There are many piano tutor books on the market providing teachers and students with plenty of choice regarding how best to learn the instrument. Indeed I have covered this topic myself in my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? It can be a bit of a minefield as not all piano books are the same and some do tend to leave out crucial learning aids. However, once piano basics such as note learning, rhythm and fingering have been mastered, the majority of pupils ‘graduate’ on to simple piano albums which usually focus on written out music whether that be Classical, Pop, Rock, Jazz or any other desired genre. Very few venture into the realms of improvisation. There’s no doubt that it’s crucial to start by consolidating a student’s knowledge of note reading by working at written out music, but how much more fun it would be for pupils if they were to be encouraged to improvise and eventually play their own compositions in addition to the usual staple diet of technical work?
Higgledy Piggledy Jazz is an exciting concept consisting of several music books and accompanying CDs which concentrates on basic Jazz and improvisation skills. Written by pianist, teacher and music educator, Elena Cobb , the books are unique and a useful resource for any teacher and pupil. Elena hails from Russia where she studied at a specialist music school and then at music college. She moved to the UK in 1996 and has since taught the piano for many years combining this with composing music especially for young pianists.
Elena told me what inspired her series; ‘I grew up in the world where in addition to many hours of lessons with music teachers we had plenty of time for everything else. Modern children are expected to do everything quickly and are overloaded with ‘activities’. I wanted to give little people a better chance to understand what this fuss is all about in the bass clef of the piano scores. In my HP Jazz for piano book I added a little ‘extra’ from my childhood – coloured notation. Memories of complete loneliness when practising and scary moments of playing everything on stage alone, brought the idea of a play-along CD with the live recording of a professional Jazz Band. I want children to feel like stars as well as to learn to keep the beat. So I guess, the CD works both as a metronome and a backing track! I am a firm believer that the core requirements like reading the notes and correct hand technique in learning to play the piano should not be sacrificed in preference of being considered a ‘nice’ teacher who will ‘show’ the notes on the keyboard. Children need to learn to read the music in order to make progress and to become independent. And the key element to my books is to make this process a fun experience.’
I spent some time playing through many of the pieces from the Higgledy Piggledy Jazz Series, and the most prominent feature (for me) are the multiple passages within each piece, encouraging improvisation; where the left hand plays various chords and the right hand must negotiate ‘made-up’ or ‘composed’ passagework around certain suggested chord structures. There are so few work books that address this subject and it’s simply a great idea. The books are beautifully produced with colourful illustrations (all drawn by Elena’s artist sister, Nathalie Chabelnik-Wood). The tunes are lively, melodic and nearly all require plenty of rhythmic drive; these volumes would be ideal for students who need to address rhythmic issues such as learning to ‘feel’ the pulse. I asked Elena about the improvisation element; ‘As many classically trained piano teachers are still on the fence about teaching improvisation, I see it as a fantastic opportunity to try. My piece ‘Super Duck’, with its straight forward layout, is the ideal place to have a go! ‘
Higgledy Piggledy Jazz (which is available for piano and other instrument combinations too) can be played with backing CDs of varying speeds and instrumentation, and is between Grade 1-3 level. Elena has also written a volume entitled Blue River. This is full of effective Jazz and Silver Screen inspired numbers; Star Dust, Tango Leone and Cloud Seven, Latin to name a few. Blue River would suit intermediate level players from around Grades 5-7, but is actually also great sight-reading material (I had a lot of fun playing through it!). There’s no denying that Elena’s music will both entertain and inspire young players to enjoy the learning process. You can listen to some of the pieces featuring in the HP Jazz series and buy the books here.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.