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.
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.