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…

Series 17 – Part 1 (the questions)

Series 17 – Part 1 (the questions)

The Australian Music Examination Board issues a new series of piano exam books every 5 or so years, and this year we’re up to the 17th such event since they started counting.

Like many piano pedagogy print music enthusiasts, I get really excited when a new series of examination books comes out: old favourites mingle with new discoveries, and the new material puts a whole new slant on the programs it’s possible to construct for presentation at examinations. Calling it something like Christmas Day isn’t putting it too strongly for some of us.

Series 17 had me even more excited than usual, however. This time I knew the syllabus consultant already, and knew that we had surprised and delighted ourselves by sharing a number of views on piano teaching and technique; David Lockett had been on the committee overseeing the development of P Plate Piano and I absolutely loved the experience of working with him on that project. How would he see the repertoire beyond that doorstep of Preliminary?! Would our tastes diverge as the degree of difficulty increased?

Series 17 had, for me, the overtones of a mystery novel.

Series 17 Preliminary Cover

One thing I did know: Salt and Pepper, my little mixed meter, white key/black key, staccato/sustain pedal, all-over-the-keyboard piece from Very Easy Little Peppers was being included in the Preliminary book. And I knew that the AMEB hadn’t realised that the piece came from Very Easy Little Peppers, because the copyright notice had come through to me as the copyright owner first (which would only make sense if the piece had been sourced from the Getting to… series where my original © ownership listing is still current).

Finally, the day and the Series 17 books arrived. Questions would be answered. Questions like:

What was the level of emotional maturity demanded by these pieces? Series 16 had had some truly delightful selections, but many of them were better suited to the middle-aged than to the bright young primary school-aged things lining up for their AMEB exams. Was the trend to cater for baby boomer intermediate students going to continue?

How would Australian composition be represented in this Series? There’s a lot of really impressive writing for student pianists in Australia – we punch above our weight, well and truly, in this compositional niche – and new voices are always coming onto the scene, including composers who are noted for writing for other forces. The current structure of the syllabus means there’s only room for a maximum of 2 Australian pieces per grade, with the likelihood of 2 Australian works being in one book increasingly unlikely the higher up the grades you go. Would that hypothetical maximum of 16-18 pieces by Australian composers be reached?

Would the grading of the pieces be continuing the grade-deflation trends of recent series? Grade-deflation – where a Grade 6 piece gets included in the new Series Grade 5 book, or where what once were considered Grade 1 skills show up in Preliminary repertoire. Teachers loathe grade-deflation, because it makes it harder for a student to accomplish a lower level grading. It’s like going to the shops and finding that your size 12 figure now requires a size 14 dress or a size 16 jacket. :) Would the Series 17 pieces feel ‘fair’ for each grade?

Would the pieces be an appropriate length for an exam program? The AMEB is the only exam board to regularly feature theme and variations formats in its examination repertoire – one such piece in Series 16′ Grade 8 book required 6 page turns to get through that one single component of the exam program! Which leads to the next question…

Would the layout be a pleasure to work from? Size of the score (not too big, not too small), placement of page turns, number of page turns, logical end-points to sections, sufficient space on the page for teacher and student annotations – these all come into play in this “do I want to work from this score?” aspect of the new book experience.

And maybe most importantly of all:

Would I like the pieces? Seriously. If we’re going to teach repertoire we want to like it. The kids only have to deal with it for one examination – for teachers it’s something they have to live with for years!

Oh, OK. There was one more question in the back of my mind: how many pieces would Series 17 have in common with my “Getting to…” repertoire series? The “Getting to…” books were designed to present 30 of the best pieces at each grade level, representing a broad cross-section of skills and styles, presented in a learning sequence that would encourage students to notice similarities and differences between their repertoire experiences. With the series now comprising 10 volumes of graded repertoire (more than 300 pieces) it would be weird if there wasn’t at least one piece in common.

I’m heading off to Melbourne tomorrow to be a part of the AMEB’s official Series 17 launch. I’ll be there with Sonny Chua and Elena Kats-Chernin and Larry Sitsky, as well as the crew from the AMEB and hopefully a whole lot of wonderful people from the world of piano pedagogy and music education. Answers to the questions above when I’m back!




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

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!

Classical Music Futures Summit: Quick Points

Classical Music Futures Summit: Quick Points

I spent today (July 12) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at an event importantly titled the Classical Music Futures Summit, having scored a lucky last-minute invitation to be part of the talkfest.

So lately invited was I (somewhere between 6 and 2 weeks ago, depending on how you interpret the invitation) that the sheet listing the participants, explaining who they worked with/for, what they did/had done, along with their email addresses, didn’t include me. Which was fine – I’m very well-accustomed to people asking me who on earth I am.

This was my first experience at an event run by a professional facilitator, and I’ve come away from the day with a sense of awe at the quick-witted skillfulness displayed throughout the event, quickly sifting ideas into themes, managing the time-ego tug-of-war, and working to deliver both forward momentum and a sense of ownership to the participants. Truly inspiring work.

I’ve also come away from the day thrilled to have met some fabulous people in the flesh – people I’ve been tweeting with, like Yvonne Frindle who works with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, or blogging about, like Julian Day who works with Classic FM, or reading the blog of, like Gregory Sandow who works as a critic and writer and teaches at Julliard and the University of Maryland, or who were completely new to me [and I’m so glad I got to meet them] like Euan Murdoch of Chamber Music New Zealand.

And of course, it was equally fabulous to see familiar faces too – Rita Crews, John Colwill, Rachel Hocking and Sonny Chua from my experiences in educational piano music, John Davis from the Australian Music Centre and Matthew Hindson (probably only just recovered from the marathon that was the ISCM World New Music Days held in early May here in Sydney) who shares a publisher with me, amongst many others.

Greg Sandow was the keynote speaker, and there’s not a thing he said that didn’t make me nod and murmur with appreciation. His ideas are deceptively revolutionary, and it was interesting to see how warmly he was received, how rapt was the attention during his presentation, how enthusiastic the applause after, and yet the fundamental observations he made were routinely ignored in the remainder of the day. If this was a keynote speech the form of the day was atonal variations; most of Greg’s themes were inverted in further discussion and many of the comments from the floor were clear efforts at retrograde.

A statistical overview was then given, with what felt to me like too much detail at times along with some interesting philosophical perspectives emerging from some data. I’m just not convinced that statistics are best delivered aurally – I would have preferred an A4 page with numbers, graphs and conclusions that could have been taken into any and all discussions throughout the rest of the day. By now all I can remember thinking is that the statistics from Japan and China and other Asian nations simply couldn’t be lined up against European data without a broader economic and policy background, so I wiped that information immediately; I also recall most countries reported roughly a decline of 3 percentage points in concert attendance, so it depends where you started as to how truly appalling a statistic that is, and that education was attributed to the success of numbers increasing for concert attendance in some countries. Now this last issue struck me as a confusion of causal and casual links, but there was no time to query methodology before we moved on.

We then were facilitated into producing a vision of what success might look like in 2013, and it was at this point that I realised what a very difficult task the day would prove to be: instead of addressing the task immediately at hand (envision and describe a new world where our dreams for classical music have been realised) discussion easily devolved into anecdote or soapbox. And this is where a better preparation of participants would have been ideal, maybe with every participant needing to email in ideas addressing this question in advance, so that the small group discussion would be starting from somewhere beyond personal bugbears and old chestnuts. But even small advance preparations take considerable man-hours to marshall: this was the best we were going to manage today.

After a bit of synthesis we were let loose to collect our lunches and find our break-out discussion groups. I was in a group discussing audiences, and this is such a large issue I’ll leave the ideas emerging from this discussion for a separate blog post.

After 30 minutes we had a break to listen to Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Arts and Politically Damaging Stimulus Programs and former Midnight Oil front man, reveal that he’d been a chorister, could read music (although he phrased it ‘learned the difference between the black notes and the notes with white in the middle’) and had had a thoroughly decent music education that had laid a solid foundation for his work in the rock circuit and political life. When Peter left his prepared speech he was passionate and articulate and connected with his audience; left to follow the script he seemed destined to an unsatisfying end as yet another not-so-well-thought-through-Labour-recruit. He recited the dollar figures granted in subsidies to various music organisations, and this really was funny – some numbers were so low that they were in the ballpark of a politician’s annual salary – hardly impressive largesse. But he could name three Australian composers right off the bat, and even if his idea about the importance of classical music to the history of Australia was wildly exaggerated, his heart was clearly in the more-or-less right place.

The groups had another hour to work through their area of focus and then nearly two hours was spent reporting back.

This was again a time where I reflected with some degree of sorrow on the value that might have been achieved through a more thorough preparation of summit participants; some reports met the designated criteria (highlight 4 key points) while others didn’t even try (4 pages of densely scripted A2 sheets of butcher paper, with extra notes on the back of the final page), and this formal discrepancy created a lack of balance in this reporting process. This could have been minimised if everyone present had developed basic skills in following instructions at any point in their tertiary, secondary or primary school education. The personality of the designated reporter also made for wild differences in the dissemination of the ideas and insights from each group.

But the facilitator was worth her pay: she quickly found useful correlations between the discrepant reports, and rapidly shaped something workable with which to move into the future. Simply achieving an acknowledgement from the floor that an overarching strategic directions committee was needed to drive the next few months was a substantial feat, for this is where territory begins to be staked! Who is to be on this committee?, and who appoints them? dominated debate in a somewhat tiresome way, but then I don’t feel as if I have territory to protect, so that’s an easy observation for me to make.

So a real outcome, with measurable milestones: a good achievement for the Music Council of Australia.

Now for an update in three months to actually measure those milestones, and a new blog post from me in a day or two unpacking the ideologies and narratives in play throughout the summit.