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ABRSM’s colourful Piano Star series of books for elementary players has been one of their most brilliant and popular successes of recent years, and I was happy to be a contributor, my original compositions featuring in all four core music books.
As with the Mosaic Series, even though I cannot independently review these publications they clearly belong in the Pianodao Music Library. This article will therefore offer a basic series overview, personal insight into the music I contributed, and I hope, enough information for readers to decide whether to take a closer look for themselves…
Background and Concept
Introducing Piano Star, ABRSM announce:
“Piano Star is an exciting series for young pianists, offering a rich selection of new repertoire to help players build confidence and musical skills. The engaging pieces will capture the imagination of young learners, providing invaluable teaching material that children will love to play.”
They go on to explain that:
- Piano Star 1 is suitable for learners who have worked through a first tutor book
- Piano Star 2 is at ABRSM Prep Test level and provides alternative repertoire for that assessment
- Piano Star 3 moves from Prep Test level towards Grade 1
These three books, published in 2016, were compiled and edited by David Blackwell and Aisling Greally. A fourth book added in 2018, Piano Star Grade 1, completes the core set of progressive and varied repertoire books. For this, Karen Marshall replaced Greally in editorial duties.
Between them, the four books deliver 99 brand new solo and duet pieces, ranging from near beginner to approaching Grade 2 level, written in a variety of musical styles. Techniques are introduced progressively, and several pieces include suggestions for “fun extension activities”.
The list of names contributing to the four collections is something of a “who’s who” of British educational composers, including:
- June Armstrong
- Kathy Blackwell
- Alan Bullard
- Mike Cornick
- Peter Gritton
- Heather Hammond
- Paul Harris
- Nikki Iles
- Edmund Joliffe
- Nancy Litten
- Helen Madden
- John Madden
- Christopher Norton
- Jane Sebba
- Nicholas Scott-Burt
- Alasdair Spratt
- Mark Tanner
- Sarah Watts
Series editor David Blackwell also wrote an additional collection called Piano Star Five-Finger Tunes, an enjoyable and ingenious resource that can be used to transition from a method book primer straight into the Piano Star series. This book consolidates important hand positions beyond the Middle C position, fills some pedagogic gaps, and is well worth a look.
All these books benefit from the eye-catching and often humorous full-colour illustrations of Tim Budgen; using the books, I have found that his artistic gifts add considerably to the engagement of learners.
My involvement as a composer in this project developed in the context of my long and fruitful friendship with the ABRSM exam board, which began when I helped to create their keyboard Music Medals scheme and further developed when I was appointed to their panel of CT-ABRSM mentors.
Over the years I have contributed to a growing number of ABRSM publications as a composer, author and educational consultant:
All Together! Teaching music in groups (2004):
a teacher guide written by Richard Crozier and Nigel Scaiffe, to which I contributed as an instrumental specialist.
Keyboards Together (2008):
a series of five electronic keyboard ensemble books, for which I composed/arranged six pieces.
Raising an Amazing Musician (2009):
a parent guide written by Anthony Marks and Paul Harris, to which I contributed as an instrumental specialist.
Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces 2019 & 2020 (2018):
a guidebook to the syllabus, jointly written with Frances Wilson, Fiona Lau and Murray McLachlan.
When approached about contributing to Piano Star, the opportunity to revisit the special world of educational music immediately appealed. In the coming months, I composed two duets and two solos for inclusion:
SECRET MISSION (Piano Star 1)
Secret Mission is a quirky duet for pupil (upper) and teacher (lower) part, four hands on one piano.
The pupil mostly plays with one hand at a time, and the piece has a particular learning focus on playing staccato. It is important for young beginners to learn that poking the piano or bouncing off the keybed produce a harsh sound; too often, staccato is presented with unhelpful imagery.
In this case though, the spy on a mission will soon be caught if the sound is unmusical! Better to imagine playing “on tip-toes”.
FIRE DANCE (Piano Star 2)
Here is another duet, following the same format and layout as Secret Mission. But now, the pupil is playing with both hands together, a simple LH pattern recurring through most of the piece. Both hands remain in a five-note position until nearly the end; the LH moves for the final two bars.
I have had a lot of fun teaching this piece, and students especially enjoy making the most of the accents and dynamic contrasts.
HEAD IN THE CLOUDS (Piano Star 3)
Head in the Clouds has proved popular as a solo piece, and I was delighted when ABRSM selected it for their Grade One piano syllabus in 2019-20. The piece is rather melancholy, and the initial performance indication states, “deep in thought”.
The main melody moves from the RH to the LH at the halfway point, providing a good opportunity to work on effective voicing between hands. The legato chords which follow present their own challenge, and I always encourage players to slow down considerably for the last three bars, the protagonist becoming completely absorbed in their dreamworld.
HOT AIR BALLOON (Piano Star Grade 1)
My final contribution to the Piano Star series, Hot Air Balloon has a happier mood and a gentle syncopation that is easy for young players to grasp. I was particularly happy with the harmonic movement in the middle section, which gives the piece a sense of expansion… like a hot air balloon.
This is followed by the obvious musical imagery of a two octave rising scale, before the melody reappears an octave higher, eventually drifting off altogether.
As with all four pieces, I really hope that Hot Air Balloon captures childrens’ hearts and fuels their enthusiasm for learning the piano. It is so important, in my opinion, to provide music which is compellingly imaginative and engaging. As a composer, I see little value in adding to the noise: each piece needs to perfectly hit its spot.
Using the Piano Star books with the children I teach, I have found them more engaging than most method book material, but would caution against simply playing every piece in turn. I think it is important to play several pieces to the learner and invite them to choose their own favourites to learn.
There is plenty of material here to cherry-pick according to taste, with pieces by so many leading voices in music education, and more than enough to provide a sensible pace of progression for learners. Piano Star can be used on its own or alongside any reliable method, making it an immensely attractive addition to any teacher’s library.
I have heard from several teachers that my own contributions are regular favourites with their pupils, which is genuinely thrilling, and it is a privilege to have contributed to this series’ considerable success.
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