Heather Hammond hardly needs an introduction. Her wonderfully vibrant, exquisitely crafted, and pedagogically relevant compositions are especially well known to young pianists and frequently feature not only as popular choices in examination syllabuses but equally as well-loved pieces for private study and concert use.
It takes a special skill to write educational music that transcends the genre in the sense that the music can be enjoyable and inspirational to listeners and pianists who are not doing examinations and not still at school and having weekly lessons!
Heather’s oeuvre is special in that it does just that. In anthology after anthology, she has proved that she can write in an enormously varied range of characterisation, whilst still retaining an essentially popular, jazz-based influence through much of her work.
In this year’s stunningly inspirational Elena Cobb Festival at the Royal Albert Hall, many of Heather’s compositions were featured. It was a special thrill for me to work with a group of younger players whom I give lessons to on a regular basis, and for them to present a few of Heather’s pieces at this amazing event Here is Fintan in action at the Royal Albert Hall playing Heather’s touchingly evocative ‘Alone for a while’ from the Ballads Without Words collection in a special arrangement made by Heather herself for jazz ensemble, featuring some superb professional musicians:
I have already written about Ballads Without Words here!
Heather’s tune in the new ABRSM Piano Exam Syllabus 2023-2024
Those of you who are entering students for the exams, would be interested to know that Heather’s Once Upon a Frozen Winter from Ballads Without Words is now featured in the Grade 4 Piano Syllabus List C as an additional piece. This is fantastic news for all of Heather’s fans!
In addition to this wonderful selection, Heather’s prolific output for piano includes Grooves for Piano Dudes, Piano Olé, and a further collection of Grooves for piano duet. But this is far from the complete picture- one that continues to evolve and develop constantly, shortly to be launched from EVC is Heather’s new collection: a Halloween themed collection of Grooves. As we have come to expect from this composer, the music has hugely characterful titles that will immediately engage young players.
In ‘Vampires go struttin’ an evocation of double bass pizzicato allied to much syncopation creates an immediately spooky atmosphere. ‘Tomb of the unknown Egyptian’ has some delicious chromaticism and glows with lugubrious intrigue. ‘Prepare to be scared’ swings persuasively, whilst the 1970s rock world of the likes of Suzi Quatro is most excitingly recreated in ‘Disco at Werewolf Wharf’. ‘March of the ghostly Legionnaires’ has a strongly dotted martial rhythm- useful for developing discipline and focus- whilst the detailed care over slurs and articulation generally in ‘Baby Vampire’s Lullaby’ sends an excellent pedagogical message along with wistful charm. ‘Midnight Ball rendezvous’ is an elegant essay for tonal balance and graceful phrasing, whilst the sevenths and chromaticism creates much mystery and intrigue in ‘Is there something out there?’.
I began my interview with Heather by asking her where it all began. How did she get started writing music?
HH: ‘I’ve always been one to doodle around at the piano and make up tunes. In fact, I remember being quite young and my Dad telling me to ‘stop faffing about and do my piano practising properly!’ When I was a student at Leeds College of Music (now Leeds Conservatoire) I did lots of arranging for bands. However, I never really started putting pen to paper for my own compositions until I wrote pieces for my piano students to play in the early 90’s.
MM: What encouragement/guidance did you get from childhood onwards as a composer?
HH: I wasn’t really encouraged to improvise or mess around exploring chords etc. at the piano as a child. It was only when I started the Graduate Diploma in Jazz and Light Music course at Leeds that I finally got some guidance and encouragement in this area. I always encourage my piano students to learn about chords and give them the opportunity to play around making up their own tunes if it’s something they are interested in.
MM: What are your strongest musical influences?
HH: I loved all of the jazz and Latin American music that I was first introduced to whilst studying at Leeds. So many of the pieces that I write for pupils are in lighter and popular styles. I also love classical music and have written homages to composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, and Satie. In the early 90’s I was very excited to discover educational composers such as Christopher Norton and Pam Wedgwood who were amongst the first making lighter styles accessible to young players.
MM: Your oeuvre embraces a most impressive contrasting range. Do you consciously write for specific levels or needs, or do you find that inspiration takes you in particular directions?
HH: Both ways really. I often wake up in a morning with a musical idea in my head, so I’ll often head straight off to the piano with a coffee to play around with the idea before I forget it! However, as I teach around 40 piano pupils each week, I often write pieces that will help them improve a specific skill such as staccato, hands crossing, keyboard geography, using the pedal, playing expressively etc.
MM: What are the challenges and necessary skills required when writing for children?
HH: I think my five years as a primary school teacher was an invaluable experience for being able to write inspirational pieces for children. As well as trying to make the music sound appealing, I work hard at thinking of interesting titles. My pieces are always being tested out by my pupils. Interestingly, when Karen Marshall and I wrote the Get Set books we tested everything out with pupils and asked them to give marks out of 10 for how much they’d enjoyed learning a piece. Anything scoring less than eight was binned!
MM: I’ve already written about your exciting new collection of pieces which is just about to be launched. Can you give us a whistle stop tour of your other EVC published works in turn and how they came to be written?
HH: Grooves for Piano Dudes is a book containing pieces in exciting modern styles (rock, jazz, funk, blues & ragtime etc.). It contains the kind of music that I would have loved to play when I was a young pianist. I’m currently proof reading a Grooves for Piano Dudes 2 book which will be published very soon.
Piano Olé! is a collection of Spanish sounding pieces that work really well for concerts – most sound harder to play than they actually are! Again, many of these were written for my pupils to practise specific keyboard skills Most of the pieces were actually composed on a small keyboard whilst in Spain.
Ballads Without Words is a collection of pieces written over a long period of time (about 20 years). These pieces are really for adults or teenagers to play and explore expressive ballad styles. Many are pieces written for friends and relatives. Running Free was written after my first visit to New Zealand in1999. The unspoilt countryside took my breath away and I even considered going to live there at one point. I often receive emails from people telling me how much they enjoy my ballads and asking for details about how the pieces came to be written. I love writing ballads and find that if I’m having a tough time for whatever reason, pouring out my feelings into some music can be very therapeutic.
Easy Christmas Piano Duets was written so that pupils who start lessons in September can play in a Christmas concert just three months later and sound fantastic! The primo part for each carol is as easy as possible (just the tune) and the second part is for a teacher or more advanced pupil to play. Many of my pupils love to sing along too, so the words are included for each.
MM: Tell us about your love of jazz and popular music and how this interacts with your classical education and musical upbringing
HH: In my early years learning the piano I had a very classical diet. This meant that I gave up playing the piano for a number of years because I just didn’t find it very interesting at the time. However, thanks to East Yorkshire Music Services who provided free music lessons, I decided to learn the clarinet whilst at secondary school. Here we were playing lots of different styles of music and things were sounding more exciting!
I then decided that I did really miss playing the piano, so my Mum went to see my old piano teacher and explained that I did want to come back and learn again but wanted to play more jazzy pieces like Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’. She agreed to take me on again and I battled through the original version of ‘The Entertainer’ (there were no easy arrangements available then). Eventually I played it in a school concert. I really feel passionate about providing my young piano players with a wide variety of styles so they can find out what they really love to play. I love classical music now, but it didn’t inspire me very much when I was young. Enjoying what’s being studied is so vitally important.
MM: Do you improvise your music first or do you sit down with pencil and paper? How does improvisation impact on your composing?
HH: I sometimes play around improvising at first but then pretty soon I get out a pencil and paper as I’m always worried, I’ll forget what I’ve just played! I sometimes use a keyboard to quickly record my ideas too. Often the tunes are already in my head, so I just need to work out what the notes and chords are.
MM: Have you ever felt a conflict (time pressure etc.) between being a teacher as well as a composer?
HH: No, most of my teaching is done between 15:45 – 19:30 on weekdays and I have a few pupils on Saturday mornings. This means I do have lots of time in the mornings and early afternoons to work on compositions or other art projects that I enjoy. My best musical ideas seem to arrive in early mornings or late at night, so luckily that fits in quite well. I feel I have a good balance of musical and artistic activities and I never get bored!
MM: What plans and projects do you have for the future?
HH: As already mentioned there’s a Halloween Grooves for Piano Dudes book and a Grooves for Piano Dudes 2 due out very soon (both to be published by EVC Music Ltd.). Additionally, I’m currently working on finishing off some piano duet books that have been written over the last four years. Many of the duets were written for my piano playing families during the pandemic. I felt it was really essential to keep them playing together wherever possible. Who knows where my musical adventure will take me after that?
About Heather Hammond
Heather is an award-winning educational composer and piano teacher based in York, UK. She studied piano and clarinet at Leeds College of Music & Education at Bretton Hall College (Wakefield). She was a music specialist in a primary school for a number of years.
Heather currently has over one hundred publications (piano & woodwind) available with a variety of publishers. She initially became popular due to her Cool Piano series (six books). Later followed the Funky Flute, Cool Clarinet and Super Sax series (all published by Kevin Mayhew Ltd.). Working in conjunction with Karen Marshall she co-authored the Get Set! Piano series (published by Collins Music). Get Set Piano Tutor Book 1 was a finalist for the Best Print Resource at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence in 2014.Then followed The Intermediate Pianist series, again co-written with Karen Marshall, these three books form part of the Faber Piano Trainer series. In 2018 these three books won the Best Print Resource award.
Heather’s most recent piano music has been published by EVC (Elena Cobb) Music Publications Ltd. Grooves For Piano Dudes 1, Piano Olé, Ballads Without Words and The Wheels of Time (a piano duet) are all currently available. New projects soon to be published are Grooves for Piano Dudes 2 and Halloween Grooves for Piano Dudes. Many of Heather’s pieces have been chosen for inclusion in exam syllabuses and for music festival performances in both the UK and abroad. The three London College of Music pre grade 1 handbooks (2018 – 2021) were written by Heather and she also contributed to the ABRSM Piano Star series.
About Murray McLahclan
Murray McLachlan has made over 40 commercial recordings and performed on all five continents to critical acclaim. His three books on piano technique were published by Faber Music and have been acclaimed internationally. He is a distinguished teacher and works on the faculty at RNCM as Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music and well known for his long-standing column in International Piano Magazine. As founder and artistic director of the world famous Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists oversees an event which has been running for over 20 years as the largest summer school in Europe devoted exclusively to the piano.