Series 17 – Part 2 (some answers)

Series 17 – Part 2 (some answers)

There’s really no bad news, not even a single bit: the AMEB’s Series 17 is a collection that does exceptionally well in catering for the vast range of interests, urgencies and fixations of the Australian piano teaching world. David Lockett and the review team (Glenn Riddle, Jody Heald and Helen Smith) have taken a meticulous approach to delivering a series of repertoire collections that will serve the assessment process – as well as piano pedagogy – well.

Let’s start with that grade-deflation question. Have we seen a shift in the goal posts of any of the grades? Is Preliminary continuing the march to Grade One standard repertoire?! Short answer – no. All the pieces are very well graded. There are some easier and some harder pieces in each grade collection, but nothing to elicit outrage or confusion. More detail from me soon in a separate post.

Appropriate length? Delightfully so! Very few works that take too many pages, and none that are garrulous or engaging in “busy-music”.

Appropriate emotional content? What a relief – music in the Grade 5-7 bracket that doesn’t assume the life experience of a 45 year old.

This is a deal maker/breaker in my books – if you’re making a collection that will be primarily used by 10-15 year olds then the music should be emotionally appropriate, just the same way we don’t expect or want adult themes in movies and television being shown to this age group. Titanic, the movie, has an M rating, for goodness sake, and we expect 12 year olds to perform repertoire of immense emotional intensity? Come on.

Series 17 gets it so very right – choices that are all age appropriate, while still encompassing a massive emotional range.

Layout? The music has a distinct AMEB look to it (not a bad thing, in my book!), and the layout is neither too spacious nor too cluttered. An example, the final piece in the Grade 8 book is Ravel’s Rigaudon, a work I’ve used in a 4 page layout (very teensy staves to fit into so few pages) and in a 6 page layout (too much spread). Here the work has been laid out over 5 pages, the sections well designed to fit the page the way the eye works, highlighting the structure, and enabling easy analysis. There’s only one 4-page-turn piece in the whole 9-volume collection, and the 4 page turns (in the Grade 8 Haydn 1st movement of the Sonata in E flat, Hob XVI:49) are the exact right places a pianist would want to turn.

Every grade, the whole way down to Preliminary, is equally appropriate, with generous use of blank pages (where need be) to facilitate the better page turn.

Adequate Australian representation? Well, this question was a bit of a trick, because the AMEB did have as one of their marketing hooks the information that Series 17  contained 25 works by 17 different Australian composers. The AMEB have gone above and beyond, if you ask me, but none of the choices feel at all like a concession to parochialism.

And here they are:

Preliminary features four of us, me with my Salt and Pepper, from Very Easy Little PeppersJennifer Trynes with her The Banjo, from her Progressive Piano Series Book 2, both of us in the studies section, and with Sonny Chua‘s wonderfully not-what-you-expect Dripping Fairy and Miriam Hyde‘s rambunctious Gnomes Marching over there in the 20th/21st century section.

4 Australian pieces fill out the full complement of canons in Grade 1, all canons by Jo Kotchie (demonstrating a variety of moods and shapes, from the wonderfully titled collection A Canonical Adventure). Grade 1 is the collection with the most substantial Australian representation with yet another 3 pieces by locals: Dulcie Holland‘s Around the pool (a study in compound duple, despite being included in the List C section), Margaret Sutherland’s marvellously Mixolydian Sea Shanty from Holiday Tunes, and Jennifer Trynes Puddles (yes, you can hear and feel the jumping in muddy puddles, gumboots and all in this List A study!).

Grade 2 has another Sonny Chua composition, T-Rex Hungry, from A day in the life of a T-rex (a little collection that is also available in duet arrangement, and as a trio!). This is low and menacing, and should, in fact, be played an octave lower than written (that is, an octave lower than it looks as if it should be played in the Series 17 Grade 2 book – the octave lower indication is missing!). For a student who can manage playing sf for a whole piece this composition will be a joy. The other Australian work in Grade 2 is by Margaret Sutherland, Patter Dance, a lively example of unadventurous mid-20th century writing for children.

One of my all-time favourite Australian piano pieces for students is included in Grade 3 – Arthur Benjamin‘s magical Soldiers in the distance, from his Fantasies collection. This piece has the soft pedal depressed for the entirety of the piece, and the effect of distance is completely compelling; a great experience of this effect for young pianists at this stage of development. Graeme Koehne is another Australian composer for whom I have a lot of time, and his 1989 collection of Aphorisms has yielded A closed world of fine feelings and grand design (this link to a performance of the extended and widely recorded guitar version of this piece) for this Grade 3 book. Maybe a bit big, quite literally, for a lot of Grade 3 students, even allowing for a relaxed hand moving across the large intervals and judicious application of the sustain pedal. But beautiful.

Kerin Bailey makes an appearance as the sole Australian in the Grade 4 collection with the lyrical Summer Rain, a lilting exploration of major and minor 7th chords, originally published in Jazzin’ Around 3; an examination collection simply wouldn’t be right without at least one of Kerin’s tunes featured, and while completely unlike his most famous Melinda’s Mini-March, this piece will certainly appeal! The fabulously-named Amanda Handel‘s Stalactite, from her collection Migrations in Music, is one of two Australian sounds for Grade 5, this an eerie realisation of a 3+3+2 rhythmic pattern creating a very convincing experience of the depths of a cave. Also in Grade 5 is  Larry Sitsky‘s Jewish Folksong – dance, from his tremendous Century collection (originally published by Currency Press, now by Hal Leonard Australia) which traverses so many different sound worlds for student pianists (and from which I drew his Didgeridoo for inclusion in P Plate Piano 2).

Elena Kats-Chernin, beloved by many a teenager of recent years for her Eliza’s Aria (remixed here), has written 12 one-page piano pieces (well, in hand-written form they’re 1 page, but – ahem – they’re a wee bit longer than that once they’re typeset) and the twelfth, Cinema, is the Australian inclusion in the Grade 6 publication. Sounding perfectly like music for a silent movie, this piece gives Grade 6 students a chance to get a bit virtuosic if they desire (the composer and the AMEB make it clear that there’s a lot of room for different tempi in performance – no single metronome mark here).

The higher grades: Grade 7 features a gentle Prelude by Roy Agnew, a composer who will be well-known to older teachers – his work was featured in series from a couple of decades or so ago.  Miriam Hyde’s Concert Waltz for left hand is included as a List A Study – an exciting inclusion, in my opinion – there’s a small body of fabulous writing for left hand (including some other pieces by Miriam Hyde), and I’m intrigued to see students and teachers prompted to consider this choice as part of an able-bodied program. Finally, Grade 8 has the wonderful Frangipani, by Ross Edwards, from his Mantras and night flowers collection – a composition derived from a theme by Liszt by way of a Japanese scale; intriguing and a piece that has already been a favourite for Year 12 pianists.

So far so good!

More questions answered and explored in the next post…

Scale of the Day #2: The Simpsons Scale

Scale of the Day #2: The Simpsons Scale

Rather than alter the original post (which would make the comments below somewhat hard to follow) I will leave it as is, but point out that “The Simpsons Scale” certainly does have a name within the jazz tradition, the Lydian-Dominant (just as last week’s scale has a name within the tradition of South Indian classical music, “Mayamalavagowla”), so in reality when I call this scale “The Simpsons Scale” I am boldly naming what hundreds of thousands in the world of jazz have named before. (And note that this scale has a name in the South Indian tradition  [Mouli’s comments below]).

Now this scale isn’t actually called “The Simpsons Scale”, but since it isn’t actually called anything [in western theory] I have decided to boldly name what no one has named before.

In reality the Simpsons scale is the melodic ascending pattern starting on the 4th degree, but it happens to be the pitch pattern used for the tonic harmonies in the theme music to The Simpsons, so I decree that the scale henceforth be known as…..

Here’s the pattern, in F (because the pattern of white/black notes is identical to that of G Major):And here in C (so it is easy to see at a glance which notes have been altered, and by how much, from a ‘neutral’ major pattern):

And here is how the theme from the Simpsons goes (in seriously truncated form, so that all the notes of the pattern as evident):

This sounds like the Lydian mode, to a casual listener, because the raised 4th is the predominant note in the melodic sequence, while the Mixolydian marker, the flattened 7th, only makes an appearance as the theme wraps up at the every end .  But a careful listener will notice that this is the only kind of 7th note that occurs in the harmony also.

Yes, this pattern has the Lydian and the Mixolydian marker notes, so it’s a kind of Hyperlydian, succeeding in doing both the fundamentally major modes at once.  It’s a sensationally modern take on major, sounding quirky but smart, and full of a very contemporary energy.

I used this “Simpsons Scale” as the basis for my trumpet composition, Go-Goanna, published by Faber Music in their Fingerprints series, and now an ABRSM exam piece (Grade 4). But while Danny Elfman creates the feeling that we are flickering between C Major and D Major, in Go-Goanna the melody is shaped so that it feels like an alternation between C Major and G minor (in transposition), with the G minor leading note (F sharp) as part of the equation.  It’s interesting to me that this same scale produces two equally successful harmonic partnerships from its triads.

It takes a while to become accustomed to playing this scale, obviously to the ear, which is expecting neither the raised 4th or flattened 7th, but more especially to the fingers, who simply refuse to believe that a major-sounding pattern has its two semitones positioned so close to one another.  This is why I included the scale pattern in F – one’s fingers can be tricked into playing this correctly quite swiftly if one focuses on playing that G Major pattern that we know so well, but hearing this brand new pattern! As it turns out, starting on G is a similar proposition: play the white/black note pattern of F Major and you’ll get it first try.  Starting on F sharp can be quite rewarding also, as one can concentrate on playing the C (really B sharp) and the E around the two black note group.

Have a play, and then have your say.  How do you like it, and what does it make you feel?  And is this name, The Simpsons Scale, really the right one??!