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Closer look: Grade by Grade Piano

grade-by-grade-piano-fa_20170625-211004_1

A bonanza for creative teachers and students


A teacher places a spanking-new repertoire book in front of a student. "We're going to learn a contemporary piece," the teacher says. The student notices, however, that the piece was composed in 1945. "How," the student asks herself, "can this music be contemporary?"

Living human beings write new pieces every day, but—if the content of many repertoire collections is any indication—classical composition came to a halt almost sixty years ago. To students, music from the 1950s seems old. Why shouldn't it? Many of our students weren't even born before the twenty-first century.

It is, therefore, a distinct pleasure to discover Iain Farrington's Grade by Grade, a British series written, as it states on the cover, as "the perfect package for teaching, exam preparation and performance." In these volumes for students in Grades 3-5, Farrington has raided the Boosey & Hawkes catalog to compile eclectic anthologies of music sure to appeal to creative teachers and students.

Farrington's musical interests are wide-ranging. The books feature standard twentieth-century originals by Kabalevsky, Shostakovich, and Bartók; pedagogical jazz compositions by Christopher Norton; arrangements of Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein; and an assortment of new music by living composers. For the Anglophile, Farrington arranges traditional British tunes and includes music from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book as well as from respected British composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Frank Bridge. And don't miss Edward Elgar's charming sonatina in the Grade 3 volume.

"Gamelan Glimmer," one of Farrington's own compositions, is a highlight of the Grade 3 collection. In his editorial notes for the piece, Farrington provides a brief introduction to gamelan orchestras and mentions that Poulenc, Debussy, and Britten were influenced by the sounds of these Indonesian percussion ensembles. Farrington's highly resonant composition combines nonstop right-hand eighth notes with a spare left hand and a continuous, ringing damper pedal.

Like many other pieces in these collections, "Gamelan Glimmer" offers numerous opportunities to expand lesson activities. If a digital instrument is available, students could play Farrington's composition on the gamelan voice setting before improvising or composing their own gamelan-inspired music. In addition, the flowing eighths in "Gamelan Glimmer" are excellent preparation for an intermediate arrangement of Yiruma's River Flows in You, a popular favorite with many teens.

Many pieces in the Grade 4 volume are also probably new to many pupils. In addition to more familiar selections such as Kabalevsky's Sonatina in A minor and an arrangement of Julius Fučik's "Entrance of the Gladiators," Farrington includes William Byrd's "La Volta," Duke Ellington's "Rude Interlude," and Carlos Gardel's tango, "Por una Cabeza" ("By a Head"). As students advance to Grade 5, Farrington features pieces by Aaron Copland ("In Evening Air"), contemporary composer Elena Kats-Chernin ("Little Door," a composition replete with left-hand jumps), and Eugénie Rocherolle's arrangement of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."

Grade by Grade also contains exercises in sight reading, improvisation, aural awareness, theory, and technique, along with practice suggestions. Further, Farrington provides a short historical or stylistic introduction for each selection; if students do nothing but read these introductions, their knowledge of musical history and style will increase exponentially.

Perhaps the only shortcoming of these anthologies is their miserly use of fingering; the majority of pieces have no fingering suggestions. On the other hand, teachers who frequently find themselves reworking editorial fingering choices may be happy for the omission.

Any concern about missing fingering, however, is a minor one. Admiration for Farrington's creative, artistic selection of repertoire will overpower any small objections.Perhaps best of all, teachers will have a chance to teach truly contemporary music. (Boosey & Hawkes/Hal Leonard, Book 3, $16.99; Book 4, $17.99; Book 5, $18.99)

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New music reviews: July/August 2017
Reflections on music's life lessons
 

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