Approaches to Staccato Playing

I’m a regular contributor to Piano Professional (the British European Piano Teachers Association (EPTA) magazine); I really enjoy writing for this publication, which focuses on providing piano teachers with helpful information. The following article was written for Issue 43 (published earlier this year), and examines various approaches to staccato. I hope it’s of interest.


When it comes to tackling articulation, there are numerous different touches to embrace, but the most crucial to master are legato and staccato. Staccato (or short and detached), tends to be ignored as lessons commence, perhaps due to the fact that some exam boards only require staccato scales above certain grades, therefore short, spikey playing is generally limited to a few notes or phrases in certain pieces at the beginning. This is possibly adequate for Grade 1, but if pupils can acquire a feel for the quick release of the keys and highly developed reflexes necessary for staccato technique, it will certainly prove beneficial even for relative beginners.

Legato generally poses few problems for students; it may take a little practice to become accustomed to the ‘overlapping’ of notes or ‘walking’ over the keys in order to join them smoothly, but most find the task surmountable fairly quickly. Legato scales can therefore be easily grasped. This is often not the case with staccato; crisp, short passage work at speed rarely feels comfortable (especially in the beginning), hence staccato scales are frequently taken at much slower tempos than intended. Scales are only one small facet of acquiring an effective staccato technique, but they can provide a convenient vehicle for those getting to grips with detached playing.

There are many variations on the staccato theme, including ‘close-to-the-keys’ staccato, finger staccato, wrist staccato and whole-arm staccato. Each touch demands a different technique and therefore a different body movement or motion. Making progress can take time and patience, because excellent coordination is a prerequisite. Tension can also be an overriding concern, sometimes irrespective of standard, and it can ruin the best of intentions. Economy of movement is essential, as is an inbuilt flexibility, so practising fruitfully, in small but regular sessions is probably the best approach. Aim to encourage students to work little and often, with a totally focused mind-set, building up muscle power and flexibility.

How do we help students conquer thorny issues associated with short, detached playing? Each staccato technique requires a multifarious perspective, so let’s look at them individually.

Finger staccato is the most commonly used for rapid passagework. When working at any new motion or technique with pupils, it’s helpful to ask them to drop their arms by their side at the start of practice sessions, as well as after practising a repeated movement, for a minute of two. If they can assimilate the feeling of ‘dead’ or heavy arms (which is my terminology, but really this only means a totally relaxed upper body), they will learn just how relaxed and ‘free’ they should ideally feel when playing. It can also help students become aware of any tension building as they work, and it provides a default relaxation position to assume after engaging muscles.

Finger staccato implies that only the fingers should move. However, if the arms and wrists remain completely static, tension will quickly arise, rendering fast movement challenging. Ensure complete freedom in the upper body.   If you can replicate this feeling when playing, flexibility won’t be an issue. As with many technical challenges, focus on how your body feels when playing, not just on what is being played.

Practice rapid finger movement away from the piano. Fingers should work from the knuckles, without much assistance of muscles in the hand or wrist, and every joint must be complicit; they need to move independently, making sure the first two joints of each finger particularly (nearest the fingertip), are ‘active’. Aim for a very swift finger motion; encourage fingers to make tapping movements or a quick, sharp pulling ‘inwards’ of each finger (towards the palm of the hand). This can be built up, so work in short bursts for a minute or so at a time, returning to dropping arms by your side at the end of each brief session.

As with most techniques, starting slowly often produces the best results. It can be useful to use heavy finger strokes to begin with; playing deeper (in to the key bed), forcefully and with strong fingers (in order to strengthen them).  It’s important to pay attention to how every note ends. Think spikey, pithy, sharp, and extremely short. Combine this with a free wrist at all times; letting go of tension in designated places.

Once heavy movements have been grasped and they feel comfortable, lighten the touch, using the fingertip (or top/pad of the finger), and aim to acquire a ‘scratch’ or flicking motion, so every note can remain incredibly short and effectively sounded. Once the finger has ‘flicked’ it will usually draw inwards (as already mentioned), almost into the palm of the hand, but best not to allow it to go too far, as quick finger changes necessitate fingers to resume the usual position promptly. When playing a whole scale or passage using finger staccato, it can be beneficial for the hand to employ a very slight ‘bouncing’ motion, allowing flexibility, but keeping the flow.

Practice passage work in different rhythmical groups; groups of four semi-quavers can be accented slightly on every first beat of the group, to improve co-ordination (if hands are playing together). Practice assorted strong beats (or accents), so all fingers can attain control, making it possible to achieve totally even playing, both rhythmically and tonally. Every time the thumb turns under (or the hand turns over it)  in a passage, encourage the wrist to use a small rotational or circular movement, providing a place to release any tension caused by the incessant ‘picking up’ finger motion necessary for finger staccato. Even when using a ‘scratch’ or flicking technique, fingers still need a ‘picking up’ movement, which after a while, becomes tiring. If tension does build, stop immediately, and only practice a few notes or a group of notes at a time. Divide passages into small sections, building up as and when strength is acquired.

If fingers consistently key-bed whilst practising slowly, the less the eventual effort when playing fast, light and crucially, detached.

For close-to-the-keys’ staccato, fingers need hardly leave the keys; they are really playing ‘in position’, and on the surface of the keys. Close-to-the-keys staccato is generally used for certain effects and isn’t as widely employed as finger staccato. Allow fingers to assume their positions over the keys (do this by placing fingers over notes from C-G in the right hand, using the thumb on C, as if playing the first five notes of a C major scale, but with fingers 1-5). Practice each finger separately at first, playing deep into the key bed with each finger, again employing the ‘scratch’ movement (build in a slight break between each note). Using a free wrist will help here. Once the fingers have played heavy, but short notes, lighten the touch considerably, and aim for a very quick movement with each finger making an upward (as opposed to inward) motion. This will encourage speed, rapidly moving onto the next note, taking less time and effort than downward movement. Repeat this with the left hand (also starting in a five-finger position).

Due to the title, it’s easy to misinterpret wrist staccato as merely the wrist in a ‘fixed’ position bobbing up and down at the end of the arm, but if this is the only physical action taken, rigidity and extreme tension may prevail. Unlike finger staccato, wrist staccato requires much more movement than just that of the wrist.

To achieve success, it really must be harnessed to a very flexible, moveable forearm, upper arm and upper torso.  As with many other techniques in piano playing, each movement benefits from being cushioned and supported by other parts of the upper body.

Practice away from the piano at first; begin with the hand in its natural position, then move it upwards using the wrist only, then downwards, with your forearm remaining fairly static, the wrist acting rather like a hinge. Gradually build up speed. The faster the speed, so the motion becomes smaller and smaller, and is eventually similar to a ‘vibrato’ action, as if shaking the hand rapidly.

Once the basic movement has been assimilated (by both hands) away from the instrument, experiment by applying it to a few chords (or single notes to start with) on the keyboard. Play hands separately at first and as you play every chord, using a large hinge-like motion with your wrist (almost like a ‘throwing’ action), land on the chord accurately using the tips of the fingers. After the chord has been struck, completely ‘release’ the wrist and arm, letting go of any tension, before the next chord is played. This is tricky to do at speed, so as always, slow practice can help. As speed is built, be sure to release any elbow tension too, as this can feel uncomfortable after a while. To release muscles, swing your arm down by your side; this will serve as a reminder of the feeling of relaxation with no tension.

In order for the arms, elbows and upper torso to remain as free and flexible as possible (so they can support the wrist), it’s important to have an in-built ‘breathing’ space between each chord, therefore, release the upper body after every single one. The wrist and arm will eventually become accustomed to the whole tension/release mechanism. I find it useful to make a rotational movement with the wrist too (when practising slowly) as opposed to only moving it up and down, because the use of arm weight seems to cushion the movement, providing a richer sound and freer action, in preparation for brisk tempi. Some prefer a ‘throwing’ motion, the flexibility stemming from the wrist’s release between each ‘throw’ of the hand.

After a while (and when the feeling of freedom has been honed), move from playing one chord at a time, to several using one wrist motion. An example of wrist staccato, is shown below (which is the first bar of Czerny’s Study No. 40, from The Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740):

This passage might be practised in the manner suggested below, the rests providing spots to release tension, and build stamina. During the crotchet rests in the right hand, ensure the wrist and whole arm is loose and floppy or free, before continuing, then you will know if you have released tension successfully.

Practice on passages which don’t require a large hand stretch; if octaves or big chords feel strained, choose smaller triads as in the example above. It’s important to feel comfortable, not over-stretched. Also, by giving a slight accent on the first beat of a passage or group (such as the first triad in the chordal group above), it’s possible to facilitate the movement required to play all three chords in the group with ease. The action needed for the strong beat sets the motion rolling, helps to rotate the wrist, and keeps the arm and elbow soft and light too. As the wrist and arm become used to the feeling, so the breaks between each chord can be less and less, although it is always necessary to free the wrist very swiftly between groups of chords, ridding the arm of any tension before continuing.

Speed will come eventually, when the wrist and arm feel able and willing to relax the muscles between passagework, then it will be possible to play longer sections without tiring.  Once this aspect has been understood, velocity and virtuosity should miraculously appear.

Fore-arm, whole-arm or elbow staccato are probably used less frequently than the other types examined so far, and are generally in more advanced repertoire. As the titles suggest, considerable body movement is necessary, and in order to really understand and make use of these techniques, the arm-weight concept (i.e. employing weight from the upper torso whilst playing passages via flexibility in the wrist) needs to be secure, and wrist staccato must also be completely integrated. When playing staccato passagework with the whole upper body, we should ideally still be flexible between notes and chords, so when delivering short but hefty chords or octaves, a warm, controlled sound emanates. These staccato techniques are generally used for slightly slower figurations; those with which will be enhanced by a powerful sonority. Practising with added ‘breaks’ in the score, as has been suggested for wrist staccato above, can also be beneficial.

Within this framework, there are countless effects required when playing staccato, depending on the composer, stylistic traits and character of a piece, but these practice ideas will hopefully provide a veritable starting point. If pupils are introduced to basic staccato playing from the outset, they will be able to build and develop this technique alongside their legato playing.

Suggested advanced repertoire featuring staccato:

Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 3 in E flat major; Scherzo (2nd movement) by Ludwig van Beethoven, Andante & Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14 by Felix Mendelssohn, Puck Op. 71 No. 3 and March of the Dwarfs Op. 54 by Edvard Grieg, Polichinelle Op. 3 No. 4 by Sergei Rachmaninov, Étincelles Op. 36 No. 6 by Moritz Moszkowski, Étude Op. 23 No. 2 by Anton Rubinstein and Gnomenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes) from 2 Konzertetüden, S.145 by Franz Liszt.

You can read the original article here:

Approaches to staccato playing


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

 

Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 3

I’ve been enjoying selecting repertoire for this current series on my blog. I’m not so familiar with Trinity College London exams; my students generally take ABRSM examinations, with the exception of a few of my diploma students (I like Trinity’s more varied repertoire at this level, particularly for Contemporary music).

Grade 3 provides an interesting mix of genres and styles. Here’s my pick of three pieces chosen from the main repertoire list (all featured in the Grade 3 exam Pieces & Exercises publication). These options might make for an appealing combination, and I hope the tips are helpful (I’ve also added a performance of each piece (primarily to offer an idea of how they might be interpreted) selected from the huge array on YouTube).

  1. Study Op. 37 No. 34 by Henry Lemoine (1786 – 1854)

French composer Henry Lemoine is known for his piano studies and exercises (he also founded a well-known music publishing house); many of the studies are interesting, tuneful, and enjoyable to play.

Whilst some may not appreciate opening an exam programme with a more demanding, lengthy (for Grade 3) piece, this work encourages strong fingers, crisp articulation and a certain sensitivity. And if a student doesn’t fancy playing this at the beginning of their programme, it’s entirely possible to start with another work (I often suggest beginning with a Contemporary piece in a programme and working backwards, historically!).

  1. Set in 3/8, repeated notes are a recurring feature (in the right hand).  It’s worth experimenting with the fingering for repeated notes; many prefer to repeat using  the same finger (this works well if you have a strong finger with active joints, and a loose wrist). The tempo is stately as opposed to quick, therefore there’s plenty of time to use the same finger, however I would suggest applying the fingering written in the score, as the last note of the group (played by a thumb here) often leads to a large, interval rather like that between bars 1 – 2 and 9  – 10.
  2. The semiquaver triplet pattern will benefit from nimble fingerwork so as to fully ‘hear’ all three notes each time they sound; it’s all too easy to ‘skip’ notes when playing such a figuration, with usually one of the group not fully sounding. Stem this by taking each triplet out of context, practising it on its own with the intended fingering, and play each note very heavily (and slowly), using the finger tip. Ensure the triplet is even rhythmically. It can be helpful to accent the second note when playing the group (for practice purposes only), then accent the last note. Working with different touches can be a useful method too. When up to speed, lighten each triplet and you will hopefully have more control over the group as a whole.
  3. Passages with chords will need care (such as at bars 19 – 20 and 23 – 24). Each part can be practised alone first. Staccato markings and all accents (which are a feature), must be precisely conveyed, and bars with a slur marking followed by staccato (for example, bars 2, 3, 5, and 14 -15 (all right hand)), might benefit from detailed slow work.
  4. The left hand chords provide the accompaniment, and whilst the pedal could be used to join triads from bar to bar, it’s much cleaner to use a legato touch (particularly where marked with a slur; bars 5 – 8, for example). In bars 32 – 43 the lower note (a dotted crotchet) must be held for the entire bar, with light chords above. Aim to practice holding the Bs for as along as possible, then when repeating the note at the beginning of the next bar, take it down again very softly, so as to match the tone from the previous note.
  5. The success of any performance will depend on the ability to ‘lift’ off notes quickly. Therefore listen to the ends of notes; note ends are as important as their beginnings, especially when playing detailed articulation. Counting in triplets throughout (i.e. three semiquavers to every quaver) in order to ‘place’ every beat, may be helpful until the pulse is solid.

2. The Highway Robber (from For Children) by Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

I couldn’t resist this wonderful little piece written by Hungarian master, Béla Bartók. Young players in particular will enjoy the insistent rhythm needed here, with its rather sinister connotations (albeit tongue-in-cheek!).There’s ample opportunity to inject colour and drama.

  1. This work is only really effective at a fast tempo (crotchet equals 126 beats per minute), and Bartók has been very precise about accents and phrasing. Work at the hands separately, in order to implement articulation from the outset. The opening interval of a fifth (left hand) must be strong, with a powerful (although never harsh)  sound, therefore avoid ‘hitting’ the keys by using the wrist in a relaxed flexible manner, cushioning the sound as fingers sink into the key bed.
  2. Rhythm is intrinsic to Bartók’s style, adding intensity and shape to his beloved folk tunes. As has often been suggested in these tips, breaking down the rhythm and counting in subdivisions of the beat will help with accuracy. Whilst the smallest denomination here is quavers, counting is semi-quavers (for a while) may help place beats more efficiently
  3. The left hand moves around the keyboard quickly, so aim to know this musical line thoroughly, and once secure, for practice purposes, work through the piece without looking at the keyboard as you play; this is a great way to ‘feel’ the distances between note patterns. The tied crotchet to a minim at bars 2 to 3, which will be held with the sustaining pedal (as ‘reaching’ the interval of a tenth is not an option for smaller hands), will need to be cut short quite precisely (as marked) so the melody is free from resonance.
  4. Bars 3 – 6 of the right hand melody should ideally be completely non-legato (slightly detached). This, combined with the accents, will shape the theme nicely, giving it the necessary ‘bite’. Move from one note pattern to the next much quicker than necessary, and aim for a slight rotational wrist motion between larger intervals, like the first and second notes in bar 5 (F to a C, right hand).
  5. For passages requiring perfect coordination (bars 3 – 6, for example), it will be beneficial to work a beat at a time, taking fingers down into the keys (at a third or quarter of the intended speed) absolutely together, and bringing them off together too. Match the sound of each note as much as possible, especially at bars 4 & 5, where  patterns don’t necessarily move in the same direction.

3. Sad Song by Alexander F. Johnson (1968 – )

A simple, reflective work which offers excellent contrast to the others already selected. Written by Alexander Johnson, there’s many a chance for  expressivity, enabling pupils to explore a wide range of colour, shading, shaping and phrasing; crucial for musical development, and just as important as being able to circumnavigate the keyboard at speed.

  1. This sad song alternates between sorrow and hope, with its minor key (E minor) and gentle hint of sunshine in the harmonies, such a those in the second bar. The sustaining pedal will add a wonderful resonance, but in order to match the sound, start by practising the left hand chords alone, finding suitable fingering (if that written doesn’t feel comfortable). Using a legato touch will enable control of the sound between chords, matching and phrasing off with the melody (in the right hand).
  2. The right hand look fairly innocuous, but the challenge is all in the phrasing; aim to join every single note (or as many as possible!). When we play, it can seem as though notes are legato, but when we listen to them carefully, there may be a few inconspicuous ‘gaps’ in the sound, where fingers tend to artlessly leave the keys before their time. Slightly ‘overlapping’ notes may help, taking one note down before leaving the last, think about shaping each phrase. Take a pencil and write in the ‘high point’ or climax within the phrase (generally each phrase has one).
  3. Try to contour each phrase, with a much softer tone at the beginning, rising to the focal point, evenly, i.e. without any bumpiness in the sound or rhythm, falling away at the end (bars 1 –  8, for example). The trick here is not to play too slowly; keep the piece moving (it is marked Andante, after all),  at a steady but not dirge like tempo.
  4. Some rubato is preferable in this piece, conveying the expressive nature and meditative quality, however, observe the rests at bar 13, counting them accurately, and resist any temptation to cut long notes (such as those at bar 14).
  5. Added chromaticisms (notes not in the key) abound, and can inject character. In this case, they contribute a ‘blues’ like feel, and this is particularly obvious at the end, where the ritenuto (slowing down), and final chord with its pause gives the impression of ‘drifting off’ into an abyss! A fairly substantial ritenuto and very soft dynamics work well for the last 4 bars.

Please visit my archives for other exam repertoire posts in this series.


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Practising Piano Waves

Piano Waves consists of 5 little pieces for the intermediate pianist (approximately Grade 4 – 6 level ABRSM). They were written in 2016 (published by EVC Music Publications), and have proved popular with all ages, but particularly with teenagers. This year, two pieces from the collection are set works on the Around The Globe Piano Festival syllabus (to be held in London during November).

I was inspired to write this volume after many years giving solo piano recitals on cruise ships around the world. This provided ample opportunity to observe the sea in all its forms; from beautiful calm sunsets to ferocious hurricanes and storms. Each piece depicts a different side of sea life; I hope they are fun to play and make for intuitive study.

In this post I offer five tips for each piece, which will hopefully be helpful for those considering learning them, whether for a recital, music festival or school performance.

Seahorse Dream

The first of the set dwells in the melancholic key of A minor. The seahorse briefly enjoys its peaceful slumber before being lulled into a progressively frenetic nightmare. Peace triumphs at the conclusion.

  1. The melody requires a very legato (smooth) line; the thumb turns under the hand at bar 3 beat 1, so ensure evenly placed quavers and a matching tone. Each note becomes gradually louder, the phrase crescendoing up to the end of bar 4. Aim to voice the A (beginning of bar 5) with care, as this is the top of the phrase.
  2. Every phrase (and they are mostly four bars in length), will benefit from a slightly different timbre and emphasis, as the shifting seahorse moves around in its sleep. Bar 10 should ideally tail off to nothing (or pianissimo).
  3. The left hand features a recurring figure: two quavers followed by a crotchet. Try to play the second quaver and crotchet beat lightly with the thumb, giving extra colour and sound to the first and third beats of the bar (as indicated by the tenuto marking) – they actually provide a counter melody. The fingers should brush over the notes lightly with a fluidity, offering an almost ostinato accompaniment to the cantabile melody.
  4. The middle section can be practised as a sequence of chords; start by playing each minim beat from bars 11 – 16, learning the shape and fingering of each chord, before playing as written. Give an emphasis on the top note of each broken chord from bars 13 – 16, adjusting the colour to suit each chromatic shift.
  5. Aim to quell any temptation to rush by counting vociferously, and listening to each note – especially the fourth semiquaver of each group. The sustaining pedal will add an atmospheric resonance.

Waltz on a Sunken Ship

A rather sombre piece with a slow waltz tempo and a reflective ambience. This work was inspired by French composer Eric Satie, and it’s on the syllabus of the Elena Cobb Star Prize at the British and International Federation of Music Festivals this year.

  1. The left hand moves considerably during virtually every bar and might benefit from slow, sustained practice. Find the note patterns and fingering for each chord and work slowly at the leap from beat 1 to beat 2 (or beat 3 from bars 17 – 24). As always when practising larger movements, practice playing much quicker than necessary, so when the tempo assumes its original, slower speed, the jumps feel comfortable.
  2. In keeping with the waltz style, aim to play the first beat of the bar with more sound and colour (or a decisive touch); the subsequent beats need a lighter, softer approach. This will bestow the necessary dance-like lilt.
  3. The right hand can also be practised in groups; ‘block out’ or try to play each bar altogether, at the same moment. This will allow you to become familiar with fingerings, note patterns and movement from one bar to the next (especially if you can play several bars (perhaps each four bar phrase) at once).
  4. When playing the right hand as written, ensure the top note in each bar is given its full value (i.e. resist any urge to rush), and add a richer timbre on the tied quaver (to a minim) beat (especially from bars 1 – 16).
  5. The sustaining pedal will enhance the melodic line, imparting the appropriate watery demeanour; observe the (8va) from bar 17 (playing an octave higher than written), and ensure the music floats off into oblivion at the end!

Ocean Surge

The name of this piece gives away its character! The surge come from the distinctly Minimalist flavour; with a turbulent climax, the outer sections meander around the C minor triad and offer a simple theme.

  1. Begin working from bar 17 – 28. Try to find the shape of each bar and therefore, each chord. Playing all the notes in each bar at once (as mentioned before) allows you to learn quickly, with fingers and chords comfortably under the hands. When practising bar 17 – 20, work slowly, counting every semiquaver; there can be a tendency to rush this type of note pattern, therefore placing accents on beats 2 and 4 (particularly beat 4) can help keep a steady pace.
  2. The chord patterns from bar 21 – 28 are effective if given accents or a ‘push’ on the first semiquaver of every crotchet beat. Ensure total fluency and evenness here, both in sound quality and rhythmic accuracy. Don’t be tempted to miss the pause at the end of bar 28! This is gives the music a chance to breathe.
  3. The opening has an improvisatory character. The third crotchet beat of each bar (from 1 – 8) is more effective with a slight ‘leaning’ into the note (almost akin to a tenuto), which helps convey the yearning quality.
  4. In the second line, the motif moves down to include the left hand, this can be thought off as an extension of the melodic line, and you could even give this ‘upbeat’ motif more colour here.
  5. The melody develops from bars 9 – 16 and is accompanied by a light, Alberti bass-like left hand. Keep this even, rotating the hand a little as you play; try to resist accenting or sudden sound surges in the left hand here, a neat, soft, flowing accompaniment is what’s needed.

Asilomar

The title for this piece comes from Dr Wayne Dyer’s film, The Shift, which is set on an Asilomar or a refuge by the sea. The thematic material is in the left hand; although it’s not really a theme, more a melodic movement, complimenting the right hand’s continuous accompaniment.

  1. The melodic strands in the left hand (during first two and last two lines) contain a dynamic ‘arch’, or a point at which the sound must slightly crescendo, only to decrescendo quickly afterwards. It can help to mark in which notes you consider most important tonally, and then decide how much tone variation is appropriate
  2. The right hand chordal pattern can be practised as one chord per bar, assimilating the note shapes, fingerings and patterns, as well as the movement needed from bar to bar as the patterns change.
  3. Ensure a very smooth legato for each phrase; both hands must ideally sound fluid, effortless and tranquil, and as though the fingers are brushing or ‘stroking’ the notes or chord patterns. Aim to banish any jerky sounds or tonal unevenness by listening very carefully to the ends of each note, matching them to the beginning of the next.
  4. The piece will benefit from careful counting as, rather like the evenness in sound, each note and phrase must be exactly placed on the beat for precision. Whilst this appears to be in an almost ‘slushy’ almost Romantic style, only a small amount of rubato is necessary.
  5. Practice the left hand alone with and without the sustaining pedal, so you become aware of the resonance required to highlight the melody.

Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman is the mythical ghost ship, which sails the seas, never quite reaching port and bearing bad news for those who are unfortunate enough to catch a glimpse.

  1. The opening and closing phrases are merely signalling the arrival and departure of the vessel. They require a distant quality, and a smooth legato line, fading off into the distance. Aim to use a light, but firm touch, and keep the sustaining pedal down as long as you dare (right to the end of the phrase is ideal!).
  2. The oscillating figurations from bar 6 onwards move through a series of sometimes quite chromatic harmonic progressions; aim to find the progressions easily by playing each half bar as a chord, moving quickly to the next beat, so as to become comfortable with the patterns.
  3. An easy, rotating wrist motion will help achieve the accents and changing metre within the semiquaver note patterns. Keep your wrist flexible and your arm and elbow ‘light’ so movement isn’t an issue.
  4. An even, smooth tone is important so try to select legato fingering as much as possible, joining the sound from one figuration to the next; this can be practised without the pedal to begin with, and when secure add in the sustaining pedal for a more sonorous timbre.
  5. It can help to focus on particular chromaticisms (such as those at bar 22 and 24), giving them extra colour and perhaps a slight tenuto too.

You can find out more about Piano Waves and purchase your copy from EVC Music Publications, here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Top Tips for those returning to piano playing!

Renowned music publisher Schott Music have, this week, presented three writers in an article containing their top tips for all those returning to the piano after a break.

Published in conjunction with Pianist Magazine, I am delighted to be featured alongside Christopher Norton (composer of the well-known and much-loved Microjazz series and Micro Musicals, amongst many other publications), and Tim Richards (jazz pianist, writer and composer, and author of Exploring Jazz Piano and Improvising Blues Piano, as well as a long list of other books and compositions).

Our favourite tips and recommendations appear alongside videos and other information all designed to help students get back into piano playing and hopefully reconnect with this satisfying pastime. You can read the article here.

And you can explore my new two-book piano course intended for those returning to playing after a break, Play it again: PIANO (Books 1 & 2 are now both available), here.



My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 3

Selecting and practising piano exam repertoire continues today with ABRSM Grade 3. I’m selecting contrasting works or those which sit well together, thereby producing an interesting programme.

This element should not be underestimated; examiners are pleased to hear all the repertoire on set lists, but for the student, who might spend a good few months learning these pieces, enjoyment is paramount. It’s therefore a good idea to either listen to the audio CD provided with the piano exam syllabus book, or ask your teacher to play each piece for you, just to make sure you like the sound of your prospective programme before learning begins. Those who enjoy playing their pieces are generally motivated and will therefore practice more frequently.

I’ve included a link to one of the many performances of these works on YouTube.

Here’s my chosen programme of three pieces, each with 5 practice suggestions:

List A: A3, German Dance in B flat (No. 6 from 12 German Dances, WoO 13) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827)

A dance for couples in quick triple time, the German Dance was popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Articulation (or touch) will prove vital here in order to convey the appropriate lively dance characteristics. Start with the scale and arpeggio of B flat major, to assimilate the key signature.

  1. This  energetic piece requires some leaping around the keyboard, so begin by practising hands separately, securing fingering and learning the necessary movements needed to play the piece up to speed with ease, thus avoiding any hiatus or hesitations rhythmically. When moving around the piano, make sure posture is aligned, and use a flexible approach, practising jumps (such as those at bars 5 & 6, from beats 2 to 3, right hand), with a relaxed wrist and arm, learning the distance and ‘feeling’ of the jump (try do this until you can jump without looking).
  2. Consistently crisp articulation will determine the success of any performance. The wedge markings under and over notes (for example, the upbeat to bar 1, right hand) are 18th century staccato marks. These can be light, short and elegant, but try to avoid accenting.
  3. The second crotchet of each phrased pair (bar 1, beats 1 & 2), needs to be non-legato (or slightly detached) and, again, unaccented, supplying the dance-like character.  Acciaccaturas in the right hand at bars 5 – 7 and 13 – 15, must be clearly audible (resist the urge to rush the short first note), and slightly playful, with the attached crotchet short and light. It’s a good idea to learn note patterns without ornaments, adding them only when those patterns are assured and the pulse, tight.
  4. The left hand entry in bar 1 (beat 3), mirrors that of the right hand, and will be more effective if played with deeper sound, giving it prominence and colour as it imitates the right hand material. The sf (sforzando or suddenly loud) chords (bar 2, beat 1), need a decisive touch.
  5. Quavers in the Trio should ideally be light and totally rhythmical; when selecting a speed, think about bars 17 – 24 as a benchmark; just how fast can you play this passagework without errors or unevenness? Counting (preferably out loud and to a quaver beat) will be important, and aim to keep quavers legatissimo. As a rule, try to lift crotchets (non-legato) in the Trio, and keep the whole section fairly soft, so when returning to the Da Capo, there will be plenty of contrast.

List B: B 2. Polnisches Lied (No. 18 from Leichte Lieder und Tanze, Op. 117) by Ferdinand Hiller (1811 – 85)

This lovely piece in A minor written by German composer, Heller, provides an excellent contrast to the Beethoven, encouraging expressivity and musicianship. In the minor key, it might be useful to practice the A minor scale and arpeggio first. The tune is played twice here, the second time with a more elaborate accompaniment, and a brief coda at the end.

  1. Independence (and precise coordination) between hands is necessary throughout. Therefore lots of separate hand practice might be wise, and is particularly important where the left hand contains more movement or semiquaver passagework (such as at bars 15 – 23). Start by learning fingerings, note patterns and hand position changes (at bars 5 – 6, and 17 – 18, for example), using a legato touch throughout. When secure, experiment with staccato (as marked), implementing gentle finger strokes (in keeping with the espressivo marking at the top of the score), as opposed to a short, spikey touch.
  2. When practising bars 1 – 3 (and all similar), ensure the first two semiquavers are slightly detached (really semi-staccato) whilst the bass note (A in the left hand) remains held for the entire bar. A miniscule break between the phrases of Bars 1 & 2 will give appropriate space to breathe, and capture the ‘longing’, wistful feel. Legatissimo where possible will help to characterise this work, and provides contrast with staccato passages.
  3. Bars 4, 8, 16, 20, 28 & 29, all contain tenuto markings on the second beat of the bar. As this is a recurring feature, aim for a slight ‘lift’ on the first quaver of the bar, sinking into the crotchet second beat, using a fairly full sound and a slight lingering on this chord (as suggested by the tenuto marking); it usually signifies the end of a phrase. This can still be done at bars 16 and 20, where the left hand contains semiquavers.
  4. Dynamics are very precise, sometimes with each bar containing crescendo and decrescendo marks. Spend time experimenting with the sound, gradually ‘crescendoing’ up to the second quaver (bars 1 & 2), for poignancy.
  5. The sustaining pedal can add resonance if used where the tenuto chords occur (second beat of each of bar 4, 8, 28 & 29, and the last two bars, 30 & 31), but use it sparingly elsewhere, so as not to blur the harmonies or the semiquaver passage work.

List C: C1, Clowns (No. 20 from 24 Easy Pieces Op. 39) by Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904 – 87)

One of my favourite early intermediate level pieces, Clowns, is also a great little contrasting number to the Beethoven and Hiller, and students respond well to its playful character. In ternary form (A – B – A), it effectively oscillates between A major and A minor, which is perhaps suggestive of a Clown’s happy-sad demeanour.

  1. I would write most of the fingering in the score, as the speed at which the piece must be played necessitates some finger (or muscle) memory; repetitive separate hand practice with firm fingers, keeping close to the keys wherever possible, will be beneficial here.
  2. Pulse is important, so aim to count in semiquavers throughout, preferably out loud; ‘speaking’ every beat will help keep the tempo (providing your beat is similar to that of a ticking clock!) free from rushing or lingering.
  3. Articulation plays a vital role in this piece: the right hand staccato markings at the ends of phrases (such as those at bar 1, beats 1 & 3), need a snappy, short approach and a slender accent, colouring the chormatic changes (C sharps to C naturals for example). The left hand notation could be ‘blocked out’ throughout (where the notes in each bar are all played together for ease of learning), then ensure a relaxed wrist when playing the crisp staccato quavers, regularly resting the arm and wrist in order to avoid tension (which can creep in whilst using any repeated movement).
  4. Each accent mark (i.e. those at bars 4, 8, 12, and 21 in the right hand, and bars 24 & 25 in both hands), requires a brusque, powerful touch, as they usually signify the end of a phrase.
  5. The left hand can be kept soft and light until bars 13, where chords punctuate the melody. Aim for clean fingerwork throughout for a vibrant performance, without using any sustaining pedal.

For more posts in this series, exploring other grades and syllabuses, please click here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Polishing Your Piano Technique: Jackdaws Course 2018

If you fancy a relaxing weekend in the most beautiful English country setting, with scrumptious home cooked food, and plenty of opportunity to hone your piano skills whilst meeting new like-minded friends, you will love the courses held at Jackdaws Music Educational Trust. Situated in Somerset (near Frome), this music course venue (pictured to the left)  is second to none and the courses are increasing in popularity every year.

This is the third year I have run a weekend course at Jackdaws, and I’m always delighted to be working amongst such an illustrious cohort of course tutors. This year, I’ll be focusing on piano technique. After running my course Piano Technique, Sight-reading and Memorisation for the past two years, I realised, from those who came (and some comments from those who didn’t), just how crucial my work teaching piano technique really is; throughout this weekend, I hope to illustrate the possibility of improving your skills irrespective of age or ability.

Students often complain of tension, pain, and discomfort when they play, which probably stems from moving around the instrument in a less than ideal manner, resulting in many technical issues.

During the course, I’ll consider the reasons for tension and examine useful ways of alleviating it, by focusing on establishing freedom and relaxation whilst playing.

Each course member will be given ample opportunity to hone and improve their technique; working at rotational wrist motion, strengthening fingers, and developing completely free arm movement; encouraging the use of arm weight, with the aim of producing a warm, pleasing tone. Scales, arpeggios, chords, octaves, double note passages and much more, will be evaluated and discussed. We will also work on aspects within each student’s chosen repertoire.

Participants are advised to bring two or three contrasting pieces to the workshops, although these do not have to be performance ready.

Course dates are 9th – 11th February 2018, and I really look forward to meeting you.

For more details and booking information, click here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Weekend Competition: the winners…

Many thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition. The prizes include five volumes of the Relax With Series of piano music edited by Samantha Ward and published by Schott Music.

The winners are:

Lisa Lewis wins Relax With Baroque Music

ADA wins Relax With Classical Piano Music

Antonina Lax wins Relax With Romantic Piano Music

Katherine Farr wins Relax With French Impressionist Piano Music

and, Ann Coleman wins Relax With Folk Piano Music

CONGRATULATIONS! Please send your addresses via the contact page on this blog and your book will be on its way.

For more information about each book, click here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Weekend Competition: Relax With…

The Relax With series is a relatively new collection of piano music books edited by British concert pianist Samantha Ward (published by Schott Music) and designed primarily to be played at home, simply for pleasure.

Selected for their relaxing qualities, the pieces in this volume range from well-known classics to delightful lesser-known gems. Featuring both original pieces and some arrangements, these books consist of volumes dedicated to the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, as well as the French Impressionist composers and traditional music from around the world. The collections are of approximately late elementary to early advanced level, but a competent amateur pianist will have little difficulty in mastering the pieces.

‘Mindfulness’ has been a popular (even fashionable) topic in music (and other subjects) over the past couple of years, and these publications focus almost exclusively on this concept.

The books are beautifully appointed and printed (as might be expected of Schott), and each one contains a wide variety of repertoire within the context of the various titles. Whilst these books are no doubt a rewarding collection to learn, I feel they would also serve as excellent sight-reading material for the advanced player.

There are five books (pictured above) to giveaway this weekend to five lucky winners! So leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post to be in with a chance of winning. I will announce the winners on Monday evening (British time). Good luck!

To find out more about this series and to purchase books, click here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 2

Today’s blog post continues my piano exam repertoire selection and tips series by exploring the Trinity College London Grade 2 exam.

There’s a wide range of choice on this syllabus with a very definite emphasis on the living composer. I have chosen three pieces which contrast in style and genre. For me, this is an important criteria; these tests provide an excellent opportunity for those wishing to become acquainted with various styles  and different historical periods. It can be a fun and worthwhile exercise to put this all into context, therefore why not take time to explore a composer’s background and output too? I’ve added a performance of each piece from the many on YouTube.

  1. Ländler by Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

A notoriously difficult composer to tackle, Austrian master Franz Schubert has written some of the most lyrical music of all time (particularly his songs (or Lieder), of which there are over 550). This little piece is typical of his style, with a flowing, simplistic melody, and dance-like bass. Set in triple time, it is the perfect example of a folk dance.

  1. It might be beneficial to begin with the scale and arpeggio of G major, due to the many arpeggio-based figurations in the right hand. These note patterns fit comfortably under the hand; each bar can be isolated and worked at separately. Use fingering which allows for the hand turns; it’s easier to play such passage work ‘in position’.
  2. When playing passagework like that of bar 1, ensure all notes are sounding equally. This will be important for both the tone and the rhythm. To play bar 1 evenly, roll the hand and wrist slightly to the right to easily accommodate and support the fourth and fifth fingers (which will play the Ds and E in bar 1, beat 1 – 2), then roll to the left when playing the Bs and G (beats 2 – 3). This is known as lateral wrist motion, which supports the fingers. Aim to apply such movements for all similar figurations.
  3. Turning the right hand will be necessary; at bar 3, the hand will turn on beat 1 (C with a 3rd finger to the D with a thumb). This may come as a surprise after the relatively easy movement required in the previous two bars; when playing slowly, exaggerate the movement when turning, using a large hand and wrist rotation. When played at tempo, the turn will use a much smaller movement, but should feel easier and smoother.
  4. Try to keep all right hand passagework legato, breaking very slightly at the end of each phrase mark. During the second and third line, pairs of slurred notes (bar 10, beat 1) might need a drop-roll lift, before short detached staccato quavers. Although short, these should ideally be kept in character with the expressive dance-like feel, therefore a softer approach to staccato will work well here.
  5. The left hand can be practised a chord per bar, to assimilate hand positions and fingerings. The bass dotted minim (bottom of the chord at bar 9) must be held throughout each bar during the last two lines. Ensure the left hand plays these notes as legato as possible, and aim to use sustaining pedal sparingly. When working hands together, practice a bar at a time, stopping over the bar line (on the first beat of the next bar) which can be helpful for continuity.


2. Willow, tit-willow (from The Mikado) by Arthur Sullivan (1842 – 1900), arranged by Janet and Alan Bullard

A delightful arrangement of an expressive song from the much-loved comic opera written by British composer Arthur Sullivan. In the opera, the song is sung by Ko Ko and is all about an unhappy bird who dives to his death into a river. This piece provides a good opportunity to explore soft colours and musical expressivity.

  1. The dotted crotchet beat (6/8) might need some work, particularly as there are a few tricky corners and many rests  requiring careful counting. Perhaps start by clapping the rhythm of each hand separately (whilst counting aloud), and then clapping both hands together; the right hand clapping the top line, and the left hand, the bottom. Particular ‘spots’ to watch out for are bars 3, 7 and 15 -18, where semiquavers and rests must be all in their rightful place.
  2. Work at the left hand first, and ensure dotted minims (in bar 1 and 5) are held whilst the notes above are legato and smooth. The same applies for all held bass notes at bars 2, 4, 6, and 8. The left hand chords should ideally punctuate and support the melody in the right hand, so aim to move from one chord to the next smoothly. Fingering and easy, flexible hand and wrist movements will be important in this regard.
  3. The melody might need some slow practice in order to grasp the turn (bar 2, beats 1 – 2), which must be smooth without any sense of jerkiness or unevenness. The A (bar 2, beat 1), needs more colour, dying away on the D (Bar 2, beat 2). Each semiquaver group (for example, bar 3 – 4), calls for a drop-roll movement; where pairs of slurred quavers require a very legato drop then lift on the second note of the pair.
  4. Where the dotted quaver-semiquaver pattern occurs in bars 9 -14, counting in semiquavers can help for precision and poise. The una corda will be effective for the last two bars (as indicated). Keep the sustaining pedal to a minimum, and observe the rest at bar 14.
  5. Tonal colour will determine a successful performance. Try tapering off the sound at the end of a phrase. It can also help to play passages at varying dynamic markings exploring what works before making a final decision. Generally, a crescendo to the middle of a phrase (with a decrescendo towards the end) will highlight the musical line effectively.

3. The Swing Detectives by Ben Crosland (1968 – )

An energetic, dramatic swing piece for all those who enjoy a romp around the keyboard. Written by British educational composer Ben Crosland, this fast-moving piece with heavy accents and insistent rhythm is a lively contrast to the Schubert and Sullivan; those who love jazzy styles will certainly appreciate its colourful harmonies.

  1. In order to understand the swing style, it might be a good plan to practice thinking and counting the triplet beat as per directed at the top of the score. The quavers – in both hands in the first bar (an F sharp and G (bar 1, beat 1)), would be played as a crotchet – quaver pattern; think about counting in three quaver beats, then give the F sharp the value of a crotchet (or two quavers), and the G, a quaver. Add the suggested marked accent onto the F sharp, and lighten the G (you can apply this technique to all quaver passages). This should provide the necessary ‘laid back’ swing feel.
  2. Coordination between the hands will be important in the first and last line particularly. When practising hands together, experiment by using different rhythms, accents, and touches, listening carefully to each note as its played. Take the notes down absolutely together, slowly at first; it can help to play the left hand with more power than the right (and vice versa!), as the left hand can sometimes feel weaker.
  3. The left hand chords from bars 5 – 7 and 9 – 11 might need some attention, as the hand moves out of position and ‘jumps’ fairly quickly. Isolate the chords, and move very swiftly, working at the leaps alone, before playing each passage; first of all, move much quicker than necessary, then work slowly, leaping further than needed i.e. an octave lower than written. When playing at the suggested tempo with the written notes, chords and fingerings should be more comfortable.
  4. Left hand chords in the second and third line are effective if played with non-legato (or slightly detached touch), and the tenuto markings at bars 8, 10 and 11 will add an emphasis needed for this style.
  5. The key to a successful rendition is an incisive, regular pulse. If you count every beat, syncopations, such as those in bar 12 and 16 will be accurate and full of energy. Ensure szforzandos such as those in bars 12 and 16 are given a real kick too!

For more information on other posts in this series, please click here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 2

Continuing my series on selecting and practising piano exam repertoire, today we  move on to ABRSM Grade 2. I’ve chosen three works (one from each of lists A, B & C) which are hopefully complimentary, offering a balanced exam programme, with five practice tips for every piece.

As always, selections come from the standard exam repertoire (as opposed to the alternative pieces). It’s possible to programme a large cohort of pieces, particularly for ABRSM exams, but I hope my selection offers lots of variety, both technically and musically. There are links to performances too (taken from the many on YouTube).

List A: A1, Allegretto (First movement from Sonatina No. 3 in F) by Thomas Attwood (1765 – 1838)

This joyful little piece, with a catchy tune, set in ternary form (A – B – A), was written by British Classical composer Attwood (1765 – 1838), who studied with Mozart. The texture is essentially melody and accompaniment. Start by dusting off the F major scale and arpeggio, which serves as useful preparation.

  1. Focus on the left hand, and play each half bar as a chord or ‘blocked out’ i.e. sound the F, A ,C of bar 1, beat 1 altogether, (this can be done in the right hand at bars 9 -18 too). Write the fingering in as you go, and note the necessary changes in hand position, to accommodate the movement around the keyboard (at bar 5, for example, where the left hand leaps to the treble clef).
  2. Now play the left hand quaver figurations as written, ensuring they are totally rhythmic and even. Either count aloud or use a metronome on every quaver beat. Keep fingers close to the keys for good control. It can be helpful to memorise the bars where the leaps occur (bars 5 and 26).
  3. The right hand needs a much deeper colour than the left. The melody would benefit from a smooth legato touch from bars 1 – 8 and 22 – 29. Using a relaxed wrist, encourage the hand and whole arm to assist the fingers in playing to the bottom of the key bed, producing a rich tone, and join each note carefully with no gaps in the sound.
  4. Balance phrasing in the right hand at bars 2 & 3, shortening the crotchet very slightly (before the quaver), playing it softly (phrasing off from the dotted crotchet). Aim to project the hidden melody at bars 9 – 16, formed of the first note of each group of quavers.
  5. Balance and coordination between the hands is crucial; slow practice, bar by bar will help with precise coordination between quavers in each hand especially (bars 4, 7, and the like). Try to keep the left hand much softer and lighter than the right. Add speed only when notes and fingering are secure.

List B: B 2, Waltz in G (No. 2 from Poklad melodií, Vol. 2) by Bedrich Smetana (1824 – 84)

A charming dance with a steady one-in-a-bar feel, written by Czech composer Smetana. This provides a contrast to the first piece (A 1), with its Romantic demeanour, and whilst it’s in the style of a Waltz, the title is apparently editorial! Working at the G major scale and arpeggio may be helpful as a warm-up.

  1. The right hand melody consists of phrases of different lengths which would profit from separate hand practice, and a deep but smooth (legato) touch. It can help to mark the most important note (or notes) within each phrase, contouring the dynamics to suit your markings. Listening carefully (especially to the ends of phrases) as you play will prove vital.
  2. The left hand can be ‘blocked out’; play each bar as one chord (as mentioned before), to learn fingerings and position changes, then give the first beat of each bar a slight ‘push’ or deeper touch, whilst keeping beats two and three softer, projecting the lilting Waltz character.
  3. The brief modulation to the minor (bars 12 -15) will require slow practice, in order to secure notes and fingerings and to accommodate the more unusual phrase breaks between the right and left hand. When playing on groups of black notes, move the hands slightly forward, placing fingers over the keys in preparation.
  4. There might be a temptation to rush bars such as those at bar 2, 4, 10 and 12, where both hands must coordinate precisely; set the pulse to a third of the intended speed, and work at the last two beats in the bar first (stopping on the first beat of the next bar), really listening, taking down each note (or group of notes) absolutely together. When secure, add the first beat of the bar.
  5. The last line particularly is full of accents, staccato, and tenuto markings, which must all be observed; insert these when notes are fully under the fingers. To place the last G in the left hand (bar 33) accurately, practice playing an octave lower than written (i.e. leap down two octaves as opposed to one!). When returning to playing as written, the jump will feel easier.


List C: C 1, The Cat from Peter and the Wolf Op. 67 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

For me, the third piece on any exam programme should be fun and perhaps slightly irreverent (especially for the lower grades). Many enjoy the jazzy pieces which pervade the C lists, but some of the other works are just as interesting. From Prokofiev’s orchestral masterpiece, Peter and the Wolf, comes this arrangement; the cat is characterized (and played) by the clarinet in the original version.

  1. Articulation rules in this piece. The contrasts between staccato and legato must be marked appropriately as they denote the cat’s impish, playful nature. Aim to use very short, spikey staccato; try tapping (or ‘flicking’) the keys with the top of the finger (pulling it inwards, towards the palm of the hand), leaving the keys extremely quickly.
  2. In both hands, quavers (playing the melody) need exact counting in order to ‘place’ each beat in the bar giving breathing space, but with no sense of rushing or pushing the beat. It can help to count in semiquavers.
  3. The C sharp (bar 1, beat 3, in the theme) is given a rich colour and slight tenuto (held or leaning into a note), and the C in bar 2 (beat 2), an appropriate accent, giving the melody shape. Each thematic appearance requires specific articulation in order to project the cat and its shenanigans.
  4. The left hand accompanies with short, well placed chords; play first alone (without the right hand), and place each one using a metronome, to make sure you are really playing on the beat. Sense of timing will make or break any performance.
  5. Tasteful appropriation of short phrasing and the many varied dynamic markings will ensure a colourful rendition; the printed narrative will aid the understanding of the piece (particularly for younger learners), but resist inclusion in the exam!


For other grades in this series please visit my archives by clicking here.

My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.