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The Joy of Piano

In this blog, Andrew Eales unveils the essence of The Joy of Graded Piano, a set of five new repertoire books from Yorktown Music Press which heralds the return of one of the most iconic piano series of all time. Denes Agay’s Joy of… piano books are one of the great achievements of music publishing. His anthologies began to appear in 1955, and he went on to produce more than 50 titles for the series, collectively selling millions of copies. These books remain popular with piano students, players, and teachers around the world to this very day, although much else has changed.

Introducing the Joy of Graded Piano

The Joy of Graded Piano builds on that remarkable legacy with care, drawing together new titles to reflect developments in piano education and musical preferences that have occurred within the intervening decades. The five books cover Grades 1–5, offering an enjoyable and well-rounded introduction to the riches of the piano repertoire. It is a pleasure and a privilege to have worked with the publishers on the development of this series, which involved selecting the 120 included works; editing them afresh drawing from the most authoritative sources and correcting some common errors; adding new fingering where needed; and, writing background notes and practice tips for each piece across the series enhanced its depth and educational value.

Let’s go on an adventure…

Showcasing the strength and diversity of repertoire available for the world’s favourite instrument, The Joy of Graded Piano takes players of all ages on an incredible and varied musical adventure. Building on Denes Agay’s pioneering and cosmopolitan approach, I have tried to ensure each book in the series offers a wide selection of repertoire that includes many of the “greatest hits” of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic piano literature alongside brilliant newer pieces composed by women and men from all around the world, right up to the present day.

Joy of Piano
Covers from original books in the series

The series charts a solo piano culture that began in western Europe, and which has inspired musicians worldwide. In particular, it was important that the voice of women and living composers were celebrated in this collection, voices which I have found underrepresented in the otherwise excellent graded anthologies on my own music shelf. The Joy of Graded Piano recognises the need for change, and that the exam boards are already making significant efforts to do so. In taking this approach, it is sincerely hoped that these anthologies will powerfully speak to the musical needs and interests of today’s students.

Why Graded Anthologies?

Denes Agay played a deft hand in his selection of music, each of his anthologies including a range of easier pieces to consolidate skills and understanding, as well as some more challenging works to inspire progress. With the five new collections, I have aimed to preserve the wisdom that underpins his hugely successful legacy, while also referencing the UK grade exam system as to guide difficulty.

The system of eight grades, flanked by beginner music on one side and diploma qualifications on the other, offers level banding that is sufficiently narrow to provide a sensible guide to the difficulty of a piece, though not so precise as to exclude either challenge or consolidation within each grade.

For those using the UK grade exam system, these anthologies facilitate the necessary musical development between one grade and the next, including some pieces which will challenge and others that consolidate, alongside some established syllabus favourites that teachers and players can confidently select as “own choice” pieces for inclusion in their performance grade. 

Even without the experience of taking exams, these anthologies deliver a satisfying wealth of music that I believe will inspire learners and find a cherished, permanent place in their musical lives. They will help the improving player chart their course by progressing from one graded anthology of music to the next, the step difficulty of challenge a tangible token of progress. 

The Joy of… benchmarking?

It’s surely one of the most frequently asked questions on piano forums, and whatever one’s approach to the grade exams themselves, we are often keen to know the level of a piece before attempting to play it or setting it for a student. But answers are rarely easy, and discussions often reveal conflicting views. With the proliferation of exam boards and diversification of syllabus offerings, it is increasingly the case that a piece will appear in a syllabus set for one grade, and in another syllabus set at another level.

Let’s consider a few examples, beginning with Mendelssohn’s beloved Kinderstücke Op.72/2. ABRSM have benchmarked this as a Grade 4 piece in no less than six publications, but it also appears in the Trinity College London syllabus as a Grade 7 piece. That’s quite a big difference of opinion! The Adagio cantabile from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata appears on the current ABRSM Grade 8 syllabus but was previously also set by them at Grade 6. Schumann’s First Loss is currently Grade 3 LCME, simultaneously Grade 4 ABRSM. And the list goes on… Once we start digging the list of such anomalies quickly grows, proving the point that benchmarking repertoire is at best an inexact science.

And what about all those pieces that have never been set in a grade at all? Having done consultancy work for the syllabus departments of three boards (ABRSM, LCME, and RSL Classical), I have often heard the point made that many pieces fall between the cracks of one grade level and the next. Music is rarely composed with an exam board’s criteria in mind. A lot of pieces are simply the wrong length for inclusion in a 12-minute exam comprising multiple elements.

Take “Arirang”, which closes the Grade 3 collection. A “distinction-level” performance of this short arrangement requires balanced voicing between and within hands. Four-note chords must be transitioned smoothly, a supple wrist is needed to effectively manage intervals of a tenth, and ideally the player will have an instinctive ability for legato pedalling that is not expected of an elementary Grade 2 player. A good teacher will recognise and understand these musical competencies, and yet at just 17 bars, the piece is clearly too short for the exam room.

Arirang, from The Joy of Graded Piano – Grade 3

At the other end of the spectrum, Beethoven’s evergreen Für Elise has long been considered too lengthy and repetitive by boards. The same can be said for other pieces included in The Joy of Graded Piano. Works by Ludovico Einaudi, Yann Tiersen, Rachel Portman, Florence Price and many others included here may well provide the pleasure and impetus that players need to keep going through the intermediate stages of learning but might not be ideal in an exam room.

When it comes to putting together an exam programme incorporating “own choice” pieces, teachers should use their common sense and professional judgment to ensure the pieces a student presents offer a balanced mix of music that best showcases their ability, suits the occasion, and matches the syllabus regulations and past repertoire of the awarding body.

Ticklin' Toes
Price’s Ticklin’ Toes from the Joy of Graded Piano – Grade 4

Final Thoughts: Five Premium Collections

The Joy of Graded Piano
  • Colourful covers that build on the continuing appeal of this popular series. 
  • Clear, spacious engraving with a generous music font to help learners develop good reading ability. 
  • Luxury cream paper, supporting clarity (and especially important for neurodivergent players). 
  • Carefully researched and engaging background notes for every piece. 
  • Practice tips to support effective learning and musical performance. 
  • Considered fingering suggestions throughout, including the composer’s where available, or else my own. 
  • Suggested realisations for ornamentation wherever needed.

By Andrew Eales

About the Author

Andrew Eales

One of the UK’s most influential piano educationalists, Andrew Eales is based in Milton Keynes, where he runs a successful piano-teaching studio. He is a published composer and author, and his compositions and recordings have been streamed well over a million times worldwide. Andrew has worked as a consultant for several leading educational organisations and examination boards. He has trained and worked alongside teachers across the UK, North America, and Africa. His video feedback service now provides affordable, expert support for piano players the world over. 

Described by Strad Magazine as, “full of golden advice… a great source of wisdom,” Andrew’s book How to Practise Music is published by Hal Leonard, and he has compiled Graded Gillock and Naoko Ikeda: The Graded Collection for The Willis Music Company. Andrew is renowned for his piano education website pianodao.com, which includes hundreds of free articles and reviews to support piano players and teachers worldwide.

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