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.
- 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!).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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