Piano Star Duets in practice - Part 1: beginner up to Initial Grade level

By Karen Marshall

July 2020 saw the publication of ABRSM’s Piano Star Duets , packed with 26 duets from beginner right through to Grade 2 level. Karen Marshall, co-compiler of the series with David Blackwell, shares her practical experience of using this book and the additional digital resources for online teaching .

Here and in later blogs she talks about a range of of the pieces from the book, while also focusing on those included in the current ABRSM Piano syllabus. These are: Initial Grade – Butterfly by June Armstrong; Grade 1 – Woodland Folk Song by Alison Mathews and Tu tu Gbovi arr. Chapman Nyaho; Grade 2 – Raindrop Reflections by Heather Hammond and Sweet Pea by Nikki Iles. The student plays the primo part in all these pieces.

Highlights for beginner and Initial Grade-level pianists

Arguably one of the greatest challenges for any teacher when teaching duets is finding easy enough material for the beginner stage. This was always something at the forefront of both David’s and my mind when commissioning for and compiling the series. The duets were road-tested with some of my students before publication, but the real test always comes when the book is being used on an ongoing basis. So, in July (and at the end of term), hot off the press, I began to try out the material – to begin with, just getting the student to play their parts which in themselves are extremely useful pedagogical material, even without the duet accompaniments. Here are some highlights:

Ragtime Swop - Most definitely the easiest in the book, this piece was attempted after just six months of the child’s piano-playing journey. Having only just encountered quavers, the student needed the most support in the syncopated rhythms. Teaching online at the time, we played lots of clapping games (‘copy me’) and used flashcards of fragments of the rhythms in the piece.

A recording of the whole performance of the piece for the child to listen to at home was provided. While we were having an online lesson, this was also used for counting out loud, clapping to or tapping the legs (marking the pulse), and doing a mixture of counting out loud and using the ‘thinking voice’. An example was clapping for four bars and then switching to doing it in the child’s head, coming back to clapping out loud again. We came up with some words for the rhythms too, including ‘don’t stop the music’ for the starter phase.

After the pandemic, I’ll be excited to play the piece on one piano so we can enjoy the ‘swop’ element at the end. This piece was a great hit with the child, consolidating five-finger position reading, and introducing syncopation for the first time.

Other hits include Five Little Men in a Flying Saucer, super for exploring a new hand position and for experiencing the geography of the piano, with the movement up the piano octaves playing the C notes. This is a good piece for siblings in a concert as the secondo part is also very easy!

Apache Drums, is a piece that has enormous benefits but is a challenge for students when doing the ostinato (knocking on the piano). Some pupils have managed the whole ostinato, while others may need to do only a small number of the knocks; do adapt accordingly. The five-finger notation is extremely easy to access but do watch out for bar 6 in the primo part where the rest at the beginning of the bar can catch students out.

Melodic Study No.2 by Diabelli is excellent for counting minims with crotchets. La Bamba, too, has proved a real hit! Again, rhythm activities of clapping games and using flashcards of the rhythms can be useful before the notation is tackled.

The duet from the book on the Initial Grade Piano syllabus – Butterfly by June Armstrong – is a favourite of one of my student’s Initial Grade pieces. It explores the higher notes of the piano that some children may be less familiar with, which is a real bonus. This piece is really helped by the patterns in the music. Repeated motifs spotted by the student (if able) or pointed out by the teacher can speed up the learning process. Playing by ear can also be explored by using a ‘copy me’ approach with just two bars. Again, counting needs to be given much attention! Counting out loud by the student as they play (even though tricky) is a useful exercise, as is using rhythm names (ta for crotchets or te te for quavers, ta a for minims, ta a a for a dotted minim and ta a a a for semibreves).

You can find online resources to use with Piano Star Duets here.

All our Piano Star Series resources are available here.

Coming soon – Initial Performance Grade for Piano

From August, you’ll be able to book an Initial Performance Grade exam, with the first exam submission dates in September. You can read more here.

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