My guest writer this week is world-renowned composer Christopher Norton. In this post, he offers practice suggestions for his piece Border Tune, which is the second piece from the volume Country Preludes Collection for piano. This piece is featured in List B of the Trinity College London Grade 7 piano exam 2021 – 2023 syllabus.
Written in 1996, Border Tune is from my Country Preludes Collection for piano. This 16-piece collection, all at Grade 6-8 level, has been very popular since it first appeared. The collection features my take on a range of country styles – country rag, ballad, country waltz, hoedown and many more.
Preparing Border Tune for an examination
Start by getting your student to listen to the recorded performance:
Some common-sense tips:
The opening note – play the grace-note with the main note, but let the grace note go immediately.
Check out all tenuto markings – there are quite a few and you should use a small drop of the arm (with a flexible wrist) for each one. Shape each phrase – they come in all sorts of lengths, but each one should start with a slight drop on the first note and a graceful rise on the last note. The piece is like a song, so play the melody as though all of the phrases are part of a long song-like utterance.
Look at overall dynamics – the loudest marking is f – this is not a piece that ever goes to ff. The quietest dynamic is pp, but only right at the very end. Otherwise you might say it has an easy-going and soulful air, never too strident, but never at a whisper either.
Initially, the right hand is accompanied by left hand figures (that should remain at a dynamic level well below the right hand). But, quite quickly the left hand joins the melody (bar 4) and soon the melody starts in one hand and finishes in the other (bars 8 and 9, beat 3). Mostly it is melody and accompaniment, but be alert for any places where the left hand is a co-lead.
Pedalling is marked at various places; you should always play legato in your hand(s) but the pedal can help smooth any rough edges and, as in bars 19 and 20, create ringing, ambient effects.
There is some fingering in evidence; fingers going over the thumb, changes of position, creating an opportunity to use stronger fingers. Look through the piece and note where fingering is marked, and why.
The backing track is stylish and well worth practicing with. It is not primarily for time-keeping – it is to give a you a feeling for what it’s like to play with country musicians. The pedal steel part is particularly appealing!
Here’s the link for both the band track (piano and backing – first link below) and backing track (no piano – second link below):
Chords used in Border Tune:
The chords are not difficult to play! Play each individual chord and savour it. Then string the chords together in a chord progression, without the backing track, then with the backing track:
Try playing your own chord rhythms – block chords, arpeggios, arpeggios with passing notes – with the backing track.
Finally try right hand improvisation with the backing track. Start with the C major pentatonic scale:
And alter the scale if chords with a ♭ sign appear – Eb and Bb, even Ab can be added or used as substitute notes. Grace notes, particularly:
D to E, G to A, Bb to C and C to D, will be very effective.
You may enjoy the other pieces in Country Preludes Collection. You can hear them all on Soundcloud:
The score is available on my website, too:
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.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.