The ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) graded exam syllabus for 2015/6 is now readily available, and no doubt pianists across the world are selecting and practising the new set works. I went along to the launch a few weeks ago, held at Yamaha Music (formerly Chappell of Bond Street) in London, where ABRSM examiner and trainer, Timothy Barratt, spoke about many of the chosen works for each grade. The Grade 8 selection is as varied as ever, and over the next few months I will be writing about a selection of Grade 7 and 8 pieces, offering a few practice tips.
It’s great to see old favourites on the list; many works appear regularly over the years. Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1981-1945) is a particularly popular choice, and this year is no exception; his works appear in four of the eight piano grades.
Whilst not every student’s cup of tea, Bartók’s style is one of the most highly original of the Twentieth century. A superlative pianist (there’s an abundance of recordings of his playing), and prolific composer. I researched his piano music (specifically the three concertos) in Budapest when I was a student, and had the opportunity to speak to the renowned Bartók specialist and musicologist László Somfai about the composer’s highly individual combined use of harmony and folk songs, which was both informative and enlightening.
Bartók amassed a very large collection of folk songs, which he acquired by visiting various Hungarian villages (and beyond), recording local musicians on an Edison Phonograph. Here’s a wonderful example of a typical recording (this features a Romanian Folk Dance and is over 100 years old):
Bartók notated and catalogued all the folk songs in his collection. They became a crucial source of inspiration in his own compositions, and the ‘folk song’ element was eventually completely assimilated into his style. Indeed it was to be his ‘hallmark’.
Mikrokosmos Sz. 107, was written between 1926 and 1939, and consists of 153 pieces in six volumes, progressing from very simple pieces for beginners to advanced level works. They demonstrate Bartók’s commitment to and interest in music education (he wrote several sets of piano pieces for educational purposes). According to Bartók, the piece “appears as a synthesis of all the musical and technical problems which were treated and in some cases only partially solved in the previous piano works.”
Mikrokosmos concludes with the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, which are traditionally performed as a group, feature in Volume No. 6, and were dedicated to Harriet Cohen. The 2015/16 ABRSM syllabus includes the fourth dance in the set, No. 151, and it appears on List C (C1). Bartók’s music has been described as dissonant and violent, and whilst there are elements of these qualities in his works, the breadth of musical variety found in this particular Dance (and in the set as a whole), is breath-taking.
For those considering this piece as an option for the Grade 8 exam, or perhaps who have already started learning this work, I have compiled a few practice ideas for combatting certain difficulties within the work, which may be helpful.
Of utmost importance is the rhythm, and more specifically, the Time Signature: 3+2+3 over 8. Unusual Time Signatures are renowned in the Hungarian composer’s style, and Bartók has used the rhythm of traditional Bulgarian Dances here, but the melodic material is all his own. Interestingly, he described this dance as in the style of Gershwin but with his (Bartók’s) own tonality. This becomes apparent just by clapping the pulse. The unusual rhythmic patterns may be unfamiliar to some, so they need complete assimilation before practising commences. Clapping the pulse followed by the rhythmic pattern of the melody (which can really in grain the ‘feel’), is the best way to start. After which, focus on clapping the rhythmic pattern whilst counting each beat out loud at the same time. Although there are few accent markings in this work, but there is a definite ‘push’ (or groove?) on the fourth beat of each bar (akin to jazz). Once the rhythm has been understood, it’s easy to make swift progress.
The melody is featured in some guise or other most of the time during this short piece, whether alone in the right hand (bars 1-8), the left hand (bars 9-16, where it’s inverted (or reversed)), played in unison (bars 20-24), played in repeated notes (44-50), in right hand octaves (bars 55-58) and in sixths too (bars 59-66). So the trick is to find a way to vary the sound and touch throughout. Bartók is always very specific about tempo and dynamic markings, but beyond this it is the job of the interpreter to work some magic. Here’s the original tune, which is bright and jocular, and must be played very softly and serenely at the opening:
Start by compartmentalising the melodic sections, so you know where the melody occurs and how it has been transformed as the work progresses (analysing a piece can prove extremely effective; using red pencil is a good way to identify sections!). Then write as much fingering in as possible; suitable fingering makes all the difference when honing a smooth performance.
Next, concentrate on the ‘accompanying’ material, which is just as important (often more so), again, write in all fingerings, and touch should be predominantly legato (pedal should be kept to a minimum). The copious chordal left and right hand passages ably demonstrate Bartók’s use of bitonality (two keys at once) and in many cases, polytonality (many keys at the same time). Although this Dance is in the key of C major, the increasingly dissonant harmonic progressions throughout, provide the exotic flavour and spice.
As always, working in small sections usually proffers the best results, and certain passages require special attention. Take note of the ‘off beat’ accompaniment sections; bars 25-32 and bars 33-39 are a couple of examples. The syncopated chords can be lighter and generally shorter than the melodic material, but placing them correctly is vital and challenging. Success will depend on the grasp of the pulse, and assimilation of the ‘groove’. If rhythm is causing some grief, try breaking down further, dividing each bar into three sections, literally playing the first three quaver beats (the first ‘3’ in the time signature), then take a short pause. Now continue with the two quaver portion (the ‘2’ in the time signature), now another pause. Then finally the last three quavers in the bar (last ‘3’). It I. s easier to understand a complicated pattern when broken up completely. This will take time, but eventually the 3+2+3 will be easily grasped, and joining bars or groups of bars will be relatively straight forward.
Chordal progressions such as those in bar 51-54 need flexibility technically. The 3+2+3 pattern provides the perfect opportunity to split the bar. Play the first three quaver group, immediately followed by the duplet (quaver) group, then a slight pause (to ‘rest’ the hand), before playing the last group of quavers. Giving the wrist a ‘rest’ in between the chords, allows for release of any tension and encourages a slight ‘push’ on the sixth beat of the bar, adding to the rhythmic energy and momentum. All chordal sections can be broken down in this way.
The other issue which needs addressing is moving at speed from one ‘section’ to another. Dance No. 4 has a swift tempo, with many figurations moving from one place on the keyboard to another quickly, and this combined with the fact that the dynamics sometimes change just as rapidly, mean a free arm and body are needed for accuracy. Try taking two bars such as this (bars 8 and 9);
And start by working hands separately. Leaps or jumps can be surmounted by slow, deliberate work. Play the last beat of bar 8 going to the first beat of bar 9, over the jump, carefully calculating the movement needed by each hand to land accurately in the middle of the note with correct fingering each time. Play the last chord of the left hand, in bar 8 (A, C sharp and E), then take your take time when finding the low E in the next bar. Once found, don’t play it, just sit on it and survey the movement needed for the jump. Do this slowly, taking your time. Once you’ve done this a few times accurately, you can go ahead and play the notes. Do this with the right hand too and then slowly put hands together, gradually building confidence with each jump before increasing the speed.
Another useful tool is to practice going too far i.e. one octave higher or lower than necessary (in this case, jumping in the left hand of bar to bottom E, just below low F). Leaping much faster than actually needed, can also work well. When the speed is slowed down to the actual or original tempo, the jump can seem easy. Also working with accents and different touches (especially important for changing dynamics) can reinforce the accuracy of the jump. Preparing the body mentally and physically for any jump is important, and this is made much easier when the upper body is loose and relaxed. Build a feeling of relaxation (or physical freedom) into jumps, so that at the crucial moment your body resists the urge to ‘lock-up’ and your arm feels light and free during the leap. Leaps are easier to judge if they are memorised.
These tips are just to help you get started. There are so many ways to work at a piece such as this. Here’s a great recording of Bartók playing all six dances. The fourth can be heard at 4 minutes 30 seconds.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.