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.
The 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 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.