Nathan Holder’s latest book, written for children aged 8-12, bills itself as “The Ultimate Fun Facts Guide”, and works hard to fulfil its aim.
We are told,
“From Beethoven to Billy Joel, Mozart to Mary Lou Williams, and Scott Joplin to Stevie Wonder, be inspired by some of the most interesting people who have ever played the piano.
Why is my Piano Black and White? takes you on a musical journey to help you discover the weird and wonderful world of the piano, and the people who make music on it! Filled with fun fact, jokes, quizzes and music, after you read it, the piano will never be the same again!”
Let’s take our lives in our hands and jump in!…
Why is My Piano Black and White? comes with an eye-catching soft cover:
Within, the 186 pages are printed in black and white, but with vivid illustrations (by Charity Russell) on every page. These include pictures of great composers and artists, as well as four cartoon child characters who accompany the reader through the book, Pheobe, Callum, Olivia and Zaki.
An initial quick flick through the book suggests that the content will heavily feature contemporary popular music styles, and the latter part of the book is dominated by QR codes and music playlists, about which more soon.
The layout is appealing, and spot on for the “tweenager” target readership. The quiz questions are on point and encourage effective reading and learning, while the jokes are ‘dad humour’ groan-aloud.
Overview of the Content
The book begins with a brief history of the keyboard, before giving a short overview of western classical piano music which sadly omits the baroque keyboard writers at one end of the spectrum, and contemporary classical composers at the other.
This is followed by a much more detailed history of jazz styles and movements, leading to a selection of contemporary genres.
Most chapters highlight major artists, giving brief biographical information and listening suggestions. Some of these veer towards professional resumé, listing albums and achievements, but others feature more personal anecdotal nuggets.
Significantly and eloquently enhancing the material in the book, Holder provides a Spotify playlist for each chapter, compiling an album’s worth of superb content in every case..
The playlists are accessed by scanning QR codes. There isn’t a weblink or other Plan B, and as we are an Apple Music household I first needed to download the Spotify app onto my iPad so that I could use the codes and access the content. It was well worth the effort though: the playlists are great!
Here then is the contents, listing chapter headings and the composers and artists highlighted:
- A Brief History
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven
Chopin, Liszt, Clara Schumann, Rachmaninov
- 20th Century
Debussy, Schoenberg, Bartók, Cage
- 21st Century
Malek Jandali, James Rhodes, Lang Lang, Khatia Buniatishvili
Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson
Edward ‘Duke’ Ellington, Art Tatum Jr, Mary Lou Williams, Nat King Cole
Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Bud Powell
Marian McPartland, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans
- Hard Bop
Horace Silver, Tommy Flanagan, Harold Mabern, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett
George Duke, Brad Mehldau, Robert Glasper
Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Joel, Bruce Hornsby, Marc Cohn
No major artists identified – tracks listed include piano samples by others
Richard Smallwood, Ken Burton, Jason White, Mike Bereal
Greg Phillinganes, John Legend, Alicia Keys
Pinetop Perkins, Ray Charles, Dr. John
- Soul and R&B
Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, Brian McKnight
- Film & TV
This chapter lists the following films in which the piano features prominently; to assist parents and teachers I am including the BBFC ratings:
• The Piano (1983) cert. 15
• The Pianist (2002) cert. 15
• La La Land (2016) cert. 12A
• Green Book (2018) cert. 12A
• The Seventh Veil (1945) cert. PG
• Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) cert. PG
• Ray (2004) cert. 15
This chapter only includes a single page playlist, which strikingly includes nothing prior to 1975.
A list of recommended reading material presumably aimed at teachers (though not identified as such), as it comprises adult biographies and academic material rather than children’s books.
The material is clearly presented and well written, although at times the technical terminology is closer to that expected at GCSE than it is to the vocabulary of the younger 8-12 age group that the book appears (with its visuals and humour) to be aimed at.
Holder clearly has a good knowledge of his material, and especially of the evolution of jazz, blues and gospel music. I found these chapters the most particularly interesting and I suspect that many music teachers will similarly find them useful.
That said, from a musicological perspective I don’t believe the narrative of 20th century popular music should so ignore the influence of the early Broadway composers; George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Jerome Kern, all missing here even though their music is such a central element within the evolution of jazz and modern popular music.
Their legacy is not only felt in the continuing centrality of the Great American Songbook, but right through to the Disney songs and musicals that children grow up loving (and wanting to play music from!).
The Musical Interests of a Tween
Indeed, there’s no escaping the point that the book ignores important genres of contemporary music, and ones which children in the target age-group are likely to know of and be curious about.
The content of Why is My Piano Black and White? certainly seems somewhat removed from the music that younger children ask me about learning on the piano. For example, I have found that many want to play Japanese anime and gaming music, and I would have welcomed this being covered, not least to supplement my own meagre knowledge!
Synthesisers are introduced in the opening chapter and mentioned in the context of the jazz pioneers Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. But Holder avoids delving too far down that particular rabbit hole: further space isn’t devoted to electronic bands, genres and artists.
Ambient piano music, easy listening and post-minimalism don’t appear in the book either, meaning that the ubiquitous Ludovico Einaudi, Phillip Glass and their many imitators go unreported here, which feels quite odd these days (but will perhaps please some!).
And although we might not associate Country music with the piano, I’m sure there are a huge number of 8-12 year-olds who saw this piano-based performance in the final of last years’ Strictly… yes, that’s Taylor Swift at the keys!
This brings me to the most concerning omission in my view: the near-absence of contemporary female popular artists from Why is My Piano Black and White?, Alicia Keys and Vanessa Carlton being the exceptions appearing in an uncomfortably male-dominated survey.
While female artists appear on the Pop playlist (mostly as singers rather than pianists), I’m sure children reading the book would like to hear the stories of successful female musicians and, as the blurb puts it, “be inspired by some of the most interesting people who have ever played the piano”.
So in addition to Taylor Swift, here is a roll-call of notable female artists whose stories are missing from the book itself, many of them multi-platinum awarded superstars whose piano playing is a signature element of their music.
Tori Amos • Gabrielle Aplin • Sara Bareilles • Birdy • Beverley Craven • Norah Jones • Carole King • Diana Krall • Sarah McLachlan • Christine McVie • Joni Mitchell • Regina Spektor
There are of course plenty of other women in popular music today, many of whom have succeeded somewhat against the odds and who could be offered up as role models. Given Holder’s exemplary efforts elsewhere in the book it saddens me that he does not more effectively cater for this demographic.
For the sake of balance I will also share a representative list of some of the male superstars who are either not included at all the book, or who are only mentioned in passing:
Gary Barlow • Jamie Cullum • Ben Folds • Jools Holland • Elton John • Randy Newman • Yanni • Thom Yorke
Overall there is much to love about Why is My Piano Black and White?
Nathan Holder’s enthusiasm, expertise and clear exposition are all admirable, and I for one found myself absorbed.
Given the book’s considerable strengths, it is perhaps the more disappointing that the tone, terminology, presentation and content at times don’t seem to me to be uniformly focused and targeted at one specific age group.
I also wonder, fantastic though the material is, whether it really adds up to a balanced and inclusive survey and overview of mainstream piano music in all its variety and wonderment.
Holder is certainly to be commended for producing and self-publishing the book himself, but the editorial input of a more established educational publisher might have ironed out these few wrinkles, giving Why is My Piano Black and White? more universal relevance and easy mainstream appeal. I would love to see a major publisher work with the author on a future edition.
In the meantime, Holder tells me his next book will be on the subject of “Black Female Composers”, and personally I can’t wait: firstly, it’s a subject about which I am keen to learn more, and secondly I am certain that Nathan Holder will be an ideal guide!
Why is my piano black and white?
is available online from Amazon UK here.
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