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A lot of the books I’m sent for review are entering an already crowded marketplace. How many other Grade 1 and 2 piano anthologies can you list? It means that each time something arrives, I’m looking at it and wondering what sets it apart from the rest. Gradebusters, published by Hal Leonard and available in two volumes, each for Grade 1 and Grade 2 pianists, contain arrangements of classical, pop and music theatre pieces.
The books include a code to access downloadable demonstration tracks of each piece. These can also be slowed down, the key changed, have loop points set etc. via the Hal Leonard PLAYBACK+ online system. The books are designed to boost students’ performance skills, and at the top of each piece, a short introductory teaching note is given.
As I’ve mentioned in a number of recent reviews, it isn’t clear who the arranger is. Christopher Hussay is credited as having arranged the audio, though I don’t think this is the same thing. I’ve written a little bit more about this at the bottom of this post.
Gradebusters Grade 1 Piano
- Let It Be The Beatles
- Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music
- Your Song Elton John
- Touch the Sky from Brave
- A Whole New World from Aladdin
- Beauty and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast
- Let It Go from Frozen
- Viva La Vida Coldplay
- Mamma Mia ABBA
- Dancing Queen ABBA
- Canon in D Pachelbel
- Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark
- The Snow Prelude No. 3 in C major Einaudi
- Arrival of the Queen of Sheba Handel
- Clair de Lune Debussy
As is the case in both books, minimal, but useful fingering suggestions are given throughout. Articulation markings and dynamics are also included.
There are some effective arrangements in Gradebusters Grade 1 Piano. Notably, the ‘Raiders March’ from Raiders of the Lost Ark is especially effective with the full feeling of the original preserved. ‘Touch the Sky’ from the film Brave has also transferred very well. There are some useful technical challenges presented too, for example, the opposing use of staccato and legato in ‘Mamma Mia’.
Some of the arrangements would benefit from some pedal if possible, in particular, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Snow Prelude No. 3 in C major’. Whilst this isn’t always possible at this level, the pieces feel rather sparse on their own. With some effective pedalling, Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ offers an excellent and satisfying simple arrangement of this popular ‘classic’.
Not all arrangements are as effective. Occasionally, the LH parts feel repetitive; compare bars 10-15 of ‘Let It Be’ and bars 1-8 of ‘Do-Re-Mi’. I was slightly flummoxed by Let It Be being marked to be played ‘solemnly’ with a tempo marking of crotchet=124: this feels a little odd, even if the numerical marking is correct. Occasionally, in the process of simplifying the original, the essence of the music is lost: ‘Your Song’ is a good example of this. Similarly, the simplification process sometimes results in some unusual harmonic choices, for example, bar 7 in the LH of ‘Do-Re-Mi’. These are little things, but they can begin to make the arranging feel sloppy in some places.
Overall, this is a useful volume. It contains a wide range of styles, and the arrangements are well-suited to the level. The music is clearly presented, and the book design makes them useful for adults as well as children.
Gradebusters Grade 2 Piano
- Shotgun George Ezra
- Greensleeves Traditional
- Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- Circle of Life from The Lion King
- Windmills of Your Mind Michel Legrand
- A Million Dreams from The Greatest Showman
- Havana Camila Cabello
- Bridge Over Troubled Water Simon & Garfunkel
- Someone Like You Adele
- How Far I’ll Go Moana
- Into the Unknown from Frozen 2
- The Bare Necessities from The Jungle Book
- You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story
- Star Wars (Main Theme) John Williams
- Thinking Out Loud Ed Sheeran
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Of the two volumes reviewed here, I felt that Grade 2 was far superior to Grade 1. Perhaps it is the case that some of the pieces chosen at Grade 1 just can’t be simplified to that extent without losing the essence of the originals? The arrangements at Grade 2 feel, on the whole, more adventurous, and as a consequence, more satisfying to play. ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Moon River’ are excellent examples of this. As at Grade 1, the use of the pedal would greatly benefit performances here too
It is probably advantageous if you know the songs, as the rhythm has often been simplified. I would certainly encourage my own students to attempt the rhythm they’re familiar with in a song such as ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’, rather than the one notated. There is, once again, a nice variety of pieces at Grade 2, though on balance, fewer classical works (in fact, there are none unless you count ‘Greensleeves’).
Overall, I felt these books told a tale of two halves. There are some excellent and very effective arrangements, particularly at Grade 2, which preserve the essence of the originals, whilst making them accessible to pianists in the early stages. Then, there are some arrangements which feel sloppy, almost rushed. This is a shame, because on the whole, it’s useful to have books at this level which contain such a broad range of pieces appealing to both children and adults.
At just under £12 a book, they feel expensive for what they are, although on balance, Grade 2 represents better value for money. I imagine that the fairly steep price point reflects the copyright clearances and downloadable audio. The books are good quality, but Grade 1 is fairly thin, with the vast majority of pieces just one page long. That said, even at that price, the pieces are less than £1 each which is significantly cheaper than individual downloads, so this is something we have to bear in mind.
You may have read in previous reviews that I’m often disappointed when the arrangers are not credited in books. This seems to be increasingly common. Arranging is a hugely important skill and art, and the musical repertoire would be all the poorer if it wasn’t for some of our greatest arrangers. That said, not everyone makes a good arranger (even if they’re a good composer). There’s an increasing sense that arrangements can by ‘knocked up’ by someone ‘in the office’, especially at the lower grades. I’m not saying that’s the case here, but as I said at the start, in a crowded marketplace, it’ll be the quality arrangements which stand the test of time.
I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.
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