Jason Sifford’s KEYBOP

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

New from the Willis Music Company, Jason Sifford’s two books of Keybop each offer “11 jazzy solos for the young pianist”.

Not another set of jazzy books for young pianists, I hear you say. But stay with me, because these ones are really worth a look…

Keybop Book 1

The first book in the series immediately impresses with its colourful, glossy eye-popping cover design, the publication as a whole screaming quality and oozing a professional design that sets it apart from the growing number of self-published music books on the market.

Kudos to the Willis Music Company for using extra thick paper too, delivering a book which is likely to withstand the wear and tear of continued use (and abuse!) by young players.

Within, there is a detailed introduction by Sifford, who tells the children learning this music (or perhaps rather their teachers and parents):

“As you learn these pieces, keep in mind that the printed music is only a starting point. your ear and your personality play important roles in interpreting the music as well, so if you feel like changing a dynamic marking, an articulation, or even some rhythms and notes here and there, please feel free to do so! The important thing is the groove, so keep that beat steady and fill the room with great music!”

As far as I’m concerned this is great advice (in terms of Sifford’s pieces at least) and though some teachers may disagree, it is certainly worth keeping the composer’s advice in mind!

Beyond the brilliant presentation, the big strength of this publication is the music, which is really excellent. It is no small feat to compose catchy, memorable pieces at this level; Sifford not only does so with aplomb, but has produced a collection that is commendable and surprising in its musical variety.

Of the 11 pieces in total, 10 include an “optional accompaniment”. Here is an ingenious touch: the pieces work well with just student parts, but are further brought to life by the addition of the duet parts, which reveal Sifford’s superb and stylish command of harmony, introducing musical language that players at this level may well not encounter elsewhere.

In terms of level, the cover informs us that Keybop 1 is suitable for “mid to late elementary” players. However, none of the pieces has a key signature (although many include accidentals), and while the player’s hands move around the piano, none necessitate extending the hand position by stretching or by passing the thumb under. One piece requires pedalling, but the teacher could do this when playing together.

Overall then, I would say that the music here compares with that set for the UK Initial Grade to approaching Grade 1. And indeed, it is this easy and early accessibility that makes this such a useful and welcome addition to the teaching repertoire.

It is quite rare to find music at this level which is as enjoyable, engaging and so catchy. Hours after playing through the book I was still hearing random snippets of the pieces as ear-worms!

Keybop Book 2

The second book is for ”early intermediate” players, and would suit those around UK Grades 2-3. This being the case, I was surprised to see that (bar one piece in G major) key signatures are still not used, pieces in D minor and B minor appearing without.

Again, Sifford delivers an enjoyable mix of 11 fresh pieces in contemporary styles. None of the pieces in Keybop 2 includes the optional teacher duets of the first volume, but happily the student solo parts themselves begin to incorporate a richer harmonic interest.

In the first volume, Sifford explains his use of recurring patterns and suggests using rote teaching where appropriate. I see his pedagogic point, but from a musical perspective a few of the pieces in the second book begin to sound unnecessarily repetitive; I feel that players who have learnt to read well by this level might be more inspired by less predictable music.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of enjoyable pieces in Keybop 2, and some of them are indeed wonderfully imaginative. As a composer, Sifford clearly has a gift for turning simple ideas into something quite magical.

Further helping, where previously Sifford contributed a general introduction, this time he delivers background notes to each of the 11 pieces, adding to their imaginative reach.

For example, the lovely Bloom, which opens the collection, is still lovelier in conjunction with the composer’s description of a day in the life of a flower. Similarly, in Morning Glory the image of a kaleidoscope certainly adds colour.

Other highlights of Keybop 2 include the boogie-woogie pastiche Highway 56 and mischievous swing of Suspicious. These are great additions to the early intermediate repertoire.

Closing Thoughts

Sifford’s pieces are really catchy, imaginative, and tremendous fun to play. I have no doubt that Keybop will cross borders to be enjoyed by young players everywhere.

I think both these volumes could have further benefitted from having online backing tracks, bringing this music even more vividly to life, and perhaps also opening up more opportunity to improvise around the material.

That and other minor reservations aside, Keybop is a great addition to the piano teaching literature, and one which I can strongly recommend to teachers. These terrific books are a blast. Do check them out!

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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.