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…

The Hal Leonard Australia 40 Piece Challenge 2013: suggestions for getting started

In 2013 Hal Leonard Australia is running a 40 Piece Challenge. And I’m very excited by this news.

The challenge is to teachers primarily – can your students each learn at least 40 new pieces in 2013?!

This challenge is not a random, out-of-the-blue event. There’s a massive back-story to the development of this 40-Piece Challenge, which you can read about here. But the point of the whole exercise is to encourage students to learn, perform and experience far more music than our exam-focussed culture usually allows. And to do so in order for students to develop much better reading skills and much broader musicianship, which will lead our students to be more likely to play the piano for the rest of their lives (no matter what grade exam they make it to before they stop taking piano lessons).

This post isn’t about convincing you that this challenge is a good idea – there are plenty of posts I’ve written that already argue the case, and plenty written by other people as well, for that matter.

What I want to do is give some suggestions for how you can prepare for the 40 Piece Challenge, bearing in mind lessons in Term 1, 2013 are at most 9 weeks away (depending on when you read this!). There are three principles you need to keep in mind when planning repertoire selections for this challenge.

#1: Mix up the degree of difficulty of the pieces you assign.

If your Grade 5 student learned 7 pieces last year when they were a Grade 4 student there is no way in the world that they are capable of learning 40 Grade 5 pieces this year. Assign 1 or 2 Grade 5 pieces at the start of the year, but also assign repertoire that is Grade 3 standard, Grade 2 standard, Grade 1 standard! 40 pieces a year means in practice just over 1 new piece every single teaching week of 2013, and that means students need to be completing a piece every single week. This won’t be possible unless you have an appropriate mix of degrees of difficulty in the repertoire.

#2: Give the student less choice than you usually would.

You are assigning an average of one new piece a week, every week. You just don’t have the luxury of taking all of February to play through the exam lists and come up with a program for the year. A good rule of thumb: the easier the piece the less choice the student has. You are the teacher – you plan out an appropriate course of study for the year. The good news is that when students know they only need a week or two to master a piece they don’t really mind so much if they love, love, love it, or not.

#3: Encourage students to make their own suggestions for repertoire.

This can be a tricky path to follow – students can suggest music that is far too hard, poorly arranged, with limited pedagogical interest! But students will understand that the plan is to succeed in meeting the 40 piece challenge, and this is an opportunity for them to learn a lot about how to select their own repertoire: they will want to master the music within a reasonable time-frame and they will want to share with you their musical inclinations. This also becomes your chance to learn a lot about your students, and you’ll probably get to know music you’ve never heard of before, as well!

In addition to these three principles for selecting repertoire, I suggest there three principles for implementing the challenge once pieces are assigned:

1. Expect a high level of achievement with each piece. Near enough is good enough, but near enough means at tempo and with flow and with communicative intent, not a bald reading-through without any sense of what the music means. So performances need dynamics, articulation, voicing and balance, used of pedal and so forth! If this seems too big an ask you need to be looking at easier material, not at lowering your standards.

2. Start with a slew of material. Let’s stick with our hypothetical Grade 5 student. Week One of 2013, assign two Grade 5 standard pieces (meeting your student’s expectations) but also give a couple of pieces from Grade 1 or Preliminary or even P Plate Piano 3 standard, along with another at Grade 2 or 3 standard. You’ll be assigning another two pieces the next week (probably both at the Grade 1 end of the spectrum), and you need things to be moving right from the start.

3. Explain directly and clearly what your expectations are regarding each piece, particularly in regard to time frames. For a piece of music 4 or more grades below their current exam-standard, tell students they have one week to learn the piece, two weeks if there’s some catastrophe like a house fire. Make it understood that these pieces are not supposed to take a whole term to master, that the whole point is learn these easier pieces as quickly as possible and move on.

And finally: how do you structure your selections? Where on earth do you find 40 pieces for each and every one of your students?!

Suggestion 1: Use the Getting to… books or some other repertoire collection as the staple from which you draw repertoire selections. The Getting to… books have 30 pieces in each (maybe 29 in some cases?), so having one of these volumes a few grades below your student’s current exam-standard will give you a wealth of repertoire choices with only one book purchase. And the New Mix collections are now available up to Grade 3 standard – these collections can be particularly useful for higher grade students who need a break from their ‘serious’ higher grade repertoire!

Suggestion 2: Old exam books also provide many potential options for easily-mastered pieces. (Either your own, that you want to sell second-hand, or to loan, or the student’s own exam books from previous years!)

Suggestion 3: Have your student purchase one or two books by contemporary composers of jazz and popular music influenced compositions. Kerin Bailey, Christopher Norton, Sonny Chua, Mike Cornick, Manfred Schmitz, John Kember, Matyas Seiber, Gerard Hengeveld, Alan Houghton, to name just a few, are composers whose works will appeal to many of your students. Pick collections that are on the easy side for your students. My own Little Peppers books are very easy pieces in this style, particularly if you choose the Very Easy Little Peppers collection!

Suggestion 4: Don’t forget to consider arrangements! There are hundreds of books with arrangements of anything you care to ask for, from orchestral themes through to film music through to Elvis hits through to One Direction through to Glee and back again to jazz standards and folk tunes and musical theatre songs and… well, the list really does go on.

Arrangements can connect with your students in surprising ways because they already feel the music is part of their lives. Your only issue is making sure the arrangements are pianistic. Fortunately, these days there are plenty of great arrangements available, and I’ll be posting more about my recommendations in the weeks ahead.

And at this time of year it would be remiss of me to not mention the plethora of Christmas carol arrangements available at any standard. [See Anita Milne’s article in the recent Piano Teacher Magazine, where various collections are recommended for specific grade levels.]

Suggestion 5: Make sure your student understands the cost of books for the year. For many years now (since 2000!) I’ve been recommending that teachers tell families to budget $150 per student per annum for books. In the past three years the price of print music books has generally fallen by at least 25% (in some cases the prices have fallen to half!) as a result of the strong Australian dollar, so I would think that any student could find 40 pieces without even needing to spend $75, but certainly for $150 there will be an abundance of great material to choose from and to take the student forward into 2014!

I know there are a lot of teachers keen to embark on the 40 Piece Challenge, and I hope these principles and suggestions help a little in transitioning your students into a repertoire-rich year!