Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 5

Continuing with my series examining effective exam programming combined with five tips for the suggested listed pieces,  ABRSM Grade 5 is the focus today. Some of my tips could be applied to similar repertoire, so if you’ve already settled on your programme, you might be able to use some of the ideas mentioned here. These pieces come from the Piano Exam Pieces volume published by the ABRSM (as shown to the left).

List A: A 3, Waltz in A J. 146, (No. 4 from Sechs Favoritwaltzer) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826)

German composer Weber, who studied with Haydn, was a fine pianist, although he was primarily known as an opera composer. ‘Six favourite waltzes of the Queen of France, Marie Louise’ were written in 1812; this piece exemplifies perfectly Weber’s ebullient style, demanding utmost precision, virtuosity and delicacy from the performer. Why not start by learning and practising the scale and arpeggio of A major (key of the piece)?

  1. The Trio (or middle section) has a distinctly different character from the outer sections; the opening is full of elegance and grace, whereas the middle section is rather dramatic, dark and almost sinister with its rhythmic insistence and minor key (A minor; again, perhaps explore this key too by working at the scale and arpeggio).
  2. The opening consists of an elegant theme and accompaniment. Aim to block out (play all at once) the left hand quaver patterned Alberti Bass (broken chord or arpeggiated accompaniment); playing one chord per bar, where possible), noting fingerings and position changes (this could also be done from bars 17 – 24 too). Then, taking a very slow practice speed, using a deep touch, ensure each quaver is played heavily, allowing a flexible wrist and lateral wrist movement between each note at the start, to quell any potential tension. When speed is added, lighten the touch; it may be necessary to break any wrist tension either at the end of every bar (to start with) or after each group of four bars. This can be done be releasing the hand and wrist’s ‘grip’, creating a very slight break or hiatus (only for a split second), allowing relaxation. If this proves tricky, practice by resting the arm down by the side of the body during each four bar mini-break (which you will have created if practising using this method).
  3. The melody (right hand) requires a very smooth legato, observing the four bar phrase structure with care. Accents (in bars 2 & 4) help shape the tune, and the acciaccaturas can bounce swiftly onto the main crotchet beat, adding a playful touch. It may be prudent to practice the quaver runs heavily securing all fingering, but when played up to speed, these rapid figurations must be light, delicate and graceful. Resist any temptation to accent the second and third beats of the bar, and turn the thumb under the hand flexibly, so as to avoid lumpy, jerky hand turns.
  4. Balance between the hands might take some work; a cantabile (singing) right hand will really enhance any performance, whilst the left hand can be light and soft. I find it helpful to reverse touches in this instance (left hand, cantabile, with the right hand playing softly, then adding non-legato coupled with legato into the mix).
  5. The left hand arpeggiated chords in the Trio need some kick and swagger; aim for a quick lateral movement (from left to right) in the forearm and wrist. Fingers need to be really active though, so that all notes of the chord sound. Keep the left hand thumbs (on the As) powerful but short and detached, throughout. The right hand needs firm touch; place each beat precisely, colouring the melody, with the arpeggiated chords merely adding to the texture.

List B: B 1, Sostenuto in E flat (KK IVb No. 10) by Frederyk Chopin (1810 – 1849)

A short, slip of a piece by the great Polish Romantic composer, but in just one page, many hallmarks of Chopin’s style are clearly displayed. This charming work was written in Paris for a friend and pupil, Emile Gaillard in 1840. In the style of a Waltz, it contains characteristics synonymous with the 19 Waltzes written throughout Chopin’s career. First of all, focus on the E flat major scale and arpeggio. And then the chord of the home key (tonic or chord I), consisting of E flat, G & B flat, followed by the dominant or chord V; B flat, D & F; these appear several times in the first half of the piece (left hand). The work is in binary form (or two sections).

  1. Secure the left hand first; try to learn the fingerings, notes and hand position changes without keeping time or adhering to a pulse. To gauge the leaps and jumps (which waltzes and similar dances often contain), always use larger jumps than necessary (experiment by moving an octave more than written), and once you’ve played the interval, practice it in reverse (i.e. backwards; you could even play the bar backwards, or beat three first). Each bar will need slow work, and after practising a lone bar, try to end on the first beat of the next, to ensure continuity. Always aim to land on each chord in good time. When played up to speed, give the first beat of the bar more promienence, keeping the second and third, lighter.
  2. In the first section (bars 1 – 16), the right hand melody must be cantabile (in a singing style), as often in Chopin’s music. For this, use a very relaxed wrist with the weight of your arm behind each note, playing into each key deeply, as opposed to sliding or skimming over the top. The depth of key, coupled with weight of the arm, will determine the quality of sound, therefore flexible posture, strong fingers, and a keen ear will be important here. Think of the Acciaccaturas as part of the melody line; slightly relaxed rhythmically, as opposed to the more precise ornamentation often found in Baroque music.
  3. Bars 14 & 15 contain a double note passage in the right hand; separate each pair of notes, (from bar 14 last quaver beat), and work at the lower note first, then the upper (alone but with correct fingering). When playing together, play with various touches (staccato, non-legato, etc.) in order that the notes sound at the same time, before focusing on the top line. Try to support the fourth and fifth finger, with the hand and arm, to produce a legato melody.
  4. The left hand melody from bar 16 (upbeat)  might need plentiful separate work; the acciaccaturas tend to dominate; practice without the ornaments to establish shape and fingering, then play them as regular quavers until they have been incorporated successfully. When confident, add speed to each acciaccatura and play ‘lightly’ and swiftly as a scant upbeat to the main quaver pattern. The right hand’s accompaniment requires soft colours and rhythmical placing.
  5. The sustaining pedal is part of the fabric of this piece; listening is the best method! Pedalling on the first beat of each bar might be a good start, then let your ear be your guide. Rubato is a useful addition to the end of phrases (such as bars 15 – 16), but try not to use it constantly, as, even in this genre, too much renders a performance unrhythmical.

List C: C 1, Staccato Beans (No. 2 from Eight Memories in Watercolor) by Tan Dun (1957)

Staccato Beans contains an exuberant vivacity with a Chinese inspired folk melody. Premiered by Chinese pianist Lang Lang in 2003, it has already proved a favourite on this syllabus. Written by Chinese composer Tan Dun, and set in D minor, dynamic contrasts and melodic inflections abound, providing an excellent exam programme line-up with the Weber and Chopin.

  1. Coordination is paramount, and due to the many different articulation marks, separate hand practice should suffice until fully assimilated. Jumps between sections around the keyboard must also be taken into account, before playing hands together.
  2. The left hand opening quaver pattern has been carefully marked and must be even rhythmically; two slurred quavers followed by two staccato. Once the overall chordal patterns have been learned (particularly at bars 1 – 8 and 24 – 34),  play legato at first, then work at the articulation, allowing a free wrist (as often mentioned here!); avoid locking-up whilst playing repetitive patterns of any kind; find places in the music to break any tension and release the wrist.
  3. The right hand melody is heavily articulated, a bold touch with added shape and definition courtesy of the accent markings is ideal. When playing staccato, try not to rush from one note to the next. This can happen when playing in a detached manner, as the shortening of a note can allow the next to be sounded too quickly. Avoid this by counting meticulously, ‘feeling’ the pulse.
  4. The left hand minims at bars 13 – 18 must be held for the entire bar, as they provide the bottom of the harmony. Coordination may need attention, so the middle Cs above, are well placed rhythmically with the correct articulation.
  5. Sforzandos are the key to a successful interpretation; accents in the right hand, at bars 26 – 43 particularly, need highlighting with a brusque, sharp timbre, bringing the Chinese characterisation to the fore. This is especially true of the passagework in the high register of the instrument (at bars 40 – 43, for example). When the melody repeats (bars 44 – 61), softer colours can be employed. Keep the sustaining pedal to a minimum; a dry, austere sound mimics the folk-song semblance nicely.

For more practice information relating to other piano exams and exam boards, please visit my archives, here.

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.

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