Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 3

Selecting and practising piano exam repertoire continues today with ABRSM Grade 3. I’m selecting contrasting works or those which sit well together, thereby producing an interesting programme.

This element should not be underestimated; examiners are pleased to hear all the repertoire on set lists, but for the student, who might spend a good few months learning these pieces, enjoyment is paramount. It’s therefore a good idea to either listen to the audio CD provided with the piano exam syllabus book, or ask your teacher to play each piece for you, just to make sure you like the sound of your prospective programme before learning begins. Those who enjoy playing their pieces are generally motivated and will therefore practice more frequently.

I’ve included a link to one of the many performances of these works on YouTube.

Here’s my chosen programme of three pieces, each with 5 practice suggestions:

List A: A3, German Dance in B flat (No. 6 from 12 German Dances, WoO 13) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827)

A dance for couples in quick triple time, the German Dance was popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Articulation (or touch) will prove vital here in order to convey the appropriate lively dance characteristics. Start with the scale and arpeggio of B flat major, to assimilate the key signature.

  1. This  energetic piece requires some leaping around the keyboard, so begin by practising hands separately, securing fingering and learning the necessary movements needed to play the piece up to speed with ease, thus avoiding any hiatus or hesitations rhythmically. When moving around the piano, make sure posture is aligned, and use a flexible approach, practising jumps (such as those at bars 5 & 6, from beats 2 to 3, right hand), with a relaxed wrist and arm, learning the distance and ‘feeling’ of the jump (try do this until you can jump without looking).
  2. Consistently crisp articulation will determine the success of any performance. The wedge markings under and over notes (for example, the upbeat to bar 1, right hand) are 18th century staccato marks. These can be light, short and elegant, but try to avoid accenting.
  3. The second crotchet of each phrased pair (bar 1, beats 1 & 2), needs to be non-legato (or slightly detached) and, again, unaccented, supplying the dance-like character.  Acciaccaturas in the right hand at bars 5 – 7 and 13 – 15, must be clearly audible (resist the urge to rush the short first note), and slightly playful, with the attached crotchet short and light. It’s a good idea to learn note patterns without ornaments, adding them only when those patterns are assured and the pulse, tight.
  4. The left hand entry in bar 1 (beat 3), mirrors that of the right hand, and will be more effective if played with deeper sound, giving it prominence and colour as it imitates the right hand material. The sf (sforzando or suddenly loud) chords (bar 2, beat 1), need a decisive touch.
  5. Quavers in the Trio should ideally be light and totally rhythmical; when selecting a speed, think about bars 17 – 24 as a benchmark; just how fast can you play this passagework without errors or unevenness? Counting (preferably out loud and to a quaver beat) will be important, and aim to keep quavers legatissimo. As a rule, try to lift crotchets (non-legato) in the Trio, and keep the whole section fairly soft, so when returning to the Da Capo, there will be plenty of contrast.

List B: B 2. Polnisches Lied (No. 18 from Leichte Lieder und Tanze, Op. 117) by Ferdinand Hiller (1811 – 85)

This lovely piece in A minor written by German composer, Heller, provides an excellent contrast to the Beethoven, encouraging expressivity and musicianship. In the minor key, it might be useful to practice the A minor scale and arpeggio first. The tune is played twice here, the second time with a more elaborate accompaniment, and a brief coda at the end.

  1. Independence (and precise coordination) between hands is necessary throughout. Therefore lots of separate hand practice might be wise, and is particularly important where the left hand contains more movement or semiquaver passagework (such as at bars 15 – 23). Start by learning fingerings, note patterns and hand position changes (at bars 5 – 6, and 17 – 18, for example), using a legato touch throughout. When secure, experiment with staccato (as marked), implementing gentle finger strokes (in keeping with the espressivo marking at the top of the score), as opposed to a short, spikey touch.
  2. When practising bars 1 – 3 (and all similar), ensure the first two semiquavers are slightly detached (really semi-staccato) whilst the bass note (A in the left hand) remains held for the entire bar. A miniscule break between the phrases of Bars 1 & 2 will give appropriate space to breathe, and capture the ‘longing’, wistful feel. Legatissimo where possible will help to characterise this work, and provides contrast with staccato passages.
  3. Bars 4, 8, 16, 20, 28 & 29, all contain tenuto markings on the second beat of the bar. As this is a recurring feature, aim for a slight ‘lift’ on the first quaver of the bar, sinking into the crotchet second beat, using a fairly full sound and a slight lingering on this chord (as suggested by the tenuto marking); it usually signifies the end of a phrase. This can still be done at bars 16 and 20, where the left hand contains semiquavers.
  4. Dynamics are very precise, sometimes with each bar containing crescendo and decrescendo marks. Spend time experimenting with the sound, gradually ‘crescendoing’ up to the second quaver (bars 1 & 2), for poignancy.
  5. The sustaining pedal can add resonance if used where the tenuto chords occur (second beat of each of bar 4, 8, 28 & 29, and the last two bars, 30 & 31), but use it sparingly elsewhere, so as not to blur the harmonies or the semiquaver passage work.

List C: C1, Clowns (No. 20 from 24 Easy Pieces Op. 39) by Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904 – 87)

One of my favourite early intermediate level pieces, Clowns, is also a great little contrasting number to the Beethoven and Hiller, and students respond well to its playful character. In ternary form (A – B – A), it effectively oscillates between A major and A minor, which is perhaps suggestive of a Clown’s happy-sad demeanour.

  1. I would write most of the fingering in the score, as the speed at which the piece must be played necessitates some finger (or muscle) memory; repetitive separate hand practice with firm fingers, keeping close to the keys wherever possible, will be beneficial here.
  2. Pulse is important, so aim to count in semiquavers throughout, preferably out loud; ‘speaking’ every beat will help keep the tempo (providing your beat is similar to that of a ticking clock!) free from rushing or lingering.
  3. Articulation plays a vital role in this piece: the right hand staccato markings at the ends of phrases (such as those at bar 1, beats 1 & 3), need a snappy, short approach and a slender accent, colouring the chormatic changes (C sharps to C naturals for example). The left hand notation could be ‘blocked out’ throughout (where the notes in each bar are all played together for ease of learning), then ensure a relaxed wrist when playing the crisp staccato quavers, regularly resting the arm and wrist in order to avoid tension (which can creep in whilst using any repeated movement).
  4. Each accent mark (i.e. those at bars 4, 8, 12, and 21 in the right hand, and bars 24 & 25 in both hands), requires a brusque, powerful touch, as they usually signify the end of a phrase.
  5. The left hand can be kept soft and light until bars 13, where chords punctuate the melody. Aim for clean fingerwork throughout for a vibrant performance, without using any sustaining pedal.

For more posts in this series, exploring other grades and syllabuses, please click here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

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Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 1

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire is a new series on my blog. It will essentially examine selected repertoire across the grades.

I’m focusing on two exam boards: ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London; both syllabuses require three piano pieces per grade (plus supporting tests). These works are usually contrasting in style and character, which is an element I will emphasize.

My selections are merely personal preferences, as all those within the syllabus lists have already been carefully picked in order to present engaging programmes. My aim is to provide a few tips and practice ideas (5 tips in all) for each of the three chosen pieces, and in many cases these tips can be applied to similar music elsewhere. I hope you find them helpful and informative.

My ABRSM Grade 1 exam programme comes from the 2017/18 syllabus, drawn from the main list (as opposed to the alternative list); I’ve also included a video recording of each piece, taken from YouTube, where there are many performances from which to choose!

When working at the repertoire, try to incorporate the necessary scales for the grade, and some sight-reading at every practice session (see my last post on exam preparation for more information).

List A: Aria in F (BWV Anh. II 131) by J.C. Bach (1735 – 82)

From the Little Keyboard Book, this attractive, lively piece was written by J.S. Bach’s youngest son when he was just a ten-year old; an excellent opening for a Grade 1 exam, it provides the opportunity to demonstrate nimble fingers and rhythmic poise. Divided into two distinct sections (and therefore in binary form), each section is repeated, although this isn’t strictly necessary in an exam.

  1. Start by practising the scale of F major, noting the key signature (with a B flat). Learn each hand separately, and ensure you know the left hand particularly thoroughly, before playing hands together (practice either a bar or phrase at a time until familiar).
  2. This piece is all about the articulation (or touch). Each crotchet in the bass can be non-legato i.e. lifting off a note after it has been played, leaving a slight gap in the sound between the notes. Minims could also be played non-legato, especially at bars 12 & 14, where marked with a ‘wedge’ or staccato sign.
  3. To keep a firm grip on the pulse, count in quavers, and place each crotchet precisely on the beat avoiding the urge to rush or linger.
  4. The right hand should ideally be legato (or smooth and joined up) where phrased (i.e. in bars 2 and 3), and after the double bar, a legato phrase from bar 8  –  11 will form a cantabile (singing) musical line. The trill in bar 1 could be played as suggested, or simplified to a four-note upper mordent (always leave out when practising, adding only when the piece is rhythmically secure and the trill has been fully mastered).
  5. The ‘wedge’ markings in both hands at bars 4, 12 and 14 need a decisive sound and staccato (detached) touch. A very slight slowing down (or ritenuto) at the end, is the only tempo change necessary here.

List B: Gypsy Song (No. 6 from A Baker’s Dozen) by Bryan Kelly (1934 – )

In contrast to the Aria in F, this melancholic piece proffers the chance to become acquainted with the A minor scale (which can be learned alongside the piece), as well as the opportunity to develop musical colour and atmospheric sound; perfect for encouraging sensitive, expressive playing. Think about this piece in terms of a song, with each hand providing important thematic material. Whilst this is a contemporary piece, it offers a romantic character.

  1. When practising hands separately, notice how the left hand begins in the treble clef, moving down to the bass from bar 6, and how the left and right hand phrases tend to overlap. Experiment with each phrase, joining the notes smoothly, beginning softly (right hand, bar 1), with a crescendo to bar 2, playing each a fraction more powerfully than the last, but without any sense of rushing or lingering. Bars 5 – 8, 13-14, 15-16, 17-18, can all be given similar treatment in this respect.
  2. Attention to detail in the right hand is advised from bars 9 -12 particularly; both accents and tenuto (leaning) markings need a special sound, adding poignancy.
  3. Aim to work at the left hand carefully from bars 9 – 12, where a detached, deeper touch will represent the tenuto quaver passages, and the last line (bars 20 – 27) will require solid fingering and precise quavers and semiquavers; when playing hands together, work at this section at a quarter of the intended speed, practising with a heavy touch, lightening it when secure.
  4. Hand position changes are common, so be prepared to move quickly, and plan the move (in your mind and fingers) ahead of time, so as not to leave it to the last moment.
  5. Be sure to count the rests (in bars 2 and 4) of the wistful opening line. The sustaining (right) pedal could be added at bars 8 and 26, to add resonance. Place the last right hand C sharp with deep touch, emphasising the tierce de picardie (or major third).

List C: Asian Tiger Prowl by Rob Hall (1969 – )

This is such fun! It’s full of drama, imagination, and colour, and written by British composer Rob Hall; it’s a great way to end a Grade 1 exam programme. The tiger is preying on its potential dinner, as it ‘prowls’ and waits for the perfect moment to pounce on its object of desire at the end.

  1. Staccato and tenuto chords are the important features here, appearing in alternating hands, the former needs a very crisp, erudite approach, whilst the latter can be held, creepily for slightly longer than deemed appropriate! Aim to use firm fingers for each chord (so they sound absolutely together).
  2. Rhythm is paramount, and counting in quavers is probably the best method, placing every beat precisely (especially the quavers in bars 2, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18 and 19).
  3. Rests in bars 2, 4, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 17, and 18 must be adhered to and fully counted in order to conjure the tiger’s indecisive movements.
  4. Ensure the bars rest is held for its full value, and don’t be tempted to skip the beats at bars 20 and 21 either. Accents and phrase markings bring this piece to life.
  5. The last 3 bars need a full fortissimo, allowing the sustaining pedal to catch the final chord (bar 19; last quaver beat), providing a macabre final flourish.

My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.


 

9 Tips for Piano Exam Success in 2017

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire is a new series on my blog, which will begin in earnest next week. Today’s post is in preparation, offering a few practice ideas to make piano exam study a more fruitful and rewarding affair.

Some of you have written (over the past year or so) requesting information about piano exam programmes and how best to select and practise various pieces, so I hope this series of posts might be helpful and of interest. Choosing appropriate pieces from any syllabus is always a major consideration; an important part of exam preparation is deciding which set works combine effectively, offering an attractive, interesting programme whilst also displaying your particular strengths.

I’m going to focus on two exam boards: ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London (starting with the old syllabus (2015-2017), moving to the new one over the coming months). Every post in the series will feature three pieces (for each grade) which complement one another, are fun to play, and supply engaging technical and musical demands.

These pieces are usually contrasting in style and character, which is an element I will emphasise in my selections. These selections are merely personal preferences, because all works within the syllabus lists have already been carefully chosen to present engaging programmes. My objective is to provide a few tips and practice ideas for the chosen three pieces (much of which can be transferred to other repertoire too), and I hope you find these helpful and informative.

Before I launch into the repertoire, I offer a few suggestions for those preparing for piano exams. Whether you’re a young student taking Grade 1 or a mature student taking Grade 8, there are many ways of making sure you achieve your goal. Here are a few practice ideas to utilize during the months leading up to the big day.

  1. A piano exam practice schedule is a good idea. It doesn’t need to be fanatically followed, but if you can make a promise to yourself to practice little and often, your playing will immeasurably improve. Decide just how much time you can devote to piano playing every week; it might be 20 minutes per day, or 20 minutes twice per day. The regularity of your practice is important, as is focused, mindful concentration. Five days per week is optimum, and it can be useful to work in two sessions as opposed to one.
  2. Include all exam elements in each session. Piano exams normally consist of three pieces, scales & arpeggios (or technical exercises), sight-reading and aural (there are other options too, for some exam boards). Aim to include all (or at least three of the four tests) elements at every practice session, perhaps working with a stop watch or clock, so you don’t spend too much time on one area.
  3. A set routine can be profitable. During the practice session try to establish a ‘rota’; perhaps start with sight-reading and follow this with scales and technical work at every session. By doing this, you will quickly cover two important parts of your exam whilst you are still fresh and able to fully concentrate. Leave the set pieces until later in the practice session.
  4. Sight-reading usually requires your full attention, and although it might seem tedious and onerous, if you can regularly devote time to it, improvement will be significant and will make all other piano endeavours feel easier. Ten minutes at the beginning of every session is ideal.
  5. Moving onto scales, arpeggios and technical work, you may need a quick pause between sight-reading and scales; it’s best to take regular breaks. If you’re preparing for a higher grade exam (Grade 6 or above), you might need to practise scales and arpeggios in rotation, as aiming to include all in one session can prove taxing and take too much time. Work out a timetable whereby all technical  work is practised thoroughly, allowing you to concentrate fruitfully on each one.
  6. Set pieces; each piano piece may also benefit from a rotational approach, particularly if they are advanced and complicated. It’s a better plan to practise slowly and assiduously as opposed to skimming over lightly, which may necessitate working at a smaller amount of material at each practice session.
  7. Performance goals. Once the pieces are within your grasp i.e. you can play them through slowly, aim to finish the final practice session of the day with a ‘play-through’ of at least one piece. This can be a valuable exercise to gauge your progress, note what has been achieved weekly (or daily), and become accustomed to establishing the mental thought process required to think from beginning to end without any breaks or hesitations.
  8. Time keeping. A worthwhile exercise is to play each piece slowly with a metronome. Set the metronome to a very slow speed and go through your piece, playing along precisely to the electronic pulse. This can highlight any technical problems, as well as instilling accurate pulse-keeping, and it will also consolidate fingerings, notes and rhythms. Many find it beneficial to ‘play through’ a work slowly, devoid of emotional content, proffering the space and time to think about physical movement around the keyboard i.e. how flexible, relaxed and comfortable you feel whilst playing each piece (for me, a really important aspect of piano playing).
  9. Aural. Surprisingly, it is possible to practice parts of this element on your own. Singing can be done at the piano, testing yourself on the expected patterns, such as intervals and scalic movement (I provide my students with various intervallic ‘tunes’). You can even play (and sing) the actual singing tests yourself. This is also true of cadences and any chord progressions; you can ‘learn’ how they sound whilst playing. More tricky tests such as recognising styles of music should ideally be honed over a period of time; YouTube provides all the music you’ll ever need in order to become familiar with how various genres ‘sound’.

These ideas can be easily implemented. Piano exams can be daunting, but if prepared carefully and not left until the last-minute, they offer much enjoyment and the perfect opportunity to really improve your playing.

The first post in my new series will feature the ABRSM Grade 1 piano exam. You can find out more about Grade 1 here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.


Weekend Competition: Piano Notes 2017-18

PNotes17_18_001_Cover_0812BWM.inddPiano Notes were published last month and offer students and teachers a wealth of practical advice for the entire ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music examination board) piano syllabus from Grade 1 through to Grade 8, which started in January 2017 and goes through to Spring 2019. The notes include all alternative pieces as well as those printed in each graded book, so they make for a very beneficial and handy guide, irrespective of your standard or ability (and are great to keep by the piano as a reference).

Published by Rhinegold (the leading music education publishers, who also organise the Music and Drama Education Expo Event held in February 2017 at Olympia in London), the notes can be purchased from Rhinegold’s website.

Piano Notes have been written by a team of five writers, all of whom are  experienced teachers; Fiona Lau, Katharine May, Michael Round, Murray McLachlan and myself, and we wrote around 200-350 words on each piece (depending on the grade), detailing the most important elements, advocating various practice tips and performance suggestions.

My contribution was to write notes for all list C pieces from Grades 1 – 6. I was pleased to find a fairly widespread selection of works; from masters such as Kabalevsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Bartók, through to vibrant piano arrangements, and many Contemporary composer’s works too. Although for my taste, there is probably too much emphasis on the ‘jazz’ inspired style, and not enough on Contemporary classical music (which I believe should be introduced to students from the beginning).

I’ve two copies of Piano Notes to give away this weekend, so please leave your comments in the comment box at the end of this post and I will announce the two winners on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

You can find out more about Piano Notes here, and order your copy here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Recommended Piano Resources for November 2016

Badge Graphics Draft 3In the run up to Christmas, many of us are on the lookout for gift ideas for friends, family, piano teachers, students and piano lovers everywhere. I hope this fairly substantial selection will inspire a host of piano related shopping. As usual, there’s something to interest all levels. I’ve made a few exciting composer discoveries (which is always fun); today’s list features a historical novel, a new piano method, a practice notebook, a Children’s piano concerto, and new compilations, as well as publications from our favourite publishers. Enjoy!

Beginners/Elementary

Piano Junior

ed_13801-heumann_648_This new method published by Schott Music consists of a series of books (8 books in total) and has been written by German pedagogue and composer, Hans-Günter Heumann. I was a consultant on this method, and it has been exciting to see the finished product. PJ is a robot who is the main ‘character’ (he has a friend called ‘Mozart’ the dog too!) in this tutor series for youngsters (age 6 and above). Piano Junior is designed as a ‘fun and interactive’ piano method, starting with black notes, employing innovative, user-friendly graphic notation before introducing white notes, traditional staves, clefs and time signatures. In addition to each book, there is also extra material on the website, which includes videos, audio demos and play-alongs for all the pieces, as well as downloadable rhythm checks, workouts, sight-reading exercises and other resources. Find out much more here and purchase here.

My Practice Palette

my-practice-palette-coverWritten by British teacher Roberta Wolff, this book can be enjoyed in paperback or e-book version and is designed to assist students and teachers in their quest for effective practising. My Practice Palette  is essentially a notebook which aims to educate parents, teaches, and students about how to practise while eliminating the need for teachers to write practice notes. This is done by teaching practice methodology and metacognition. Roberta recommends using My Practice Palette from grades 1-5. Teachers can also work through the Practice Palette during lesson time. The benefits of this are, no extra time is required for planning, and teachers can be spontaneous yet easily keep track of a student’s progress. It’s certainly a colourful volume and would no doubt encourage those who might otherwise find practising dull. Find out more and get your copy here.

14 Easy Pieces for Piano

lane_richard_14_easy_pieces_for_piano_pno73American composer Richard Lane (1933 – 2014) has written a group of charming little pieces for those of around Grade 1 level (ABRSM). I discovered Richard’s music through the ABRSM list C pieces (for 2017/8), whilst writing the Piano Notes series (due to be published by Rhinegold in January). These works, which are published by Swiss publisher BIM Editions, are tuneful, attractive and all feature particular technical elements (important for teaching repertoire). Duets, an arrangement and original pieces all feature in this volume. Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Star

9781848499249This is a new series published by the British examination board, ABRSM, for beginners (or for those up to prep test level). There are three books in the series, each containing new arrangements and original pieces written by a host of different composers and teachers, all associated with the popular British exam board. The volumes include solo pieces and duets, offer a mix of styles, plus fun extension activities and plenty of illustrations. There are 74 pieces in total, written by 20 composers including Christopher Norton, Paul Harris, Mark Tanner and Mike Cornick, and children will love the tuneful simplicity of the pieces; this is certainly useful teaching material. Find out more and purchase here.

Intermediate

Piano Concerto No. 1 For Children

pno18-chkolnik_concerto_for_children-web

An interesting discovery, written in 1993 by Russian composer Ilia Chkolnik and published by BIM Editions, in their Junior Series. Piano concertos written solely for children are becoming increasingly popular, with many, particularly Russian composers, highlighting this potential gap in the market. This score has an orchestral reduction (or second piano part), and at first glance, could be mistaken for advanced level. However, it consists of idiomatic, essentially tonal writing and lasts just 11 minutes. There are three movements, two fast outer sections, and a beautiful slow movement, which reminds me of Shostakovich’s Second Concerto in F major Op. 102. Teachers looking for varied contemporary repertoire will enjoy this piece. To hear, find out more and purchase, click here.

Intermediate to Advanced

My First Chopin

ed_22459_1-ohmen_648_

A new publication from Schott Music, compiled by German pianist and pedagogue, Wilhelm Ohman. This collection of 20 pieces lies well within the capabilities of the advanced player, and contains some of Chopin’s best-loved works including a group of Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas and Nocturnes. These genres are popular amongst students, and with the Raindrop Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6, Waltz in B minor Op. posth. 69 No. 2, Mazurka in B flat major Op. 7 No. 1, Nocturne in C sharp minor No. 20 Op. posth., Funeral March (from Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35), to name a few favourites. An excellent addition to any student’s library. Find out more and purchase here.

The Piano Playlist

ed_13860-turner_648_

A large selection of 50 popular classical pieces arranged by British arranger and editor Barrie Carson Turner, and published by Schott Music. Arrangements have always been a favourite with pianists, and this offers a comprehensive list of music across several centuries, all transcribed for intermediate up to advanced players. From opera arias (Habanera from Carmen by Bizet, Nessun Dorma from Turandot, and O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schicchi both by Puccini), to ballet numbers, famous gems from orchestral works (Ode to Joy (Beethoven), The Swan (Saint-Saëns), Adagietto (Mahler’s 4th Symphony)), to piano concertos, instrumental music and  arrangements of piano pieces. My choice piece is When I am Laid in Earth from Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. This is a beneficial volume for those wanting to discover some of the best-loved works in the Classical repertoire. It would also serve as excellent sight-reading material. Find out more and purchase here.

The Ultimate Easy Piano Songlist

e20016ac-d186-4c15-a350-c7c3873fd590A new publication from Faber Music. Containing 45 arrangements of best selling songs, this will please those who enjoy a wide variety of pop and easy listening music. Numbers from artists such as Adele, Cilla Black, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Rea, Michael Buble, Eagles, One Direction, Wham!, Nina Simone, Muse, Vera Lynn, David Bowie, Justin Beiber, Jamie Cullum, and Radiohead, to name a few. This is designated ‘Easy Piano’ but few elementary pianists will manage these arrangements; I would suggest intermediate level as minimum. Complete with lyrics and chord indications, this is a lovely volume, and would make a perfect stocking filler! Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Collection by Jevdet Hajiyev

indexThe first book of a special centenary edition of selected piano works inspired by Azerbaijani traditional music, written by Azerbaijani composer, Jevdet Hajiyev (1917 – 2002). This volume is published by EVC Music Publications, in a project commissioned by the Muradov family archive. For intermediate to advanced level players, this book will be a useful addition to any piano teacher, advanced student or keen amateur’s piano library. With the expected Russian inflections, this music is generally tonal but with a direct influence of Twentieth Century masters such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich (Jevdet Hajiyev’s teacher). Some pieces are short (such as those from Musical Sketches), whilst the Scherzo and Sonata are more substantial. Listen to the music, find out more and get a copy here.  

Online

Flowkey

flowkeyFlowkey is a piano learning-app geared for all levels, whether beginner or advanced. It’s also a useful music education tool for parents, teachers, and adult learners, as it’s easy to get started. A wide spectrum of music is covered, from classical music to pop songs. You can apparently practice interactively and receive instant feedback; progress can be tracked and piano lessons are also on offer, in the form of various courses. Flowkey is partnered with Yamaha, and can be easily connected to digital pianos. Find out much more here.

Books

Ghost Variations

getattachmentthumbnailThis is the latest novel by British author, writer, and critic Jessica Duchen. Whilst not strictly focused on the piano, it is a very interesting musical tale. Jessica tells the true story of Hungarian-born violinist Jelly D’Aranyi’s quest to recover Robert Schumann’s forgotten violin concerto. It’s also the story of an aging woman in a world which is becoming progressively more hostile. Jelly negotiates her way through the changing world of 1930s London. War is ever-present, and the heroine has to come to terms with her fading powers and upcoming young stars such as Yehudi Menuhin. As a woman, she faces the ultimate decision, choosing between music or love.  Find out more here and buy your copy here.


You can find out more about my new Faber Music Piano Anthology here.

And my beginner’s guide, So You Want To Play The Piano? here.

The Mindful Pianist: An Interview with Mark Tanner

4f07a817201ecThe Mindful Pianist is a new book written by British pianist, author, teacher, composer, researcher, examiner and adjudicator,  Mark Tanner (pictured above). This volume forms part of EPTA‘s (European Piano Teachers Association) Piano Professional Series, and is published by Faber Music. I invited Mark to answer twelve questions about his life and diverse career as a musician.  Here are his thoughtful, erudite responses (in italics). I hope you enjoy reading as  much as I did.


You’ve enjoyed a varied, eclectic career; performing, writing, editing, composing, teaching, researching, and working as an examiner and adjudicator. How is your time divided between these different pursuits?

I’ve evolved what musicians often like to call a ‘portfolio existence’ – partly out of necessity, but mainly in response to my varied interests, many of which I’ve been lucky to watch blossom over the years.

My performing career has spurred off into many directions. Appearances include five solo recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and St John’s Smith Square, along with many other appearances up and down the country as soloist, in concertos and with a variety of ensembles. A venue close to my heart is St George’s Bristol, where I have appeared with Allan Schiller, Richard May, Gillian Poznansky and Michael Langdon-Davies – I’ve also made several recordings there. Recitals on cruise ships continue to form an important part of my life, too – I’ve given over 300 recitals on all of the Cunard, P&O and Saga ships, many of which have been with my partner, flautist Gillian Poznansky, with whom I have also recorded a couple of CDs.

I have made an especial feature of British piano music, with recordings, recitals and broadcasts of previously unrecorded music by York Bowen, Peter Wishart (I later edited Wishart’s entire output of piano music for Edition Peters), John McLeod (various premières in the presence of the composer, including live on BBC Radio 3), Graham Lynch and Graham Fitkin. Performing – and indeed the whole process of gearing up for recitals and recordings – has always fed naturally into my professional life. I went through a phase of playing piano/keyboards for musicals, pantomimes and backing well-known comedians in cabaret, which has certainly stood me in good stead when it comes to living off my wits (a surreal engagement in more recent times involved playing on a dummy piano to ‘accompany’ Susan Boyle for her guest appearance on the X Factor). Although these days there tends to be extended periods during which I allow practising to slip, I can’t really imagine a life without the challenge of new repertoire.

Teaching seems always to have played a role in my musical life. Any aspiring professional musician who is not prepared to consider a certain amount of teaching is probably being rather unrealistic. Moreover, teaching is a way of tapping into the realities and passions of others. For some sixteen years I was Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset. Teaching in a public school environment carried with it all kinds of parallel activities (I was head of squash, umpired the 2nd cricket team, edited the school magazine, became deputy house master of a boys’ boarding house, as well as the usual musical activities such as running bands, doing bits of conducting and putting on musicals, carol services and so on). I have enjoyed teaching privately too, as well as at summer schools. These include the Chetham’s International Piano Summer School, Jackdaws Educational Trust and Dillington House in Somerset, Maryland College in Woburn, the Farncombe Estate in Gloucestershire and the National Young Pianists at Uppington School. Commitments at home and abroad have always discouraged me from taking on regular work at higher education establishments, though I do pop up at various colleges and universities from time to time, to give recitals and masterclasses, and also to talk with students about career paths. These days, I give occasional consultation lessons, the odd Skype session (perhaps in a student’s run-up to a diploma or recital), though I can’t usually offer the kind of continuity most pianists seem to need.

Composing continues to play a very robust role in my musical life. Stimulated initially by an interest in obscure contemporary piano music, I found myself partly switching tactic as far as my own compositions are concerned. This triggered what would turn out to be a very fruitful ongoing relationship with Spartan Press, an enterprising publishing company based in the Highlands of Scotland. For Spartan, I have now composed, transcribed and arranged over 60 volumes of music, roughly half of which is for piano, the remainder for a variety of other instruments and voices. Writing music for the ‘educational’ milieu requires a sensitivity to what is practical, not merely an idea of how one might like a particular piece to sound. This has undoubtedly tugged me towards a more pragmatic way of thinking and writing, which is no bad thing, for a piece is ultimately more likely to hit the mark as regards general appeal and approachability.seascapes

It was gratifying to have my ‘Scapes’ piano series (published in five volumes) shortlisted for a recent Music Teacher Award, and indeed to follow the progress of around 20 pieces onto the current syllabuses of ABRSM, TCL and LCM. I continue to get lively responses via my website (www.marktanner.info) regarding the five piano pieces featuring on the TCL syllabus. It is in the very nature of writing educational music that composers keep their fingers crossed every time a new syllabus launch is in the offing. My Lullaby for Prince George (a grade 5 piece composed for Pianist Magazine) captured the attention of Classic FM a couple of years back; this spike in interest certainly heightens the presence of a composer (incidentally, the Lullaby, along with Nocturne for Princess Charlotte, is now published in a volume entitled Sleep Tight).

I am particularly pleased with a recent five-volume series of piano pieces, which I ended up calling Listen to the World – it taps into all kinds of ‘sound-moods’, which range from Bangkok Busker to Air Balloons over Albuquerque. I like to think I have remained fairly true to the philosophy of my first series of published books – Eye-Tunes – which evolved over a few years into a twelve-volume set comprising exactly one hundred pieces; from these, I went on to cherry-pick some arrangements for flute and piano, which became Creature Comforts and Flute Pastilles. As a spinoff from my ‘usual’ approach to composing, I enjoyed putting together a four-volume series of Elizabethan pieces from the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Pieces – intriguing miniatures, which seemed to be screaming out for a contemporary face-lift; I called it A Renaissance Keyboard Anthology. This later prompted me to compose a one-off set of quirky pieces in response to the originals, which I called The FitzTanner Collection.

Writing has always been something which gives me terrific pleasure and satisfaction. I wrote my PhD thesis on the performance history of Franz Liszt, and this spawned various articles in scholarly journals, published both in the UK and US. I then enjoyed writing several hundred articles and reviews for International Record Review, Classical Music, International Piano and Musical Opinion. For Pianist Magazine, I have written two dozen feature-length ‘masterclass’ articles, which cover aspects of piano playing such as rubato, improvisation, holding momentum, pedalling and so on. I was pleased recently to take on the role of Guest Editor for EPTA’s flagship Magazine, Piano Professional.

Examining for ABRSM is by its very nature hard work. It involves a lot of traveling around, plus an amount of administration and organisation, not to mention sitting behind a desk for six or more hours at a time, scribbling like a crazed man. The challenge of examining is to listen intently to what is happening, while keeping in mind the previous item about which you will probably still be writing! In the UK, I usually examine for about a fortnight in each of the three sessions, which is the maximum I can tuck in due to other commitments. Though I live in the South West, some of this will end up being in London, as I am on the Examiner Training Panel, which takes prospective examiners from interview on through a rigorous process leading to (hopefully) the finished article.

I find the international side of examining tremendously rewarding, though challenging work. There can be language difficulties to overcome, hassles with getting to and from obscure venues, issues with food (‘examiner’s tummy’ is an irksome topic all to itself) and of course the accumulation of tiredness, which can take a lot out of you as you move from one city or country to the next, perhaps leaping across time-zones. I have conducted several diploma-only tours to Hong Kong and Singapore, though most of my ‘solo’ tours these days involve a mix of grades, diplomas and teacher seminars. Each year I take on two lengthy international tours, which has proved to be an excellent way of seeing the world. Examiners get ‘under the skin’ of a foreign place in ways the holiday-maker is less likely to, and I find this an immensely rewarding experience – though undoubtedly the most fatiguing work I have ever done. I have undertaken over 30 international tours, to five continents (alas, we don’t examine in South America, as yet). These have taken me to the snow-topped Himalayas, the dreamy coasts of New Zealand, the stunning Swiss Alps, eerily abandoned South African diamond mining towns, Kathmandu (I happened to be working there just a fortnight before the major recent earthquake), all over the Far East many times, several trips to the USA and Canada, and (a particular favourite) India. I’ve just returned from an extended tour of South Korea and Japan, and am about to depart for New York and Princeton – next year I’ll be in Turkey and Sri Lanka.

I also undertake annual Presentation Tours for ABRSM, which involves making whistle-stop fortnight-long trips all over China (as many as a dozen internal flights), explaining to teachers how the exam system can be of help to them, providing a ‘system’ for serious study as well as fostering the simple joy of learning. I occasionally get involved with other aspects of ABRSM too, such as co-writing the Teaching Notes, an informative book to accompany the latest piano syllabus, and composing bits and pieces for various ongoing projects/syllabuses. One such project, which has just come into fruition actually, is the Piano Star series: three ‘repertoire’ books leading from pre Prep Test to about grade 1, containing solo items and duets. I also spend the equivalent of about a fortnight per year working for ABRSM’s Reading Panel, which forms part of the organisation’s ongoing quality control machine; we provide forensically detailed critiques (and of course positive feedback!) to support examiners in their quest to write helpful, consistent, well-matched comments.9781848499249

Adjudicating for the British and International Federation of Festivals is another strand of my work which I find very rewarding. Festivals in the UK tend to happen in March and November (when I’m invariably examining overseas), so I would generally expect to manage only perhaps a week or two of adjudicating each year. That said, I have adjudicated many of the festivals in the south of England, plus a sprinkling further north; this year I adjudicated the Singapore Festival of Performing Arts, with a few masterclasses and one-to-one lessons bolted on for good measure. I have adjudicated the EPTA Piano Competition several times, and this year also judged the National Composer’s Competition.

An important distinction between examining and adjudicating is the nature and depth of feedback. In a festival, it is often entirely appropriate (and sometimes specifically expected) that the adjudicator will get up onstage and offer help and advice on how to improve what was just heard. In an exam, by stark contrast, there is no provision for feedback ‘in the moment’ – just the comments given on the mark form, which is really the only lasting evidence that the exam ever actually took place.

If you were to pick one (or perhaps two!), which has been the most rewarding and satisfying, and why?

The first time we accomplish something important, I guess we tend to etch it into our memory and accord it a certain fondness. My first solo performance was at Bristol’s Colston Hall, aged 11 (the Bristol Evening Post described me as “the intrepid Mark Tanner” – I seem to remember getting lost walking off stage…) and this was followed shortly after by my first BBC TV appearance as semi-finalist in a piano competition called Major-Minor, adjudicated by Sir David Willcocks. My inaugural live BBC Radio 3 broadcast, in which I included a previously unknown work by Constant Lambert and a piece of my own, would certainly rank as a seminal moment, as would my Wigmore Hall debut. Completing my PhD, while simultaneously teaching full-time and establishing myself on the playing circuit, was an especially important five-year period for me, especially since it opened my eyes to the prospect of a side career in writing, from which I continue to gain a great deal of satisfaction.

You spend much time in the Far East presenting and lecturing for ABRSM, what differences have you noticed in the approach to teaching and playing in that part of the world, or are they very similar to those in the West?

Well, this a question I am often asked, and to which I doubt if I’ve ever given a fully honest answer! My feeling, having examined something in the region of 20,000 candidates all over the world, is that every examining day brings with it the potential for something memorable. In truth, examiners get to experience the full gamut of possibilities (in terms of playing quality) on virtually every tour they undertake. They also get to experience a very occasional tragic or humorous event, which may well turn out to be something they can dine out on for years to come. From my personal experience, the ‘average’ playing one hears in Cardiff will probably shake out as similar to that experienced in Dhaka or Helsinki, though as you might imagine, the extremes of the playing one encounters overseas can be an entirely different matter. As far as I can detect, the teaching in foreign countries (gauged purely in terms of the outcome of an exam) is every bit as effective as we would expect to find here in the UK – sometimes more so.

Many young students (including mine!) have loved playing your piano compositions (which have been published worldwide, and feature in a plethora of exam syllabuses), when did you start composing educational piano pieces? How would you describe your style?

I studied composition at college – my first ever piece was a full-blown orchestral work actually, which I’d probably shy away from doing today – and it would be fair to say that this angle of my life has grown exponentially over the last decade or so. Composing is something I can do while I’m sat on deck sipping a mocktail on the Queen Mary 2, or squeezed into the corner of a Starbucks in San Francisco, so I suppose this might explain why I have enjoyed devoting more and more of my time to this line of work.index

As far as style goes, I’m a bit hard to pin down. I have always been interested in jazz and lighter styles (I was an avid fan of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Uriah Heep in my teens), though of course my training as a concert pianist took me down myriad complex routes, too. In truth, I tend to allow a part of my imagination to run riot while I’m engaged in a particular project. So, by way of example, I’m mid-way through a five-volume piano series called Jazz Hands, which regularly ventures off-piste into more impressionist and even minimalist territory, and I have composed a series of study books for tackling the ABRSM Quick Study called Know the Score, which has helped a variety of instrumentalists to engage more fruitfully with this component of the DipABRSM. My two volumes of folk song arrangements came about as a natural consequence of a CD I recorded with veteran bass-baritone, Michael George, and these again encouraged me to dip my toe into an array of contemporary styles. I love playing around with different textures and re-working familiar structures and progressions until they yield something new and intriguing. Many TCL grade 6 pianists will have enjoyed thrusting their way through The Wit and Wisdom of the Night, a Bernstein-esque little ditty, or finessing The Owl and the Pussycat (a TCL grade 1 piece which is over before it’s begun). The style of these two examples could hardly contrast more, it now occurs to me (The Owl and the Pussycat is more reminiscent of Haydn than Bernstein). Apart from Mozart and Chopin, whose styles were pretty much in place from the earliest age, style seems generally to be a continually moveable feast (Stravinsky is an excellent example of a composer who was forever reinventing himself). The minute we attempt to define style, it has already begun to morph into something else. Composers, not unlike artists in my experience, can be a little disingenuous in that we wish to be regarded as ‘individual’, while at the same time often enjoy dabbling in genre-crossing. Besides, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a little derivative as a composer. Improvisation of course ties in inextricably with composition (the latter in some senses emerging as a ‘formalisation’ of the former), though the miracle of composing amounts to a coming together of real experiences in resonance with imagined ones.

When composing, what aspects are, for you, key? Do you hear the piece in your head before writing, or do you prefer working it all out at the piano?

An excellent question, which I shall proceed to dodge, strategically. In the same way that some Beatles melodies foreshadowed the lyrics, and others the reverse, I tend to respond to the moment and then run with it. There have been times when, for example sitting next to an elderly gentleman tapping his stick on the New York subway, I have found myself itching to compose a piece using an unusual 15/8 rhythm. But there are also occasions – for example, when I am getting close to finishing off a book pitched at a particular grade – where a more pragmatic approach proves necessary in order to hit the brief. For a piano piece to be fully pianistic, it would be silly not to road-test it thoroughly, sat at the instrument, or in the case of a violin or flute piece, to run it past an expert. Composers generally write pieces in order to coax a strong emotional response from the player and listener, not simply to be ‘clever’. This requires an appetite for new ideas, though in reality some of these may be partially preconceived. Ultimately one must trust in one’s musical intelligence.

mindfulI  thoroughly enjoyed reading your new book, The Mindful Pianist, which has just been published by Faber Music, and is part of the ongoing Piano Professional Series (published by EPTA or the European Piano Teachers Association). ‘Mindful’ piano playing has become fashionable, why do you feel it’s important?

The whole mindfulness platform brims with potential; it can be of great value to musicians of all persuasions. To say that mindfulness has enjoyed a recent resurgence (I’d entirely agree – everything from macramé to bread-making and surfing) is perhaps a bit like saying that religion has grown in popularity. In truth, mindfulness is probably as old as human thought, though it evidently came of age through the earliest Buddhist teachings.

Musicians, and perhaps pianists in particular, often become side-tracked by their longer-term ambitions – for example, an upcoming exam or public performance – and though entirely understandable, such preoccupations tend to uproot our sense of the present moment. We end up overthinking, over-reaching, over-compensating and over-reacting to aspects of our musical lives lying some way off in the future, instead of focussing on what is happening right now, sat at the piano. This remarkably simple starting point is nevertheless the trigger for my book – we need to learn how best to harness all this energy and ‘spend’ it where it will be most likely be of optimum value. From here, pianists can gradually home in on the practicalities of learning and evolving, attending to details and working up a really compelling performance.

The Mindful Pianist is split into four broad areas of study: focussing, practising, performing, engaging. Each area challenges the reader (who might be a seasoned pianist, or perhaps a keen amateur) to reappraise what they are doing and head off the blight of performance anxiety. Occasionally, it seems the teacher can unwittingly contribute to a less than robust approach also, perhaps by glossing over the specific needs of the individual student, or else by over-emphasising a particular facet of playing and skimming over others. The role of the teacher, as I reinforce more fully in the book, is to teach the pupil to teach himself, so that every practice session becomes a self-taught lesson. If we are not encouraged to take responsibility for our practising and performing, we can never fully flourish.

Did you re-exam you own approach to the piano when writing this book, or are the ideas mostly derived from your work over time as a teacher?

The book is most definitely a coming-together of different strands of my teaching (and of course thinking) over thirty years, and feeds directly into the whole conundrum of piano playing. Though piano playing is a fine motor skill, I feel it ought not be segregated too far from the broader objectives of teaching and learning. Analytical approaches (I go into these in some depth in the book, and offer some innovative models) are examples of how the enlightened teacher can trigger a creative response from their pupils. Teachers of course learn all the time from their pupils’ mistakes, not to mention their own.

The book is peppered with quintessential advice and suggestions from other piano teachers and pianists, which adds a richness, emphasizing your fundamental points. In your own education, which teachers have been an important influence, shaping your teaching and playing?

The power of a teacher to help you learn is, I believe, inextricably tied to your own capacity to respond and adapt. This is why we feel more tuned in to certain approaches and correspondingly switched off by others. Nonetheless, I like to feel I have gained as much from participating in masterclasses with pianists such as Peter Donohoe, as I have from my ‘regular’ teachers, who have included Gwyn Pritchard, Geoffrey Buckley, Philip Martin and Richard McMahon. They each played to their strengths as pianists (and in Gwyn’s and Philip’s case, as composers, too) as much as their qualities as teachers, which explains what I was able to take away from those lessons. Gwyn first opened my eyes to the value of thoughtful, methodical practising; Geoff endlessly impressed me with his extraordinary repertoire and powers of recall; Philip had me rolling around in fits of laughter (while gently nudging me to tackle some mammoth pieces); and Richard showed me what it is to be a resourceful ‘virtuoso teacher’ (as Paul Harris optimistically coined it in his book by the same name).

sp1297You teach many advanced adult students (at Chethams Summer School, Jackdaws Educational Trust, EPTA, and other educational institutions), how do their issues differ from those of the younger piano student?

Adults present a wholly different set of challenges for the piano teacher. Just as children are not small adults, adults are not big children; we so easily overlook this stunningly obvious observation. Younger players abound in energy, confidence and a gung-ho approach (not universally, but often, in my experience), while adults not infrequently fall victim to their own idiosyncratic psychological foibles. One manifestation of this (which, again, I tackle briefly in the book), would be choosing repertoire – for the physical capacity to play Rachmaninov is a quite different matter from the desire to do so; unfortunately, overstretching our capabilities can have a profoundly negative outcome over the longer term. Piano playing is hard enough without adding to the difficulties by persevering with repertoire which lies beyond our scope. Similarly, the acquisition of a reliable technique is but one among many equally worthy elements of successful piano playing. While stretching ourselves to the next level is always a commendable goal, arguably we will reach grade 6 more efficiently by first working up a clutch of grade 5 pieces to a good level, rather than by toying around ineffectually with a bunch of grade 7 pieces.

In summer schools, teachers routinely encounter a startling range of promising students – youngsters who can whizz through the Emperor Concerto without turning a hair, or older teenagers who are already able to improvise in any style from Scriabin to Coldplay. But there will be others for whom piano playing seems to have become all about persisting with a couple of pieces with which they feel a certain bond or kinship; this bittersweet tussle can endure for decades and is not always the most profitable use of their time, I’d suggest. The younger player could undoubtedly learn from his more senior counterpart, whose grasp of the musical landmarks in a piece may well be more sophisticated; conversely, the older pianist might take a leaf out of the teenager’s book as regards holding momentum and generally ‘going for it’. Knowing oneself is key to honing an approach that will prove fruitful over the longer term.

Another thing occurs to me regarding the adult learner, which is that teachers all too easily become counsellors or armchair psychologists – I am sure many teachers of adults will be familiar with the student who spends the first 45 minutes of an hour’s lesson discussing Brexit or Fracking, as if compelled to stave off the moment when they sit squarely at the piano, by which time the next pupil can be already be heard parking his car outside…

sp1180What advice could you bestow to the many pianists preparing to take performing and teaching diplomas, particularly regarding programming?

Mm…this is a knotty one. For a performing diploma, I would usually recommend a less-is-more approach. My father has a saying: “Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it”. In other words, why open yourself up to the possibility of demonstrating what you cannot do? Playing from memory, when this is not something that comes naturally to you, would be a prime example. If there is an own-choice component (as is the case for all three of the established ABRSM diplomas, and indeed the new ARSM, which is exclusively concerned with performing), then this is most definitely something worthy of serious consideration.

In general, my advice would be to put your best foot forward – start and end your programme with a strong item you know you can play exceedingly well (even if a noisy demonstration suddenly starts up on the street outside – which happened to me once in a St John’s Smith Square recital). Don’t feel hidebound by tradition, convention or chronology – it’s ok to end with Bach, so long as your choice ‘works’ – and by the same token you might consider launching your recital with Shostakovich. Pace yourself, both as regards the mental and physical stamina demanded by the occasion. Listen at least as intently as the examiner will be, and if something goes astray, airbrush out the memory in an instant – don’t let it snowball into a series of debilitating calamities.

For teaching diplomas, my best advice would be to know your stuff inside out. Many candidates sidle into an exam room with what looks like a shopping trolley brimming over with books they’ve borrowed; but when asked to put their hands on something specific, let’s say a grade 4 piece with issues of pedalling, they find themselves completely scuppered. Better, in my opinion, to bring in two handfuls of material with which you are wholly familiar, so that you can dip into it at a moment’s notice, even when under exam pressure. In the viva voce, take your time and answer the question. If you slip off topic too frequently, your examiner will be bound to lower his/her opinion of you. When you speak, aim to form sentences which have a beginning, middle and end; stick to your guns and think ahead to where you’d like to steer the topic next. Doing this will place you more in control of what is being discussed; from here you will be more able to reveal those little nuggets of information you’ve stored away.

In a few words, can you sum up the most crucial aspects of mindful piano playing; ones which students can immediately implement into their practice routine?

Start each session with something you can already play quite well, and finish with something you can play even better. In the middle part of your practice session (which in the majority of cases ought not to exceed an hour or so at a time), be prepared to fulfil a series of small, achievable objectives – tick these off one by one in your mind. If you are not measurably better after your practising, you cannot claim to have been working very effectively. Breathe calmly, pause for thought and reflect on what just took place at regular intervals. Think clearly about what you are broadly hoping to achieve for each task – then pursue it with confidence, courage and determination. Shake things up a bit when you are getting bored or restless, and in general, work from the back of a piece to the front, especially if it happens to be a large-scale work, for example a sonata or concerto. Queue up the bits of a piece which are giving you the most trouble and deal with each ‘quarantined’ passage one at a time, thoughtfully and methodically. Resist the temptation to pound away at something difficult, getting faster and faster as you do so; instead, isolate the problem, rather as a surgeon might, and deal with it mindfully: less haste, more speed. Record yourself practising from time to time, to gain a more ‘fly on the wall’ perspective, and take all opportunities to play for others, especially if your ultimate goal is to perform in some kind of ‘event’. Finally, practise practising, then practise performing – these are two quite distinct modes of working, each of which requires a specific mental outlook.

Most musicians in today’s world find social media a vital ‘tool’, however, you have successfully managed to side-step this marketing device, was this a conscious decision? Do you feel it isn’t as important as many might have us believe?

Twitter is something I am beginning to get to grips with, at long last, though I have been less enamoured by Facebook so far; I may well give in soon though. As with any form of communication, or networking, my feeling is that we shouldn’t bother to proclaim things unless we feel confident they are worth hearing; otherwise, we end up contributing to a bottomless quagmire of trivial nonsense. I also feel that if we do not impose a restraining order on our social media activities they can end up draining away every spare moment in our lives. On balance though, we cannot hope to gain advantage from social media if we are not prepared to take an active role. With this in mind, I have begun to add a series of ‘how-to’ videos to my Twitter feeds. I now have two: @MarkTannerPiano and @MindfulPianist.  It strikes me that we all use social media in different ways in order to accomplish different objectives. It falls upon each of us to decide where the useful stuff turns the corner into banality.

You can explore Mark’s music here, and purchase The Mindful Pianist, here.


10 Top Tips To Pass Your Piano Exam

So you want to play the piano photo 5As the new term gets underway, many will be preparing for music exams at the end of the year and the aim of this post is to provide a few extra pointers and ideas for last-minute preparations.

Once the pieces have been learnt, scales, arpeggios and technical work is all in place, and the dreaded sight-reading and aural tests have finally been understood, how can students feel motivated and keep improving right up until the last moment?

Here are a few suggestions for the final four weeks before a piano exam.

  1. Start by knowing all about your piano pieces; really understand their background, the context in which they were written, and that of the composer. You might be surprised  by how this knowledge affects the way you play a piece.
  2. Ensure you can play the left hand of each piece alone (preferably from memory). Left hand practice will have a substantial impact on continuity and will hopefully stem the dreaded curse of the ‘stumble’ or hesitation.
  3. When secure, play each piece through at least once a day, from the beginning to the end without stopping, eliminating errors. It can be helpful to play through under tempo at the start of the day (and with a metronome), and then later in the day, play through at the expected speed. When playing under tempo, I would play without the sustaining pedal too, as this tunes our ears to what fingers are actually doing.
  4. A week or so before your exam, arrange two or three play-throughs. These don’t need to be formal: perhaps one at your teacher’s studio, in front of other students, and another amongst family or friends. They need to make you feel ‘on edge’ and slightly out of your comfort zone, but they shouldn’t feel terrifying.
  5. Before you play any piece through, take a few seconds to think about how you are going to begin: set the tempo, think about how the piece makes you feel, and also about the sound you are aiming to produce. This will contribute to making a confident, secure impression as opposed to a shaky, unsure opening.
  6. Aural tests can take a while to sink in and become comfortable. Listen to every genre of Classical music, so that you are well aware of stylistic trends. This will be especially useful for the last test in ABRSM exams, and it will also help to distinguish the pulse, be aware of the beat (i.e. clapping) and  enable you to sing the musical lines (you must be able to hear the lines before you can sing them, so perpetual listening will be crucial).
  7. Scales and arpeggios (or technical work) are much more fun and palatable if you can find a piano playing friend to work with (perhaps your piano teacher has students who are of a similar level to you). However, you don’t have to be the same level. Test each other on scales and arpeggios; if you have two keyboards or pianos, play the same (or different) keys one after another as a quick fire test, and you could even play them together slowly (I used to do this and really enjoyed it). It’s amazing how effective this kind of focus can be.
  8. Ensure ample sight-reading material (there are many books available for various grades, and piano anthologies can be useful too) and make sure you manage at least 10 minutes a day (depending on your level). After you’ve prepared the piece in your mind (looked at the key, fingering, hand position changes and rhythm etc.), set the metronome on a very slow beat and play along to it, resisting the urge to stop and correct yourself.
  9. Define the order of your exam. Most boards allow you to start with either scales or pieces, and it can help if you make a firm decision before you enter the exam room. I advise pupils to begin with scales – they are great for a warm-up, allowing you to become acquainted with the instrument.
  10.  The day before, test yourself by doing a mock exam (you could do it on your own, or invite a crowd!). Play the pieces, all the scales, a piece of sight-reading (one which you haven’t seen before), and go through the Aural tests (using the many apps or audio versions available). This should help settle nerves and provide a feeling of security.

Good luck!


For lots of information on piano exam preparation plus plenty more, check out my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?

For sight-reading material or for alternative repertoire, check out The Faber Music Piano Anthology, containing 78 pieces from around Grade 2 – 8, selected by me.

Image from So You Want To Play The Piano? ©Alfred Music

Do Piano Exams Matter?

i-can-do-itOn returning from my holiday, I enjoyed reading Rosie Millard’s recent interesting and thought-provoking article in The Telegraph deliberating over the benefits of music exams (you can read it here). She labels herself a ‘pushy’ parent, although I don’t find her approach particularly ‘pushy’. I think her concerns are fairly natural amongst parents who want their children to succeed; indeed this approach could be applied to ballet, chess, maths and a whole host of other activities so often undertaken by children.

Many feel music exams are irrelevant, outdated and have little to do with being able to play an instrument. This view is surprisingly prevalent in some unsuspecting circles; there are piano teachers who don’t enter students for exams, believing them to be totally unnecessary. Certainly, exams are not for everyone and, as Rosie points out, they definitely aren’t for the faint hearted! Hours of work, dedication, motivation, and perseverance are necessary – and that’s just to obtain a pass! Some talent is also required beyond a certain level too.

On a personal note, I loved taking piano exams; they gave me a sense of achievement and a feeling of advancement in my playing. I took Grades 2, 5, & 8 (if my memory serves correctly!), but I found them fun. And those I teach also enjoy working towards them (I never push students to take exams).

One of the main issues amongst those who don’t favour an exam system, seems to be the limitations of the syllabus (usually irrespective of the board taken; whether ABRSM, Trinity College, London College of Music etc.); three pieces, a group of scales, sight-reading and aural must generally be negotiated and this can take time to assimilate (sometimes it can take years, depending on the student). Many students (and their teachers) would rather work at a larger group of pieces, learn a more varied repertoire, skip scales (or exercises) and never really have to be put through the trauma associated with sight-reading (or aural). I can certainly empathise with this view, especially for those who want to play for pleasure.

Playing the piano should be for enjoyment, shouldn’t it? Yes, it should. And for some this means a challenge. For those who want to improve their playing, with the intention of reaching new levels of technique and musicianship, and receive a measured view of their progress, an exam may be a great option.

Yes, the syllabus could be viewed as narrow, but then it isn’t meant to be the only course of study; the concept surrounding piano exams is to work at the exam syllabus in conjunction with a whole host of other piano material, forming a broader musical base. Moving from one piano exam to the next (without learning anything else in-between) is not a sound method of progress, as most already know.

The thing about dedicating much time and effort to just a few demanding pieces is that whilst this may seem dull, perfunctory and limited, after working at them correctly (this is vital, so please find a good teacher who can teach the necessary technique required to play everything demanded in the syllabus), students should have acquired new technical (and musical) skills. These skills can then be applied to a multitude of piano pieces, thus encouraging an increasingly higher standard of playing. For many, the whole point of an exam is to overcome or surmount new difficulties.

When there is a deadline, an impending performance and a marking system for that performance, most pupils are motivated to work. They want to go beyond that particular grade or level. That’s not to say this level can’t be achieved by not taking an exam, but they do seem to afford the fundamental carrot. And a good mark provides a very satisfying sense of achievement, as well as the motivation to continue playing.

I’ve been working with several piano professors and university faculty members over the past few months (worldwide), frequently enquiring about entrance audition standards and procedures for their respective university or conservatoire, as well as the selection process for their piano majors (a subject which fascinates me). On  asking which group of students consistently offers the highest level of playing at audition, the answer has (more often than not) been those pianists who have adhered to an examination system, particularly the British system (i.e. ABRSM, Trinity  College London, or London College of Music exams, which can all be undertaken worldwide).

The main reason for this appears to be that these students have frequently taken diplomas (which can serve as excellent preparation for a prospective conservatoire student), are used to presenting recital programmes, and have a more reliable technical grasp due to regular technical exercise practice (of which scales and arpeggios play an important part). These young piano majors intend to be professionals,  and should therefore not be compared to those who play for pleasure, however, the ideology is exactly the same; formal exams can foster a high standard of playing.

No exam system is (or will ever be) perfect, but in my opinion, if you or your child wishes to improve, and learn to develop the required focus, discipline and performing skills needed to do well, working at a piano exam or diploma, as part of a rounded musical education,  might be an excellent way to proceed.

For more information about the British Music Examination Boards, please visit the links below:

ABRSM

Trinity College London

London College of Music

Victoria College

National College of Music & Arts

RockSchool


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Snapchats for Piano Duet

Snapchats Front Cover

Melanie Spanswick has written a beautiful, sparkling new series of duets. They are highly evocative and will appeal to adults and children alike. I recommend them wholeheartedly!
Snapchats duets by Melanie Spanswick are enjoyable to play, and are varied in
character and texture. The most appealing feature of this collection, is that due to their brevity, they can easily be performed as a cycle or as a small group.

My new piano duets are now available to purchase as a digital download or as a hard copy (pre-order). Snapchats are  a collection of eleven pieces for those of around early intermediate or late elementary level (approximately Grades 2-4 ABRSM).

Piano Duets are fun to play, often providing players with the only opportunity to work with a fellow pianist. They offer the chance to improve many aspects of piano playing, including ensemble, sense of rhythm and sight-reading facility, as well as sharpening up listening skills too.

Snapchats are varied in texture, character, and mood. They require several slightly more unusual piano techniques and sound effects (for this level of playing, at least); glissandi, silently depressed chords, and assorted articulations (staccato, legato, tenuto etc.). Tuneful and Minimalist, each duet is very short; my brief was to write pieces of around eight to ten bars in length (yes, really!), which was quite a challenge! Their brevity encourages students to play them as a whole set, or as a smaller group, and they are suitable for children or adult pupils.

You can listen to each duet in the set by clicking on the links below. I recorded them last week with British concert pianist Nick van Bloss. You can buy the score and find out more here.

‘I tried some of these little gems with one of my students today and Phoebe enjoyed the music very much. They are very practical because of their size. They are also easy enough to sight-read and to teach students some new techniques. Thank you Melanie.’ Bulgarian pianist and piano teacher, Antonina Koleva Lax

‘These duets are great and only one page so students will love that. I liked all these pieces, but if I had to pick a favorite that would be Quick Chat. I love how the conversation is carried out by going back and forth in the different parts. My students are definitely going to want to play more than one of these duets for the recital.’ American piano teacher, Angela Jacob.

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It’s all in the Preparation: 5 Top Tips

Preparation is key when it comes to learning your piano pieces. Some exam boards (such as ABRSM) have made the selection process easier by providing recordings of all works  for every grade (including alternative pieces), enabling pupils to choose their favourites effortlessly. Once a programme has been decided, the hard graft commences and the earlier stages of practice and preparation are vital; how pieces are scrutinised, sectionalised and savoured can make all the difference, in terms of both mental and physical command. Here are a few ideas to mollify the transition from unknown quantity to a much-loved party piece.

1. On selecting a piece, start delving into its historical background; information on the period, composer and context within which the piece is placed is not only helpful and interesting, but can also provide interpretation clues too. If you’ve selected a Baroque piece, for example, it might be an idea to listen to the work on the instrument it would have originally been performed (organ, harpsichord, clavichord etc.). It helps to know why a composer wrote a piece as well.

2. Take a pencil and mark up your score. Know the structure. Your piece’s musical form will generally depend on its complexity (or grade). Small pieces could feature Ternary form  or A-B-A (where the first section (A) is repeated at the end after a second section (B)), or Binary form, A-B (which features two differing but related musical ideas). Advanced works might take the form of a prelude, fugue, suite, sonata etc. Whatever the form, be aware of its significance and more importantly, how it affects the piece and ultimately, the interpretation. You might want to think about some of the following: how many times does the thematic material (or melody) appear or repeat? Is it in a different key? Is it exactly the same or does it evolve, change or is it inverted? There are a multitude of possibilities. By marking the changes, and mentally drawing attention to them, the next step will be to interpret them with a variety of different dynamics and phrasing.

3. Now you know how it’s constructed, examine the texture of your piece (how melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material  are combined).  Textures favoured by composers include counterpoint or polyphony (several different lines of music sounding altogether) as is often the case in Baroque music; homophonic style (chordal); or a melody with accompaniment (which could be featured in either hand). Again, take a pencil and mark signposts; if you’re playing a fugue, be sure to highlight the subject (theme) in all its guises. If it’s a Classical piece, chord progressions may be key, or perhaps melodic variation will be important.

4. If your piece is tonal (in a key), working out chord progressions can significantly help in the learning process, as demonstrated by the image above (which is an example of Schenkerian Analysis). Other prominent aspects can include key changes, cadences or chromaticism. Perhaps a passage which migrates to another part of the  keyboard entirely from previous sections, or passages where textures completely metamorphose. Note rhythmic patterns too. How do they change, develop or synthesize? Accents, tempo changes and stylistic markings provide cues and clues. Get busy with your pencil.

5. Finally, add in all necessary fingerings (the more the better) and pedal markings. Use fingers astutely, taking into account phrasing, legato, staccato, and other musical terms and touches. Fingerings are best learnt from the outset as changing them can become problematic, and akin to re-learning or correcting habits. Aim to use the sustaining pedal sparingly, and learn how it feels and sounds without any pedal first.

Now you are ready to start practising! My next post will yield a few tips on the next stage of preparation – learning the notes.

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.

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