces, together with three Activities Pages, the latter featuring puzzles such as a word-search, crossword, and “detective work” (matching clues to pieces in the book).
Here, 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. Importantly, they are fun to play and listen to, adding considerably to the appeal of the book.
The second 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. Here, the variety of level is more noticeable, and the pieces are not sequenced “progressively” in order of difficulty. Many focus on a single aspect of notation and musical understanding, so teachers may wish to target and select particular pieces out of sequence.
One thing which I particularly like in these first two books is Harris’s willingness to move beyond the territory that many method books and beginner pieces cling to. Exploring a wider range of notation and of the instrument itself will quickly throw up any holes in a pupil’s musical understanding.
The Grade 3 book introduces a further 27 pieces, each a journey of musical discovery and stimulating challenge.
Those familiar with the first two books will note that the illustrations are more subtle than in the previous two books, although they retain the same simple style. And there are no Activity Pages this time due to the constraints on available space. Titles (such as Ants and aardvarks, Ghosts in a hurry, Agent TX9 goes undercover and Zero Gravity) are engaging and in several cases humorous.
A Piece a Week Grade 4 maintains the high standards and variety, Harris again demonstrating his particular knack for hitting upon inviting titles, this time including The old monastery in the mist, Strictly sequins, Haydn comes to tea, A hint of Einaudi, Blackpool Rock and Q Box pro.
Harris also has a very special gift for composing short pieces which are not only musically engaging and memorable for intermediate pianists, but which also have the DNA of pedagogic intention running right through them.
As well as covering a necessary and meticulously selected range of notations (based on a careful study of exam requirements), the pieces in these books are highly useful for developing technical and musical skills at intermediate pianist level, and explore a wide range of sounds, moods, keyboard geography and musical style.
In the Grade 5 book, Harris again sneakily and masterfully incorporated all the requirements of the exam syllabi. And even at this level 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.
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.
The newest addition to the series offers 28 pieces to stimulate players approaching Grade 6, in the process supporting their ability to read and understand more complex musical passages and ideas. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve reached Advanced level!
The Introduction has evolved as the series has grown, but remains largely unchanged, although the word “students” has been substituted where previously the word “pupils” was used, and Harris has added a few words about using the pieces in a performance context:
“These pieces also make ideal concert items. Students, occasionally, may like to perform small selections, creating their own miniature suites from 3 or 4 pieces.”
They may indeed, because the additions to the repertoire remain as enjoyably delightful as they are pedagogically useful. And Harris has as ever hit upon some great titles, many of which could easily open up discussion about musical styles and history within piano lessons, so important at this level.
Minuet for Miss Sara Bande, more than just a delicious pun, invites a consideration of Baroque dance styles, while in Bach goes to Staffa it’s well worth observing the footnote reminding us that Fingal’s Cave is on the Isle of Staffa. Wink wink.
A particular strength of using these “quick study” pieces at advanced level is that, while students might otherwise be digging deep into core repertoire, Harris’s attractive and quirky music ensures their musical diet retains a varied, fast-changing and contemporary twist.
It is fascinating to see how this series has unfolded to this point, and worth underlining that the quality of all the music Harris has produced throughout the series should keep students fully engaged.
Used judiciously, A Piece a Week is a resource that can transform the notation reading confidence and musical understanding of players, leading in the medium term to greater independence and confidence as musicians.
And having used A Piece a Week with several of my own students now, I can confirm that in my experience they succeed magnificently in their aims. I have also found them particular useful for transfer students with poor reading skills for their playing level.
Lastly I am finding the series a huge success with teen and adult students who are largely self-taught, having used internet sites and apps to play by rote; these books bridge the gap to more formal notation-based learning by offering material that is always imaginative and never condescending.
Harris 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.
That these books also uniquely and so successfully fulfil their pedagogic remit surely makes the whole series a genuine “must have” for teachers and players everywhere.