June Armstrong: Music Box

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June Armstrong is a quite simply a marvel. Respected worldwide as one of our most musically distinctive and rewarding educational composers, and for the understated quality of her publications (which she brings to the world via her own business Pianissimo Publishing), Armstrong has both made a huge impact and succeeded on her own terms.

The Pianodao Music Library already includes reviews of several of June Armstrong’s previous collections. Now her latest collection, the superb Music Box, has arrived.

With this new publication, Armstrong brings us 27 new compositions for elementary players (around UK Grades 1-3), with each piece celebrating a different musical instrument from around the world. Let’s lift the lid…

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Improve Your Scales!

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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…

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A Piece a Week: “Initial Grade”

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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.

My main review of the series is here.

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…

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Paul Harris: A Piece A Week

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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.

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More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

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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.

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Alison Mathews: Doodles

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Alison Mathews’ excellent collection Treasure Trove (reviewed here) has proved a big hit with my students who have been working through it, and I’m delighted that publishers Editions Musica Ferrum have now brought out another collection composed by her: Doodles.

It is very clear straight away that this publication explores very different terrain to Treasure Trove however. So what is the concept here, and do I think it works? Let’s find out…

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Improve your sight-reading!

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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.

Let’s find out how well it succeeds in this aim…

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Rhythm Games (download)

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A gift to Pianodao readers, this set of 37 full-sized cards are mostly in Common time, with a handful in Compound time.

They include easy note values, rests, dotted notes, ties and syncopation. A couple of blank cards are also included for you to copy and use for your own additions to the pack!

pdf-logo  Flash Cards (download PDF)

The set is far from comprehensive, and is based on cards I used when delivering group keyboard teaching in schools – so I hope that you enjoy it as it is, and feel free to develop something similar to fit your own needs!

Some Games

Here’s a few ideas of games you can play with students which will put these flash cards to creative use.

Although the main focus here is on pulse and rhythmic development, the activities integrate many other aspects of musical learning, including the development of aural memory, sight reading, music theory and writing, improvisation and composition.

You’re sure to think of many more similar activities and games, so these are just a taster:

Sound Before Symbol

This is an aurally based activity that helps students make connections between notation and music.

  1. For this game select four cards (with the same time signature) that include rhythms previously introduced.
  2. Lay out the cards and start clapping the rhythm of one card repeatedly (as a loop). If you have an electronic keyboard you could add a drum beat while clapping, or you could use any suitable music recording as a backing track (but this isn’t necessary).
  3. Ask the student to join in clapping the same rhythm.
  4. Finally ask the student to identify which card you are both clapping.
  5. Then repeat using a different card (or selection).
  6. This game can also be extended using two cards as a repeated loop – now the student has to identify which two cards of the four have been selected.

Clapping Game

This activity helps a student develop instant visual recall of rhythms when sight reading.

  1. For this game select four cards and fix them where they can all be seen (e.g. stick them to the board/wall, or stand them on the book rest or desk).
  2. Ask the student to clap the card that you are pointing to repeatedly on a loop.
  3. When you are ready, switch to a different card.
  4. Increase the speed at which you switch card.
  5. Then try the same thing with two pairs of cards (making two bar/measure rhythms).

Create a rhythm

This activity uses the rhythm cards as the basis of composing and writing. It is excellent as a music theory activity because it links notational understanding to sound.

  1. Having clapped a set of several cards, invite the student to arrange four cards in order to create a four-bar/measure rhythm phrase.
  2. Clap the phrase together, and discuss what aspects of the rhythm work best.
  3. Make changes and try again.
  4. Finish by writing out the four bar/measure rhythm and clapping it one more time, this time using the version the student has written out.

Compose a Tune

This can be an extension to “Create a Rhythm”.

  1. Take a four bar/measure rhythm and set the student a home assignment of writing a melody using the rhythm.
  2. Encourage the student to compose an answering phrase using similar rhythms.
  3. In the next lesson the student can provide their written notation and play their melody.
  4. Check that what the student plays matches what they have written, as differences here will point to any misunderstandings they have about the rhythmic notation.

Improvisation Game

This is a really simple way to encourage a beginner to start making up their own improvisations.

  1. Select one rhythm card and ask the student to play the rhythm using one note, then two notes, and then three different ones.
  2. Expand the note pattern, using the same rhythm, to four bars/measures.
  3. Add a second card, and ask the pupil to include both rhythms in their improvisation.
  4. Expand this to 8 bars/measures.
  5. Continue adding more cards and extending the length of the improvisation according to the student’s ability and enthusiasm.

Detective Game

To finish off, an activity that links all the others back to the music that the student is actually learning.

  1. Take the cards used in previous activities, and pick the most difficult or newest rhythm introduced.
  2. Ask the pupil to find where that rhythm appears in a piece they are currently learning.
  3. Clap the rhythm within the context of the musical phrase in which it appears.
  4. Finally, play that phrase in isolation before going on to rehearse the full piece.

Good luck!

There are so many variations on these ideas, as well as many great alternative games and activities which work well with individuals, groups and classes.

So these are just offered as an inspiration to get you started, and I hope you have fun making up your own ways of using the cards to foster musical learning!

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