Spectrum 5 – 15 contemporary pieces for solo piano

The ‘Spectrum’ series, published by ABRSM, and compiled by acclaimed pianist Thalia Myers, holds a special place in piano repertoire in helping many pianists, young and old, discover the world of new music for piano, what might loosely be termed “contemporary classical music”. The first Spectrum collection appeared in 1996. Commissioned by Thalia Myers, it was a response to the dearth of serious contemporary piano music accessible to the amateur and/or student pianist. The latest volume, Spectrum 5, is now available, making some one hundred and seventy seven contemporary piano pieces available to pianists and piano teachers. Works from the series (5 volumes for solo piano and 1 for piano duet) now appear in exam and competition syllabuses, and are used by teachers of piano and composition as important reference materials. Perhaps what is even more significant is that the series showcases the work of contemporary classical composers around the world, allowing them to distil in miniature, characterful pieces the essence of their compositional language and style.

As in previous volumes, Spectrum 5 offers a broad range of pieces by composers such as Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Howard Skempton, Michael Finnissy, Helen Grime, Chen Yi and Karen Tanaka. The pieces have appealing, evocative, and witty titles – Imaginary Birds, Schrödinger’s Kitten, The Jig is Up, Beethoven’s Robin Adair, Commuterland – to fire the imagination, and range in difficulty from around Grade 6 to Diploma level. The wonderful range, originality and variety of pieces prove that contemporary classical music is not “plinky plonky”, atonal, inaccessible or lacking in melody, and as such as Spectrum series is the best introduction I know to encourage young students in particular to explore contemporary music.

The book contains biographies of all the composers and in most instances, the pieces are accompanied by footnotes by the composers giving background information about their music and guidance on interpretation. There is an accompanying audio download of all the pieces, elegantly and characterfully performed by Thalia Myers.

Recommended.

Further information

‘Spectrum for cello’, compiled by William Bruce, and ‘Spectrum for Clarinet’, by Ian Mitchell, were published in 2004 and 2006 respectively.

 

 

Mindfulness – the piano collection

mindfulness-piano-collection-coverI showed this new book from Faber Music to one of my teenage students and she exclaimed “Wow! That’s so cool!”. She told me she liked the design, the selection of pieces and above all the illustrations which one can choose to colour in between practise sessions.

Mindfulness, a simple practice of meditation which encourages one to be “in the present moment”, to banish negative thoughts and alleviate stress and anxiety, is now very popular. Mindfulness has been shown to help people suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, including physical manifestations of stress disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, pain and ill health, and is approved by the UK Mental Health Foundation. It has significant a role in music making and performance, and its benefits have been recognised by practitioners, teachers and musicians – so much so that the Guildhall School of Music and Drama now runs courses on mindfulness for performers.

Adopting a “mindful” approach while engaged in music practise can lead to an increased awareness and help us reconnect with our instrument and our musical self, leading to improved concentration, physical awareness of the feel of the instrument under the fingers, tone control, quality of sound, expression, a vibrant dynamic palette, flow, musical insight and communication.

The pieces in Mindfulness – the Piano Collection have been specially selected to reflect the meditative aspects of mindfulness and to encourage one to play in the moment. There are popular classics such as the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata and a transcription of Ravel’s ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’, simplified to suit cGrade 3-4 level players. There are also works by living composers/musicians including Nils Frahm, Howard Goodall, Evelyn Glennie and Ludovico Einaudi (his ‘I Giorni’ perhaps being the most meditative piece in the collection). The general level of the collection is cGrade 4-7. Each piece is preceded by a short introductory paragraph suggesting a simple mindfulness technique to be used while playing, for example:

The simplicity of this piece allows you to give all your attention to the sounds you’re creating. Focus on the hypnotic patterns, harmony and chord changes and if you notice your mind wandering bring your attention back to the music.

[introductory note to ‘Earnestly Yours’ by Keaton Henson]

Of course, students and pianists of all levels should ideally engage in mindful piano playing at all times, but the mind does have a tendency to wander, and the text at the beginning of each piece provides a useful focus. Teachers can work together with students on aspects such as technique, dynamics, articulation and expression.

The book is attractively-designed with an eye-catching treble-clef design on the front cover. A CD of the music might be a useful addition in a subsequent edition, but overall there is much to enjoy in this new collection, and I think it will have a particular appeal for teenage students.

Published by Faber Music RRP £9.99

Mindfulness and Piano Playing

The Adventures of Ivan – piano pieces to delight young and old

The Adventures of Ivan is a suite of eight characterful piano miniatures by Aram Khatchaturian (1903-78), the titles of which suggest a narrative or snapshots in the life of a young boy called Ivan. Perhaps best known for his concertos and scores for the ballets Spartacus and Gayaneh (which includes the brilliant ‘Sabre Dance’), he also composed symphonies and other orchestral works, film and theatre music, chamber and band music, and a large number of patriotic and popular songs. His music is rich in the idioms of his Armenian heritage, marked by a strong rhythmic drive beautiful cantabile melodies and colourful textures. He was one of the most popular and successful composers of the Soviet period, alongside Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

The Adventures of Ivan offers a fascinating glimpse into Khatchaturian’s distinctive style. Each piece in the suite has an evocative title which assist the pianist in shaping character, mood, and expression in the music, and each offers interesting technical and musical challenges, making the pieces very satisfying to play and to teach. ‘Ivan Sings’, for example, (the first work in the suite, written in 1926, and the best known) is marked Andantino and cantabile and has a singing melody in the right hand over tenuto chords in the left hand, which turn into a gentle syncopated rhythm in the second half of the piece. There is much scope for shaping of the melody, understanding how to balance the melody with the accompaniment, and syncopated pedal. The descending melody and piquant harmonies lend a wistfulness to this piece which is hard to resist.

In contrast, ‘Ivan Can’t Go Out Today’, scored in 3/8, has the dancing, swirling rhythms of a tarantella and is an exercise in coordination between the hands. It’s lively and dramatic, with crunchy harmonies, emphasised by accents to suggest Ivan’s frustration at being kept indoors, perhaps because it is raining or maybe because he has been naughty. But the final C major chord suggests the sun has come out again and Ivan is allowed out to play.

‘Ivan Goes to a Party’ is a humorous light-hearted waltz with hints of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante Op 18 (particularly in its grandiose opening), while ‘Ivan is Very Busy’ is a sparkling little number, all staccato chattering. The works are intermediate level (the first two are cGrade 3) and there is much to delight pianists young and old in this charming suite.

 

New books for pianists from Trinity College London

It’s good to see Trinity College London extending its publishing programme to include more books for pianists, including collections of pieces from beginner to advanced level, and a compilation of piano exercises, selected from past exam syllabuses, all of which offer excellent resources for teachers and students alike.

Raise the Bar is a new series of graded pieces from Initial to Grade 8 showcasing favourite repertoire from past Trinity exam syllabuses. Edited by acclaimed teacher, pianist and writer Graham Fitch, each book contains an attractive selection of pieces in a range of styles and periods. Teaching notes for each piece are included, highlighting aspects such as technical challenges, structure, rhythm and expression, and each book contains a summary at the back containing the composer, title, key, time signature, tempo markings and characteristics of each piece. There is a good range of music to suit all tastes and the teaching notes can be used as a springboard for further discussion between teacher and student or a basic starting point for independent study. These books provide useful additional repertoire for students preparing for exams or simply for playing for pleasure and broadening one’s repertoire and knowledge of different style of music.


Piano Dreams is an attractively-designed series of books containing pieces for beginner and early intermediate pianists composed by Anne Terzibaschitsch. The pieces will particularly appeal to younger children with their imaginative titles and fun illustrations. Programmatic text weaves elements of story-telling into the pieces to stimulate the player’s imagination and encourage more expressive and colourful playing. There are notes on each piece highlighting aspects of technique or expression. In addition to the solo pieces, there are two books of piano duets in the same format.

I am a big fan of Trinity’s Piano Exercises which students learn as part of their grade exams. The exercises are designed to develop particular aspects of piano technique and many directly relate to pieces in the exam syllabus, offering the teacher the opportunity to introduce students to the concept of the ‘Etude’ or Study. This new compilation of selected exercises ranges from Initial to Grade 8 and each has a descriptive title to inspire students to interpret the music imaginatively (thus reinforcing the idea behind Etudes by Chopin and Liszt – that pieces should be both challenging and musical, testing technique and musicality). These exercises provide a useful resource for developing secure technique and can be used alongside repertoire to inform and extend students’ technical and musical capabilities.

More information about Trinity College London music publications here

Encore – your favourite ABRSM piano exam pieces

There are numerous anthologies of piano pieces which sit comfortably alongside the exam syllabuses, many of which are published by the ABRSM. Encore is a new compilation, in four volumes covering Grades 1 to 8, of over 70 favourite exam pieces from timeless classics to contemporary classical music and popular songs and show tunes or TV themes. Selected by Karen Marshall, one half of the team behind the Get Set! Piano series, the opinions of teachers, educators and piano students were sought in deciding which pieces to include. The result is a collection of music which will appeal to all ages and abilities.

 

By necessity such a selection is quite subjective, but overall I find the range of repertoire is interesting and stimulating and will suit most tastes. The earlier volumes are particularly strong, with some of my personal favourites (and favourites of my students too) such as African Dance, A Song of Erin, Vampire Blues and Top Cat featuring in the first book.

The clear, spacious layout of the pieces is familiar from the ABRSM exam books and each piece includes a footnote with concise information to help the student’s understanding of the piece, from details about the composer to guidance on tempo, articulation, phrasing, and ideas for further exploration which include practical musicianship, an area often overlooked in tutor books and anthologies. These include, suggestions on how to memorize, further listening, identifying musical patterns or motifs, simple structural analysis, keyboard spatial awareness, and in the later grades guidance on comparing different interpretations of the same piece or understanding how a fugue is constructed. There is no accompanying CD for the books, but I suspect most repertoire can be found online, on YouTube or via a music streaming platform.

I have already begun to use pieces from the Encore series to broaden my students’ repertoire. Far too many students “go through the grades” without learning any additional repertoire: thus by Grade 8 they will have learnt only 24 pieces. The Encore series offers an excellent opportunity for teachers and students to explore new and varied repertoire which will suit individual abilities and preferences, and hopefully encourage enjoyed and engagement with the piano and its literature.

The Encore books can be ordered direct from the ABRSM or other sheet music retailers.

 

What Are Piano Lessons For?

This is a very personal manifesto about the purpose of piano lessons. You may not agree. You may disagree vehemently. But what you (as a piano teacher or as a parent of a piano student or as a piano student) believe piano lessons are for will affect your level of satisfaction with the piano lessons you are giving, or you or your child is receiving. Elissa Milne

What Are Piano Lessons For?.

 

Guest post: You Can Teach Jazz

by Elena Cobb 

I am very grateful to all who took part in the lively discussions on the Facebook piano teachers forums, made suggestions and offered their opinions on this highly interesting and often controversial topic. Special thank you to Snake Davis (UK), Kay Alexander (Canada), Elissa Milne (Australia), Rami Bar-Niv (Israel), Tom Lydon, the editor of the Music Teacher magazine UK and Paddy Warren.

Over a hundred years ago musical pioneers created a phenomenally popular musical style – jazz! Exciting, rhythmic, harmonious, colourful, toe-tapping and ear-catching, jazz had it all – and people loved it! It was a massive shaking up of the musical world. And, as well, it had something new; something that classical music had never had – it had a swing!

However, this new creation had come from the poor and disinherited in the world; people who had lost much in their lives and had little; people who understood loss, disinheritance, loneliness, isolation – and for many, the associations of these people who had nothing and had lost an enormous amount (even, in the case of slaves, their freedom) meant that the normal music-loving populace could not give the new musical invention its due. Improvisation was not willingly added to the classical musical scene and it is not an element that exists in our current musical exams.  But – why not? Besides watching how excited pupils become playing jazz tunes and how fast they learn to play them, would it be a stretch too far to say they would also be happy to include improvisation in their musical learning?

Judging by the number of children entering the classical exams each year, it’s clear that children can be interested in whatever kind of music their teachers recommend. But, however malleable the pupils might be, teachers tend to believe that you need to be a specialist to teach jazz. They think that children who are eager to focus on it, need to learn sophisticated bass lines and intentional dissonances under the watchful eye of an expert and it isn’t considered to be something that an untutored teacher can offer – disappointing news for the average child.

Of course, classically trained teachers do have the advantage that they can tell pupils how to play each piece appropriately for the chosen composition style to make sure no marks are lost, and this works well for how current exams are structured, but what about the one, very important element of jazz which is different from the elements of classical music – improvisation?

Improvisation is believed to be a spontaneous moment of sudden inventiveness and, in reality, it has been around for as long as music exists. Great composers and performers of all classical styles were very good at improvising. But, somehow, it didn’t make it into the books we use today and it seems that only jazz musicians carry on the tradition.

Here is a quote by Snake Davis who is a great authority on all things jazz: “I’m an improvising musician. Yes I read, yes I learn parts by ear and repeat them, but I am most happy when I “shut my eyes and blow”. But improvising can be very frightening. Nowhere to hide, no safety net, very exposed, like going on stage naked. So it needs to be handled with care, taught with passion and sensitivity. I love teaching it, de-mystifying it, I call it “making stuff up” rather than “improvising”. Should classical students be encouraged to improvise? YES! because it will make them braver, more free, more confident players. Should classical teachers teach improvisation and jazz? Yes, but ONLY if they themselves are confident and proficient improvisers.”

Not wanting my pupils to miss out on such an important musical experience I felt that as a modern classically trained teacher, I should be able to cross boundaries to provide a balanced education to my pupils. So I wrote and published ‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ for young pianists, which, unlike normal jazzy piano books (which don’t have improvisation sections), includes elements for young pianists who have plenty of enthusiasm for improvisation.

The main benefits I have found that jazz improvisation brings to classically trained children include:

  • an increase in confidence and self-esteem
  • a more positive attitude to home practice
  • improved sight reading and eye-hand coordination
  • improvements in the ability to maintain the beat and think on the go
  • greater creativity in the lesson with increased development in independent thinking
  • a sense of achievement for something that is considered difficult by others
  • and last (but not least) let’s not forget the ‘cool factor’ – with lots and lots of fun!

If you’re a classically trained teacher and you find yourself confused as to whether to introduce improvisation to your pupils or not, you could find the following improvisation exercises very useful as a start. There are both rhythm and notation exercises and you could practice them with your pupils from memory or by looking at the sheets associated in this magazine with this article.  Hopefully, you’ll find the exercises logical and easy to remember – and it will be fun for both you and your pupils.

1  Rhythm exercises

Tip – Count aloud  

Remembering that every crotchet consists of two quavers and we are getting ready to ‘swing’ them, tap the rhythm on your thighs and count aloud one and, two and, three and, four and.  Get your pupil to start slowly and repeat each exercise until they are ready to move on to playing. Note that the left hand always taps crotchets.

EC pic

2  Notation exercises

Tip – Know your notes and fingers  

The blues scale is very special and if you play the notes from it you create a ‘blues sound’. The exercises below are based on the blues scale on C and for your pupils to play them effectively, make sure they find the notes on the keyboard first and then stick to the fingering for the right hand of:

– 1st finger for C

– 2nd finger for Eb

– 3rd finger for F

– 4th finger for F#.

Transpose the exercises into any key and let your pupils use them for different pieces or just for enjoyable practice.

3 Putting it together

Tip – Count the bars  

Take a look at the sheets with the article and you’ll see that there is colour in the bass clef notes. C is in the usual black ink, but F is green and G is red. Make sure your pupils memorise this colour usage and when they’re playing, make sure they count the bars (as below).

(4 x C) + (2 x F) + (2 x C) + (1 x F) + (1 x G) (1 x C) + (1 x G) = 12 bar blues

‘Super Duck’, one of the tunes in the ‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ book, is a twelve bar blues and we can use that tune to start off with. It would be most suitable for a pupil already working on Grade 1 (and above) classical piano. From bar 15 you’ll notice that your pupil has the chance to play what they’d like with their right hands – they can play it as it is or they can use that space to improvise and make it into a solo.

Get your pupil to start practising by playing the entire solo, repeating one bar from the notation exercise in the right hand. When they’re feeling confident, tell them to try mixing the notation exercises up. When they’re feeling very confident and ready to go – let them use their own ideas. Tell them to remember that they are improvising and what they thought was a mistake could well be a real gem of a find! And finally, like a pro, get them to create a fantastic ending by adding pedal to the last chord and playing it on tremolo.

Certainly, jazz improvisation can be a little tricky initially and not everything will come easily. But it will be invigorating and rewarding to watch your pupils turn dreams into reality.

Download the Exercises (PDF file)

Elena Cobb is a classically trained and highly experienced pianist, teacher and composer and she believes that ’the child who is stuck in front of the music is an unhappy child’. She composed jazzy, child-orientated tunes for her piano pupils to increase their pleasure and inspire them to practise at home – and they loved them! Able to understand the issues for both child and teacher, she has created an approach which is developing children’s eye-hand co-ordination and muscular memory, eventually enabling those tasks to become easy and carried out without conscious effort.

Elena believes that general process of thinking can be improved by adding jazz and blues to the traditional repertoire.  She will be presenting improvisation workshop for classically trained teachers at the MusicExpo 2014 in London’s Barbican Centre. http://www.musiceducationexpo.co.uk/seminar/improvising-for-the-classically-trained-pianist/

Elena’s books from the Higgledy Piggledy Jazz series for the piano with CD, alto sax with CD, classical guitar ensemble and ‘Blue River’ for aspiring pianists are popular with teachers and pupils in the UK, Canada, USA, Australia, Europe and Hong Kong. For more visit www.elenacobb.com.