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ABRSM’s excellent Pop Performer! books reviewed here were among the big winners of 2022, and hot on their heels we can welcome a new initiative from Faber Music. However, Faber’s new Graded Playalong Series takes a rather different approach.
Launching at the tail end of 2022 with collections for Grade 3 piano, flute, alto sax, clarinet and drums, the Graded Playalong Series offers fresh arrangements that incorporate the use of backing tracks as a core musical feature. Let’s take a look at the Grade 3 Piano version…
Some Initial Questions
As I approached this review, I had a number of questions on my mind, so spoke to Faber Music’s Rachel Topham, who helpfully explained the ambitions of the Graded Playalong Series. Before offering my independent review, here’s that conversation:
INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL TOPHAM, FABER MUSIC
Can you start by telling me the basic idea for this new series?
We know teachers are searching around for supplementary material for graded exam pieces that are specially arranged to meet the requirements of each grade. And we know that it’s not always that easy to find repertoire that not only ticks that box but also excites the students.
The Graded Playalong Series came about from this need, and we decided to focus on five popular instruments – Piano, Drums, Clarinet, Flute and Saxophone. We wanted it to be more than another exam repertoire collection though. When you add (arranger) Ned Bennett into the mix (and George Double on the drum book) and live audio backing tracks from professional musicians, it gets really exciting.
Why did you opt to start with Grade 3, rather than 1 or 2?
It’s always interesting when you begin a new series of publications, thinking about where it’s going to go. The default is to start at 1 and go up. We felt however, that for the concept of Graded Playalong, Grade 3 was the point at which the repertoire and educational benefits really came together. At this level, students also start to stretch their wings a bit and gain some independence. For them to easily find approachable supplementary repertoire that reflects their own interests (from pop to jazz and musicals) that they can approach without it having to be simplified too much, was an important aspect for us.
What were the special challenges of this project?
I know that making the arrangements true to the original pieces and for the level was so integral to this series – so that they are all meticulously arranged for the Grade 3 player without feeling like simplified versions. Working with Ned Bennett and George Double has proved invaluable in bringing a wealth of expertise, authenticity and validity from an educational standpoint.
Also, pulling together professional audio recordings always plays around with the schedule a bit and that’s often a challenge. But for Graded Playalong, it was so important to have this high-quality, live audio, that it was worth the juggling!
Can we expect to see more Graded Playalong books in the future?
We’ve already seen some requests from teachers and students asking about other levels and instruments, so it’s on the list. There’s certainly potential there to expand. Watch this space..!
Thank you Rachel!
With all that in mind, here’s my review:
10 Hit Tunes…
Faber Music’s 32-page music book is typically well presented, and is blessed with an eye-catching cover.
The audio tracks are available as downloads from the Faber Music website, accessed either using the QR code in the book or simply by entering the web address in any browser.
The notation is spaciously presented and nicely engraved throughout.
Sufficient fingering is present and correct, although in a few places I would have welcomed a little more of it for players at Grade 3 level. The book doesn’t include song lyrics, a slight pity because some piano players at this level might have enjoyed singing along as well as playing with the backings.
The songs which make up the collection are commendably varied and sufficiently known to have wide appeal:
- You’ll Be Back (from Hamilton)
- Fly Me To The Moon
- Hear My Voice (from The Trial of the Chicago 7)
- Jingle Bell Rock
- Starman (David Bowie)
- City of Stars (from La La Land)
- Careless Whisper (George Michael)
- Level of Concern (21 Pilots)
- I Got Rhythm (Gershwin)
- Valerie (The Zutons)
Ned Bennett’s arrangements of these songs are tasteful throughout, and are as promised convincingly true to the originals. They are also comfortably appropriate to the Grade 3 level.
In most cases, solo arrangements exist elsewhere; these arrangements are distinctive in that they knowingly accommodate the backing tracks, so include some filler parts on the piano while leaving other details of groove and harmony to the live backing musicians.
Nevertheless, the pianist always takes the lead here, and I am sure that players will very much enjoy playing these settings, including or without the backing.
…with Live Backing Tracks
Singers and instrumentalists have enjoyed using backing tracks for decades now, but when it comes to piano players, most I have talked to have never (or rarely) tried doing so. There are probably many reasons for this.
For starters, the piano perhaps uniquely has a self-contained solo repertoire that would take several lifetimes to properly explore. Anyone with a piano in their home can simply sit down and play to their heart’s content, without necessarily feeling the absence of an accompanist, band or chorus.
Then there’s the issue of equipment. Happily, I am blessed with a well-equipped studio where I can play backing tracks at high volume through excellent speakers, but an acoustic piano isn’t the quietest of instruments, and it takes a robust system to sufficiently amplify backing tracks and establish an effective musical balance.
Although I have reviewed several products that include backing tracks I have rarely returned to them after the review period; I suspect their use remains largely the preserve of those specialising in contemporary popular music and following a bespoke popular piano/keyboard syllabus.
The “live backing tracks” included with Faber’s Graded Playalong Series might succeed in changing this situation, popularising the use of recorded backings by those who typically only play solo. Certainly the quality here is high, and the piano book itself is likely to have a wider uptake than most.
The recordings feature the four-piece band of Ned Bennett (piano), George Double (drums), Tom Fleming (guitar) and Adam Double (bass). They deliver performances which are stylish (if at times spartan) and which don’t crowd out the main player. Each track appears twice: firstly as a demo including the piano part, secondly as a backing in which Bennett is removed.
These backings will undoubtedly provide sufficient support for single-line instrumentalists, but if I have one concern it’s that the removal of Bennett’s tracks leaves the piano player sometimes unsupported.
To give an example of how this could prove problematic: after the click track announces City of Stars the pianist is left alone for the first four bars, accompanied only by an almost inaudible hi-hat cymbal. However strong their internal sense of pulse, I suspect many Grade 3 students will struggle to land on bar 5 exactly in time with the backing when it properly starts.
For the most part, however, I found that playing with the backing tracks was a blast, and thoroughly enjoyed the collection as a whole. Minor frustrations and challenges aside, I suspect many will likewise have a lot of fun with this superb resource.
The Graded Playalong Series is certainly a welcome arrival on the scene, and is among the most appealing and potentially successful initiatives of its kind. Faber Music are no doubt wise to wait and see the level of uptake as they consider expanding the series, but I hope it will do deservedly well.
Graded Playalong books for Grade 1 and 2 pianists will perhaps not be an easy task if Faber are to maintain their commitment to stylistic authenticity, but as ABRSM’s Pop Performer has shown, the challenges are not insurmountable. And the inclusion of backing tracks certainly adds flexibility and creates exciting possibilities for the arrangers.
To conclude then, this book is an excellent first entry in what I hope will prove a successful and growing Graded Playalong Series.
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