10 minutes reading time (1982 words)

Autumn 2020: New Music and Materials

(S3) SAPLINGS: 21 INTERMEDIATE PIANO SOLOS published by Red Leaf Pianoworks 

While presenting at and attending the Canadian Music Teachers Conference last summer in Winnipeg, I was introduced to a new collection hot off the press called Saplings. This collection is written with the intermediate pianist in mind and features eleven Canadian composers and twenty-one highly unique pieces. I immediately fell in love with this collection because of the diversity of styles and sound—something that I have been searching for that is special and new. 

The preface opens with a remark that really provides a peek into the thought process of how this collection came together.

"Our musical focus...is toward the early intermediate pianist who is becoming more sophisticated, expressive and technically capable. We have spread our branches...by introducing level-appropriate technical and interpretative challenges that will inspire both teacher and the performer." 

This caught my attention right away and I was ready to take this collection on! There are seven pieces that offer impressions of nature, six that are character pieces featuring suggestive titles, and four that feature swing rhythms and/or interesting harmonic progressions. Three more pieces are dances, and there is one compact sonatina. The table of contents groups these pieces into levels, labeled 3, 4, and 5. Included are pictures of and short bios for each composer, and a few sentences about the pieces that they wrote.

All of these pieces offer up wonderful challenges, including playing expressively, playing complex rhythm patterns or meters, and playing with a variety of articulations and style with respect to the swing-infused pieces and dances. Some of my favorites are "Atmosphere" (level 5, nature piece), which represents the calm before the storm, and offers the student the challenge to play scale-like patterns with ease and finesse; "Gargoyle's Night Out" (level 4, character piece), which suggests a gargoyle leaving its post on a housetop to enjoy a night on the town, and challenges

the student to play both hands in the lower bass clef; and "Sand in My Shoes" (level 3, swing rhythms piece), which suggests sauntering along a sandy beach on a hot day, and requires the student to swing the rhythmic patterns.

There are many more pieces to explore, with captivating titles like "Birthday Cake Sprinkles," "Ripple Effect," and "A Toad That Became a Prince." All of these are highly imaginative, thoughtfully written, and just plain fun to play. Teachers and students will enjoy this collection for its diversity and creativity in compositional styles. This is a must-have for teachers today to expand their library with fresh new sounds.

The eleven composers represented in this collection are: June Armstrong, Joanne Bender, John Burge, Martha Hill Duncan, Janet Gieck, Susan Griesdale, Rebekah Maxner, Beverly Porter, Terese Richert, Peter Rudzik, and Irene Voros. Saplings can be ordered through the Red Leaf Pianoworks website (www.redleafpianoworks.com). This collection follows an earlier one called Sprouts which was published in 2017. (Red Leaf Pianoworks, $19) —Adrienne Wiley 

(S4–5) BYRD: ORGAN AND KEYBOARD WORKS edited by Desmond Hunger, and


For pianists, music composed before 1700 is often a niche interest, and editions of early music are not as widely circulated as those from later periods. Bärenreiter has recently released some excellent new collections of early keyboard music, and I had the pleasure of reviewing Byrd: Organ and Keyboard Works, edited by Desmond Hunter, and Frescobaldi: Organ and Keyboard Works, Volume IV, edited by Christopher Stembridge.

While the titles suggest that these are books of organ music, the organ is only one possible instrument on which this music can be played. None of the individual pieces specifies an instrument.

Each book contains a preface that explains conventions that are likely unfamiliar to a twenty-first-century keyboardist. Additionally, the end of each book contains a critical commentary section, an indexed collection of endnotes that further help with interpretation in specific instances. No special training in early music is required to interpret this music; the preface and critical commentary provide all the information you will need.

One of my favorite aspects of these editions is the engraving. The notation is clear and crisp, with ample horizontal space. This spaciousness makes the music easier to read and is especially helpful in passages with dense rhythms and thick counterpoint.

A few of the pieces in the Frescobaldi volume are difficult, though most of them are at a late-intermediate level. The Kyries can be quite short—about one page in most cases —and are a great starting point for exploring Frescobaldi's keyboard compositions. The canzoni and recercari are longer and more difficult.

The works in the Byrd volume are mostly difficult. The fantasias are long and complicated pieces, filled with dense counterpoint and exciting changes in meter, and they are masterpieces of Renaissance keyboard polyphony. The preludes and voluntaries are shorter and more accessible. Because Byrd predates the common practice tonal system, you will encounter some delightfully surprising harmonies.

Both of these books are welcome additions to my music library. The music is lovely, the engraving is attractive and, critically, the binding is excellent. These hundred-plus-page books stay open on the stand, and they feel durably constructed. I look forward to playing from them in both the near and distant future. (Bärenreiter, Byrd $33.99; Frescobaldi $53.99)—Mitch Grussing 

by Martha Mier 

"Hummingbirds at Play"..."The Challenge"..."Mountain Splendor"...who wouldn't be enticed into learning music with such descriptive and interesting titles? Martha Mier's recent collections of character pieces provide a wonderful introduction to this well-loved style.

Students wishing to prepare for the character pieces of Schumann, Mendelssohn, and other Romantic composers will gain an excellent understanding of the genre through studying these works.

The books in this series range from late-elementary to early-advanced, and the music expresses a wide range of moods and tempos, which are concisely described in each title. As is usual with character pieces, the works are short: one or two pages long. Each book contains twelve to fifteen pieces. The keys are varied, giving students a good multi- key experience. All three levels make use of syncopated pedal, which increases in complexity in Books 2 and 3.

In Book 1 (late-elementary to early-intermediate), most of the pieces are in keys with zero to one or two sharps and flats, and the syncopated pedaling is very accessible —generally once per measure. A beautiful pentatonic piece, "Wind Chimes," is in six flats; the main challenge is remembering to flat the C.

Mier has a real talent for writing lovely melodies that go unexpected places, and that is true in this graceful and delicate piece. In contrast, "The Challenge" is a vigorous study in cross-hand broken chords, reminiscent of David Carr Glover's popular Great Smoky Mountains, but simpler. A third favorite is "Sea Treasures," a poignant waltz which uses refreshing harmonies.

Book 2 increases in complexity, with a more active left hand than in Book 1. Mier writes in keys up to four sharps and three flats; the syncopated pedal and the wider- ranging melodies are typical of intermediate and late- intermediate compositions. Many of the pieces in Book 2 are lyrical in nature; "Reverie" has a beautiful, peaceful melody. In contrast, "Hummingbirds at Play" is sparkling and cheerful, similar to McDowell's "To a Hummingbird" from Six Fancies, Op. 7. "Majestic Iceberg" is a grand broken-chord study with lush pedaling and ringing tones in the left hand.

Mier completes the set with Book 3, written for late- intermediate to early-advanced students. Students who enjoy playing fast, exciting pieces will love "Agitated." For those who prefer a calmer work, "Serenity" is lovely, with more unexpected twists and turns in the beautiful melody. "Mountain Splendor" is a majestic work that conjures up images of the Colorado Rockies.

Although the pedaling, keys, and range increase in complexity, Mier sticks to the one- to tw0-page format even in this more advanced book. This provides lots of choices for busy teens who may have less time to practice. Many of us love playing Romantic character pieces. Kudos to Martha Mier for writing three substantial volumes in this style! Her wonderful pieces allow teachers to start introducing works of this genre at an earlier level. (Alfred, $7.99 each)—Meg Gray 


Teachers know the importance of sight-reading practice and the freedom and confidence that comes with having strong reading skills, but it can be quite challenging to make time to fit it into busy piano lessons! I am always on the lookout for options to help make sight reading a quick and easy addition to lessons, or for books students can work through on their own, and this new series really fits the bill. Esteemed pedagogues and prolific authors Diane Hidy and Keith Snell have published an appealing series of eleven books. The pieces are not meant for performance, but rather are to sight ready only, or sight read and then practice for only a short time.

The Preparatory pieces are four to eight measures long, and all written by Hidy herself. They begin in Middle C position only, then many in C position, and gradually expand to a few other major and minor five-finger positions. Hidy's compositions continue into Levels 1 and 2, as well as a few pleasing compositions by Snell and others. Level 2 contains a mix of short works by well-known composers including Spindler, Reinagle, and Bartók, and also lesser-known ones such as Kálmán Chován and Jan Jakub Ryba. The progression of difficulty is so gradual and seamless that students will gain confidence from successfully moving from one piece to the next. 

Levels 3–10 are comprised of pieces by various composers, compiled and edited by Snell. Pieces in Levels 4 and 5
are primarily short etudes by Czerny, Gurlitt, Berens, Beyer, Köhler, and Türk, plus a few others. In that sense, these books could also be used as technical exercises, but indeed, the skills of sight reading and recognition of patterns, coupled by the technical ability to play those patterns, are closely interrelated. Some pieces are not the complete original works, but rather excerpts, and are sometimes edited and altered to better suit the needs of the students who will use them.

Each level contains two pages of tips and goals for students at the beginning of the book, but the pages with the pieces themselves are clean and uncluttered, with no other text.

By the time students reach Level 10, they will be reading pieces from Czerny's Op. 599, Gurlitt Op. 82, and others of similar difficulty by Handel, Granados, and Godard, to name a few.

Hidy and Snell's series is a welcome addition to the available materials for sight reading. These books could be used within lessons, or for students to work through on their own at home. (Kjos, $5.50–$6.95 each) —Suzanne Schons 


MEG GRAY is on the faculty at Wichita State University where she teaches piano pedagogy and coordinates the undergraduate class piano program. She also maintains a pre-college studio and is an active adjudicator
and presenter.

MITCH GRUSSING is a piano teacher and composer in Minneapolis. He is nearing completion of a Master's Degree in Music Education/Piano Pedagogy and has specific interests in early keyboard music and musicians with OCD.

SUZANNE SCHONS is Music Editor at the Piano Magazine. She teaches music courses at the University of St. Thomas and piano lessons at K&S Conservatory of Music in Minnesota.

ADRIENNE E. WILEY is Professor of Piano, Pedagogy, and Class Piano at Central Michigan University. She loves teaching both college- and precollege-aged students and discovering new gems of teaching literature. 

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