I don’t know about you, but when I was learning piano as a child, the idea of theory sent shivers down my spine. Don’t get me wrong, I liked theory, but in those days, theory equalled exams. To many of us, the need achieve Grade 5 Theory in order to progress to the higher grades was seen as a stumbling block rather than a milestone.
Since I had lessons as a child, much has changed in regards to theory. I believe there’s an increasing awareness amongst teachers for the need to make connections between practical and theoretical work, and much of this is encapsulated in Paul Harris’s ‘simultaneous learning’ approach.
Many piano teachers will already be familiar, and I’m sure, like me, using ABRSM’s Piano Star series of repertoire books. There are currently four books leading to Prep-Test level, and a fourth at Grade 1 level. A new addition to that series is Kathy and David Blackwell’s Piano Star Theory book. The activity book is aimed at ‘young players in the early stages of learning the piano’. As highlighted on the back cover, the book’s contents are designed to link:
‘practical music-making, building aural awareness and boosting the confidence of young musicians.’
There are, of course, many theory books already on the market, so you might ask why we need another one. I think that first and foremost, as expected, this book links very closely with the existing books in the series. The presentation style and illustrations are similar, and in that sense the book sits well alongside the Piano Star repertoire books already published.
The first topic to be introduced is crotchets and semibreves (p. 4) followed by minims (p. 5). They are introduced in a way which combines both sound and symbol. Students are encouraged to clap the given rhythms within the context of a steady drum beat, as well as to draw the note values, and to learn their names and time values. Some preparatory work on pulse, and by consequence, the difference between pulse and rhythm will be useful here. Kodàly and/or Dalcroze foundation exercises would prove useful in that respect, connecting not just sound to symbol, but to the whole body.
Unlike many other theory books, dotted minims are introduced next, followed by the notion of the stave. By p. 8, students should be drawing crotchets, minims, dotted minims and semibreves on the stave, including, where applicable knowing which way stems are to be drawn. An imaginative ‘Stem Song’ is given to reinforce this concept and can be sung to the tune of ‘The wheels on the bus’. This section culminates with a quiz on p. 10 before the introduction of bars, barlines and time signatures.
Pitch names are introduced outwards from middle C covering all the line and space notes in both treble and bass clef. p. 40 also introduces the concept of ledger lines. This approach may seem out of step with those teachers who introduce pitch names through the use of landmark notes; however, the materials here may offer a useful follow-on from that.
The book moves fairly swiftly, although concepts are reinforced throughout. By the end of the book, students will have covered much of the material required for Grade 1 Theory. In addition to the quizzes, there is a game at the end of the book, and a set of stickers which can be used with or independently of the book itself.
Overall, there is much to be commended here. The layout and explanations are clear, and present theory in a way which should appeal to young learners, particularly those already using this series of books. My feeling is that the book will need supplementing with additional activities to really cement the theoretical concepts with the the framework of their practical application. For example, the use of rhythm names (ta, ti, ta-ah) etc. could be introduced before the note values are covered in the book. Similarly, I expect most students would need more practice exercises than those given in this book alone. In some ways, given the pace of the book, with additional exercises, it could have been split into two, or even more volumes.
This is an appealing book, well-conceived. Rather than offering a radically different approach to teaching theory, it offers another book in the selection from which teachers can choose. As previously mentioned, it will appeal particularly to those students already familiar with the style of the other books in the Piano Star series. If ABRSM were ever to consider a companion book of supplementary exercises, I’m sure this would be welcomed by both students and teachers.
Piano Star Theory by Kathy and David Blackwell, is published by ABRSM, ISBN 978-1-78601-227-2 AB3970, £6.50
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.