American composer and arranger Phillip Keveren’s books have become increasingly popular staples in my studio, his recent collection Piano Calm (reviewed here) establishing itself as a particular favourite.
Keveren’s latest publication, brought to us as ever by Hal Leonard, is Circles: Character Etudes in 24 Keys, once again a collection of brand new original pieces aimed at intermediate pianists.
The book could be introduced at around UK Grade 3 level (early intermediate), then used as a recurring treasure trove of pieces in every key as the player advances.
Alternatively, using Keveren’s cover concept linking the months of the year to the 24 keys, the book offers quick study material for the later intermediate player to use for a 12 month period, consolidating their theoretical and practical knowledge of the circle of fifths.
Either way, the book is a stunning one, so let’ take a closer look…
Introducing the book, Keveren writes,
“Circles. Look around and you will see: life is filled with circles. The earth circles the sun in 12 months. The clock is neatly divided into 12 hours. The harmony of music gives us 12 major keys and 12 minor keys, and harmonic motion flows naturally in a circle of 5ths.”
He reminds us that a character piece is a “short instrumental piece built around a single emotion or idea”, while an etude is a “study or exercise piece written to improve technique”.
The composer’s aim with this collection is thus clearly to deliver pieces which combine pedagogic and technical value with expressive interest and content.
As he goes on to explain.
“The character etudes in this book explore all twelve major and minor keys. The calendar months provide the inspiration for each composition. Keep in mind that the experiences of my life are coloured by where I grew up on the circle of life we call “earth”. As a native of the northern hemisphere, January conjures up memories of winter. Had I grown up in the southern hemisphere, January would be intertwined with summer recollections.”
The 24 Pieces
The pieces in the collection are thus titled:
- C Major / New Beginnings
- C minor / Graylight
- G Major / Skater’s Serenade
- G minor / Remembering
- D Major / Jig
- D minor / Kite Dance
- A Major / Spring Song
- A minor / Raindrops
- E Major / Sunflower
- E minor / Firefly Waltz
- B Major / Doo-wop
- B minor / Sunset Sail
- F# Major / Fireworks
- F# minor / Looking Back
- Db Major / Footloose
- C# minor / Thunderstorm Toccata
- Ab Major / Lessons with Robert
- Ab minor / Harvest Moon
- Eb Major / Falling Leaves
- Eb minor / Pizzicato Pumpkin
- Bb Major / Giving Thanks
- Bb minor / Snowfall Silence
- F Major / Sleigh Bells
- F minor / Afterglow
The concept here is both an enterprising and entertaining one, and Keveren must immediately be congratulated for succeeding in composing interesting music in every key, always well within the technical grasp of an intermediate player, and for doing so with such musical panache and aplomb.
While most of the pieces make thorough and transparent use of the scale and arpeggio patterns of the key being covered, they are suitably embossed with “character piece” imagination, and Keveren’s gift for memorable melody and lyricism are frequently on display.
So too his knack of writing contemporary sounding harmonic progressions, while on this occasion staying closer to the primary chords of the key and eschewing his usual trick of serving up dramatic modulations, which would of course be out of place here.
The colourful and eye-catching cover (see above) portrays the circle of fifths on a clock-face, the months of the year also indicated, which immediately suggests that the book might well be used as a one-year programme of quick-study pieces, reinforcing technique and theoretical understanding of the major and minor keys.
After the contents pages, the composer includes two pages of Performance Notes, which succinctly raise important teaching and learning points while essentially focusing on the imaginative character of each piece in a fairly personable and chatty way.
Within this sturdy and inviting cover, the 56 pages are printed on white paper, with clear, very well-spaced notation. Almost all the pieces are given a two-page spread, while a couple fit on a single page, and a further two (the immensely gratifying Thunderstorm Toccata, and Sleigh Bells, which incidentally sneaks in a contrary motion chromatic scale for good measure!) are spread across three.
Fingering is included throughout, neither too much nor too little, and where the sustain pedal is needed the changes are clearly indicated.
The 24 pieces that make up Phillip Keveren’s Circles are a delight to play, and offer very significant pedagogic “wins”.
It is fundamentally important for intermediate players to develop fluency in all the major and minor keys. Traditionally, understanding and ability develop as students learn basic scales and arpeggios, but with music exam boards increasingly treating these as an optional rather than essential element of assessed musical development, it’s getting ever more difficult to persuade some of their central importance.
As a world-class musician, Keveren understands exactly why this matters. That he approaches this core pedagogic imperative with alacrity, from an appealing angle, and in the process delivers such an inspiring, varied and enjoyable collection of pieces is truly cause to rejoice.
For adult learners who want a fast track to a fuller musical understanding, for transfer students who haven’t adequately learnt their keys… quite frankly, for any intermediate player who wants to learn the piano well, Circles jumps straight to the top of the shopping list.
It’s quite simply brilliant.
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