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Spring 2019: New Music Reviews

 (S1-3) Imaginations Books 1 and 2, by Kevin Olson. 

Kevin Olson has a knack for creating fresh and original sounds at every teaching level. While incorporating the reading, rhythmic, and technical skills needed to advance the piano student, Imaginations offers a wide variety of appealing pieces. With titles like "Android Attack," "Penguin Party," and "Elegy for a Goldfish" your students will be inspired to go beyond the notes on the page to tell an engaging story with the music. Olson writes in his introduction, "It's as if musicians have always understood that the piano has the ability to unlock our creativity and imagination." 

Book 1 has ten elementary to late elementary pieces, mostly two pages long. As with many beginning method books, there are no key signatures. The rhythms are appropriately simple; only three pieces have eighth notes. Olson sticks to five-finger positions, with an occasional stretch to a 6th. His liberal use of accidentals might challenge some early-level students, but they give these pieces the harmonic diversity that add to their appeal. I am happy to see Olson's detailed articulation and dynamic markings. Three pieces have optional teacher duets, and the beautifully serene "Morning in Yellowstone" has an optional syncopated pedal.

The nine early intermediate pieces in Book 2 incorporate ledger lines, scale passages, and dotted rhythms. Olson weaves the notes into alluring melodies, and exciting rhythmic-driven pieces. Olson primarily uses eighth notes as the pieces get progressively harder, and also introduces triads and inversions. Only one piece briefly requires a hand span of an octave. Yet, the key signatures never venture past one flat.

Kevin Olson, with over 100 published books and solos for beginning to advanced piano students, never seems to run out of musical ideas. His Imaginations series will eventually expand to five books, which will cover elementary through early advanced levels. The pieces in Imaginations are rich in creativity, and should unleash the musical imaginations of your students. (FJH, $6.50)

— Carmen Doubrava 

(S5-6) Cantos de España, Op. 232, by Isaac Albéniz, edited by Olga Llano Kuehl-White. 

Olga Llano Kuehl-White, in her recent volume of Isaac Albéniz's Cantos de España, Op. 232, begins with a ten-page foreword about the composer that provides editorial and performance considerations for the pieces as well as more general details about Spanish music. The editor, whose training includes three decades of study with renowned pianist Alicia de Larrocha, shares scholarship from the research she conducted at archival and musical institutions in Madrid, Barcelona, and London (where Albéniz lived from 1890-94).

Kuehl-White's "main objective is to enlighten pianists in achieving an authentic and artistic interpretation" of Albéniz's music. The reader learns about Albéniz's life (including persistent erroneous myths about his biography) and various musical and artistic influences.

This edition seeks to provide "clarification on appropriate stylistic performance and interpretation of Spanish music." The preface notes that artistic liberties essential to the performance of Spanish music such as rubato and use of agogic accents are not notated in the score but are stylistically appropriate. "Elements of Spanish Music," "Interpreting Spanish Music," and "Inspiration for Cantos de España" describe the evolution of the cante hondo style into cante flamenco, and other characteristics of Spanish music including modal inflections, rhythmic figurations, and the emotional content therein. 

Op. 232 is comprised of five individual pieces. "Prelude," perhaps the most well recognized, "evokes the historic [8th century] battle of the Asturians and the Moors." "Orientale" displays the exotic modal patterns indicative of Arabic influence in Spain, as well as the imitation of the guitar's "rasqueado" technique, the triplets of the castanets, and the heel-stomping zapateado. A charming habanera influence can be heard in "Sous le palmier (Danse Espagnole)," which contrasts with the depiction of "a war-torn scene, substantiating music's ability to resonate above the brutality of war" in "Córdoba," for which Albéniz provided a poetic epigraph. The castanets can also be heard in "Seguidillas," in addition to the colorful and exotic Arab- Andalucían mode. Several of the movements include finger- ing suggestions and redistributions provided by de Larrocha.

This well-researched text includes a glossary of Spanish terms, and is a wonderful pedagogical contribution to playing and teaching the piano music of Albéniz. (Alfred, $9.99)

— Ann DuHamel 

(S6) Scherzos Opp. 20, 31, 39, 54 for the piano, by Frédéric Chopin, edited by Joseph Banowetz. 

Alfred Masterwork Editions recently released a new publication of the Chopin Scherzos, edited by master teacher and performer Joseph Banowetz. The foreword contains twenty-two pages of notes; sources consulted include scores and texts edited and authored by Jan Ekier, Carl Mikuli, and Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, all noted Chopin authorities, among others.

Banowetz provides a brief history of the scherzo form and genre. Quotations from Chopin's contemporaries augment the discussion of its transformation to the more serious character we associate with the Chopin works. The reader also learns of the challenges inherent in researching the sources for the Scherzos. Chopin's particular way of playing rubato is described, again bolstered by several quotes from Chopin's students. 

The "editorial and performance considerations" address fingering, pedaling, use of accents, and ornaments. Helpful notes on fingering offer explanations and rationale for some of Chopin's fingering in addition to possible redistributions. Some redistributions might feel unfamiliar to those accustomed to, say, the Paderewski edition, but the alternatives provided here are effective, especially for those with smaller hands. I found the explication and suggested realization of ornaments to be especially useful. The "critical notes and interpretation suggestions" present more specific details about the individual Scherzos, including the formal structure of each one.

For those who prefer urtext editions, this volume won't replace the (currently considered) definitive PWM edition; it can, however, stand alongside it as a fine teaching tool and historically-informed student edition. (Alfred, $19.99)

— Ann DuHamel 

(S4) Jazz Piano Scales and Exercises: An Engaging way to Practice Scale Patterns and Etudes While Learning Jazz, by Lee Evans. 

If you have a talented early- advanced pianist who is interested in studying jazz piano, this is the book for you! This is a most creative and comprehensive approach to teaching jazz in such a way that is not "academic" (student lingo would be "boring"). Dr. Evans works through the circle of fifths to execute the scales, then the exercises, in all twelve keys. Each key is introduced starting with the major scale, followed by three exercises for that scale, then the harmonic minor scale is introduced, followed by three exercises, and lastly, the melodic minor scale and exercises. The idea and focus of this book is to reinforce the patterns and fingerings, plus melodies and rhythms that are part of jazz stylings.

The introduction provides a brief overview of certain theory concepts, such as what a diatonic scale is, what a key is, and the description of what major and harmonic and melodic minor scales are. Dr. Evans also includes practice instructions stating that, "To better understand syncopated rhythms, it is helpful to count aloud while practicing." (Every teacher will like to hear that!) He also states the exercises should be practiced at gradually faster tempos, using a metronome, and also using slow practice to help gain better control of the patterns. I liked his additional notes about how the student should use the damper pedal only when indicated, and lastly, that "thumbs should never hang off the keyboard." 

I decided that I wanted to give this a try, so I did. I started at the beginning with the student-favorite key of C. The C major scale is given in two octaves, with fingering, and following it are three exercises—the exercises range from five to ten measures in length. The minor scales that follow, harmonic then melodic, are handled in the same manner.

As I worked through the book I discovered that each exercise offers such a variety of patterns and touches for the student that REQUIRE the student to count! These miniature jazz stylings are just that: each and every one is unique and different from any prior exercise. It amazes me, and the compliment goes to Dr. Evans, that one can find so many ways to express a jazz idea. Most of the exercises incorporate part of the scale studied, and then Dr. Evans elaborates on that with grace note figurations, chord work, accented patterns, syncopated passagework and more. All of these exercises sound terrific and are fun to play.

This is a great find for any teacher who has a student leaning toward jazz piano playing. The teacher and student can work through the circle of fifths easily, using Dr. Evans's practice guidelines AND sound AMAZING as they are doing it. I would strongly recommend the Jazz Piano Scales and Exercises to any teacher and student. (Hal Leonard, $12.99)

— Adrienne Wiley 

(S3-5) Favorite Piano Repertoire from the 17th, 18th, 19th, & 20th Centuries, Books 1 and 2, Selected and Edited by Keith Snell. 

If you have a middle school, high school, or adult piano student who devours new music and loves to play familiar classical piano repertoire, these books are for you! Both volumes contain many favorites, including Beethoven's For Elise and the first movement of "Moonlight" Sonata, Chopin's Op. 28 Preludes in A Major, E Minor, and B Minor, and Debussy's Reverie and "Clair de lune." Teachers will be familiar with many of the selections; however, there are also a number of less-recognizable pieces.

Snell states that Volume One "is the next step after completing a piano method." It includes pieces from the late elementary through mid-intermediate level; Volume Two continues with late intermediate through advanced-level pieces. These collections purposely do not draw attention to level; in fact, the materials are not organized from easier to more difficult repertoire. Rather, the pieces are grouped by composer, and chronologically. This can be an advantage for the teacher working with a student who is overly concerned with their level, or with how they compare with a sibling or friend. It could be a bit intimidating for a less experienced teacher who is unsure of how to level repertoire, although this problem could be easily solved by referring to a source such as Jane Magrath's The Pianist's Guide to Standard Performance and Teaching Literature. 

One of the difficulties of editing a series such as this is deciding which pieces must be left out. Regretfully, the 20th century is lacking in depth of materials compared to the other style periods. Book One includes only one piece by Debussy and one by Bartók. Book Two includes six favorites by Debussy and Gymnopedie No. 1 by Erik Satie.

The layout of these books is wonderful; the print is clear and good-sized. Fingerings are provided, as well as dynamic and articulation markings, but the look is very clean and not over-edited. The spiral binding is convenient, and necessary; as Keith Snell states, these books can take students through "a lifetime of enjoyment at the piano." (Kjos, Book 1 $14.99; Book 2 $24.99)

— Meg Gray 

(S2-4) Graded Pieces for Piano: 20 arrangements with companion exercises and practice notes in two collections: 1) Preparatory, Grade 1, Grade 2; 2) Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5 (and SoundWise App for eBook, Audio, and Digital Practice Tools), by Ludovico Einaudi. 

The internationally renowned Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi (b. 1955) currently tours and performs across Europe. Conservatory trained, he is widely known for his minimalist film scores, such as The Intouchables (2012), and a striking music video for Greenpeace, "Elegy for the Arctic" (2016); music from both are in these collections. There is a segment of pianists, likely adults and high school students, that are seeking out his music. His personal style captures the hearts of many, while others may not enjoy his fusion of genres. 

Einaudi's compositions featured here are modern soundscapes, often in a meditative, intense, and improvisational style. The musical material blends modality, tonality, and pop-influenced elements, with a simple melody, often over ostinato-like figures. Seventh chords abound, as do unexpected progressions and non-traditional cadences. The short forms are varied, although many are through- composed, based upon a motif that slowly evolves.

Chester Music has beautifully published these two graded collections, each with twenty simplified arrangements; although, there are only twenty-two unique titles between the volumes because eighteen appear in both levels. The printing is artistic and mature, with geometric cover art and a clean, modern layout. The first volume (Preparatory, Grade 1 and 2) contains late elementary through early intermediate repertoire, and the second volume (Grade 3–5) is ideal for intermediate and late-intermediate players. The pieces have been progressively sequenced and contain musical, technical, and rhythmic ideas well suited to the level.

The nature of reducing a work is markedly different from intentionally composing for the lower grades. Here, the easiest pieces are less convincing; the two-part writing loses the harmonic richness of the original and sounds occasionally jarring. This is not problematic in the second, more difficult book. While piano teachers may have immediate uses for these compilations, they require some attention for use in lessons. Fingerings are scant and often indicative of a large hand size, and musical markings are minimal. In addition, British rhythmic terms such as "quaver" are utilized in the exercises.

These two books include online access to an eBook format, recordings, and practice tools through the SoundWise App. The interactive features include each exercise and piece, but do not include any of the introductory text. The app allows the user to listen and watch the score, play along and loop portions, record with an adjustable metronome, and receive feedback. The assessment is not detailed, as it only provides an overall accuracy rating and general indication of error. There are issues at times with usability, with some inconsistency between the metronome and the notated meter. Nonetheless, students may enjoy the sound-based, rated learning that the app provides.

Piano teachers often wisely capitalize on the intrinsic motivation found in a student's passion for a specific piece or composer. These collections certainly serve those students— at any level—who have a desire to perform the music of Einaudi. (Chester Music [distributed by Hal Leonard], $19.99 each)

— Sara Ernst 

Grade Levels

1 Beginning: five-finger patterns and simple rhythms

2 Easy: scales and simple syncopation

3 Intermediate: beginning counter-point and complex rhythms (Bach notebooks, Bartók Mikrokosmos I-II)

4 Late intermediate: technical and rhythmic sophistication (Bach inventions, Bartók Romanian Folk Dances)

5 Difficult: for competent pianists (Mozart sonatas, Brahms Rhapsody, Op. 79, No. 2)

6 Very difficult: for advanced pianists (Chopin etudes, Beethoven Sonata, Op. 57)


S-Solo E-Ensemble 

This Issue's Contributors:

Suzanne Schons, PhD, NCTM, is the 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.

Carmen Doubrava, MM, is on the fine arts faculty at The Hockaday School in Dallas, where she teaches piano and accompanies several choirs, orchestras, and various school concerts. She is also the choir accompanist at Horizon Unitarian Universalist Church in Carrollton.

Ann DuHamel, NCTM, serves as Head of Keyboard Studies at the University of Minnesota Morris. She earned a DMA from the University of Iowa, and is currently the President-Elect of the Minnesota Music Teachers Association.

Sara M. Ernst, PhD, teaches piano and piano pedagogy at the University of South Carolina. She serves as the President of South Carolina MTA and is a member of the College of Examiners for the Royal Conservatory.

Meg Gray, PhD, is on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Conservatory of Music and Dance where she teaches piano pedagogy and musicianship, and coordinates the undergraduate keyboard skills program.

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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