Pupils playing excerpts

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Vol. 1 At the circus



A first book for children who want to make music at the piano.

At the Circus is divided into reading tunes and tunes which are learned by rote so from the start, pupils are encouraged to learn both by reading and by listening and copying. Of course, if tunes are not learned from the notes on the page, children are playing them from memory. This is a skill which is specifically encouraged through volumes 2, 4, 6 and 8 of our Piano Course Vols 1–24.

Illustrations by Robbie Mendelow

Contents list

  • Circus parade
  • Rush! Hurry!
  • Juggler
  • Ponies in the ring
  • Sad clown
  • On the tightrope
  • Tallest man
  • Acrobats ABC
  • Circus band
  • Cool cats
  • Clowns’ capers
  • Clowns’ car
  • The clowns again
  • Dancing bears
  • Spinning plates
  • Pyramids
  • Shoe size 62
  • Up to the trapeze
  • Strong man
  • Prancing poodles
  • Ringmaster
  • Bass drum
  • Tasty snack
  • Acrobat rider
  • Ringmaster disaster
  • Elegant Elephants
  • Human cannonball
  • Glamorous Gladys

Using At the circus with Nicola

In a lesson with Nicola (age 3), we ‘explore’ the piece Clowns’ car in At the circus. With the book open at the page (which has a splendid drawing of the clowns and their car complete with horn), I play the piece through.

Esther Cohen: ‘What does that sound like?’

Nicola: ‘That’s a beep-beep.’

EC: Can you find what makes that sound in the picture?

(Nicola points to the horn.)

EC: ‘I’m going to be the wheel’s rolling and you’re going to be the beep-beep.’ (We play the piece.)

Nicola: ‘Now I’ll be the wheels rolling and you’ll be the horn.’ (She plays her version of what she saw and heard me do.)

Nicola can’t play many of the pieces in At the circus right through, exactly as they are set out in the book. But she can sing them, she has grasped the musical ideas behind them and she and I together have adapted them to her level of physical and mental maturity.

She can follow my instructions, she can play in time to a beat, she has a clear understanding of the layout of the keyboard and she is equally at home playing on any section of it and on black or white keys. She knows how her hand and fingers should look and because she does not need to read any music, she is able to watch her hands and adjust her hand position as she plays.

She is the youngest pupil with whom I have used At the circus and, through working with her, I have discovered the full potential of the book. Its child-centered approach allows the teacher to go from what the child can do – or is prepared to do! It reaches the child where she is. It draws out what she can already do and allows her to explore and find new things which she can do rather than thrusting her into a completely new, mysterious unknown.

Young children are most comfortable with the familiar, so it makes sense to approach learning to play the piano from what they have already experienced of making music. They can all sing and beat time, even if neither skill is very developed yet. Playing in time is just an extension of beating time.

Making sounds on piano keys is only too easy. Only the reading of music limits the use of the whole keyboard so why not start by playing rhythmic sounds using the whole keyboard. Black keys form the signposts for knowing where you are on the keyboard, so lets use them first. A marching rhythm is easiest; left! right! left! right! and so, Circus Parade, the first tune in the book is born.