Once in a while a music book comes my way which quite simply “blows me away”, and such a book is Little Stories, a new collection of 16 late elementary pieces by Polish composer Agnieszka Lasko, published by Euterpe and distributed by Universal Edition.
With it’s truly lush illustrations and presentation of Lasko’s highly original and attractive compositions, the book is a natural winner. The inclusion in several pieces of opportunities for children to improvise and compose takes the book to another level again, making it a truly essential addition to the childrens’ pedagogic literature.
Let’s take a closer look…
The Sixteen Pieces
Agnieszka Lasko is a pianist, teacher and composer from Łódź, Poland. Her students include laureates of numerous piano competitions at national and international level. Lasko is already the author of the acclaimed and colourful piano method First Class Piano (find out more here) and she regularly presents her teaching method at seminars, conferences, and workshops.
The pieces in Little Stories build on the solid and progressive pedagogic foundation of that method, but are equally suited to elementary players who have used any previous approach. According to the publishers,
“The collection Little Stories consists of 16 short, expressively varied piano pieces. The interpretation is suggested by the title, referring to the imagination, the world of fairy tales, everyday children’s matters and observation of nature.”
Those titles, which appear in Polish, English and German, are:
- Drowsy Cloud
- Little Sparrows
- Hola España
- Show Jumping
- Piccola Tarantella
- Cuckoo Song
- Little Monster Stomp
- The Princess and the Knight
- A Very Worried Bee
- Walk with the Dog
- Winter Moon
Aside from these imaginative titles, each piece is enhanced by a delicious illustration by Małgorzata Flis.
The pieces encompass a wide range of moods and styles, have memorable, naturally wandering melodies, simple texture and harmony, and include some dissonance. Several have slight syncopation, while Walk with the Dog enjoys fuller chords and pop-style harmony.
Everyone will discover their personal favourites from the collection; mine include the natural chromaticism of Fountain, the giddy momentum of Piccola Tarantella, the infectious humour of Little Monster Stomp and the tentative lyricism of the closing Winter Moon.
Lasko’s deep pedagogic understanding and experience are plenty in evidence throughout; take for example the super Show Jumping, surely the best study in hand crossing I’ve encountered at this level, combining technical development with an irresistible tune and imaginative character.
While the publishers tell us that the pieces would be suitable for players after only a few months’ lessons, it’s worth noting here that in UK terms their level is perhaps around Grade 2, late elementary.
One or two pieces certainly include more challenge; there are plenty of ledger lines in Little Sparrow, while the brilliant Sunrise is written in the key of E major, and with a 9/8 time signature. Some pieces require legato pedalling for full effect, while a few include four-note chords and stretches of up to a seventh.
Overall, I would suggest the book would best suit a late elementary to early intermediate player, within the age group 7-12.
In her short introduction, the composer writes,
“Dear Little Pianist!
These are very unusual stories, without words. They will help you discover that sounds can tell you about everything: about clouds drowsily passing through the sky, the beauty of the rising sun or winter moon, the joy of walking with your dog. You will hear birds singing and the buzzing of busy bees. You will also try to create your own stories.
Just touch the keys…”
It will already be clear that the pieces themselves are wonderfully suited to the imagination of the developing child, and that this in turn will inevitably foster a creative and interpretative approach in their playing: that expressive connection which teachers will know is so hugely important.
But with Little Stories, Lasko goes further, offering students a launchpad for their own composing and improvising. Five of the pieces include a few bars where the child must make their own decisions about the actual notes to play.
In Drowsy Cloud the meandering melody gives way for four bars in which only the rhythm is included, the player instructed to “play your own melody using the notes of the C major scale”. It’s a trick which Lasko repeats in Sunrise, although here the key is E major. In Winter Moon the improvisation is again to a given rhythm, this time playing thirds in the E natural minor scale.
Later, in Cuckoo Song, the player decides in which octave the cuckoo will sing. And in The Princess and the Knight, the given music depicts the latter, while the Coda includes just the LH for the final eight bars with the footnote:
“The piece ends with a princess’s song. Compose the melody for it”.
What I especially love in all of this is that creativity, improvisation and composing are introduced in such a gentle way, never dominating, imposing or doctrinaire.
For the child who has not previously been faced with the opportunity to make up their own music, Lasko’s approach is fundamentally empowering.
Having opined that the musical, creative and pedagogic content are second to none, it would be remiss not to stress that the presentation is also quite extraordinary.
The sturdy cover is made from thick card with a matt finish, while the 36 pages within are printed on the highest quality paper with a glossy (but non reflective) sheen. Full-colour illustrations festoon the whole book, while additional instructions (such as the suggestions for improvisation) are kept to a minimum as footnotes.
Notation is cleanly and spaciously presented, with sufficient (but not unnecessary) fingering included.
Little Stories is one of those rare publications about which I really have no reservations. I have no hesitation in saying it’s one of the best and most special childrens’ piano books I’ve ever seen.
I simply adore it, and most importantly, I believe that children will too!
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