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…
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.
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.
One Saturday morning in March 2018, I learnt that my good friend the composer, author and educator Paul Harris had been rushed to our local hospital emergency department overnight.
Paul had for several months been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a virulent cancer that had already seemed to take so much from him.
He was receiving excellent treatment at The Churchill Hospital in Oxford, but having taken a turn for the worse the previous night, Paul had been instructed to come straight to Milton Keynes, his nearest A&E.
Do you ever swing off the beaten track? Musically, I mean…
Maybe searching out some new repertoire for your pupils?
Considering some aspect of technique you’ve always wanted to explore but never found the time?
Listening to some music you’ve always wanted to but never have?
Investigating an obscure but interesting composer?
If you have a moment or two I’d like to share with you my enthusiasm for one of the most extraordinary of all piano pieces – written by one of the most extraordinary of all composers.
The composer would not allow performances of this piece.
And at the time of composition it was longest and most complex work ever written for the piano.
A year or so ago my friend and colleague Tony Meredith gave me a copy of the music. He had purchased it at a rather special auction. Actually it’s a very special copy – it was given to Malcolm Arnold as a Christmas present in 1971 by fellow composer John Gardner with the delightful inscription: a divertissement for Xmas.
Malcolm must have been fascinated by it and judging by the state of the copy, I’m sure he did spend some quality time trying to make sense of the work therein, which fills some 252 pages.
He may even have played some if it… but not too much. He was a good pianist but you need a John Ogden to play this work. And indeed John Ogden did play it – and record it.
The Big Reveal
Well, enough of this teasing… you may have guessed I’m talking about the mammoth four-and-a-half hour (depending on your general stamina and well-being) epic Opus Clavicembalisticum, composed by Kaikhosru Sorabji (born Leon Sorabji in Chingford, Essex in 1892).
The thirty-eight year old Sorabji had already written a lot of piano music, much in the tradition of Chopin, Alkan and Liszt. He was also deeply interested in the music of Schoenberg, Scriabin, Mahler and Debussy (before many knew much about them) as well as having a fascination for complex structures.
There is a vast collection of piano music, much of it of conventional length (though there is also a nine-hour work if you do like your music ridiculously long).
But going back to Opus Clavicembalisticum – happily it’s not in one continuous movement, but divided into twelve sections that include four fugues, a passacaglia with 81 variations, two massive cadenzas and much else.
There have been a surprising number of performances and there are recordings. It’s not exactly easy-listening. But there’s no doubt that Sorabji is a voice worth listening to.
In a letter to a friend shortly after completing the work, the composer wrote:
“The closing four pages are as cataclysmic and catastrophic as anything I’ve ever done — the harmony bites like nitric acid the counterpoint grinds like the mills of God, to close finally on this implacable monosyllable” (an enormous chord that requires five staves).
‘Anything I’ve ever done,’ understates Sorabji – actually anything that just about anyone else had ever done!
Of course should you wish, you are allowed to play this work. There never really was a ban on this music. But maybe Sorabji’s deep anxiety that no one could do it justice (after a disappointing first performance evidently) has led to his music being largely forgotten.
There are also delightful miniatures believe it or not – the Toccatinetta for example. And if you can be bothered, there’s quite a (very sizable) treasure chest of fascinating stuff to be re-discovered.
I’d loved to have been there when Malcolm opened his Christmas present in 1971.
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“For many, scales and arpeggios are an academic, dry and soulless part of learning the piano, and have to be practised because, like cod liver oil, they are ‘good for you’.”
Anthony Williams, The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide (Faber Music, 2017)
Why bother with scales? (by which, for the purposes of this article, I also mean arpeggios and broken chords) …
In order to properly answer this question, this article will consider these related questions, of vital importance to students and teachers concerned to know about the purpose and value of teaching and learning scales:
What are the benefit of learning scales?
Is it important to use consistent fingering?
What are the benefits of cumulative learning vs. exam preparation?
How can scales practice and creativity go hand-in-hand?
Let’s get started by considering the core benefits of learning scales…
Paul Harris is one of the world’s most respected music educationalists. His compositions have delighted players and audiences around the world, and he has over 500 publications to his name. Paul is in great demand as a workshop and seminar leader in the UK, USA and the Far East.
Here he shares the story of how he discovered the piano as a child …
“When pupils can sight-read, not only do they do well in exams but (rather more importantly) it allows them to learn pieces more quickly, which frees up much of our teaching time, allowing us to concentrate on developing the musician. Ultimately, it gives them independence: they are able to learn music on their own – the greatest gift we can give.”
So says best-selling author Paul Harris in the introduction to Improve your sight-reading: Teacher’s Book – latest addition to his ever growing Improve Your Sight-Reading series, just published by Faber Music.
Written to work alongside the well-known, long-published Improve your sight-reading ‘pupil’ books, the Teacher’s Book mirrors the introduction of keys and concepts in those, as well as offering useful tips for teachers.
Most important of all, the Teacher’s Book includes dozens of new progressive practice tests for each of Grades 1-5, which can be used in lessons to complement the use of the pupil books for home practice.
As such, the book offers the potential to elevate what was already a great resource into a more complete sight-reading system which bridges both lesson and home use.