A Few Thoughts on Selecting Piano Diploma Repertoire

Shutterstock Background Piano Music for WebsiteToday’s post is the second exploring piano diploma repertoire. You can read my first post, here. As the previous article describes, there are many ways of ensuring an interesting well-balanced programme, but when it comes to choosing the music itself, how and what do you select? Which pieces make ‘safe’ choices and what constitutes an appealing, yet diverse assortment?

Personal taste plays a gargantuan role, and what suits one will not be necessarily attractive to another. Here are a few tips and suggestions (which are based on my taste and experience with pupils).

You could aim to include a larger work; a sonata is ideal because it contains several movements, allowing you to display a whole gamut of emotions resplendent in one piece, and you can convey musical understanding, through the structure and various layers of textures. Slow movements often provide an opportunity to rest technically (although musically they are demanding). Classical sonatas, typically those by Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart, make prime choices. The more dramatic works provide excitement, passion and theatrics; they are fun to play and practise, lie comfortably, and there’s plenty of scope for development and improvement whilst learning them. They also take anything from 15 to 25 minutes to perform, and therefore form a large chunk of the proposed recital (a significant consideration).

Inclusion of works from the Classical style demonstrates an ability to play cleanly, concisely, rhythmically, with clear articulation, and brilliant finger work; if you don’t possess this final attribute at the start of learning, then you should by the end!. A Baroque Suite, such as those by J S Bach, may also make an exemplary choice; whilst they are very different stylistically to a Classical sonata, they too proffer the opportunity to display many emotions and technical elements, all wrapped up in several movements.

Delving into less popular repertoire can bring a fresh and contrasting juxtaposition to a Classical  or Baroque piece. Why not think about adding a couple of Twentieth Century works? There is colossal variety within this era; two works can represent totally opposing styles (especially if one is from the Twentieth, and another the Twenty-First Century).

Whether you decide to select early Twentieth Century works by major French composers (Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc), Russian masters (Scriabin, Shostakovich, or Prokofiev), or later Twentieth Century pieces, you’ll find a collection of fascinating and lesser played gems which can make compelling choices.

I recommend considering works from the latter half of the Twentieth Century through to the present day; students invariably love their diversity, their challenges and they seem to enjoy discovering composers who are either living or who died relatively recently. Superlative choices might encompass works by Lennox Berkeley, Peter Sculthorpe, Oliver Messiaen, Diana Burrell, John McCabe, Edwin Roxburgh, and – a new discovery for me – Douglas Lilburn (from New Zealand). These inclusions  hide on diploma repertoire lists, and are frequently sidestepped.

Devising an imaginative programme with at least ten minutes of music selected from those composers mentioned above might be a prudent choice. Combining a Messiaen prelude with a work by Diana Burrell for example, will not necessarily be conflicting stylistically. Peter Sculthorpe’s beautiful Night Pieces work well with a composition such as Douglas Lilburn’s From the Port Hills too. These options may entice and inspire pupils, encouraging them to branch out, seeking the less trodden path.

If either you or your students are in the process of deciding on a programme, or are thinking about taking a diploma, spend time surveying the repertoire on offer. Work out timings carefully, and make certain you’ve listened to all possibilities. You’ll learn more this way and may uncover exciting discoveries, which should bode well for your recital, and for the viva voce which is a necessity in some exams.

The following repertoire suggestions are from the major UK examination board’s various current performance diploma selections (please obtain the appropriate syllabus and check these listings for yourself before making any decisions). After each composer and listed piece, I’ve added the diploma to which they belong (in brackets). To download a syllabus, click on the exam board name at the top of each list.

ABRSM Diplomas:                                                                                                     Diana Burrell – Constellations I and II (DipABRSM)                                                 Howard Blake – Chaconne and Toccatina: from ‘8 Character Pieces’ (DipABRSM)       Joseph Makholm – 2 of the ‘3 Impressions’ (DipABRSM)                                           Edwin Roxburgh – Moonscape (DipABRSM)                                                              Peter Sculthorpe – Night Pieces (DipABRSM)                                                         Michael Finnissy – Yvaropera 5 (LRSM)                                                                      Peter Rancine Fricker – Studies nos.2 and 4 from ‘12 Studies’, Op.38 (LRSM)         Oliver Knussen – Sonya’s Lullaby, Op.16 (LRSM)                                                      Roger Redgate – trace (LRSM)                                                                                  James MacMillan – Sonata (FRSM)

Brian Chapple – Bagatelles diverse nos. 6 and 7 (ATCL)
Douglas Lilburn – From the Port Hills (no. 4 from Five Bagatelles) (ATCL)
Karl Jenkins – Boogie Woogie Llanoogie (ATCL)
Frederic Rzewski – Dreadful Memories (from Squares & North American Ballad) (ATCL)
Julian Anderson – Piano Etudes (LTCL)
Petr Eben – Sonata (LTCL)
Iain Hamilton –  September and October or November and December (from Months & Metamorphoses) (LTCL)
Fazil Say – Paganini Jazz [without final ‘extra’ variations] (LTCL)
Einojuhani Rautavaara – Passionale (LTCL)
Clement Slavicky – Variations on a Silent Chord (LTCL)
Robert Stevenson- Peter Grimes Fantasy (LTCL)
Carl Vine – Bagatelles (LTCL)
Toru Takemitsu – Rain-Tree Sketches no. 1 and/or no. 2 (LTCL)
John Corigliano – Etude Fantasy (FTCL)
Francois Morel – Étude de Sonorité no. 2 (from Deux Études de Sonorité) (FTCL)
Kazimierz Serocki – Nos. 5, 6 and 7 from Suite of Preludes (FTCL)

John Adams – China Gates (ALCM)
Miriam Hyde – Water Nymph (ALCM)
Pierre Sancan – Mouvment (ALCM)
Milton Babbitt – Three Compositions for Piano (LLCM)
Henryk Gorecki – Sonata No. 1 (LLCM)
Nikolai Kapustin – Concert Etudes (FLCM)

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.

Image: Shutterstock

Selecting a piano diploma programme: 10 Top Tips

One of the most frequent questions I receive from those who read this blog (whether piano teachers or students), is how to prepare for diploma exams and how to select an interesting, innovative programme. My blog post today seeks to answer the latter question. There is no ‘correct’ answer of course, as programming is a very personal choice; it can be a lengthy process, and one which is totally dependent on a candidate’s ability (elements such as a pupil’s current technical control, musicianship and their commitment, must all be considered).

I have several students preparing to take their diploma exams over the coming months. Diplomas are for those who have taken Grade 8 (the final amateur piano exam of the majority of exam boards here in the UK, and many worldwide), and are moving on to more advanced repertoire; professional qualifications are attained for those who are successful. In my opinion, the performing diplomas such as the DipABRSM (it’s possible to take piano teaching diplomas too) serve as ideal preparation for those wishing to attend music college or study music at university.

My pupils have decided to take the ATCL (exam board: Trinity College) followed by the DipABRSM (exam board: ABRSM) a term later. These particular tests represent the first level of diplomas (the higher exams being the LTCL and LRSM, followed by the FTCL and FRSM).

A diploma programme can take anything from a few weeks to a couple of years to prepare. Therefore an important criteria is to choose works which you not only love, but ones which you are happy to live with for a long time. Occasionally, pupils will learn pieces, leave them and return to them at a later date, but generally once learnt, they are keen to take the test as swiftly as possible.

Diplomas demand a completely different approach to that of Grade 8; where selecting three pieces is fairly straight forward, and programme choices are limited and already ‘well-balanced’ in the sense that works have been carefully categorised. Pupils taking diplomas are confronted with a huge list of repertoire, (you don’t always have to stick to the suggested repertoire list, it is possible to make personal additions which must be agreed in writing by the exam board before the exam). Prior knowledge of styles, genres and composers is essential, and this is where a helpful teacher will be able to direct students and assist in making decisions. Important decisions; choosing the wrong pieces or programme could be the difference between success and failure.

The ATCL and DipABRSM require recitals lasting just over 30 minutes, and this is really the only guideline regarding programming, everything else is left to the candidate. So how do you start to make sense of vast lists of piano pieces?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Listen widely. Not just to the selected piano works, but to a large range of music, in order to assimilate styles and genres; the more you know about styles and periods, the easier it is to decide which you would prefer to tackle. YouTube is your friend (although aim to select ‘professional’ performances wherever possible), however, it’s helpful to just ‘log on’ and listen.
  2. Programmes must be ‘well-balanced’, which means works should not ideally hail from the same period, although it’s possible to select several pieces from similar historical eras, as long as stylistically they are quite different. It’s not essential to represent every genre or style.
  3. Decide whether you prefer to select a group of shorter pieces, or one longer work with a few smaller additions.
  4. Once you have elected a few appealing composers (appealing to you!), listen to all the offered options on the list written by those composers; for well-known composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, there will be many pieces from which to choose.
  5. When selecting, imagine playing the piece and ask yourself the following questions: Can I really manage those intricate passages under pressure? Will I be able to play it up to speed? Is it a style I am familiar with, or will I need to become acquainted with it? Does it move or affect me emotionally? The last question is undoubtedly the most important. It can be a good plan to immediately delete works which are too challenging, gradually reducing the size of the list.
  6. If four works are chosen, how will they be programmed? You don’t have to play them in chronological order. You should endeavour to present them in an order with which you feel comfortable. It can be interesting starting with a Contemporary work, for example.
  7. Before learning begins, do your research and find out as much as you can about your chosen composers; you will probably need this information for the Viva Voce (question and answer session which takes place after your recital) anyway. Dates of birth, style, genre, amount and type of piano repertoire, and for which instrument(s) the works were originally written (if applicable), should all be very familiar to you.
  8. Know why you have selected your pieces. This will help clarify the selection process.
  9. Speak to your teacher (if you have one) at length and maybe seek other opinions and ideas from music professionals. It can be enlightening to hear what others say, in order to devise a well-rounded recital.
  10. The last tip is, for me, the most important.  Never select works which  reveal your shortcomings (everybody has them). A diploma is not the place to learn technique; this must be done in private on suitable studies or other repertoire.

In the next post about diplomas, I will suggest a few composers and general repertoire proposals which might be beneficial for those who feel less than confident about preparing for these exams.

To download a PDF of my 10 Top Tips listed above, click here: Selecting a piano diploma programme

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.