A Piece a Week: “Initial Grade”

Sheet Music Review

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…

Continue reading A Piece a Week: “Initial Grade”

Why is My Piano Black and White?

Building a Library

Nathan Holder’s latest book, written for children aged 8-12, bills itself as “The Ultimate Fun Facts Guide, and works hard to fulfil its aim.

We are told,

“From Beethoven to Billy Joel, Mozart to Mary Lou Williams, and Scott Joplin to Stevie Wonder, be inspired by some of the most interesting people who have ever played the piano.
Why is my Piano Black and White? takes you on a musical journey to help you discover the weird and wonderful world of the piano, and the people who make music on it! Filled with fun fact, jokes, quizzes and music, after you read it, the piano will never be the same again!”

Let’s take our lives in our hands and jump in!…

Continue reading Why is My Piano Black and White?

Trinity Piano Syllabus 2021-23

Sheet Music Review

Sometimes, like busses, exam syllabi arrive more than one at a time. If it seems as if it were just last month that I wrote my bumper review of the 2021-2 ABRSM piano syllabus, well… that’s because it was. And now here is the new syllabus from Trinity College London (TCL) …

TCL tell us that this is their biggest ever piano syllabus, so there will be a lot of ground to cover in this bumper review.

Although I am going to integrate my material, I will tackle the review from two perspectives, trying to answer questions and pick up on the headline news for:

  • existing TCL exam users; and
  • those considering switching to TCL from ABRSM or another board.

So let’s discover the big stories in the TCL Piano Syllabus 2021-3…

Continue reading Trinity Piano Syllabus 2021-23

ABRSM: ‘Piano Star’ Duets

Sheet Music Review

ABRSM’s popular Piano Star series, which originally aimed at bridging the gap between the pupil’s first tutor book and ABRSM Grade 1 piano, continues to grow.

The seventh and latest book in the series, Piano Star Duets offers 26 newly composed or arranged piano duets for ‘early beginners to Grade 2 level’, compiled and edited by David Blackwell and Karen Marshall.

With five of these pieces also selected as duet alternatives in the 2021-2 ABRSM Piano Syllabus, which I recently reviewed here, the book is likely to tempt teachers and students looking for a one-stop collection of duets that they can dip into over a couple of years of lessons.

That the pieces have been commissioned from some of our leading pedagogic composers further adds to the attraction.

Before taking a look, full disclosure. I contributed a single piece each to four previous titles in the series. However, I receive no ongoing royalty income from those, have absolutely no vested interest in the series, and chose not to contribute to the Piano Star Duets collection. I write here with full independence.

So, with that out of the way, let’s jump in with all four feet…

Continue reading ABRSM: ‘Piano Star’ Duets

ABRSM Piano Scales 2021

Sheet Music Review

With the publication of their 2021-22 Piano Syllabus (reviewed in full here), ABRSM have given their scales requirements a significant overhaul, also publishing new scales books and resources.

In this review I will consider three main areas of this development:

  1. The new syllabus requirements
  2. The new ABRSM Piano Scales & Arpeggios books
  3. Scale Explorer for Piano – a new series of five graded books written for ABRSM by Alan Bullard

Let’s get straight to it…

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Scales 2021

ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021-22

Sheet Music Review

The launch of ABRSM’s biennial piano syllabus is always a significant event in the piano education world: particularly in the UK and Far East, where the exam board’s offerings remain hugely popular and influence much of what is taught.

For their 2021-22 syllabus ABRSM are heralding several structural changes:

  • A new Initial Grade, providing a pre-Grade 1 assessment that follows the same structure, content and marking criteria as their other graded music exams 
  • Completely revised repertoire lists and scales requirements
  • A revised list structure, with lists defined by musical characteristics rather than period of composition
  • More choice and variety of repertoire (30 pieces per grade)
  • A duet option from Initial Grade to Grade 3
  • A one-year overlap period, with the 2019 & 2020 syllabus valid until 31 December 2021.

I will review the new Scales & Arpeggios syllabus and supporting publications separately within the next few days.

ABRSM have also announced a “remote” alternative to their Practical Grades, which you can read about here. Although dubbed Performance Grades this is somewhat a misnomer; unlike the Practical Grades, where candidates must face performing live to an examiner, these new assessments take the form of a submitted recording of four pieces, including three from the Grade syllabus.

This Review

With a whopping 270 pieces included in the new syllabus, including 81 published in ABRSM’s nine Piano Exam Pieces books, even the most in-depth review can’t cover every piece, and as always I recommend readers download the full syllabus lists from ABRSM’s own site.

However, as in previous years I will look at particular trends within the syllabus, the direction of travel, highlighting those general features which will interest teachers and players alike.

I will bookend the review with a more detailed look at two specific grades: Initial and Grade 8, representing the start and end points of a student’s journey through these assessments, and in which the broader changes in the syllabus are writ large.

And finally, I will offer a personal list of some of the highlights selected from each Grade in turn.

So let’s jump in…

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021-22

Which Adult Piano Method 2020?

Sheet Music Review

For 2020 I am pleased to present an updated feature on the adult method books I most highly recommend.

I’ll start with in-depth reviews of my TOP 5 CHOICES.

After that I will also include shorter reviews of some other great alternatives.

One of the most exciting developments over the course of my piano career has been the huge increase in adults taking up lessons. I have lost count of the number of adult beginners I’ve had the pleasure of teaching over the last three decades; at present I teach more than 30 adults.

I’ve seen adults taking up the piano for many reasons; some wish they had learnt when they were younger, while for others taking up piano as an adult is the next chapter in a growing musical interest.

Whatever the reason for starting lessons, the last thing most adults want is to be presented with  Jimmy Timpson’s First Piano Lessons for Tiny Tots, or a minor variation with the word “adult” cannily stamped on the front cover.

And that’s perhaps one reason why my round-up of the adult beginner method books was by far the most-read article on Pianodao in 2019.

Fully refreshed for 2020, I’m delighted to present this updated and expanded version, including two major methods not mentioned last year.

But we’ll again begin with my top tips (also updated!) about what to look for in an adult method book, and why adults learn the piano differently to younger beginners…

Continue reading Which Adult Piano Method 2020?

Paul Harris: A Piece A Week

Sheet Music Review

Paul Harris’s series of A Piece a Week books have been appearing at regular intervals over the last few years. Faber Music have just released the Grade 6 book, so let’s consider the series as a whole…

I’ll start with a quick reminder that while the books appear in the best-selling Improve Your Sight Reading series, they are not sight reading practice books per se. Rather they aim to support the broader development of music literacy.

In this review I will first explain the concept behind A Piece a Week, give an overview of the actual material included in the books, and explain how they develop to offer superb material across the range of playing levels from UK Grade 1 to the new Grade 6 book.

Continue reading Paul Harris: A Piece A Week

The Beethoven 2020 Diary

The Pianodao Review

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that 2020 marks the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827), without doubt one of the greatest composers of all time.

Inevitably, concert programmes, air waves and the media will be suitably saturated throughout the year. And the celebrations start here…

The Beethoven 2020 Diary from Bärenreiter is a simple idea, brilliantly executed. Essentially this handsomely presented pocket diary offers an overview of the man and his music, presented in daily bite-sized chunks.

And for the record, generally I chuck pocket diaries straight in the bin.. this one, however, is a definite keeper!

Let’s find out why …

Continue reading The Beethoven 2020 Diary

Julia Hülsmann: Modern Piano Improvisation

Sheet Music Review

Here’s an interesting concept!

“Is it possible to learn to improvise? The acclaimed jazz pianist Julia Hülsmann answers this question with a resounding ‘yes’. In volume 1 of her Modern Piano Improvisation series she presents an easy and inviting introduction to this skill.
Songs are the main focus of her approach: easy arrangements of 15 jazz classics and original compositions by the internationally-renowned composer Hülsmann. Ideas and themes are given for each piece to help you to create attractive piano solos.
Demo recordings and play-along backings are available as MP3 files to download.”

So reads the blurb on the rear cover of an attractive new publication from advance music, brought to us by Schott Music.

Adding excitement to the mix, author Julia Hülsmann is indeed one of the most distinguished pianists of the contemporary European jazz scene, with a string of albums on the ECM and ACT labels, including the award-winning Scattering Poems.

So let’s take a look…

Continue reading Julia Hülsmann: Modern Piano Improvisation

Teachers’ Choice Piano Collections

Sheet Music Review

Hot off the press from Faber Music, and certainly not to be missed, the two books that make up the Teachers’ Choice Piano Collection have just appeared in partnership with EPTA UK, the European Piano Teachers’ Association.

Between them they include 58 pieces ranging in difficulty from Elementary/Grade 1 to Advanced/Grade 8, “selected by piano teachers for piano teachers”.

I must confess that when I first heard about these books a few months ago, my hopes for them were rather modest, but as soon as the finished collections arrived in the post I realised that they far exceeded my expectations. I think they are really wonderful!

So let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading Teachers’ Choice Piano Collections

The Advanced Pianist

Sheet Music Review

Karen Marshall’s Piano Trainer Series for Faber Music, which includes The Foundation Pianist (with David Blackwell, reviewed here) and The Intermediate Pianist (with Heather Hammond, reviewed here), has reached its conclusion with the publication of The Advanced Pianist (Books 1 and 2, with Mark Tanner).

Taken as a whole, the complete series of seven books can be used as a core curriculum that can be interspersed with the eight grades of the UK examination boards, or used standalone by those skipping exams.

In this review I will firstly take a look at The Advanced Pianist before drawing a few conclusions about the Piano Trainer series as a whole…

Continue reading The Advanced Pianist

Christopher Norton’s “Connections” Series

Sheet Music Review

I first reviewed Connections last spring as, then, a series of eight repertoire books offering a staggering 185 original compositions by the wildly popular educational composer Christopher Norton. First published for the North American market by Frederick Harris Music, the series had just been republished worldwide by Norton’s own in-house company, 80 Days Publishing.

Since writing my original review, Books 9 and 10 in the series have now been released, each including a further nine Christopher Norton originals suitable for advanced players.

In this review (which supersedes and replaces the original one) I can therefore offer an updated overview of the full series…

Continue reading Christopher Norton’s “Connections” Series

Trinity Rock & Pop Keyboards

Sheet Music Review

I recently reviewed the Rockschool 2019 Piano syllabus (please refer to that review here), and now have the opportunity to tell you about an alternative I mentioned in that review, offered by Trinity College London’s Rock & Pop Keyboard exams.

The disclaimers I made when reviewing Rockschool equally apply here: I haven’t entered myself or a student for the actual exams, and this review is based on the syllabus, publications and resources.

I also had the chance to chat to Trinity’s Head of Product Management Julia Martin and Product Support Manager for Music Govind Kharbanda, to whom I am most grateful for talking me through their syllabus and answering my plethora of questions.

As we shall see, the Trinity Rock & Pop offering has much in common with the Rockschool Piano syllabus, but there are also some significant points of departure. Together they occupy a unique space in the market; comparisons are inevitable, but I will aim to keep them for my conclusion!

Continue reading Trinity Rock & Pop Keyboards

How to Blitz ABRSM Theory

Sheet Music Review

I’ve seen a number of good music teachers recommending Samantha Coates’ How to Blitz ABRSM Theory book on forums, and having obtained a set to take a closer look myself, I can see what all the fuss is about.

I met and interviewed Samantha Coates at this year’s Music Education Expo show in London, and she explained that in Australia, her homeland, the incumbent theory books she grew up with were (ahem!) rather dry.

Her criticisms surely apply equally here in the UK, where the official exam-board workbooks can similarly suck the joy out of a lesson, and have a surprising ability to make a bus timetable from 1976 look like a relatively exciting proposition.

Coates found a solution by producing her own course:

“What I wanted was an alternative, a theory book that essentially had the same content as this other boring book that I grew up on, because it was written for the same syllabus. So I just thought, there’s got to be a more hip and groovy alternative. 
I wanted a text that was conversational and user-friendly, and light-hearted, and in language that is not formal…
“I think the word “somewhat” should never appear in any child’s tutor book! I just wanted it to be much more casual.”


Happily, with publisher Chester Music on board, she has brought out adapted versions for the UK market, tailoring the content to match the requirements of our leading exam board.

So let’s find out just how different the How to Blitz ABRSM Theory books are. What distinguishes them from the official alternatives, and what are their advantages? Importantly, have they succeeded in making music theory more relevant and interesting for piano players?

Continue reading How to Blitz ABRSM Theory

Play it Again: Piano

Sheet Music Review

Melanie Spanswick’s Play it Again: Piano series launched with two books published by Schott Music back in 2017. At the time, I heaped praise on those books, and I have subsequently used them with adult “returners” who have also loved them.

Now, with a third book joining the series, it’s time for another look. This new review covers all three books in the series, so let’s dig in…

Continue reading Play it Again: Piano

Rockschool Piano 2019

Sheet Music Review

“From a small office in West London in 1991, RSL (Rockschool Ltd) had a dream to change the landscape of formal music education, and sought to become the first viable alternative to the traditional offerings available in Britain at the time.”

So says Rockschool founder Norton York. And from these small beginnings, Rockschool has grown into a major international examining board, offering grade exams, teaching and performing diploma qualifications, vocational qualifications and performing arts awards in 9 different disciplines, and in more than 40 countries.

Rockschool recently launched their new 2019 Piano syllabus, which you can download in full from their website here, as well as publishing nine music books, one for each of the usual 8 Grades as well as “Debut”, their pre-Grade 1 offering. The music books are brought to us by industry leading Hal Leonard publishing, ensuring worldwide availability.

Note that the syllabus document does not actually list the pieces. For that reason, I will list them below as I believe readers will be particularly interested in this information.

Looking at the books, I think there are two potential markets here:

  1. Firstly, some will be interested in following this syllabus for the core learning structure it provides those specifically wanting to play rock and pop piano styles.
  2. Secondly, I suspect many players will be interested in dipping into these resources alongside more traditional music and methods for the breadth and perspective they bring.

For this review, my main focus will be on the published resources. I will include a concise syllabus overview, but a more in-depth consideration of the pedagogic pathway it offers and its benchmarking against traditional alternatives is beyond the scope of this article.

To be clear, too, I have never entered a student for the Rockschool exams; the assessments are fully accredited, but pianists and colleagues I’ve chatted with have given mixed feedback.

And I should also preface the review by pointing out that the Rockschool exams should not be confused with Trinity College London’s Rock and Pop syllabus, which I have reviewed here.

So let’s take a closer look at the Rockschool 2019 Piano syllabus…

Continue reading Rockschool Piano 2019

More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

Sheet Music Review

Back in 2008, ABRSM published a series of books called Piano Specimen Sight-Reading Tests. Although deserving an award for having the most utilitarian and uninspiring titles in my whole music collection, they have nonetheless rarely been out of action in the intervening years.

In short, they were an essential purchase for any piano teacher preparing students for ABRSM’s world-leading piano grade examinations, and have seen very active service over many years.

Since 2008, many others have brought out alternative products to help teachers and students prepare for the sight-reading element of ABRSM exams. Paul Harris’s ubiquitous and respected Improve Your Sight-Reading series has been updated more than once, and now includes audio tracks. Useful and innovative alternatives have also appeared from Alan Bullard, Samantha Coates, e-music maestro and several others.

Now ABRSM return with a new series bearing the slightly-less scary title More Piano Sight-Reading, a suite of eight new books, one to tie in with each of their grades.

A superficial look at the eight books suggests that these aren’t radically different from their predecessors (which, I should add, are still valid, as the syllabus itself remains unchanged). However, a more detailed look reveals several tweaks and changes to the format which, between them, make the new books a step-improvement on the older ones.

For this review, I will focus on five specific improvements which I think make this new series a superior alternative to the previous books.

Continue reading More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

Piano Star Theory

Sheet Music Review

ABRSM’s Piano Star series of books for children have been warmly received since their introduction a couple of years ago, their pieces regularly appearing in student concerts, festivals, the Prep Test and Grade 1 exams.

Last year the original series of three progressive books of fresh new repertoire grew to include a book of “Five Finger Tunes at the entry level, and a “Piano Star Grade 1 book at the upper end (reviewed here).


And now there’s another addition: the Piano Star Theory primer is published this week. Let’s take a look…

Continue reading Piano Star Theory

Lang Lang’s Daily Technical Exercises

Sheet Music Review

Lang Lang’s Daily Technical Exercises is a new addition to the Lang Lang Piano Academy series published in the UK by Faber Music.

Subtitled, “Warm-ups, work-outs and scale routines to develop technique, the book is introduced by its global superstar author with this encouragement:

“Everything you play should be performed with love and musicality, so all of these exercises are designed to be satisfying exercise patterns that lead you smoothly through all the key centres. Enjoy your scale practice, and your piano playing will take off!”

Let’s explore the book …

Continue reading Lang Lang’s Daily Technical Exercises