I was excited to hear earlier this year that Paul Harris has now completed his series for piano, A Piece a Week. There are now eight books in the series covering each of Initial Grade to Grade 6, with an additional book covering Grades 7-8. This isn’t a review of A Piece a Week; I’m sure most of you know how much I enjoy and value these books as part of my piano teaching. Rather, in this blog post, I wanted to share some ideas for using the books both in piano lessons, and for piano practice at home.
First of all, let’s remind ourselves of the philosophy behind the A Piece a Week series:
“The ability to sight-read fluently is a vital skill, enabling students to learn new pieces more quickly and play with other musicians. The best-selling Improve your sight-reading! series, by renowned educationalist Paul Harris, is designed to develop sight-reading skills, especially in the context of graded exams.”
These ‘fun’, ‘short’ pieces are designed to ‘support and improve sight-reading by developing note-reading skills and hand-eye coordination’. Each book contains 26 pieces, the intention being that one can be learnt each week in the run-up to a graded exam.
But, these books are about more than just exam preparation; in fact, personally, I rarely use them with exams in mind. In this blog post, I’m going to share six ways in which I think these books enable the development of a wider spectrum of musical skills:
The primary aim of these books is to improve sight-reading skills. In fact, they are designed to be used alongside the other books in the Improve you sight-reading! series for piano. Whilst the intention isn’t that pieces are to be sight-read, I always encourage students to try a bit on their own first. It gives them a flavour of the piece. I often follow this up by asking them which things jumped out at them. Sometimes they identify the challenges in the piece, but they often recognise patterns and repetition. Learning these pieces, making use of the other areas identified below, students help build the skills needed to sight-read new piano music fluently, not just for exams, but in daily practice too.
Notation has become a little unfashionable in recent years, and whilst some have sought to address the reduction in focus on teaching music theory, for example, in Naomi Yandell’s Introducing Theory of Music, for me, it’s an important part of learning the piano. It’s not everything, and not all students will require it in equal measure, but I still think it’s valuable. In the A Piece a Week series, Paul Harris puts a firm emphasis on notation from the very beginning. As he says:
“One of the main reason why so many young pianists can’t sight-read is simply because they don’t spend enough time actually looking at, and processing, notation. It’s not uncommon to spend many weeks…learning just one or two pieces.”
The pianists who will derive most enjoyment and satisfaction from these books will be those who have a clear understanding of the notation. Yes, recognition of patterns, and recognising the sounds associated with the symbols are both important aspects of playing, but being able to convert what I call ‘blobs on the page’ into musical sounds, does require understanding of the notation. We shouldn’t be afraid of this aspect of learning and teaching the piano.
I often wonder if Paul has some kind of title generator?! If he has, I’d like one too. He has surely written thousands of titles for pieces of music, yet I personally find this far harder than writing the music itself! So often, his titles are the real key to unlocking the character of a piece. When it takes students a long time to learn a few pieces, the musical and stylistic elements of the music are often overlooked in favour of simply being able to play the notes and rhythms. The trouble with that is they miss the very essence of the music: its character. The piano pieces in A Piece a Week are all full of character, and all of them provide a great starting point for exploring how that can be captured using such musical elements as articulation, dynamics, tempo and much more.
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I mentioned above about notation, and I guess that goes hand in hand with developing and extending theoretical knowledge; something else which has become unfashionable in recent years. Again, using short piano pieces such as those found in A Piece a Week offers a great opportunity to explore and develop theoretical knowledge in a way which can enhance the music being played. Theory doesn’t have to be learnt in isolation. It can, and in my opinion should, be studied within the context of pieces being learnt. Effective questioning can help students to understand the music being played. There are alternatives to pointing to a symbol and saying “What’s this?” Alternatives such as “Can you identify two different types of articulation?” requires deeper thinking and analysis.
I know many teachers now use ideas such as the 40-piece challenge as a way to encourage students to learn more pieces. I think these can be effective when used well, but to be able to learn that many pieces in a year requires a really sound set of foundation skills. It’s not possible to learn so many pieces if weeks have to spent identifying the pitch names. The music included in A Piece a Week is pitched a fair way below its respective grade meaning that, when used effectively, students aren’t being asked to learn pieces which are beyond their current ability level. By using A Piece a Week to develop many of the skills outlined above, students can learn a greater number of pieces within a shorter space of time…and yes, we are allowed to teach and learn short pieces, even at Grade 8 and beyond!
If students are to enjoy learning the piano, and indeed, make progress, they need to feel motivated. That’s a huge topic in itself. There are exceptions, but spending weeks and weeks learning just one or two pieces isn’t especially satisfying, certainly at the lower grades. The short, characterful pieces included in A Piece a Week are satisfying to learn, and are pitched at a level at which they can be literally learned within a week. Repertoire can be quickly expanded and enjoyed.
Overall, the series offers piano teachers and students a wealth of opportunities for developing a whole range of skills across musical spectrum. In fact, as I hope I’ve illustrated above, A Piece a Week offers a lot more than it appears to at face value. They are righty popular with both piano students and teachers, as Andrew Eales’s proves.
At the start of a new month, a new term, and a new academic year, if you’re a piano teacher, I wholeheartedly recommend exploring this excellent series.
Why not let me know on social media how you use the A Piece a Week series?
[This post contains affiliate links]
A Piece a Week by Paul Harris, is published by Faber Music in eight volumes:
Initial Grade, ISBN 9780571541850, £6.50
Grade 1, ISBN 9780571539376, RRP £6.50
Grade 2, ISBN 9780571539383, RRP £6.50
Grade 3, ISBN 9780571539659, RRP £6.50
Grade 4, ISBN 9780571540563, RRP £6.50
Grade 5, ISBN 9780571540570, RRP £6.50
Grade 6, ISBN 9780571541393, RRP £6.50
Grades 7-8, ISBN 9780571541683, RRP £6.50
I was sent review copies of two of these books free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.
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