Sonny Chua’s ‘Cool Keys’

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

“Sonny Chua was an Australian composer, educator and pianist, known for his characterful and energetic musical style, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Today, on what would have been his 53rd birthday, we are honoured to announced that we will be publishing his ‘Cool Keys’ books for solo piano later this month.”

With these words Faber Music last month announced the imminent arrival of Cool Keys, two books of pieces suitable for Elementary and Intermediate players respectively, while also drawing attention to the sad circumstances of their publication.

Happily, the books offer a superb testament to the talent and imagination of Chua: one which will undoubtedly be welcomed warmly by those who knew him, while introducing his best educational music to a wider global audience.

So let’s take a closer look at these very special publications, which are now available to purchase…

Celebrating Sonny Chua (1967-2020)

Born in Malaysia, Sonny Chua lived variously in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Malacca before immigrating to Australia. Studying at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Chua specialised in piano performance, but his heart was ultimately in composing piano music.

An inspirational teacher, Chua composed numerous pieces for his own students taking into account their interests, imagination, and with a solid pedagogical focus to address foundational piano technique. As Faber Music tell us,

“His music delights in a spirited playfulness, and he will undoubtedly be remembered by many for the sheer joy his compositions brought to their playing.”

Chua’s pieces went on to become favourites with students in his adopted homeland, where they are regularly heard at competitions for young musicians and have become standard repertoire in Australian examination syllabuses.

Cool Concept: ‘Cool Keys’

According to Faber again,

Sonny Chua’s Cool Keys 1 and 2 explore a wealth of genres and styles and make for impressive performance pieces. Accompanied throughout by notes from the composer, both books also include audio of all the pieces to download. Cool Keys 1 was recorded by Sonny himself, providing an invaluable insight into the energy that Sonny’s playing exhibits.
It is hoped that these imaginative piano solos will be a fitting tribute to Sonny and inspire pianists of all ages to perform for many years to come.”

The first book includes twelve “irresistible piano solos” suitable for Elementary players (UK Grades Initial to 2):

  1. The first waddle
  2. Waltz it all about? No.3
  3. Dripping fairy
  4. Racing against the clock
  5. Jive turkey
  6. Moonlight whispers
  7. Hot diggity
  8. Muchocho macho
  9. T-Rex hungry
  10. Umi’s lullaby
  11. Tango with my shadow
  12. Morning breeze

The second book is suitable for Intermediate players (UK Grades 3-5) and includes a further ten pieces:

  1. Going bananas!
  2. Firestorm
  3. Airy fairy
  4. Midnight snack
  5. Waltz it all about? No.8
  6. hot and sassy
  7. Angel
  8. Feeling kooky
  9. Ready to rumble
  10. Around the world in 2 minutes … or less

Cool (& Kooky) Music

Playing through the 12 pieces which make up the first Cool Keys book, it’s immediately obvious that Chua’s music, though often touching on playful pastiche, is a cut above that of so many of his peers.

Take for example Jive turkey, on the surface a very standard beginner boogie piece, but with enough unexpected twists to inject an added level of humour and excitement for player and listener alike.

And this element of surprise permeates the whole collection; from the quirky quacks of The first waddle: the baby duck awakes! to the delicious harmonies of Morning breeze, each piece here offers its own breath of fresh air.

An aspect of piano playing on which the first collection shines a bright light is the importance of maintaining a strong sense of pulse. This foundation proves still more important when playing the music from Cool Keys 2. Here we encounter more complex syncopations, beats split between the hands, and time signatures from 2/2 to 7/8.

The one thing missing is swing rhythm (or indeed faux swing, as sometimes found in “jazzy” pieces elsewhere). The grooves here lean more towards Latin jazz, along with contemporary rock and pop stylings.

Alongside the rhythmic drive that beats within these compositions, many are extrovert concert pieces. And while many of the pieces in the first book were at the Grade 2 end of that spectrum, here they veer heavily towards Grade 5. And I think that this aspirational element only adds to the appeal, even if it would have been nice to have had more bridge pieces linking the levels between the two books.

What unites both books though is the strong musical personality of Chua himself, and his ability to traverse with apparent ease such a wide range of styles and moods. As such, nothing is repeated or overdone, and we are left sincerely wishing for more.

Cool Publications

Faber Music’s publications of Chua’s music are simple but effective. The covers may not be the most exciting I’ve seen this year, but certainly have a vibrant simplicity and colourful appeal that suits the music within.

The notation is well presented and spaced, although as ever I would have preferred cream paper, and perhaps a minor adjustment to the stave size to give the music a slightly larger font. Fingering is included throughout both books, but suggestions are occasionally a little minimal for elementary players in the first book.

Chua’s musical and pedagogic tips, which preface each piece within the two scores, are outstanding. And it is of course lovely that Faber have prefaced each collection with an in memorium overview of the composer’s life and career.

Chua’s audio recordings of his pieces were incomplete at the time of his early passing, but those which accompany the first collection are indeed characterful (none more-so than the superbly swaggering Muchocho macho).

This in no way diminishes the compliments due to Christopher Hussey, whose excellent renditions of the final piece from the first and all the pieces from the second book complete the set. All are freely downloadable from the Faber Music website here.

Cool Conclusion

It’s not always easy to predict a big seller, but Chua’s Cool Keys books certainly deserve huge success, and could easily turn into one of the genuine blockbusters of the decade.

Packed with personality, consistently engaging from cover to cover, and bringing a real sense of fun to the piano curriculum, here are 22 pieces which live up to the epithet “irresistible”, and will surely delight younger learners in particular.

Given the strength, accessibility and appeal of the music I suspect both Cool Keys books will be top-of-the-pile go-to sources for exam syllabi and festival programmes for years to come. But why not discover these brilliant pieces right now, divorced from such stresses, and allow Chua’s magic to kindle renewed enthusiasm for practice?

Elementary to Intermediate students really are going to be going bananas for this material. Seriously, if you are a piano teacher you need these books!!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.