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‘It is for the player to embark on a voyage of discovery, and for the teacher to offer guidance.’ This single sentence from Stephen Taylor’s superb new textbook (the sentiment expressed might almost be from Schumann’s Musical Rules for the Young) encapsulates the refreshingly encouraging approach of this excellent new primer. Keyboard harmony only becomes the Very Difficult Thing which so many players perceive it to be when it’s divorced from the continuum of musical thought and practice of which it forms an entirely natural part. The Lost Chord – with its roots firmly planted in the Dutch tradition of improvisation in the liturgy – adopts an admirably pragmatic approach to skills which too often become obscured in theorising.

What distinguishes this book from other publications, says the author, is ‘the manner in which the material is presented.’ The only initial assumption is that those using the method can play a four-part hymn with ease. Volume 1 moves through a study of scales and intervals (beginning, crucially, with a simple but subtle listening exercise) to the identification of tonalities, before addressing the writing of bass lines to a given melody, and basic figured bass exercises. At every step, pertinent examples (largely drawn from familiar hymnody) reinforce the principles under discussion, fully supported by cogent written explanations and helpful cross-referencing to material already covered (a full index might have made tracing ideas across the volumes a bit easier). At an early stage, questions of organ registration and variety of texture are carefully introduced, along with considerations of chord voicing. Phrase structure and modulation are touched on, before a set of revision exercises concludes the volume.

Volume 2 is by careful design more challenging. Distinguishing between ‘development’ and ‘progress’, exercises covering correct use of consonance and dissonance are introduced. Improvising melodies over basses (cleverly using a very wide range of tonalities) is encouraged, and a wider range of chords explored. A particularly impressive aspect of this volume is the way in which the student is encouraged to analyse the aural effect of given progressions and procedures – discussion of the chord of the sixth, for example, encourages really refined listening and analysis, and matters of voice-leading are related intimately to the sound of a chord or progression, not only to its theoretical correctness. Linking of keyboard disciplines is also deftly done – transposition of exercises is constantly recommended.

The sense of natural progression continues in the final volume. Developing concepts of figuration, more complex modulation schemes, and introducing passing and auxiliary notes lead the student towards more sophisticated realisations of material from earlier volumes – an entirely logical recapitulation, which will reinforce a sense of progress and achievement. Schumann said: ‘Theory, thorough bass, counterpoint etc will meet you friendly enough, if you meet them so.’ And so will harmonisation. This new tutor makes a fundamental keyboard skill as friendly as it could possibly be, and everyone concerned with teaching keyboard harmony at any level will find it an entirely worthwhile – not to say thought-provoking – investment.

STEPHEN FARR Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Choir & Organ, 2013 - ©Rhinegold Publishing