Originally published in 2002, A Common Approach is perhaps the ultimate instrumental music teaching manual, offering a complete curriculum and extensive lesson activities for most instruments, including separate schemes of work for piano and electronic keyboard.
Now it has just been fully revamped and made available as an updated, free online resource to support instrumental teachers everywhere. Whether working privately or in a school, all piano and keyboard teachers would do well to have a look at this extensive and superb material.
According to its publishers Music Mark,
“A Common Approach is an online resource to support music educators in their teaching practice and help develop a holistic approach to music education. Relevant to all vocal and instrumental teaching, including individual, small-group, large-group and whole-class lessons, music educators at all stages of their career can use the support and shared learning found in A Common Approach.”
Music Mark Chief Executive Bridget Whyte tells us,
“Twenty years after the original version of A Common Approach was published, Music Mark has worked with a skilled team of music tutors from across the UK to update and enhance this valuable teaching tool. Containing both universal guidance and instrument-specific content, this online resource not only provides a great starting point for trainee and early-career tutors, but also gives those who are more experienced the opportunity to reflect on their practice.”
This has particular interest to me because back in 2002, I was a member of the national steering group who put together the original version of A Common Approach which provides the ongoing foundation of this update.
It’s therefore time both to take a short stroll down memory lane, and to consider how the updated version of this milestone resource can help piano teachers today…
Of the various “innovations” ABRSM have made of late, the replacement of their popular written theory grades with online multiple-choice exams has perhaps been the most controversial, and seems already to be leading to an emphasis on logic-driven trick questions in place of the more creative elements which were a feature of the previous syllabus.
Happily, fact-based learning can still be fun-filled. Proving the point, Melodic Decoder founders Shona Newey and Alison Wood have recently self-published four slim books billed as, “interactive detective stories for children learning ABRSM music theory”.
These colourful and genuinely enjoyable story-puzzle books could be just the ticket for enthusing younger musicians with music theory, so let’s don a deerstalker and investigate…
I am thrilled to announce my first publication with Hal Leonard, described by the publishers as:
“The essential, pocket-sized companion for every musician. Accessible and authoritative, How to Practise Music is an ideal guide for anyone learning to play music. Suitable for instrumentalists and vocalists of any genre, this comprehensive handbook will give you a better idea of how to practise music, good reasons for doing so, and the confidence to succeed. “
The book is now available in both UK and US versions (Practice/Practise!):
A preponderance of music theory publications currently exist which are specifically tailored for those preparing to battle with the somewhat arcane requirements of compulsory exams. And yet, for those who simply want to understand notation and written music in a way that’s useful and relevant to today’s piano players, the market has long been wide open.
Finally we can welcome a simple textbook which is clear, concise, and of practical benefit. While not entirely eschewing the testing regime, David Hall’s excellent self-published There’s More to Playing the Piano offers a thorough explanation of music theory which is for all, and which has two very special selling points.
In the author’s own words:
Each chapter ends with an activity to try at the piano. These activities will bring the theory topic to life and show you how your new theory knowledge can be applied to develop your skills of composition, improvisation, analysis and performance.
Scan the QR Codes to gain access to online videos where David explains each topic again and demonstrates the piano activities.
Could this be the ideal music theory primer for pianists of all ages?
In a word, “yes”. Whether you are searching for a better understanding of the music you play, a returning pianist refreshing your knowledge, or a student wanting a crash course or revising for an exam, I think that this book could well be for you. So let’s take a closer look…
London College of Music Examinations (LCME hereafter) bill themselves as a progressive, friendly exam board offering a wide selection of graded music exams and professional diplomas. Founded as far back as 1887, the board arrived on the scene two years before ABRSM, and ten years after the first board, Trinity College Exams.
LCME pride themselves on continuing to lead the way in developing exam options that are relevant to today’s global world. Indeed, the performance grade options that other boards have introduced in the last year follow a blueprint LCME laid down years ago.
Uniquely, having become part of the University of West London, LCME are now the first and only exam board whose qualifications are awarded by a University. Conducting exams in more than 80 countries around the world, LCME retain their traditional qualities while being widely praised for fielding examiners known for being warm and approachable, ensuring candidates are put at ease and able to perform to their full potential.
With such particular strengths, it is perhaps odd that relatively few teachers are aware of their offer, but the recent arrival of the 2021-2024 Piano Syllabus and accompanying Handbooks offers a timely opportunity to take another, closer look…
October is typically the month when musicians and teachers turn their attention to the imminent arrival of the festive Christmas season. It’s that time where we line up our resources, stock up on seasonal sheet music, and begin practising and teaching music with a holiday flair!
As ever, Pianodao will offer plenty of support. Over the next few days, I am thrilled to be able to share an exclusive collection of seasonal downloads courtesy of Karen Marshall, David Blackwell and Collins Music.
Tim Richards is well established as one of the UK’s leading jazz educators, having burst onto the scene with his best-selling book Improvising Blues Piano, which set a new standard in jazz education publishing upon its first release back in 1997.
Since then Richards has produced a steady flow of publications in partnership with Schott Music, including the excellent Exploring Jazz Piano volumes 1 and 2, and more recent Blues, Boogie and Gospel Collection, which I described in my 2016 Pianodao review,
“…not simply as the best “jazz piano” publication of the year, but probably the best of the decade so far.”
Now he’s back with two chunky new books. Beginning Jazz Piano Parts 1 and 2 are billed as a new jazz method for players who already have some piano experience and a basic technique, and claim to offer “an introduction to swing, blues, latin and funk”.
Let’s find out whether these handsome publications live up to the sky-high standards of Richards’ previous work…
Since the ABRSM exam board significantly reduced their piano scales requirements last year (read a full analysis here), many have agreed that their requirements alone no longer provide the solid framework players need for the development of technique, an awareness of keys and assimilation of archetype fingering patterns.
Of the respected educators who have subsequently sought to fill the void with superior learning resources, I have already covered Catherine McMillan’s gorgeously presented Piano Scales Mnemonics (reviewed here) and Karen Marshall superb Piano Trainer Scales Workbook (reviewed here).
Joining these excellent resources, Paul Harris has now completely rewritten his popular Improve Your Scales! series, and like McMillan and Marshall has eschewed the ill-conceived limitations of ABRSM to embrace a more comprehensive and educative approach.
As Harris announces a the start of each of the six books in his new series, which cover the Initial to Grade Five requirements for all major exam boards,
“Scales, arpeggios and broken chords are important. And if taught and learned imaginatively, they can be fun!”
This is another of those moments where a disclaimer is required; Paul invited my feedback on his ideas while developing his vision for the new series, and as a good friend welcomed my help with the proof reading.
The genius in these books is all his though, so let’s see how he’s done things differently from others, and establish why these books stand out as another teaching studio essential…
Few professional musicians would question the value and usefulness of sight reading, meaning that skill which allows us to play music that we’ve never heard, just from the notation, and without preparation.
As a teacher who allows my students considerable freedom to choose the music they want to learn and bring along to the lesson, I find myself relying on this skill very regularly. And yet some teachers and students treat the development of sight reading as an afterthought, and a rather dull one at that. Compounding the problem, while sight reading has traditionally been an element of public grade exams, it is decreasingly so.
Trinity College London include sight reading as an optional test in their piano grade exams, but some teachers choose only to introduce it with “serious students” after intermediate level, and on the basis that players will at that point miraculously “get it”.
Perhaps this lack of enthusiasm will change with the launch of Trinity’s excellent new series, Sight Reading: A Progressive Method, a suite of three books offering a clear route for teaching sight reading skills from the get-go.
In common with most sight reading resources the series is linked to the grade exams, but happily it goes far beyond specimen tests and basic exam cramming, and can be used as a powerful resource to actually teach and develop sight reading ability.
As Trinity explain,
“The study of sight reading is valuable because it enables musicians to enjoy music that is new to them, either on their own or in a group. As with any other skill, confidence in sight reading comes with training and regular practice.”
So let’s take a look and see how the series can support teachers and students in those aims…
While there’s a growing number of good published resources for the keen jazz student these days, most are aimed at the serious adult player, and in many cases too-quickly get embroiled in complicated jazz theory. Meanwhile, for young players who enjoy “jazzy pieces” and want to explore the style, there’s long been a gap in the market.
Jazz Piano for Kids, new from ace jazz educator Richard Michael and published by Hal Leonard, aims to fill that gap. Introducing his book, Michael writes,
“Welcome to Jazz Piano for Kids and your very first steps in making up your own solos. What do you need? Apart from a piano or keyboard, just two hands, two wide-open ears, and the ability to have a go without fear of making mistakes. This beginner’s course will give you the building blocks of playing jazz on the piano… Before you know it, you will be improvising your own solos and starting a lifetime’s discovery in the wonderful world of jazz.”
A couple of years ago I suggested to author Karen Marshall and publishers Faber Music that it would be really useful to have an all-in-one scales manual within the popular Piano Trainer series. And here it is!
According to Faber Music,
“This all-in-one workbook for scales, arpeggios and broken chords includes all the keys and basic shapes piano students should learn. With clear scale notation, easy-to-visualise keyboard diagrams and excellent theory activities to consolidate understanding and underline the importance of writing music. It is ideal for developing a bespoke scale curriculum.”
The Piano Trainer Scales Workbook is certainly all of this, and the 72-page book is chock-full of neat ideas and judiciously selected material, so let’s take a closer look…
It used to be possible to joke that piano exam syllabi, like buses, arrived three at a time. But with the addition of the Music Teachers’ Board to the mix and fresh arrival of a “classical” syllabus from RSL Awards (Rockschool), students and teachers have five fully and equally accredited UK boards to choose between.
A disclaimer at the start. Eagle-eyed readers will soon spot that in the nine RSL Classical Piano books the name Andrew Eales appears as a “syllabus consultant”. While I didn’t actually contribute directly to the syllabus, I did offer a little feedback in the later stages of its conception.
On the plus side this perhaps gives me particular insight, but at the same time I will try to maintain distance, as ever avoid bias, and focus on providing the independent factual outline that you need in order to evaluate for yourself whether the syllabus might be the right fit you.
Recommending a no-fuss scale book used to be a simple matter: just get a copy of the ABRSM Grade 5 book as was, and all the keys were there, clearly presented in order. But following ABRSM’s 2021 piano scales revision this is no longer the case, their new graded scale books offering a shockingly slight smattering of just a few scales, as limiting as they are limited.
Good teachers everywhere are inevitably (if sadly) left looking for more helpful alternatives, and thankfully a number of well-known writers are presently forming an orderly queue to occupy the educational high ground that the exam board have so perplexingly ceded.
Paul Harris’s revised Improve Your Scales books look to a composite of all the exam boards for common sense, while Karen Marshall’s Piano Trainer series from Faber Music will soon add an all-purpose scales book specially devised to fill the gap. I will be reviewing both these resources in the coming months.
Meanwhile, here’s a new book from Catherine McMillan, whose unique take on learning scales will particularly appeal to children, and whose stunningly presented Piano Scale Mnemonics book is now a studio essential.
Regular readers will know that I am quite a fan of Paul Harris’s Piece a Week series from Faber Music, having found that using these books within my own teaching practice has helped many of my students significantly improve in their music literacy and ability to learn independently using notation.
Harris has just added a new book to the series, A Piece A Week: Initial Grade, which merits a separate review to the rest of the series for a variety of reasons which I will come to presently.
My first reaction to hearing about this book was admittedly mixed, on the one hand delighted that this wonderful resource has been extended to accommodate the needs of early elementary players, but the other hand stifling a weary sigh that in a year which has seen exam boards straining to dominate the music education agenda, yet more grade material has appeared for review.
But, extraordinary fellow that he is, Harris has an unnerving and seemingly inexhaustible knack for pleasantly surprising me, indeed, hugely exceeding my expectations. And I’m happy to report that he’s done it again…