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 reviewed Catherine McMillan’s gorgeously presented Piano Scales Mnemonics (read the review here) and Karen Marshall superb Piano Trainer Scales Workbook (and that review is here), both of which are knockout publications.
Joining these excellent resources, Paul Harris has now completely rewritten his popular Improve Your Scales! series, and like McMillan and Marshall has eschewed the 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 the 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 busses, 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.
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!”
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…
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…