Ballads without words – Pianodao

Selected & Reviewed by ANDREW EALES

Heather Hammond is one of the UK’s most widely respected and published educational composers, responsible for a string of popular titles that notably include the Cool Piano, Cool Clarinet, Funky Flute and Super Sax series from Kevin Mayhew. She is also much admired for her work with writing partner Karen Marshall; together they created the Get Set! Piano method series (Collins Music) and Intermediate Pianist (Faber Music).

Hammond’s most recent music, published with vision and panache by EVC Musichas further consolidated her growing international reputation, and EVC now brings us the combined Ballads Without Wordsa compilation of two previous best-selling titles (suitable for upper intermediate players around UK Grades 4-5), joined by two brand new pieces…

Contemporary Songs Without Words

The nineteen pieces in this bumper collection are memorably melodic and rich in imagery. Written with classical playing techniques and approaches in mind, but imbued with the language of contemporary popular music, they are easily accessible to players versed in today’s culture.

If Hammond’s title rather wonderfully recalls the celebrated and ever-popular Mendelssohn “Lieder ohne Worte”adding a delightful popular twist for good measure, it is apt in doing so, encouraging the player to develop their sense of phrasing, lyricism and a singing tone.

The pieces are evocatively titled as follows:

(The original Book 1):
• The Wheels of Time
• Alone, For a While
• Maybe Tomorrow
• Song for Lance
• Journey’s End
• Rainforest Dawn
• Once Upon a Frozen Winter
• When Tides Change

(The original Book 2):
• Hand in Hand
• To the Stars and Back
• Tell it to the Clouds
• Running Free
• Footprints in the Sand
• Dream a While
• Staintondale Sunrise
• Echoes from the Mountains
• Always On Your Side

Brand New Pieces:
• Night of the Vampires
• Thinking of Lisa

Since appearing in the middle of the last decade, titles from the first book of Ballads Without Wordsincluding such as The Wheels of Time (with its giddy 5/8 groove), the wistful Once Upon a Frozen Winterand dreamily melodic When Tides Change have become favorites in teaching studios around the world.

Wonderful too, to rediscover my favorite piece from that book: Rainforest Dawn has the hallmark of a classic pop ballad, its combination of easy flowing harmonies, lovely right hand figuration and irregular shapes and lengths all contributing to its effectiveness, making it a joy to play.

The contemporary stylings that underpin Hammond’s composing voice remain a strength and source of variety in the pieces from her second Ballads Without Words book, several of them this time written in compound time-signatures.

The tone here seems to me more romantic, with pieces such as Hand in Hand, Dream a While, Always on Your Side and the Disney-esque To The Stars And Back Each hinting at unique stories of love and friendship.

Completing the collection, the first of the two brand new compositions is Night of the Vampiresdescribing itself as an “Epic Ballad”, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Twilight movie. The concluding Thinking of Lisa is an “andante espressivo” (how very Mendelssohn!), its simple melody and jazz-tinged harmonies wonderfully before the album.

The Publication

Bringing all the music of the original two books together into one value-for-money compilation is a masterstroke which makes the book instantly appealing. The eye-catching cover that graces EVC Music’s publication is equally inviting.

Within, the book is a simple affair in EVC house style, with cleanly engraved notation spaciously presented on white paper.

Useful (though obviously not mandatory!) fingering suggestions are provided, which will particularly help players not used to the figurations more common in popular music styles.

Pedaling is left for the player to devise with their teacher, but is an essential prerequisite for playing this music effectively.

Closing Thoughts

Here is an album that will surely be a “quick win” with players at upper intermediate level who want to play music in a lighter style, but with emotive melodic content.

The pieces offer plenty of contrast but are consistently attractive, fit well under the hands, and provide a pedagogically helpful introduction to a vital range of playing techniques and approaches that can later be transferred to playing other contemporary piano music.

In short, Ballads Without Words confirms why we are right to regard Heather Hammond as one of the foremost educational composers of our time. Do take time to explore this delightful collection!

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