Murray McLachlan explores the exciting new anthology of Initial and Grade 1 Compositions by Victoria Proudler
Victoria Proudler is a name that will be very familiar to Trinity College pianists and electronic keyboard players as her music has a prominent place in the Trinity syllabus, and for good reason. She is a composer who writes from the inside, as her career has embraced performance as well as teaching. As an examiner, private teacher, and tutor at the Sheffield Music Academy, she knows what works well pianistically and musically.
Vicky’s vibrant, colourful, varied, and immediate freshly minted anthology of initial and grade 1 level pieces Piano Grades are Go! is a wonderful new find which should be grasped firmly with both hands by all teachers who have students from the earliest stages. I was thrilled by the simple but original concept of ‘superskills’ which the book adopts, whereby each of the twenty pieces included focuses on one important challenge for the young player.
This gives structure to lessons, a sense of achievement for the pupil, and a real sense of variety. From the craftsmanship point of view, Proudler proves to be sensitive of detail, consistently writing with care for the challenges of early pianism. The compositions elegantly present not only the notes, but also articulation, phrasing and dynamics that yield tactile and artistic pleasure. Many teachers will be all too aware that this is by no means always the case with new educational music for the preliminary stages.
The technical superskill dimension in Victoria’s anthology is indeed most impressive. It is worth listing the challenges which each piece in the book presents. The ten initial level compositions help develop co-ordination with the metronome (March of the Druids) swing (Brown Dog Blues) chords and arm weight (Mysterious Procession) Dynamics (In the Dark) two note slurs (Yuletide Bells) phrasing (Pachelbel’s Moment) tonal balance between the hands (Ballet Dancer) combining slurs and staccatos (Hawaii Beach) overlapping legato (Lonely Penguin) and waltz rhythm (Viennese Whirl).
At grade one the challenges include ensemble/balance between the hands (Silver Lining) co-ordination with quaver rests (Twistin’ tango) walking bass in detached double bass staccato style (Sunshine stroll) extreme dynamic contrasts with swing (Slither) synchronisation between the hands (Winter etude) syncopation with off beat accentuation (Downtown Rag) building up velocity (The Chase) accentuation (Undercover Blues) alternating beats between the hands (Toccatina) and swing rhythm (Jive O’clock Jazz).
Unlike so many other early grade anthologies, Piano Grades are Go! has an enormous stylistic palette. I can well imagine my own two five-year-olds beginners whom I teach each week, warming to this selection after they finish Sharon Goodey’s course.
I would then use Victoria’s book as contrasting, important and structured material in conjunction with the excellent note learning resource that is Czerny’s Beginner’s Method for Piano, op 599, the JS Bach ‘Anna Magdalena Notebook’, Mozart 25 Early Pieces (edited by Howard Ferguson and published by ABRSM) ‘Album for the Young‘ by Schumann, Bartok ‘For Children’ and ‘Mikrokosmos’ and the selections of excellent pieces from Kabalevsky. Proudler fits in well with this curriculum.
I was curious about how Victoria managed to find the correct level as she wrote these wonderfully varied and immediate pieces.
MM: Was it challenging to write for the earliest grades?
VP: Writing for initial grade is like musical sudoku, it’s really fun! The rules are strict with around five notes for each hand and with the need to keep moving by step as much as possible. It’s like a treasure hunt to find a good tune but it’s very satisfying when a piece comes together. Grade 1 writing has a broader framework so it’s easier to find a good tune. Then as grade levels increase the wider note ranges, richer chords, part-writing, and pedalling open up new colours and textures.’
MM: Staying with a technical level seems very challenging to the onlooker, but Victoria as an examiner herself is all too aware of the criteria and level of difficulty expected. When writing this collection how did you stay ‘on message’ with the technical level?
VP: To compose pieces at each grade I follow the rules for each grade, known as parameters. The note range, note values, keys, time signatures and more are specified at each grade by exam boards. I have also had many exam pieces published by Trinity from Initial to Grade 8, very useful experience for this collection. For Piano Grades are Go! I wrote pieces at the initial and grade 1 levels of popular exam boards. The parameters vary slightly between boards, so the pieces are arranged in order of difficulty, very useful for working through both grades.
MM: Victoria’s practical approach was always in evidence throughout her career development. It was fascinating to find out more about her education and the way in which she creates music. How have your experiences as an examiner for Trinity influenced your writing in this anthology?
VP: In my earlier days of teaching, after teacher training, I wrote and arranged beginner piano and electronic keyboard pieces for students. At that time, I taught both instruments to Grade 8. Trinity College London were looking for composers and arrangers to write exam pieces for Electronicc Keyboard exams which I successfully applied to do. Over the years I have had over forty arrangements and compositions published as exam pieces by Trinity, initial to grade 8, plus many more exercises and sight-reading tests. I discovered that I really enjoy composing and arranging – the hours fly by and it’s always fun! The challenges of composing educational music are composing to fit grade levels. This involves needing a thorough understanding of how students learn, and the strengths and weaknesses of pianists per grade. I don’t have a set way of composing. I have perfect pitch so can quickly work through ideas in my head to find ones that work educationally. I record ideas by humming them into voice record on my phone while I’m out and about or sometimes I record at the piano. Sometimes I scribble things on manuscript, I’ve started carrying it around. Sometimes I improvise too, recording ideas, then go back and filter through them later. At times I get writers block and struggle frustratingly all day with no results! But then a whole piece can arrive from nowhere in my head. I use Sibelius to write once I’m happy with a piece.
MM: The unquestionable success of this wonderful new educational resource is easy to understand -it stems from Victoria’s hands-on daily experiences as a teacher, working with young pianists and understanding their needs. How have your experiences as a piano teacher influenced the writing?
VP: My aim is to inspire young pianists, speed up learning and help pianists to really communicate through music. I write pieces which I then use to teach my own piano pupils. At initial to grade one pupils are still learning the notes and there is so much about playing the piano which is new for them! I aim to take away some of the “work” by composing pieces which are fun and easy to understand. This means that we can spend time in lessons on new techniques and expressive performance details – the superskills of piano playing.
MM: How did you start writing educational music? What are the main challenges?
VP: In my earlier days of teaching, after teacher training, I wrote and arranged beginner piano and electronic keyboard pieces for students. At that time I taught both instruments to Grade 8. Trinity College London were looking for composers and arrangers to write exam pieces for Electronic Keyboard exams which I successfully applied to do. Over the years I have had over forty arrangements and compositions published as exam pieces by Trinity, initial to grade 8, plus many more exercises and sight reading tests. I discovered that I really enjoy composing and arranging – the hours fly by and it’s always fun! The challenges of composing educational music are composing to fit grade levels. This involves needing a thorough understanding of how students learn, and the strengths and weaknesses of pianists per grade.
MM: When did you first start composing music?
VP: I have composed music from time to time since childhood. As a child I played violin as well as piano and wrote violin pieces for fun. Then as a young teenager I liked composing piano pieces, especially in the garden on sunny days as I remember. At that time I was obsessed with playing Chopin Mazurkas, Waltzes and Nocturnes and my compositions were shamelessly ‘Chopin Mazurka’- like! These days I really enjoy writing tonally for educational music. My aim is to inspire young pianists, speed up learning and help pianists to really communicate through music.
MM: How do you compose? Do you improvise first, or work with paper and pencil? Do you go straight to Sibelius? I don’t have a set way of composing. I have perfect pitch so can quickly work through ideas in my head to find ones that work educationally. I record ideas by humming them into voice record on my phone while I’m out and about or sometimes I record at the piano. Sometimes I scribble things on manuscript, I’ve started carrying it around. Sometimes I improvise too, recording ideas, then go back and filter through them later. At times I get writers block and struggle frustratingly all day with no results! But then a whole piece can arrive from nowhere in my head. I use Sibelius to write once I’m happy with a piece.
MM: Tell us about your playing career, work in Sheffield and your work as a private teacher. How does your composition relate to your other professional activities? Did they influence your composition?
VP: My first ambition was to be a concert pianist and I studied piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After music college I became a piano teacher, then an examiner and composer. I now teach piano at Sheffield Music Academy, Centre for Advanced Training, in Sheffield, where we have some phenomenal young musicians of very high standards. I also teach piano at Birkdale School in Sheffield within an outstanding music department, where I teach students at all grades. Two of my students from Sheffield Music Academy, Cheng-Xi Ma and Derun Zhou, performed my compositions Stakeout! And Bach to Blue in the Elena Cobb Star Prize Festival at the Royal Albert Hall on 6th April this year. Bach to Blue was written especially for the event. It was an amazing experience for my students to perform on Elton John’s Red Piano, accompanied by a live jazz band, and fantastic to hear my compositions performed live at the Royal Albert Hall
MM: How do your own pupils respond to your music? Tell us about your experiences of teaching some of the pieces to your own pupils and how they progressed?
VP: I’ve been using the pieces from Piano Grades are Go! with my pupils and we’re really enjoying them! I have several students at this level. The pieces are in different hand positions and keys and my pupils are choosing their favourite pieces to work on (I always give a choice of three pieces). The piano superskills are working really well and I’m really looking forward to completing the next book to continue the journey!
MM: The new super skill approach could easily be extended to accommodate anthologies for all the other grades too. I finished my interview by asking Victoria what she hope to write next:
VP: I’m writing Piano Grades are Go! Grades 2-3 at the moment which is really exciting! I’ll continue composing, teaching piano, and examining and I’m really looking forward to future projects.
By Murray McLachlan
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.
Piano Grades are Go! Initial to Grade 1 by Victoria Proudler
Piano Grades Are Go! by music examiner and composer, Victoria Proudler includes 20 characterful solos for Initial to Grade 1 level with the focus on the performance directions. The pieces are carefully graded at the standards of the major exam boards and also include techniques and musical details to supercharge progress through the grades.