Behind the Scenes: My First Piano Books

Karen Marshall

The critically acclaimed Get Set! Piano books cover the key elements of musical learning and are packed with tunes and ideas to support and inspire young pianists.

My First Piano Book is a new tutor book written for young beginners (from aged 5 years) to use with a teacher. It introduces young children to the piano and music-making through fun activities, rhymes, songs and pieces. My First Pieces, Puzzles and Activities is a new companion book that can be used alongside My First Piano Book (or similar primer) by the pupil at home to consolidate learning. It includes traditional tunes and playful new pieces, plus lots of additional activities to consolidate learning and offer an extra layer of fun.

In this special Guest Post, author Karen Marshall tells the story behind the development of these new resources … 


The journey… 

Today is a very special day – two books are being published this morning! These two books have been quite a journey for me as an author – the most difficult I’ve ever written, yet incredibly rewarding and special. Their beginnings started back in September 2014 when the first sample pages were sent off. I share here the journey in creating them, which was not all plain sailing!

My aims:

  • To ignite a love of music in these young learners (aged 5+).
  • To introduce younger children to the piano and early musicianship and provide them with a solid foundation for musical success.

First steps

Whilst I had some experience teaching younger children the piano, I felt that in order to get the content right in the book I needed to be thoroughly soaked in the experience!

I started working an additional half day a week in the local primary school where I took on several 5-year-olds, some individually, others in groups of two. All were being introduced to music via the piano. They arrived having had no specific curriculum music lessons at school, with no knowledge of musical concepts and no singing confidence. 

I also started working at another primary school, teaching curriculum music and specifically Kodály musicianship in Reception and Key Stage 1. 

I adore working with this age group. I find very little ones truly magical to teach. Writing these books has been a huge responsibility – one which I’ve taken incredibly seriously.

Working at the coalface in this way, enabled me to start to develop a curriculum for these very little budding musicians. I also attended many concerts and performances by very young choirs. This helped me select the most popular traditional melodies for possible inclusion in the books. 

Road-testing 

I had to restart testing the progression three times until I found something that was truly successful. The mark of success being a child easily transitioning to Get Set! Piano Tutor Book 1 (or another first tutor without pre-reading activities), where their performance and playing was significantly improved having used My First Piano Book and My First Pieces, Puzzles & Activities.

That was achieved last year, when a number of children moved on from the books, playing and reading with an ease I’d not previously experienced.

I made some really interesting discoveries over the years whilst road-testing the books, which influenced their progressioncontent and design:

Progression

  • Using black note tunes to learn finger numbers, including using fingers 1 and 5 not usually used when performing pieces on the black notes. 
  • When introducing notation off the stave, using a vertical keyboard alongside to help the children link the note on the page to the position on the keyboard.
  • Continuing to include the note names inside the noteheads when the stave is introduced – the move to the five lines confuses young children and the extra support of note names appeared to make things so much clearer for them. (This stage in particular, seemed to make transition to note reading so much easier.)
  • Leaving fingering for the teacher to write in with the child (apart from in the black note section) – young children instinctively used the fingering that was most comfortable for them and it varied from pupil to pupil; if it wasn’t going to cause technical problems later on, I went with it. (It had the added benefit that they read based on the position of the notes on the stave rather than associating fingers with particular notes – which can cause significant problems later).
  • Pacing (not introducing too much too soon) – many little beginners cannot understand more complex concepts, such as legato/staccato or time signatures, therefore I left them for the teacher to add in when an individual was ready, and kept the music as simple as possible. (Dynamics are limited to loud (f) or soft (p); tempo to fast (presto), medium (moderato) and slow (lento). Quavers are introduced later in the book, but are thoroughly prepared via rhymes and chants before they are presented.) 

Content

  • The need for creativity and play – I was struck throughout my testing at how much creativity and play is important and instinctive to young children. They love opportunities to explore the whole piano keyboard, mimic being a crocodile, knock on the piano pretending to be a woodpecker, improvise and compose… So, these are included throughout in Challenge boxes. There are also some beautiful graphic scores and storyboards as inspirational starting points. Music boxes give writing tasks to develop their fine motor skills using a pencil. And, the Pieces, Puzzles & Activities book provides colouring-in opportunities throughout. 
  • Commitment to traditional melody and rhyme – the children instinctively enjoyed melodies and rhymes that were hundreds of years old in preference to new compositions. I’m not trying to ‘diss’ the original music I have put in the pages – these were pieces that the children played most enthusiastically and really enjoyed – however, as a Kodály practitioner, I recognise the importance of our own cultural musical heritage, and I found that children really did love these centuries-old gems. 
  • Including classical music by great composers – keeping children engaged at a very young age requires short bursts of activities and including extracts of classical pieces of music (in the Listening corners) really helped with this. Children loved moving and responding to the music and being introduced to the whole world of classical music, to great composers and to orchestral instruments they may want to learn to play in the future (alongside the piano).

Design

  • Using a large size of notation and putting a feint tinted panel behind the music – for this age group, vision is still developing; notes need to be big and the tinted panel behind the notes avoids the stark contrast of black type on the white glare of the paper which young children have difficulties reading.
  • Setting the book in ‘Music Town’ with its own theme song and characters  –  the children really engaged with having a fictional setting and characters. The theme song is my adaptation of the popular traditional song, ‘I am the music man’. Children loved having a welcome song to sing and improvise to at the start of a lesson and to reinforce other musical ideas. The characters are: Frankie Forte and Pat Piano (younger versions of popular Get Set! Piano characters); Lenny Lento, Penny Presto and Milly Moderato, with their pet animals (tortoise, hare and donkey); and of course, the Get Set! Piano mouse – ‘Minty Mouse’.

Preparing for publication

The books were edited by Em Wilson, formerly an editor at A & C Black who now works freelance as an editor, Early Years music practitioner and piano/instrumental teacher. She uses Get Set! Piano Tutor Book 1 herself with students and so is very familiar with it.

Having an editor with such perfect experience to bring to the books was a real find! Em’s development editing on the books hugely improved the content and design – her work has been outstanding. 

Likewise, the designers at Ken Vail Graphic Design and illustrators, Julia Patton and Damien Jones provided stunning work – children have responded so positively to the beautiful illustrations and design. 

My thanks also go to Collins Music Publisher, Naomi Cook, who ensured the whole project ran smoothly and provided the resources to make these books (as a colleague described them) ‘works of art’.

It has been an absolute privilege to work with all the children, colleagues, editors and designers whilst writing these books over the last half a decade. I sincerely hope the books will be thoroughly enjoyed by children, teachers and parents for many years to come, and that they will ignite that love of music that I myself have felt from my very first piano lessons aged 7. 

Music has always been such a blessing in my life and the piano forever my friend.

Please do feedback any thoughts on these publications.

Karen Marshall

My First Piano Book and My First Pieces, Puzzles and Activities are available to purchase online now from:

Musicroom.com | EVC Music

Additional online resources  

Continuing Get Set! Piano’s tradition of providing free online materials, Collins Music have made a Teacher’s Starter Pack available for FREE download here.

And don’t forget the many free downloads accompanying the original Get Set! Piano books available here.

These will be added to on an ongoing basis.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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