Joining the Dots Singing

Alan Bullard

Published towards the end of last year were the five volumes of my Joining the Dots Singing (ABRSM) – subtitled ‘A Fresh Approach to Sight Singing’. The Joining the Dots series now contains books for piano, violin, and guitar, but when the opportunity to do a series of sight-singing books arose, you couldn’t hold me back (though it took a long time to get it right!).

What have I enjoyed?
Sight-singing is such a useful skill – for all musicians – and I’ve always wanted to do my bit to help people with it. In the process of writing these books, I’ve very much enjoyed the logic of working out the best approach to improving skill and confidence in singing at sight.

How does the Joining the Dots approach work for singers?
The traditional approach of many singers to music learning and performing is different from the traditional instrumental model…

View original post 528 more words

Performances Christmas 2016

Alan Bullard: selected performances November – December 2016

There is an updated version of this list here

26 November 2016
A Light in the Stable
St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Cowling, Yorkshire
KVU Singers / Frank Smith

27 November 2016
There is a rose tree
Raydon Parish Church, Suffolk (Evensong, 5pm)
The Marenzio Singers

27 November 2016
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
Great Missenden Parish Church
Great Missenden Church Choir

3 December 2016
A Feast for Christmas
Davis High School, California
Davis Chorale

3 December 2016
O Come Emmanuel
St Mary’s Church, Ely
Ely Choral Society / Andrew Parnell

3 December 2016
A Light in the Stable
United Reformed Church, Billericay, Essex
The Choir for all Seasons / Michael Hewitt

4 December 2016
I saw a stable, Angel Alleluias
Wiston Church, Wissington, Suffolk, 6pm
The Marenzio Singers

5 December 2016
O Come Emmanuel
Mint Methodist Church, Exeter
Exeter Choral Society

10 December 2016
Scots Nativity, Glory to the Christ-Child
St Nicholas Church, Chadlington / Matthew Smallwood
North Cotswold Chamber Choir

10 December 2016
O Come Emmanuel
Papendrecht, Netherlands
Cantica / Henk Van Andel

10 December 2016
I saw a stable
Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge
Fairhaven Singers / Ralph Woodward

11 December 2016
This is the truth sent from above
Nottingham Hospitals Choir / Nicholas Milburn

12 December 2016
I saw a stable
Church of St John the Evangelist, Bridge Street, Derby
Sitwell Singers / Malcolm Goldring

17 December 2016
A Light in the Stable
St. Andrew’s Church, Surbiton
Kingston Choral Society / Andrew Griffiths

18 December 2016
There is a rose tree
Lion Walk Church, Colchester, evening carol service
Lion Walk Church Choir / Ian Ray

20 December 2016
Shepherds, guarding their flocks
Blackmore Church, Essex
Stondon Singers / Christopher Tinker

22 December and 24 December 2016
Glory to the Christ Child
Norwich Cathedral (Christmas Procession Service)
Norwich Cathedral Choir / Ashley Grote

24 December 2016
A light for today
Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis
Choir of Plymouth Congregational Church / Philip Brunelle

And looking ahead:

18 March 2017
Psalmos Penetentiales (First performance)
King Edward Grammar School, Chelmsford
Waltham Singers / Andrew Fardell

Passiontide 2017
Wondrous Cross
Nottingham Hospitals Choir / Nicholas Milburn

8 April 2017
Love on my heart from heaven fell
Leith Hill Festival / Jonathan Willocks

New recordings, Autumn / Winter 2016

And all the stars looked down
Song of the Nativity
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
Coro COR16146
BBC Music Magazine Christmas Choice 2016
Details here

And all the stars looked down
There is no rose
Vocal Group Concert Clemens / Carsten Seyer-Hansen
Orchid Classics ORC100062
Details here

Hark Hark, the Lark
Sing Willow
Les Sirenes / Andrew Nunn
Albion Records ALBCD030
Details here

Joining the Dots Singing

Published towards the end of last year were the five volumes of my Joining the Dots Singing (ABRSM) – subtitled ‘A Fresh Approach to Sight Singing’. The Joining the Dots series now contains books for piano, violin, and guitar, but when the opportunity to do a series of sight-singing books arose, you couldn’t hold me back (though it took a long time to get it right!).

What have I enjoyed?
Sight-singing is such a useful skill – for all musicians – and I’ve always wanted to do my bit to help people with it. In the process of writing these books, I’ve very much enjoyed the logic of working out the best approach to improving skill and confidence in singing at sight.

How does the Joining the Dots approach work for singers?
The traditional approach of many singers to music learning and performing is different from the traditional instrumental model. Most solo singers aim to sing ‘away from the book’ as soon as possible, to facilitate performance and communication, and many are therefore just not so used to the concept of reading music in the way that instrumentalists are.
Therefore, Joining the Dots Singing is a structured, step-by-step approach to sight-singing. Like the other Joining the Dots books, it contains Workouts, opportunities for improvisation (Make Music), as well as rounds, duets, and songs to sight-read with piano accompaniment (of similar standard to the relevant sight-singing grade) – but, unlike the instrumental books, each book is designed to be worked through from beginning to end, to build on and develop the student’s skills over time.

What’s in the book?
It follows the carefully ordered structure of the ABRSM Sight-Singing syllabus, which leads from stepwise movement and simple rhythms using quavers, crotchets and minims (in Book 1) to leaps of up to a fifth, and a much wider rhythmic variety (in Book 5).

Workouts - Book 1

Workouts – Book 1

Workouts - Book 5

Workouts – Book 5

In each book the Workouts develop the rhythm and pitch skills required for the grade, and are taught both aurally and from the page. Each workout page introduces its particular topic in a ‘singing back’ exercise for teacher and pupil, followed by a number of short exercises to promote effective reading from staff notation, using tonic sol-fa, numbered degrees of the scale, or any suitable syllable.
Make Music - Book 1

Make Music – Book 1

Make Music - Book 5

Make Music – Book 5

The Workouts lead on the Make Music sections, which, using an approach which is not primarily notation-based, contains activities which will help to familiarise pupils with the ‘feel’ of a key centre and of different intervals. Further sections include It Takes Two, where pupil and teacher (or two pupils) can work together on the techniques used, building confidence through duets, rounds, and voice and piano songs, leading to the Read and Sing section which provides sight-singing exercises similar to those in the exam. And finally there is a page of Songs with Words for pupils to sing together, cementing what has been learned and preparing for the next book.
Thus, at every stage, each new concept is introduced aurally, notationally, and through creative work.

Did I bring any of my experience as a choral composer to this project?
As a composer of choral music, I’ve worked with many choral singers, and as a teacher, I have taught sight-singing and general musicianship for many years – and there is no doubt that quick and efficient sight-singing saves a great deal of time in choral rehearsals, and also helps instrumentalists to internalise the music they are playing – thus, in both cases, achieving more efficient learning and more time to develop the musical details and performance skills.

Instrumentalists and choral singers as well as solo singers, then?
Yes, I believe that that Joining the Dots Singing will be of use not only to solo singers taking examinations, but to all singers and instrumentalists who wish to develop these skills.

Joining the Dots Singing is published by ABRSM – the five volumes cover the sight-singing requirements of the ABRSM Singing exams, Grades 1 to 5.

Visionary Transcendence

As a student at the Royal College of Music in the 1960s, I took part in a performance of the American Randall Thompson’s short choral work, Alleluia. To be honest, I didn’t think very much of it at the time – a period when composers were experimenting with atonality, klangfarbenmelodie, aleatoricism, etc. – as this piece seemed to be predominantly diatonic, with few chromatic notes, and conventional modulations and suspensions, and with a text of only one word (two, if you include the final ‘amen’).

But now I know better.
image_307I’ve recently been listening to a beautiful new CD entitled The Eternal Ecstasy ( Performed by the excellent Chapel Choir of Selwyn College Cambridge, director Sarah MacDonald, and recorded in the warm acoustic of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, it is a selection of unaccompanied choral music by US and UK composers, mostly written in the last twenty years or so.

In the sleeve-note, the producer Gary Cole makes a persuasive case for this particular selection of music – ‘music of visionary transcendence’, which he describes as ‘a musical style that transcended previous national schools and earth-bound identities…..visionary music that removes the listener from the temporal bounds of everyday petty concerns, and transports them to a place of spiritual calm, and of timeless certainty’. And he makes a claim for Thompson’s Alleluia (1940) – beautifully performed and shaped on this disc – as one of the first manifestations of this style.

And he is right.
Re-listening to this piece several times, the juxtaposition of traditional harmonies and suspensions, within a varied and richly coloured choral texture, and where words are relatively unimportant, enables one to concentrate on the pure sound and be lifted, perhaps, to a different plane.

To me, the essence of this timeless music is like a knitted, patterned pullover – it contains strands of different coloured wool (harmonies), which are knitted together and appear to combine with each other in different ways as the pullover is stretched in different directions, but never lose their basic qualities however much they are pulled apart and re-shaped. And since the 1980s, in particular, that stretching of triadic musical material has become a stylistic trait of much music from Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, as well as the music on this disc. Take Penderecki, for instance, and compare his colourful aleatoric music of the 1960s with his later works. Or, from this disc, take Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God (1985), with its achingly beautiful sustaining and overlapping of primary triads – a brave return to diatonicism compared with his atonal music of the 1960s.

Not all the works on this disc are perhaps quite as consistently ‘transcendental’ as that (nor are they probably intended to be) – Cecilia McDowall vividly alternates a lively 6/8 with sonorous slow-moving chords in her Regina Caeli, my own The Spacious Firmament has some fast moving dramatic elements amongst the slow reflective and ‘timeless’ moments, and Paul Mealor contrasts a wide range of colourful textures and speeds within the four movements of his Now sleeps the crimson petal.

But the majority of the works are indeed mainly quiet, slow moving, viewing largely diatonic material from different angles, perhaps like my stretchy old pullover, and the inward calmness that the act of knitting can create. But there is far more to them than the rippling streams of ‘mindfulness’ or of ‘music for meditation, relaxing, and healing’ beloved of gift shops – in all the pieces there is a grit, a logic, a sense of colour and detail that keeps the mind active as well as spiritually calmed.

The title work, Philip Cooke’s The Eternal Ecstasy, certainly fulfils the ‘visionary’ brief, with a beautiful sense of mysticism in its response to Marcus Tomalin’s translation of St Teresa of Avila, and works by Eric Whitacre, James MacMillan, Iain Quinn, David Bednall, John Duggan all achieve, in their different ways, a captivating mood of quiet, reflective calm, with more to discover on each listening.

Finally, the disc contains two classics of the genre: the American Morton Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium – like Thompson’s Alleluia in a luminous D major, but with its diatonicism coloured by a poignant superimposition of primary triads, and the English William Harris’s Bring us, O Lord God – of the Randall Thompson generation, a beautiful, and forward-looking final flowering of the Edwardian choral tradition.

It’s perhaps a rather obvious thing to say, but sometimes those of us who have spent much of our lives teaching and composing forget about the sheer power of music to communicate, to calm, to colour the listener’s mood, even to change lives.

This disc reminds us of that.


Alleluia — Randall Thompson (1899–1984) 5:55
A Hymn to the Mother of God — John Tavener (1944–2013) 2:55
Regina Caeli — Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) 3:23
Lux aurumque — Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) 4:10
Adoremus in aeternum* — Iain Quinn (b. 1973) 3:24
The eternal ecstasy* — Phillip Cooke (b. 1980) 5:33
The law of the Lord* — David Bednall (b. 1979) 3:29
The spacious firmament* — Alan Bullard (b. 1947) 7:00
Christus vincit — James MacMillan (b. 1959) 6:50
Nunc autem manet* — John Duggan (b. 1963) 3:31
O magnum mysterium — Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) 6:47
Now sleeps the crimson petal — Paul Mealor (b. 1975)
i Now sleeps the crimson petal 3:46
ii Lady, when I behold the roses sprouting 3:04
iii Upon a bank with roses set about 1:57
iv A spotless Rose 6:02
Bring us, O Lord God — William Harris (1883–1973) 4:56

* first commercial recording
Total Playing time: 72:48

Health and Safety for Choirs

At the beginning of May I spent some time at the Cornwall International Male Voice Choral Festival, a massive affair with 70 choirs at 60 events in 50 venues all over Cornwall, packed into a long Bank Holiday Weekend. The mastermind behind this well-organised event was Festival Director Peter Davies, director of the Huntingdon Male Voice Choir. Over the 25 years or so that I’ve known him, he has worked hard, alongside many other colleagues, to encourage the development of the male voice choir tradition into a vibrant and forward-looking movement with a range of choirs, styles and approaches, with a wide appeal.

He has commissioned a variety of new pieces for male voice choirs (including some from me), and has lobbied publishers and promoters tirelessly on behalf of the male voice choir movement. Thirty years ago, such a festival would consist of a number of rather similar looking choirs, gentlemen of a certain age with matching blazers and ties, singing, from memory, largely homophonic (chordal) music, often inspired by hymn-tunes or folk-songs, and attempting a wide dynamic range, from a whisper to a rousing forte, with varying tonal control. Last week, in the two concerts and the competition that I attended I could still hear that tradition – but as well there was a flourishing youth presence, with choirs not only from all over the UK but from St Petersburg, and adult choirs from a similarly wide range of places including Estonia and the Czech Republic. And the style of music, too, was much more varied. There were some traditional male voice choirs, from Cornwall, Wales, and elsewhere, fervently singing the classic music of their genre with excellent blend, communication, and wide dynamic range, but alongside that there were jaunty barbershop choirs, small ensembles that skilfully combined comedy with artistic and characterful singing, boys choirs singing a good range of arrangements and original songs with great stage presence, and – the main reason I was there – Cambiata Choirs.

If you’ve not come across this rather odd term, a cambiata choir is for adolescent boys whose voices are changing (we don’t refer to ‘breaking voices’ any more) – and they are designed to encourage teenagers to keep singing by performing music which has been specially arranged or written for them. There has been much research into this in the US and the UK (for example by Martin Ashley, author of the recent book Singing in the Lower Secondary School published by OUP) and a standard format for cambiata pieces is developing, written in several parts, each of which cover a quite narrow but overlapping pitch range, so that voices are not strained or over-stretched at this important point in their development. Although, of course, there have always been choirs involving this age-range, those with changing voices have tended to be sidelined, and this movement is designed to put such voices centre stage.

I was privileged to be offered this year’s Festival commission – and it, was, for the first time, to be for cambiata choir. My initial difficulty was to find an appropriate text – a recurring concern for the choral composer, but for teenage boys in particular there are many no-go areas! So I hit on the idea of those many warning notices to be found – on packaged food, children’s toys, railway trains, and on the instructions that came with my new printer! And thus my suite of three short songs, for cambiata choir and piano, was born – entitled Health and Safety.

The start of the third movement of Health and Safety

The start of the third movement of Health and Safety

The first performance of Health and Safety was given by the excellent Warwickshire County Male Voices, conductor Garry Jones, on May 3 in the Hall for Cornwall, Truro, forming the finale of a wonderful concert of young men singers from all over the country. My thanks go to the performers, and to the Cornwall International Male Voice Choral Festival for this initiative in encouraging teenage boys to sing. Let’s hope that many more cambiata choirs will develop in the future, and that more music is written and arranged for them.

The next Festival, in 2017, will be directed by Rob Elliott, as Peter Davies, the Festival Director for many years, moves on to pastures new. But whatever Peter does next, I’m sure there will be some connection with choral singing!

My new wind band piece

I’ve recently been writing a new piece for wind band, commissioned by the London Youth Wind Band, conductor Geoff Harniess. They performed my ‘Procession’ last year so I was pleased that they wanted more!
I’ve not written for wind band for many years, and it first sight it is a daunting prospect – there are more staves in the score than the average orchestral piece, and inevitably the lack of a string section, and focus on wood wind and brass, requires a quite different approach to sonority, melodic lines, and balance than writing for an orchestra would require. The LYWB are an enthusiastic and skilful bunch of players, but the expectation for wind band writing is always that certain instruments are taken by the more experienced players and that some instruments are optional and thus need to be ‘covered’ in other instrumental parts: and the difficulty is to avoid the music becoming too bland colourless and unvaried in the doubling process. I hope I’ve succeeded – we’ll wait until the performance to find out!
Here’s an excerpt from the second movement – ‘The Shard’.London Landscapes extract
Much contemporary wind band music is inspired by a non-musical subject or title, and aspects of film music often figure quite heavily too. Rather than writing a continuous 8 minute piece, as I did in ‘Procession’, I decided to write a suite of three short pictorial movements, London Landscapes, which I hope would have an instant appeal. Given the circumstances of the commission, it seemed good to celebrate London, the city that I grew up in (my secondary school, no longer there, overlooked Tower Bridge and was next to what is now City Hall) but rather than dwelling on the past, to focus on aspects of the present. Thus the three movements focus on recent times: the first one is a portrait of the Millennium Bridge, with a steady procession of pedestrian sightseers (and the occasional wobble): the second describes the Shard, the 1000 ft. tower which is firmly on the ground, yet pierces the sky: and the final movement takes us to the vibrant and busy Canary Wharf financial district, though with a reminder of the watery docks on which it is built.
I’ve really enjoyed writing the piece and creating these three ‘picture postcards’.LYWB February 2015_Page_1

London Landscapes was commissioned with funding from the Leche Trust and the Friends of CYM, and the first performance is at 7.30 on Friday 27th February at St. Alfege Church, Greenwich, London SE10. This fine church has some history: it was rebuilt to designs by Hawksmoor in the 18th century, and substantially repaired after World War Two bombings, but the earlier building not only saw Henry 8th baptised, but also the burial of the sixteen-century composer Thomas Tallis.

Dyson, Bach, and Tower Bridge

Reading Paul Spicer’s excellent book on George Dyson (Boydell Press, 2014), and listening to some of Dyson’s choral music, reminded me of what a great effect it had on me when I first sung it in 1958, at the age of eleven, as a first-former at St. Olave’s School, London. Then in Tooley Street, in the middle of dockland between Hays Wharf and Tower Bridge, St. Olave’s had a very good musical tradition and, under the directorship of Desmond Swinburn, exciting works like Stanford’s ‘Revenge’, Dyson’s ‘In Honour of the City’, Vaughan Williams’ ‘In Windsor Forest’ were regulars for end of year concerts. For an eleven-year old with quickly developing musical tastes, the impact of these relatively modern works (remembering that Dyson was still alive and RVW had died just that summer) was powerful – the sheer sonority of Vaughan Williams, the drama of Stanford, In honour of the City but, best of all, Dyson’s In Honour of the City, which combined the richness of Vaughan Williams with a driving and forceful melodic style spiced with exciting dissonances. I don’t think I ever got the Dyson out of my head actually – but of all the works we performed at school it was perhaps St john Passion programmeJ. S. Bach’s St. John Passion that had the most lasting influence. We sung this every Easter so I probably sung all the voices over the years, and also played keyboard continuo, and the memory of that great work has stuck with me ever since; particularly the beautiful descending three-note phrases of the penultimate chorus and the joyous exultation of the final chorale. Somehow, and not really intentionally, these and other elements found their way into my Passion-tide work – Wondrous Cross (OUP 2012). Wondrous Cross

I wrote Wondrous Cross in 2011 for Lion Walk Church in Colchester, where I worship regularly. My aim was to write a Passiontide work which was dramatic and accessible to a range of choirs, by giving some flexibility with regard to solo voices and forces used. Our small amateur choir performed it during Holy Week 2012 with strings and organ, and in the same year it was performed with organ by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College Cambridge, director Sarah MacDonald, who later recorded it for Regent Records. Wondrous Cross CDIn presenting the Passiontide story I decided to focus on the crucifixion by using the ‘Seven Last Words’ of Jesus on the Cross and the Bible narration leading up to each. I set the narration for unison voice(s) and Jesus’s words for four-part choir, thus putting Jesus’s words into the mouths of all. I linked these passages by settings of other related texts and some traditional Passiontide hymns – and one spiritual. If it is performed in a worship situation, the congregation can join in with these. Underlying the whole work is the eighteenth-century hymn-tune ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross’ which appears in the Prelude, in the background at various points in the work, and complete at the end. Here’s a link on Youtube with me talking about it, in which you can see that I’m a more experienced composer than broadcaster!
Since publication in 2012 it has had a good number of performances – all over the UK and Scotland, but also in the Netherlands and the US, in concert halls, abbeys, cathedrals, and parish churches. I’m looking forward to hearing it again this Passiontide!

You can obtain the Wondrous Cross CD from all good record shops including and from Regent Records

You can obtain the Wondrous Cross score from OUP and all good music shops including Forwoods Music

I am doing a workshop on Wondrous Cross and other works, organised by the RSCM, in Hornchurch in Essex on 7 March 2015. Details here.

Thoughts on re-presentation, transformation, and a new organ series

My father, Paul Bullard, was a landscape and portrait painter, and on family holidays he would sit and sketch, sometimes with me by his side, filling my music manuscript paper. As a child, I used to think that his task was easier than mine: all he had to do was to put on paper what he could see in front of him, whereas on the other hand I had to imagine a whole sound world, hearing music in my head, and then put it down on paper. Of course that wasn’t really correct: what I didn’t realise was that his task was to re-present the view in front of him in pen and ink, or oils, and not merely copy it: in other words it was an equally creative process to composing.

Paul Bullard: Suffolk Garden

Paul Bullard: Suffolk Garden

So what my father was doing, I suppose, was looking at an existing object from a different angle, ‘arranging’ it for pen and ink, and that just got me thinking about the way that composers often do that too. At the moment I’m reading John Eliot Gardiner’s book ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’ and guided by that I’ve been listening to some of J. S. Bach’s cantatas. In most of these, Bach takes a well-known melody and re-presents it, embroidering the material in a myriad of ways. It wasn’t a new idea of course: composers had been doing it for hundreds of years, but Bach’s skill and variety in transforming the ‘known’ material, both in his choral works and his organ Preludes, is breathtaking. And ever since, many composers have loved to re-present the old with the new in the same way. And so when I came to write my recent OCEAdvent cantata, I found myself using the traditional hymn ‘O come, o come Emmanuel’ as a starting point – turning its phrase shapes into recitatives, and using it as a slowly moving melody in some voices against more decorative singing in the others, so that although the hymn is never sung in its complete form, it permeates the whole work and, I hope, gives the listener a sense of security and comfort. In a similar way, my A light in the StableChristmas cantata ‘A light in the stable’ uses the ancient hymn ‘Of our Maker’s love begotten’ as a melodic basis throughout, as well as using a number of Christmas carols, concealed in the background as well as in the foreground.
So it was a happy coincidence that at the time I was writing these cantatas I was asked to contribute to a new organ series: ‘Oxford Hymn Settings for Organists’ or OHSO for short. The first two volumes of these, OHSO ChristmasOHSO EpiphanyAdvent and Christmas, and Epiphany, are published (by OUP), and there are more to come. Edited by Rebecca Groom te Velde and David Blackwell, they bring together an impressive range of new works from UK and US composers. They make a fascinating collection of short preludes for use in church services and organ recitals: each composer responds to their chosen well-known hymn or carol in a different way, creating a different mood and colour. Some present the melody in slow moving notes in the pedals while the hands weave brilliant toccata-like passages above: others gently conceal the melody in the middle of the texture, while others give us several verses of the melody, each with different harmonisations and registrations. Still others take each phrase of the melody in turn and develop it, perhaps presenting it grandly with big chords, or treating it contrapuntally, one hand copying the other, and a few simply take a fragment of the melody as a starting point and take it in a completely unexpected direction! There are 58 pieces by nearly twenty composers in the two books, and each one is different in its approach and character, each looking at the melody on which it is based from a different angle.

I learnt a lot about writing for the organ when composing my pieces for this series – and now have learnt still more by seeing the variety of the musical offerings of my composer colleagues near and far!

Joining the Dots

Over the years, I’ve written several piano pieces, mostly to play myself in concerts. In fact I’ve been writing an on-going set of Preludes over recent years, which I come back to every so often.

But in the last few years I’ve been involved with two educational piano projects which have given me much enjoyment. These are Pianoworks and Joining the Dots.

Joining the Dots 6-8The Joining the Dots series continues to grow! Just published are Joining the Dots Piano Books 6 – 8, a continuation to the first five books which is how it all started. When Joining the Dots Piano was first published, I wrote something like this in Libretto magazine, which I’ve now updated slightly.:

“Sight-reading can be the aspect of learning that pupils find most difficult and frustrating, and which fills them with most fear when exam-time comes along. We all know that the skill of playing at sight is one of the most useful –and time-saving – for any musician, but helping our pupils to progress with their sight-reading, rather than merely undertaking ‘tests’ in it, is a challenge to which there is no easy answer.
Having been one of the team involved in preparing the current ABRSM piano sight-reading tests, and working as an examiner and teacher, I found myself often re-considering how we learn to sight-read. There are many inter-relating reasons why the more experienced sight-reader manages to ‘keep going’ but amongst these must surely be a reliance on an inbuilt knowledge of the different keys, and the finger patterns and musical shapes within them.
Joining the Dots embodies this approach by not only joining the musical ‘dots’ but also joining together different aspects of music making – knowledge of keys, technical exercises, improvisation and playing at sight – to enable more efficient and effective learning of new music by developing a greater awareness of keyboard geography. It is a resource for regular use within lessons and at home, between exams as well as in preparation for them.
The eight books in this series for the piano cover the keys found in the ABRSM sight-reading tests at each of Grades 1–8, with a separate section for each key used within the tests at the corresponding grade. Imagine, for example, that your pupil is learning a piece in the key of G major. S/he will already have explored the key to an extent by playing the G major scale and arpeggio/broken chord, and will be starting to develop a feel of where that F sharp falls under the fingers and on the page. Joining the Dots will help to reinforce that sense of key, and its G major section will provide technical exercises and warm-ups, opportunities for creative work, and short pieces to sight-read, all in that key and therefore with a starting-point in common. Similar activities are presented at an equivalent level in each key, so that your pupil can ‘jump in’ to any section, using its varied but logically organised material, alongside pieces, scales and arpeggios/broken chords that are being learnt in that key.
Looking in more detail, there are several activities in each section:
Key Features are short exercises for each hand separately, designed to help the pupil establish basic hand shapes and the ‘feel’ of each key under the fingers. They can be a good way to begin a practice session, and within each book, the same patterns are used for each of the different keys, which helps to introduce the concept of transposition, without making a feature of it at this stage.
Workouts are hands-together exercises for warming up the fingers and hands, and explore a range of techniques and styles.
Make Music provides an opportunity for your pupil to build confidence in (and through) creative and imaginative work, and develop aural skills. Like the activities above, these will also help to familiarise the pupil with the geography of the keyboard and the ‘feel’ of the key, but using an approach that is not primarily notation-based, and involves some experimentation. In time, this will develop greater confidence and a closer sense of ‘one-ness’ with the keyboard, thus benefiting the learning and performing of all music.
In Books 6-8 there is also the opportunity to Transpose – an excellent way of cementing the feel of a key under the fingers.
So, having now established the ‘feel’ of a specific key with technical exercises and exploratory improvisation, your pupil is equipped to apply that knowledge to reading at sight in that key. Read and Play is the goal of each section – a number of short, characterful pieces with titles, to be played at sight or after a short practice time, with the focus on ‘keeping going’.
The final section of each book includes more solo pieces and a duet. They can be used as additional sight-reading practice or as pieces to learn quickly and play through for fun.
The eye-catching design, and the range of approachable musical styles with descriptive titles, will appeal to those looking for a wider range of sight-reading ‘specimen tests’: however, the purpose of the books is more extensive than that, seeking to encourage joined-up-thinking between eye, brain and hands in the interests of developing an all-round sense of musicianship.
I’ve really enjoyed writing these books. By imagining myself in the position of a novice pianist – re-living the excitement of exploring the keyboard – it has been a voyage of discovery for me, and I hope that it will be for you and your pupils as well.”

Joining the Dots 6-8

Joining the Dots Piano Books 1-8 are published by ABRSM. Also published are Joining the Dots Guitar Books 1-5 (co-authored with Richard Wright), and Joining the Dots Violin Books 1-5 (with assistance from Doug Blew). Joining the Dots Singing Books 1-5 is on the way for 2015. Here’s a link to the ABRSM website to see the full list.

Joining the Dots Violin Book 1Joining the Dots Guitar Book 5


Over the years, I’ve written several piano pieces, mostly to play myself in concerts. In fact I’ve been writing an on-going set of Preludes over recent years, which I come back to every so often.

But in the last few years I’ve been involved with two educational piano projects which have given me much enjoyment. These are Pianoworks and Joining the Dots.

Pianoworks, published by Oxford University Press, is co-authored with my wife Janet. She is a piano teacher, with a number of elementary adult pupils, and this series of books is for them, and for beginner pupils of any age who don’t fancy lots of pretty pictures or coy titles on each page.
Pianoworks 1TPianoworks 2here are two tutor books (Pianoworks 1 and Pianoworks 2), and both come with a CD to help with some of the activities. It took a lot of work to break down piano learning into separate 2-page units, and we had several attempts at it – but now we are pleased (and proud) with the result! The first book goes from absolute beginner to around Grade 2, and the second book moves on to Grade 3 or 4 – though they are not primarily intended as ‘exam books’. We hope that pupils will have a teacher to guide them, of course, but we have heard of people who have worked through the books quite happily on their own, using the CD to check their progress and accuracy. The books include a wide range of music, original pieces and arrangements, and technique is carefully and progressively introduced. There are also a number of supporting activities such as improvisation and sight-reading.
Pianoworks Collection 1Pianoworks Collection 2Alongside the tutor books we wrote two supporting repertoire books, Pianoworks Collection 1 and 2. These contain a wide range of supplementary pieces, arranged broadly in order of difficulty, and with short descriptive notes about each piece.

These collections then provided a template for subsequent themed collections. Pianoworks ChristmasPianoworks Christmas was one of the first: easy arrangements of lots of well-known carols and Christmas songs, with the words as well. One year Janet used this book very successfully in her adults’ Christmas concert: each pupil learnt one carol, and everyone else sang along, forcing the player to keep going!

Pianoworks Duets 1Pianoworks Duets 2There are also books of duets – Pianoworks Duets 1 and 2 – mostly arrangements of well-known classics, but a few new pieces too, and with an included CD of both parts, so that the player can play along if they don’t have a duet partner: ‘Duets for lonely people’ as a Chinese music salesman put it, though we don’t think that’s a very good sales pitch!

Pianoworks a Night at the TheatrePianoworks Popular StylesOther collections are Pianoworks A Night at the Theatre – arrangements of songs from operas, ballets, and shows, and Pianoworks Popular Styles, containing a wide range of new pieces in many contrasting contemporary styles, from pop to classical.
Lots of pupils and teachers have enjoyed using Pianoworks, and we hope that others will too. You can view the whole series here
The other educational piano series I’ve been writing is called Joining the Dots. I’ll write about that in another blog.