June Armstrong: Take Ten

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June Armstrong is not only one of the UK’s most creative composers, but one of the most prolific. Having only reviewed her Dreams and Dragons last December, she’s already now back with her next publication, Take Ten.

Capitalising on the immense popularity of her piece Dusty Blue, recently a Grade 2 favourite here, Armstrong’s new book delivers 14 brand new ‘Jazz Miniatures for piano solo, suitable for elementary players.

With so many competing publications in this territory, and the prevalence of jazzy pastiche, it’s inevitable that Take Ten is a less musically distinctive collection than some Armstrong publications. But I have no doubt that it will be a best-seller, and deservedly so, because it’s excellent and has some cool twists…

“A fresh, exciting collection…”

Armstrong’s own Pianissimo Publishing describes Take Ten as,

“A fresh, exciting collection of jazz and blues inspired piano pieces”.

And you can judge for yourself by playing the complete YouTube playlist while you read on:

The piece titles are:

  • Top Hat and Tails
  • Jazz Band Blues
  • Camel Train
  • Panther Blues
  • Straight Up
  • Reflections
  • I Don’t Know
  • Summer Night
  • Night Journey
  • Sundown
  • Carefree
  • Looking Sharp!
  • Dreamland
  • Take Ten

Each of the 14 pieces takes up just one page of notation, in keeping with their level. The book (which follows the standard Pianissimo Publishing house look, but with a more colourful back cover) also includes a two-page introduction with teaching/playing tips for each piece.

There’s also a page at the back showing blues scales that might be used for improvisation, more about which in a moment.

On top of that, all audio tracks can be freely downloaded from the publisher’s website, and on YouTube there is a Guide to Take Ten video introducing teachers and players to the optional use of improvisation within the pieces.

“… jazz and blues inspired…”

When writing blues and jazz pieces at this level there are only so many tropes one can use, but Armstrong is ever the creative writer, pushing the limits both musically and pedagogically.

Six of the pieces use swing quavers / 8ths while syncopations abound in the others too. And most include black keys / blue notes.

A surprising six pieces have a minim beat (written in 2/2 time), while the title track Take Ten (in obvious homage to Dave Brubeck) is written in 10/4 time; teachers should perhaps try this for themselves before introducing it in a lesson!

Several of the pieces use the sixth chord extensively, introducing players to a richer harmony than just chords I – IV and V (although those inevitably dominate). Opener Top Hat and Tails is a good example of this, also including a chromatically walking bass that will make for interesting improvisation (should you chose to try).

Looking Sharp! is also worthy of special mention, being written in C sharp minor, meaning that the five finger positions are predominantly on the black keys here, with the pupil challenged to understand the key signature aright.

In terms of level, Armstrong describes the collection as suitable for “late elementary to early intermediate” players, which in terms of the UK grades would equate to grades 2-3. Personally, I think they are suitable for Grade 1 level, especially if taught sound before symbol with the rhythms correctly and confidently demonstrated by the teacher.

As Armstrong explains:

“All the pieces can be played exclusively in five finger positions, but alternate fingerings are of course acceptable. The technical level has been deliberately kept simple to allow for developing a feel for the rhythm or groove, which is the most important element of the music.”

Getting Jazzy

In her introduction, Armstrong tells us,

“Most of the pieces include an optional repeat section which you can use to experiment with improvisation. In others, you can use a left hand section to improvise over, such as in Reflections bars 9-12”.

Unlike some jazz resources (for example, the ABRSM jazz syllabus publications) there is no specific indication of where (or how) to improvise in the music itself. Rather, it is left to the teacher and student to explore the most obvious possibilities that the music suggests, and to use Armstrong’s videos for ideas.

This is also where that page of Blues Scales comes in. At the rear of the book, Armstrong includes a page with suggested blues scale patterns useful for improvisation in five of the pieces (including the aforementioned Looking Sharp!).

This is useful, although it might have been even more helpful to have included these alongside the pieces themselves. They also use finger patterns which are more complex than the pieces themselves; I think that using flattened-third pentatonics would be more level-appropriate.

With such a variety of good material, and given the technical ease and simple harmony, the music in Take Ten really lends itself well to introducing improvisation with students, and for me this is probably the book’s biggest selling point.

The Big Finish

In conclusion then, this is a great collection. I mentioned at the start that it enters a crowded field, and I’m happy to confirm that it does so with confidence, creativity and aplomb.

June Armstrong must yet again be congratulated for a worthwhile and inspiring addition to the elementary repertoire!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

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