Music Theory • Online Courses

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

It is vital for musicians to understand the music we play: its history, context, structure, style and the conventions of music notation used to write it down.

Like many piano teachers, it is my priority to ensure that such knowledge is embedded as a relevant component of lessons. But like many, I find that written work can be difficult to fit into a practical music lesson. Not only so, but some elements are better suited to the classroom context, or to self-directed learning.

Many of my students want to dig into the subject in more depth, learn aspects of theory and composition that go beyond the obvious remit of a piano playing session, whether to develop a broader understanding or simply to pass a Grade 5 Theory exam as a prerequisite to taking one of the higher ABRSM practical grades.

I have always been ready to recommend additional resources and courses that meet the need for a more focused academic approach to learning music theory. And whether for an exam or otherwise, I find that students who develop a more in-depth knowledge of music quickly see benefits in their ongoing playing.

I have previously recommended Dave Hall’s excellent study book and video series There’s More to Playing the Piano, which my students have found helpful, but for those wanting more in-depth support I have been enthused by the number of excellent online courses I have seen recommended.

Keen to know more about suitable options for my students, I have recently interviewed four leading educators delivering music theory courses online. I wanted to compare what they offer, get a feel for their approach, and give them an opportunity to present their courses in their own words…

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Amy Beach • Children’s Music

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Back in 2019 I reviewed an excellent edition of Türk’s Pieces for Beginners, which launched the new Schott Student Edition. It has been a while, but now Schott have launched a couple more titles in the series, the first of which features two collections by the popular American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944), her Children’s Album Op.36 and Children’s Carnival Op.25, together in one elegant volume.

Individual pieces from these collections may be known to readers from their appearance in graded collections and anthologies of music by women composers. How wonderful, though, to have complete versions brought together in this publication, which also includes in-depth background and teaching notes on each piece by editor (and well-known teacher) Melanie Spanswick.

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Autumn Leaves

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John Kirkwood: The Way of the Five Seasons (2016, Singing Dragon)

We sometimes think about Autumn as a season of decay, of decline, in which the weather turns drab, and the nights draw in. And for those of a melancholic disposition, the words Seasonal Affective Disorder loom, an ominous spectre.

But I prefer to see the Autumn as a time of dynamic change and possibility, the old giving way to the new. Any gardener will tell you that plants sometimes need a good pruning, and the spectacular feast of autumn colour serves as a vivid reminder of nature’s inbuilt commitment to change, vitality and new beginnings.

What better time for us as pianists, teachers, and simply as people, to reflect on those changes that may be needed in our own lives?

Which “leaves” are turning yellow?
Here are some of the questions we might ponder…

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Learn to Play Ragtime Piano

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Most pianists at some point will want to try their hand at playing Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, but the wider world of Ragtime remains, for many, something of a mystery. How does the style actually work, who were its main purveyors, and where does it fit within the evolution of jazz piano?

Happily, there is an expert to guide us. Terry Waldo is considered to be the foremost living performer, producer, and historian of authentic ragtime. A producer and arranger of over fifty albums, he has appeared on hundreds of TV, film and radio programmes including his own historic series on NPR, This is Ragtime, latterly also a podcast.

Now, Waldo has blessed us with a straightforward guide to help the more advanced player interested in Ragtime to find their way with the genre.

Ragtime Piano: A Guide to Playing the Best Rags, published worldwide by Hal Leonard, is one of those books which does exactly what it says on the cover. Nevertheless, let’s take a peek!…

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Fauré: Romances sans paroles

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I have previously praised Jean-Pierre Bartoli’s new scholarly-critical performing editions of Fauré’s piano music from Bärenreiter, reviewing the Pavane Op.50 and the Five Impromptus when they appeared.

The latest arrival in this growing series is a new edition of the Trois Romances sans paroles, which like its predecessors is based on the musical text from Bärenreiter’s Oeuvres Complètes de Gabriel Fauré edition of 2020.

These pieces are wonderful Romantic piano miniatures, accessible to players at advanced level around UK Grade 8, so let’s consider this new addition to the Pianodao Music Library

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Avoiding Excess, Cultivating Balance

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In this week’s Fermata post, I want to address our need for a balanced approach to our piano practice and playing. But first, let’s take a step back and consider some more universal principles.

It seems to be our Western way of thinking to categorise and put everything in separate boxes. We are not always so adept at making connections. We explain our world using artificial constructs that polarise, and that fixate on opposites. We speak of good and evil, black and white, hard and soft, male and female, hot and cold, fortissimo and pianissimo, night and day.

We may think that these opposites are mutually exclusive, but our experience of the world around us teaches a different lesson.

Just as positive and negative ions charge the air we breathe, so too energy, movement and a living narrative are all impossible without the interaction of opposing forces.

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The Piano Player: Christmas Time

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Regular readers will know that I am quite a fan of Faber Music’s Piano Player series, originally projected to include seven books, five of which are already available and reviewed here, with the final two anticipated for 2024.

With decorous covers sporting the artwork of Edward Bawden (1903-1989), a pull-out reproduction to keep and frame, and a mixed range of popular classics and tasteful arrangements geared towards adult intermediate players, the series has carved out a very particular and worthwhile niche.

Taking us unawares, Faber Music have just launched a new addition to the series. Not billed among the seven titles advertised so far, The Piano Player Christmas Time is more than just a welcome surprise…

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The Pam Wedgwood Christmas Collection

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Earlier this year, Faber Music released a brilliant compilation of jazzy pieces selected by Pam Wedgwood from her back catalogue of bestsellers.

In my review of the Jazzin’ About Anthology, I described it as,

Now Faber have followed it up with The Pam Wedgwood Christmas Collection, and the same high praise is due.

Producing this book is certainly a smart and welcome move. Wedgwood has an impressive archive of Christmas-themed music to mine, having produced several books of traditional, jazzy and contemporary seasonal music in the After Hours, Jazzin’ About, and Up Grade! series, not forgetting the excellent It’s Never Too Late to Play… Christmas collection.

With such a wealth of material to choose from, let’s find out what Wedgwood and Faber Music have picked…

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The Supreme Good

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What are we to say, and how are we to live, in times of trauma, escalating suffering and conflict? On this site I often quietly apply the wisdom of Daoism to our piano playing journey, but what of its broader relevance? Faced with misery on multiple fronts, can Daoism offer any hope?

The great Daoist sage Lao Tzu lived in tumultuous times, too. The details of his life may have been obscured by the mists of time, but the conflicts of that era are well known, and they were brutal. Reading his classic Tao Te Ching, no wonder his deeply-considered response to the world as he found it continues to resonate with so many to this day.

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STAR WARS Piano Anthology

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There has lately been an influx of new film anthologies for piano solo, recent publications including collections of music by Ennio Morricone, Michael Giacchino, Danny Elfman, Clint Mansell, and the Harry Potter Piano Anthology which I very recently reviewed here.

For me, the film score which first caught my attention growing up was unquestionably Star Wars: A New Hope. Like so many children of the seventies, I was gripped by the film’s release in 1977, equally enamoured by the score, and before long owned the gatefold 2LP Original Soundtrack Recording. It was to prove the first of many John Williams soundtracks added to my growing vinyl collection through my teen years.

Perhaps no surprise, then, that the arrival of an impressive gift book including music from all nine episodes of the saga immediately excited me, and I am now pleased to bring you my review of this brilliant addition to the Pianodao Music Library

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