Products featured on Pianodao are selected for review by ANDREW EALES.
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The Christmas season is accompanied by a uniquely popular and significant body of music spanning multiple genres, and it’s no wonder that there are so many varied piano collections to choose from, whatever your level…
Many of the best Christmas music books of recent years have been reviewed on Pianodao, and you can dive in to explore the most recent publications for elementary and intermediate players here:
But of course there are many other great Christmas books which predate the reviews on this site, or which I have otherwise overlooked…
In this post I will collect together a few of these for review, starting with collections suitable for beginner to elementary players, before moving on to those suitable for the intermediate pianist.
And don’t forget that Pianodao Tea Room members receive a 20% discount from Musicroom for these and all sheet music publications.
Let’s start with this perennial chestnut, easily the most thumbed favourite in my own studio, and my top recommendation for a basic no-frills Christmas carol and songbook.
Although part of the superb Pianoworks series of books for older beginners, this collection has no links to the method itself other than branding. And as a free-standing collection of Christmas Carols and Songs, I have found it has been hugely and consistently popular with players of all ages, year after year.
There are two particular strengths that contribute to my enthusiasm and make this my top mention for a traditional Christmas collection.
Firstly, the range and choice of material here is second to none, with a selection of 18 of the choicest traditional carols in arrangements suitable for early elementary players followed by 6 more contemporary pieces (including an absolutely-spot-on easy arrangement of Walking in the Air).
Secondly, while some arrangements of carols found elsewhere are adapted from church choir versions, with awkward four-part harmonies, here we have truly idiomatic piano writing, but which is no less faithful to the spirit of each carol, maintaining familiar harmonic colours rather than diminishing them.
There’s close attention to detail, and the Bullards’ pedagogic expertise and playing experience is as evident as ever, not least from the perfect balance of helpful fingering included throughout.
What more could we ask for? If you are looking for a no-nonsense collection of great Christmas arrangements, Pianoworks Christmas is without doubt a runaway winner.
Did Someone Say Christmas?
Kudos to Belfast-based composer and teacher Darren Day, whose self-produced Countdown to Christmas (see review further on in this round up…) proved a favourite with many when it appeared last Christmas.
This year he’s back with more. Ideal for younger players, and with creative learning at its heart, Did Someone Say Christmas seems likely to be another studio highlight:
The arrangements and compositions here are super-easy. For the most part, the learner stays within an easy five-note range, although often with hands together (perhaps for the first time). Nearly all the tunes include lyrics, and several have teacher accompaniments which add to their musical interest and inspiration.
Rather than well-worn seasonal fare, Day includes several brand new songs of his own, as well as arrangements of classic melodies (Ode to Joy, Largo, In the Hall of the Mountain King) newly furnished with Christmas-themed lyrics.
Several of the pieces have added activities likely to engage children in their learning, ranging from rhythm-based puzzles to (at the more adventurous end of the spectrum) playing from a lead sheet; there’s certainly an emphasis on ‘fun’ in this collection.
With its lighter content and homespun presentation, Did Someone Say Christmas won’t replace the stunning Get Set! Piano Christmas Crackers (reviewed here, which obviously occupies the same stall in the Christmas Market), but for those wanting additional or fresh material this book can certainly be recommended.
A Magical Christmas
Phillip Keveren’s piano arrangements consistently impress me, and his name appears on the covers of several excellent Hal Leonard Christmas collections.
For elementary players, A Magical Christmas is particularly great, bringing together 15 “yuletide songs” in a stunningly presented book, and with large well-spaced notation within:
The pieces range from the classic Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bell Rock and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire through to more recent movie favourites such as Believe and Hot Chocolate (from The Polar Express) and Do you Want to Build a Snowman (from Disney’s Frozen).
Somewhere in my Memory (from Home Alone) may well bring tears to mums’ and dads’ eyes everywhere… what a special song!
The arrangements are simple indeed, in many cases including a single melody line only, distributed between two hands in five-note positions. Sometimes the hands play together, and very occasionally a hand will play two notes at a time, but nothing here goes beyond the early elementary level. Fingering is minimal, but helpfully sets up the correct playing positions.
Happily all the songs are presented with their lyrics, verses included, written between the LH and RH staves. These are a welcome addition (without being a visual distraction), whether to help teach the rhythm, reference the narrative and emotion of the songs, or to actually sing along.
The inclusion of backing tracks would have made this an indispensable classic, but even without them, here’s a book which surely belongs in the hands of every younger elementary player, and which will surely add sparkle and warmth to many a family Christmas this year!
Christmas Movie Magic
For players who are a little more advanced, and perhaps older, Keveren’s Christmas Movie Magic collection is another firm recommendation.
Introducing the gorgeously presented collection, Keveren writes,
“Movies can be magical. Christmas movies can be really magical! The songs that are introduced or featured in our favourite Christmas movies become part of the joy of the holiday season every year. All of the selections in this collection carry special memories for me, and I hope you enjoy playing them at the piano.”
Featured movies range from older classics to (predominantly) more recent films, with pieces from The Nightmare Before Christmas, Love Actually, The Grinch.., and reappearing, Home Alone, Frozen and The Polar Express.
Where there are duplicate pieces, it is immediately clear that these are more difficult arrangements that those in A Magical Christmas, with hands playing together, note ranges beyond a fifth, and simple chords. Assisting throughout, there are ample fingering suggestions. And in common with the previous title, the words to songs appear between the staves for each hand.
Interestingly, while these arrangements are a little more difficult than in the previous title, the “Big-Note Piano” notation appears larger than in A Magical Christmas. I have never quite related to this concept, but the super-sized notation certainly doesn’t detract from this hugely appealing Keveren collection.
Another winner, and there’s another Keveren classic coming shortly…
Countdown to Christmas
But first, here’s Darren Day’s aforementioned Countdown to Christmas, which offers an enticing collection of 25 Christmas songs arranged for Late Elementary to Early Intermediate players. And here is another great choice for those wanting easy (and sometimes impressively inventive) arrangements of their favourite carols.
The song-list and presentation are appropriate for older learners, and the book would make a good follow-on from some of those already listed here, offering a little more challenge. Minimal but helpful fingering is included throughout.
The emphasis is firmly on the traditional, presented alphabetically from Angels from the Realms of Glory to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, although Day has inserted four new, original solos of his own, all of which I enjoyed playing and anticipate would be popular with students.
Day has included some nicely pianistic writing, and though the songs themselves may be well-worn, the overall feel of the arrangements is fresh and contemporary.
An added bonus is that Day has created free backing tracks to go with all of the pieces, and these are available in both standard and slowed-down versions. They can be accessed using the QR codes in the book and are hosted on Day’s YouTube channel.
Those wanting digital versions of the music can purchase a studio license here, while the physical version is produced and distributed via Amazon. The book itself has an inviting cover, excellent notation engraving, and is far superior to other titles I have seen self-produced in this format.
Really Easy Bumper Christmas Book
Before moving firmly into “intermediate” territory, here’s a stunning selection of 45 Top Hits, each treated to an elementary piano arrangement, collectively delivering an enticing mix of traditional and contemporary seasonal fare.
With a contents page that lists ever-popular hits by Wizzard, Mariah Carey, John & Yoko, Elton John, Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney and many more alongside an impressive selection of your favourite traditional carols, this really is a collection that covers all the basics very admirably.
The arrangements are spot on for elementary players, with mostly single notes in each hand, occasionally amplified by additional harmony notes in the RH. Simple chord symbols appear above the score, and some song lyrics (but, frustratingly, not all of the verses) are included between the staves.
A particularly nice bonus here is that each tune is prefaced with a short comment on its background or chart history, as well as handy Hints and Tips to help the player.
But it doesn’t stop there: the purchase price also includes two significant digital additions: an ebook version of the main publication, and the SoundWise interactive self-learning software.
These can be run from within an internet browser or using an iPad app, and the software allows you to record yourself in time with a metronome and scrolling score, analysing the audio and providing feedback about any inaccuracies. I had fun putting this interactive practice aid through its paces with my best Les Dawson impersonation, and can report that it is very accurate in its feedback: how useful!
To summarise, this popular, sturdy 88-page best-seller from Wise Publications will undoubtedly make a lot of players very happy again this year!
Christmas Songs in Easy Keys
Christmas Songs in Easy Keys is part of a larger set of four songbooks that appeared in the tail-end of 2021. The USP of the series is that each collection contains accessible piano arrangements of contemporary favourites, none including more than one sharp or flat in the key signature.
That isn’t to say the pieces themselves are all that easy; with syncopated rhythms, frequent accidentals, hand position changes and chord playing, this collection is best suited to those at intermediate level, around UK Grade 3.
Helpfully the presentation again includes the lyrics, verses and all, written between the LH and RH staves.
Also included, simple chord symbols are presented above the solo piano arrangements, making the book well-suited for a family sing-song including guitars, electronic keyboards and so on. That said, the chords shown are often more complex than the ‘elementary’ level suggests, with chord extensions and inversions enriching the simple harmony delivered by the piano solo.
Fingering is included but minimal, and as a more recent publication I am slightly surprised by the lack of backing tracks and demo recordings. As a whole, however, the presentation in Hal Leonard house style is superb, and this series as a whole could prove popular.
The collection joyously traverses the seasonal scene, covering established hits such as Do You Hear What I Hear? and White Christmas, jazz favourites It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the more contemporary All I Want for Christmas is you.
With a generously large music font, clever arrangements and an appealing song list, this collection is certainly well worth a look…
I promised more from Phillip Keveren, and here it is!
Christmas Reflections is a beautifully repackaged reissue of an earlier Phillip Keveren collection of “15 calming carols arranged for easy piano solo”, originally published back in 1997.
Keveren’s treatments of traditional carols here are a little more tricky than those in the superb Piano Calm Christmas, which I have already reviewed in detail here, but still firmly “intermediate”, making this book a perfect sequel for those who have first enjoyed the other.
And although there is overlap (7 titles are the same), Keveren’s arrangements here are entirely different. Which is good news indeed because it really is Keveren’s genius as an arranger which makes all the books in his series winning choices.
As expected, Hal Leonard‘s presentation is as lovely as it is for all of Keveren’s books, with nicely engraved, well-spaced notation and ample fingering throughout.
Christmas Reflections makes an excellent bridge between the easier Keveren collections and his more advanced “classical piano” arrangements, perfect for more established intermediate players.
Christmas Jazz, Rags and Blues
If you are looking for something with more of a swing to get the party going, look no further!
Martha Mier’s Jazz, Rags & Blues series is a true milestone in educational piano music publishing, and I’ve been using the five core books with students for years. Here we have five companion books which can be used parallel to the main series during the festive season.
The intermediate player will be able to whizz through the first book, aimed at elementary players, before exploring the second, third and fourth, which provide a wealth of progressive material that the student can look at year by year. The fifth and final book is suitable for early advanced players.
Mier has a canny knack for both nailing a musical style and throwing down a catchy tune. Here, interestingly, she eschews the jazzy Christmas songs of the crooners in favour of traditional carol melodies, which she then turns on their heads to produce some fabulous re-workings that players and listeners alike will surely fall in love with.
It’s worth noting that several tunes recur from one book to another, with more complex arrangements to suit the developing player.
As with some other publications here, the books have a US-centric choice of music. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but some carols have different tunes to those British readers will be expecting, and some titles here are less known on this side of the pond. Regardless, there’s something brilliantly festive about these collections, and I find myself returning to them every year at around this time!
Christmas Jazzin’ About
Bringing a more British spin to a similar concept, and attached to another landmark publishing phenomenon, Pam Wedgwood’s Christmas Jazzin’ About is an equally sure-fire triumph.
Wedgwood opts for a diverse selection of songs past and present, with upbeat arrangements of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer side by side with more relaxed contemporary renditions of I Saw Three Ships and Silent Night.
In addition to the 8 solo pieces in the collection, three duets appear at the back of the book: Sleigh Ride is a great arrangement of the Leroy Anderson classic, while swinging arrangements of Santa Claus is Coming to Town and O Come All Ye Swingin’ Faithful offer a rumbunctious conclusion to this great collection!
An included CD offers complete performances and backing tracks for these pieces.
A second book offers a further eight duet pieces, suitable for players at the late intermediate level. Sadly there’s no CD with this one, but it’s another great collection that will surely appeal to enthusiastic duo partners everywhere.
If I have one caveat in recommending these titles, it’s that the notation of swing quavers is inconsistent and perhaps won’t appeal to those familiar with more recent jazz education materials. For my money however, that doesn’t change the fact that Pam’s arrangements here are exquisite, hugely enjoyable, and not to be missed!
These Christmas Jazzin’ About books are firm favourites that have pleased students and amateur players for many years already, and are likely to remain hugely popular for many more to come!
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