Top Piano Resources for 2015

Happy New Year!

I’ve discovered many great piano tutors or methods, educational piano books, sheet music and online resources  over the past year, some of which have already been reviewed or mentioned on my blog.  So here’s a round-up of useful and interesting publications for pupils,  teachers, and piano lovers everywhere. This is a random selection, but I have included resources for all levels, and hopefully these recommendations might be helpful.


For Beginners:

My Piano Trip To London

COVER NEW FRONT copy

My Piano Trip To London will be a hit with beginners everywhere. Written by British composer and piano teacher, Elena Cobb (who is the creator of the popular Higgledy Piggeldy Jazz Series), it combines lots of fun games, stickers (yes, stickers!), and inventive musical ideas, with sound learning tools and advice (there is a Top Tip on every page). I particularly like the duet aspect; pupil and teacher playing together in virtually every piece. Not only does this provide a confidence boost for the student (more often, helping them to keep time), but it also makes any piece sound wonderful (the teacher’s parts being more complicated, definitely enhance each little piece). All centred around famous images of London, Fab Facts are interspersed with swift learning.

Dogs & Birds

Written by Hungarian pianist and teacher Elza Lusher, Dogs & Birds, is already a popular method for very small children. Little children can find reading conventional notes tricky, and this tutor book introduces them to reading music via beautiful colour illustrations and adventures with animals. Learning through familiar animals is more fun, and progress can be quick too; each animal shows the position of notes on the keyboard and staves, using small animal tiles and coloured staves. There is no need to know your alphabet and pupils sing each animal as they play, reinforcing learning. A supplementary book, Notes & Lesson Plans for Parents and Teachers enables parents to understand and help their children practice, which is crucial. An excellent approach.

Tales of a Musical Journey

Irina

This piano method is written by highly experienced Russian teacher, Irina Gorin. Irina regularly publishes her piano lessons on YouTube and has a large following around the world (she lives in the US). Tales of a Musical Journeyemploys a fairy tale setting and characters to introduce and expand musical concepts. Entertaining and magical, the stories develop a pupil’s understanding of music and piano playing. The book comes with a ‘kit’ comprising a foam squeeze ball (for hand positions), picture cards, a plush monkey, music alphabet cards, and noise putty for ‘jelly keys’ exercise! There are ear training exercises and theory too (very important), and a CD with musical examples is also included to accompany students. Good fun and cleverly devised.

Delightfully Easy Piano Duets Book 2 

The Delightfully Easy Piano Duets Series provides a great introduction to ensemble playing.  I reviewed Book 1 here on the blog. Written by British music teacher and writer Rosa Conrad, these books are really useful for beginners who want to perform tunes with their teachers (or parents). The second book is equally bright and cheerful, with slightly more complicated Secondo parts (for teacher), and great little diatonic melodies for the young pupil. It’s not easy to find simple duets, as Rosa says herself, and these will be a welcome repertoire addition for teachers everywhere.

Fun, Games and Party Pieces

Fun, Games and Party Pieces is intended for the young solo pianist. It is designed to be used alongside other piano tutor methods, adding more interest and variety to lessons. The composer, Rosa Conrad, has added a myriad of imaginative ways to learn pieces, and there are important elements such as learning about the major and minor, modes, the pentatonic scale, improvisation and the Twelve Bar Blues structure. They are presented in a way which is easy to grasp, and pupils are encouraged to explore, with plenty of experimentation. I like the illustrations too, which are by Catherine Eley.

For Intermediate to Advanced:

Jazz Exercises, Minuets, Etudes and Pieces for the Piano

Oscar

An interesting pedagogical publication written by legendary Canadian Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. A colleague suggested this book for all those who enjoy playing written out jazzy pieces, but who aren’t confident with the jazz idiom. It’s suitable for those around Grades 3 – 5 exam standard, and provides an excellent introduction. The exercises provide a base for those wanting to get to grips with this style, and they are placed next to repertoire pieces, so ideas can be immediately transferred. The studies  increase in difficulty as the book progresses.

Daily Expressions

Daily-Expressions-by-Paul-Birchall

Daily Expressions are written by British composer Paul Birchall. They are suitable for Grade 5 level upwards, and could be described as mood music, verging on Minimalist. Paul wrote one new piece everyday for a month, then included seven of the compositions in this new volume. Students will enjoy the various ‘moods’ conjured by the different feel depending on the days of the week. Perfect for those who want to play modern pieces without a strictly Classical edge. You can listen to a sample of each work and purchase them here.

Variations for Judith

I was asked to write an article recommending ten easy (ish) piano pieces (between Grades 4-6 exam standard) for amateur pianists, for the Classical music website SinfiniMusic.com. The brief was to include at least two or three Contemporary pieces, so I set off on a mission to find suitable works, and what I found was a revelation. This  volume of short pieces was written for Judith Serota by various Contemporary British composers including Judith Weir, Tarik O’Regan, Michael Berkeley, Diana Burrell and others. The collective title is  Variations for Judith for Piano, 11 short reflections on “Bist du bei mir” by G H Stölzel arranged by J S Bach. You can read my blog post on the history behind these little gems here. From around Grade 4 – 7 standard, and a must play!

Ypakoë and In Memory of Two Cats

Students tend to enjoy meditative or reflective music. There are many composers who comply; Satie, Glass, Einaudi, for example. However, it’s always preferable to be able to recommend something different, and these works by British composer John Tavener (who died in 2013) are perfect. In Memory of Two Cats (1986), is the ideal introduction to Tavener’s style. It’s reflective with interesting harmonic progressions; great for those of approximately Grade 5 or 6 technical level upwards. You can listen here. Ypakoë (published in 2008) was commissioned by the city of London Festival in 1999 (and first performed by pianist Elena Riu), Tavener comments ‘Ypaköe, in Greek refers to the Yapöe of Easter, Why seek ye among the dead, as though He were mortal man? Ypaköe for solo piano is a meditation on both the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.’ This work has 5 movements.  It will please those who want to explore contemplative, yet dramatic, Contemporary music. Listen here. Approximately Grade 8 or diploma technical level.

Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter

VPS-Harry-Potter-PD-Cover-Art

I discovered these great arrangements of popular film music last February, when one of my students insisted on performing them both in a couple of concerts. American pianist and composer, Jarrod Radnich has created extremely effective transcriptions. They are not for everyone (purists look away now!), but are fairly demanding technically, and require careful preparation. I like the way they use the entire keyboard and are a useful vehicle for practising finger technique too. Around diploma level. Listen here: Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter.

Resources for pianists, teachers and pupils:

The Foundations of Piano Technique

This splendid new volume, published by Faber Music, has been written by Scottish pianist, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music, and Professor of Piano at the Royal Northern College of Music,  Murray McLachlan. Murray has written an ongoing series of articles for the International Piano Magazine, many of which have been included in this publication. All aspects of technique are considered (this is the first of three books), and there are relevant exercises too. Intended for all levels and abilities, there is much emphasis on a healthy approach to technique (so important), and the realisation that piano technique does not need to be divorced from artistic creativity. This book will work for all different standards.

The Art of Piano Fingering

The Art of Piano Fingering

Written by Israeli pianist and expert teacher Rami Bar-Niv, this helpful and very detailed guide examines countless fingering permutations. I reviewed The Art of Piano Fingering earlier in the year, and you can read my review here. Beginning with simple scale and arpeggio fingering, progressing through to creative and innumerable ideas for the advanced player. There are many photos and musical examples, and a positive emphasis on healthy hand and finger positions too. Lots to learn in this volume.

Practising the Piano e-book Series

Practising the Piano

British pianist and expert teacher Graham Fitch has written a series of four e-books on the subject of practising the piano. Graham writes an illuminating and very popular blog (practising the piano), and he has transferred many of his teaching ideas and tools to his e-book series. There are copious demonstrations and videos, plus lots of sound advice and innovative practising strategies. Great for all levels, but particularly beneficial for more advanced players, teachers and good amateurs.

E-Music Maestro

This is a superb site with bountiful different musical aspects designed for the music teacher and pupil. E-music maestro is an American site, and essentially a resource website providing access to knowledge about teaching, learning and playing the piano. It employs up-to-date technology combined with a continually expanding database, and it is simple to navigate. You can buy a subscription or just log on and make immediate purchases, there are plenty of free samples and a continuing professional development section too. It is exam based, so there is much information on the various exam syllabuses. Very handy!


If you haven’t yet subscribed to Pianist Magazine or Piano Bench Mag, then this could be a good New Year’s resolution! These publications provide a wealth of information on how to play (Pianist) and great ideas for piano teachers everywhere (Piano Bench Mag).

I’m looking forward to making lots more exciting piano resource discoveries over the coming year, but in the meantime I wish you health, happiness and peace in 2015.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

Faber Music launches the Lang Lang Piano Academy

Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang has already become a legend in the world of Classical music. He has many fans in the West, but he’s also developed a colossal  following in the Far East, which has directly increased the Chinese appetite for Western Classical music and more specifically, the demand for piano lessons. More than 40 million children are now learning to play the piano in China due to the ‘Lang Lang effect’ (as it’s affectionately known). He has attained rock star status and Time Magazine recently included Lang Lang  in the “Time 100”, the Magazine’s annual list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.  So when an illustrious concert pianist teams up with a highly esteemed publishing company, the results can be stratospheric.

I was invited to attend the launch of Lang Lang’s new Piano Academy; a series of piano books entitled Mastering the Piano intended for young learners, published by Faber Music. Held at the intimate 1901 Arts Club in Waterloo, London, the event was beautifully arranged with an impromptu performance and talk by Lang Lang himself. He chatted informally about the reasons for collaborating with Faber Music and described it as a lifelong ‘dream’ to produce a series of books such as these. His heart genuinely lies in music education, and for me, this really is a joy to behold; Lang Lang takes the time and opportunity to highlight and endorse the importance of playing the piano, and more importantly, playing it effectively.

Glossy, clear and concise, the books are well presented and volumes (or Levels) 1, 2 and 3 are first to be published, with 4 and 5 following later in the year. They focus on ‘how’ to play and are not a piano method per se, as the sub-heading clearly states ‘Technique, studies and repertoire for the developing pianist’. Starting at around Grade 1/2 standard up to around Grade 4, there are plenty of photos, demonstrations and advice from Lang Lang regarding how to tackle various techniques and styles of music. Copious piano pieces, exercises and studies infiltrate the pages, with lots of superlative practice and preparation ideas from correct posture and hand positions, to the importance of rhythm and hand coordination.

The launch began with a performance of the Burgmüller Arabesque, from Level 2, after which Lang Lang explained a few vital points concerning fruitful, positive practice. I was delighted he spoke so eloquently about Scales. A pet hate for many students, but as he demonstrated, they are the bedrock of excellent, even piano playing and must be worked at thoroughly, diligently and consistently (he practised them for an hour and a half a day apparently!).  Practice ‘features’ or techniques are arranged in chapters (or units); Level 3 contains ‘Exploring the keyboard’, ‘Developing dexterity’, ‘Introducing the pedal’, ‘Chords’, ‘Playing in new keys’, which appear with corresponding advice based around certain relevant pieces and exercises. This is all very useful for those just getting to grips with assorted techniques.

The repertoire in each Level is extremely varied, from Scarlatti, Beethoven, Gounod, Grieg, Schumann, and Kabalevsky, to Chinese works arranged for the instrument, as well as pieces and arrangements by favourite contemporary composers and music educators (Paul Harris, Pam Wedgwood and Alan Bullard). I like the inclusion of lesser known composers, such as Bertini, Dunhill, Czerny, Heller, and Gurlitt, who wrote excellent little piano studies for young pianists. In Mastering the Piano, these pieces are assiduously examined, and a wealth of tips and practice suggestions are added at the beginning. Each chapter is preceded by a ‘Message from Lang Lang’. Thoughts on memorization was another illuminated topic at the launch, and Lang Lang emphasised the study of J S Bach’s piano music to help establish this elusive skill, in order for it to become a ‘normal’ part of piano performance.

It’s not unusual or indeed unexpected for musicians to be influenced by other art forms, but Lang Lang specifically mentioned the significance of paintings and sculpture for capturing a musical mood. Appropriate paintings are reproduced as a reminder. He finished the presentation by playing a Chinese work entitled Jasmine Flower, a traditional Chinese Song (from Level 1), followed by the ever popular Rondo Alla Turka or Turkish March from Sonata in A major K. 331 by Mozart, for which he received a rapturous reception.

These books will no doubt prove popular with a plethora of pupils (of all ages) who want a learning ‘tool’ for help and guidance, as they work to develop a fluent technique and greater musical understanding. They are not designed to replace the piano teacher, or to be a specific ‘method’ studied alone, but rather to be incorporated with other materials to attain a whole and well-rounded piano education. To this end Lang Lang and Faber Music have done a sterling job.

After his presentation, the Chinese pianist posed for countless photos, chatting to everyone in the room; for a superstar with a tight schedule (he had two further engagements after this lunchtime event), his kindness, sincerity and modesty are indeed remarkable. Many congratulations to Faber Music for such an innovative project which will hopefully be the start of a great musical relationship.

Mastering the Piano Series

Image above: Faber Music

Lang Lang 3

Image: Lang Lang performing at the 1901 Arts Club in London. © Melanie Spanswick


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.