Regular readers will know that I am quite a fan of Paul Harris’s Piece a Week series from Faber Music, having found that using these books within my own teaching practice has helped many of my students significantly improve in their music literacy and ability to learn independently using notation.
Harris has just added a new book to the series, A Piece A Week: Initial Grade, which merits a separate review to the rest of the series for a variety of reasons which I will come to presently.
My first reaction to hearing about this book was admittedly mixed, on the one hand delighted that this wonderful resource has been extended to accommodate the needs of early elementary players, but the other hand stifling a weary sigh that in a year which has seen exam boards straining to dominate the music education agenda, yet more grade material has appeared for review.
But, extraordinary fellow that he is, Harris has an unnerving and seemingly inexhaustible knack for pleasantly surprising me, indeed, hugely exceeding my expectations.
And I’m happy to report that he’s done it again…
Trinity College London Exams have offered an Initial Grade as a pre-Grade 1 assessment for several years now, and from 2021 onwards ABRSM have decided to follow suit.
In both cases, the repertoire selections are only a little easier than the actual Grade 1 pieces, although the supporting tests are generally quite a bit easier. When it comes to the sight reading tests, both boards stick to a simple five-note range without any black keys, one hand playing at a time, and with simple terraced expression marks.
If examining students so early in their musical development is your bag, there’s little to choose between the logically developed sight reading tests offered by the two boards mentioned. I should also mention that both LCM and MTB exam boards offer more than one pre-Grade 1 assessment, with a variety of reading elements.
Regardless of exams, it is also worth teachers considering how well this early-entry into the world of Paul Harris’s Improve Your Sight Reading! series performs alongside the various method book series that students at this level will often be attached too, and identifying any unique added benefits this book offers.
A Quick Recap
Revisiting the series concept, the idea of the pieces in A Piece A Week is that are more difficult than sight reading test material at the stated level, but somewhat easier than repertoire pieces.
It should be possible for the student to learn one of the pieces between each lesson, without hearing it, independently, without assistance. This exposure to working from a score alone aids the development of good literacy, while also shining a spotlight on aspects of notation which the student might not have encountered or understood aright.
For a more detailed explanation of how and why this works, check out my review of the A Piece A Week series here.
In the case of this new book, my expectation was for the music to fit within a fairly narrow window, given the ease of repertoire pieces at Initial Level and the framework for sight reading. So let’s find out…
A Piece a Week: Initial Grade includes 30 original pieces ordered progressively, and ranging in length from 12 to 24 bars long, always comfortably fitting on a page and in some cases sharing a page.
None of the pieces require either hand to stretch beyond five notes, and the majority are in the tonic – dominant hand positions of C major and D minor. For the latter, and a couple of tunes in G major, key signatures are used but the black keys aren’t actually required. In a few other pieces, however, black keys are used with accidentals.
Note values used range from whole note to eight note, so: semibreve, minim, crotchet and quaver. There are no dotted rhythms, but ties occasionally appear as the book progresses.
While most of the pieces stay within an octave of Middle C with each hand, a few towards the end venture to the further reaches of the piano, written with ledger lines rather than resorting to the 8va indication. In those cases, the pieces are preceded by a written identification and short explanation of where to find the new notes.
There’s a delightful emphasis on “fun” throughout; the imaginative titles and content are (as throughout the series) a lovely strength of the book.
March of the Saucepans requires the player to “play” the saucepan with a wooden spoon with the LH, alternating simple RH motifs in “call and response” fashion. A Visit to the Finger Gym delivers a short sequence of easy finger exercises to read and play, complete with instructions that evoke a gym workout.
For Stodgy Rice Pudding the player is encouraged to write their own lyrics to sing, while The Sorcerer’s Cavern and It’s all a bit of a blur both introduce Harris’s favourite piano trick of holding keys down silently to engage harmonics within the instrument.
There’s a superb mix of titles, often daft enough to engage a younger child’s humour as much as their imagination, and as in the subsequent books of the series, simple black-and-white illustrations further bring the content to life.
The pieces towards the end of the collection could probably pass as Initial Grade repertoire, and hopefully by this point the book has truly done its job, enabling the early elementary player to enjoy learning music directly from notation.
Harris has enjoyed a long partnership with Faber Music, who continue to do a superb job of presenting his books in an ever more vivid, contemporary style.
The presentation of this 32-page book matches the series style. The book begins with the now familiar two-page teacher/parent introduction outlining the goals and method of the series.
The contents page follows, and includes a word of thanks a list of Harris’s colleagues and close friends (which include me) who had a quick look at the pieces at an earlier stage in their development.
The notation is as clearly presented as ever, and naturally includes necessary fingering as well as Harris’s typically detailed performing instructions: dynamics, articulations and effects are as present and intelligent as ever!
Unlike the Grade 1 and 2 books in the series, A Piece a Week: Initial Grade does not include additional activities and puzzles pages. Given the creative and imaginative musical content, and the embryonic development of the player’s theory knowledge at this point, this seems to me a sensible decision.
In the years that I’ve been writing reviews here, A Piece a Week has without doubt impacted my approach to teaching as much, if not more, than any other series I’ve looked at.
I’m looking forward to using this new addition, and anticipate my students benefiting from and enjoying it as much as all the others.
I have written before about the importance of teaching notation “sound before symbol”, and teachers may wonder about the wisdom of introducing a sight-reading approach too early.
Certainly I anticipate using more initial demonstration here than I typically do with later books in the series, but I have no doubt students will respond enthusiastically to this material, and indeed at this early level most of my students learn 2-3 pieces every week anyway.
What makes this book so successful, in my view, is the joy of the imaginative content, which is beyond superb. Kudos to Paul Harris for his seemingly endless ability to produce material of such consistently high musical and pedagogic content!
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