A Dozen A Day • All Year Round

Products featured on Pianodao are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Edna-Mae Burnam’s six books of technical exercises, A Dozen A Day, quickly established themselves as classics in the piano pedagogy literature, and in the decades since their first appearance back in the 1950’s, their short routines and iconic illustrations have found their way into the hearts (and fingers) of developing pianists around the world, selling some 25 million copies.

In her introduction to the books, Burnam gets straight to the point in explaining the value of A Dozen A Day:

“Many people do exercises every morning before they go to work. Likewise, we should all give our fingers exercises every day BEFORE we begin our practising.”

The joy and the genius with which the book’s famous and ever-popular stick characters convey this message cannot be overstated, and is a testament to the book’s enduring appeal and generation-busting brilliance.

I have been using these little books with my students since I first started teaching in the 1990’s, and although they have featured less prominently in my studio in recent years, they continue to make their appearance, and offer a hugely useful resource which can be used from the very first lessons, and right up to advanced level.

Encouraging a fresh look, publishers Willis Music brought out a bumper edition back in 2017, which I am going to be focusing on in this review. A Dozen A Day: All Year Round offers additional attractions for teachers, which I will outline, but I would still steer students towards the individual books, appropriate for each level.

The Legacy

While various songbooks and extras have appeared over the years, the core Dozen A Day material comprises six short exercise books:

  • Mini Book
  • Book One: Primary
  • Book Two: Elementary
  • Book Three: Transitional
  • Book Four: Lower-Higher
  • Book Five: Intermediate

While the first three books are broadly appropriate for players working towards UK Initial, Grades 1 and 2 respectively, the later three books have scope to be used more freely; individual exercises are useful and appropriate right up to Grade 8.

Each book offers six groups of twelve exercises, totalling 60 exercises per book and thus 360 across the full series. All the exercises are named after physical exercises or activities, suitably (and quirkily) illustrated.

There is much to enjoy in A Dozen A Day, including the exercises’ creative use of the whole instrument from the earliest stages, their adaptability, and the way that their good-natured, humorous characterisations stimulate the player’s imagination.

The last exercise in each dozen, across all six books, is always called Fit As A Fiddle And Ready To Go. The obvious idea here is that at the start of practice, the current Group of 12 exercises provide a suitably varied and helpful warmup routine. I would suggest this may depend on other factors, of course, and much can be gained from targeted use of individual exercises from within the cycle, as I will explain later.

It is also worth noting at this point that Burnam herself suggested learning a couple of exercises at a time, playing them slowly and softly at first, then introducing a range of dynamics and speeding up the tempi.

“Do not try to learn the entire first dozen exercises the first week you study this book! Just learn two or three exercises and do them each day before practising. When these are mastered, add another, then another, and keep adding until the twelve can be played perfectly. When the first dozen exercises, Group I, have been mastered and perfected, Group II may be introduced in the the same manner, and so on for the other Groups.”

Taken as a while, A Dozen a Day is a unique resource, and an extraordinary legacy that we are fortunate indeed to have at our disposal today.

What is New?

A Dozen A Day: All Year Around brings together the full material from all six of the original volumes in a single 248-page bumper book. This has stiff binding, but bends back to open flat on the music stand. I have found my copy to be durable over the last couple of years.

In addition to including the complete content of the six books in one, All Year Round includes some additional features, of which the Thematic Index is a particular bonus which teachers will find incredibly useful. Spread across 13 pages, this identifies appropriate exercises which can be used to teach and learn different technical skills as follows:

  • Step-wise finger patterns
  • Skips
  • Jumps
  • Repeated notes
  • Staccato/Accents
  • Legato
  • Scalic passages
  • Chromatic
  • Similar motion
  • Contrary motion
  • Stretching
  • Hands crossing over/movement around keyboard
  • Changing fingers on one note
  • Shifting hand position around the thumb
  • Triplets
  • Chords: 2-note, 3-note. 4-note
  • Broken Chords
  • Note Clusters
  • Two-part playing in one hand
  • Ornamentation.

This index is a powerful tool, making it easy to grab All Year Round at any point in a lesson, quickly locate and introduce an appropriate, progressive set of bespoke exercises that suitably address technical issues and development.

As the publishers explain,

“Together the exercises form a rich resource for piano teachers and students to draw upon, and with the addition of the book’s special thematic index, it’s easy to focus on specific areas of technique.”

The Thematic Index must have taken a while to produce, and gratitude is due to Christopher Hussey, who produced it.

Hussey has also written a new performance piece to conclude each of the six books, bringing the total exercise count up to 366. All Year Round, indeed!

Using the Material

As a teacher using this material over several decades, I have found that while A Dozen A Day can be tremendously helpful as a set of technical exercises, the resource can also be used holistically to support many other learning objectives, as appropriate to each student’s needs and musical interests.

In the context of an integrated approach to piano education, here are just some of the strategies which I have found productive and helpful for students:

Reading exercises

While A Dozen A Day exercises can be taught by rote in lessons as a quick fix when the primary objective is to understand and develop the technique they are introducing, they offer great sight reading material too.

Linking the stick character illustration to the written notation before trying to play it can sometimes be a great way to help learners recognise patterns in the music, as well as the character with which they might be played.

Because we are using the exercises holistically, rather than designating them as a “sight reading test”, we can get past any trauma that the student might associate with grade exams.

‘Piece a Week’ quick studies

Dozen A Day exercises can equally make great quick studies for the learner to work on during the week, without hearing or watching any teacher demonstration first. Paul Harris’s superb Piece A Week series (reviewed here) is of course an ideal resource for this, but before it appeared, A Dozen A Day was my go-to, and proved very effective.

A bonus: it can be helpful to talk to the student about technical problems the exercise helps with, asking them to identify passages in their new, active and recent repertoire which will benefit.

Transposing exercises

Dozen A Day exercises are almost all presented in the key of C major until the later books in the series. As such, they offer ideal material for practising transposition, discovering different shapes in each key, and adapting physical strategies to meet the needs of working with the black keys on the piano.

Composition triggers

Dozen A Day exercises can also be used as the starting point for improvising and composing in a lesson.

How might the musical ideas from two or three simple exercises be combined into a larger piece? What narrative can the piece then be given, and how will it develop? Can a basic Dozen A Day exercise be used as the core material for a piece which expresses a particular emotion, idea, story, mood or colour?

Music Theory

Dozen A Day exercises naturally lend themselves to written theory too, building on all the points made above.

Understanding intervals, reworking an exercise using a different time signature (e.g. simple vs. compound), writing in different octaves, key signatures and clefs can all be explored as they relevantly relate to the learner’s ongoing music tuition.

Aural development

Dozen A Day exercises can even be used for aural development, for example by altering the exercise and playing ‘spot the difference’, comparing sound with symbol.

…but be wise!

However you choose to introduce and use exercises from A Dozen A Day, remember that like any cycle of technical exercises, using them inappropriately won’t just potentially mitigate against any benefits, but could cause fresh problems for players. The advice of an expert teacher is always crucial when developing good technique at the piano.

I hope that the suggestions in this review will help teachers and learners alike to find fresh engagement with these little marvels.

Closing Thoughts

It is tempting to assume that a piano study book from the 1950’s won’t have aged well, that the material will be terribly dated. But if this is the trend, A Dozen A Day: All Year Round well and truly bucks it.

With its brilliant Thematic Index, and kept ever within reach, this bumper book succeeds wonderfully as a teacher’s companion, making Burnam’s exercises ever-accessible without encroaching too seriously on lesson time.

The combination of simple joy and pedagogic value embedded in this classic material has not only stood the test of time, but remains as accessible, worthwhile and engaging as ever, seemingly transcending the fads of fashion.

Used efficiently, effectively and within a holistic musical learning programme, A Dozen A Day: All Year Round is undoubtedly as indispensable a resource today as Edna-Mae Burnam’s original books were back in the 1950’s.

For players wanting the individual books, and to explore the various popular songbooks that are also now available for use alongside Edna-Mae Burnam’s books:

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Published by

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.