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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
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