Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm No. 4 from Mikrokosmos by Bartók

The ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) graded exam syllabus for 2015/6 is now readily available, and no doubt pianists across the world are selecting and practising the new set works. I went along to the launch a few weeks ago, held at Yamaha Music (formerly Chappell of Bond Street) in London, where ABRSM examiner and trainer, Timothy Barratt,  spoke about many of the chosen works for each grade. The Grade 8 selection is as varied as ever, and over the next few months I will be writing about a selection of Grade 7 and 8 pieces, offering a few practice tips.

It’s great to see old favourites on the list; many works appear regularly over the years. Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1981-1945) is a particularly popular choice, and this year is no exception; his works appear in four of the eight  piano grades.

Whilst not every student’s cup of tea,  Bartók’s style is one of the most highly original of the Twentieth century. A superlative pianist (there’s an abundance of recordings of his playing), and prolific composer. I researched his piano music (specifically the three concertos) in Budapest when I was a student, and had the opportunity to speak to the renowned  Bartók  specialist and musicologist László Somfai about the composer’s highly individual combined use of harmony and folk songs, which was both informative and enlightening. 

Bartók amassed a very large collection of folk songs, which he acquired by visiting various Hungarian villages (and beyond), recording local musicians on an Edison Phonograph. Here’s a wonderful example of a typical recording (this features a Romanian Folk Dance and is over 100 years old):

Bartók notated and catalogued all the folk songs in his collection. They became a crucial source of inspiration in his own compositions, and the ‘folk song’ element was eventually completely assimilated into his style. Indeed it was to be his ‘hallmark’.

Mikrokosmos Sz. 107, was written between 1926 and 1939, and consists of 153 pieces in six volumes,  progressing from very simple pieces for beginners to advanced level works. They demonstrate Bartók’s commitment to and interest in music education (he wrote several sets of piano pieces for educational purposes). According to Bartók, the piece “appears as a synthesis of all the musical and technical problems which were treated and in some cases only partially solved in the previous piano works.”

Mikrokosmos concludes with the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, which are traditionally performed as a group, feature in Volume No. 6, and were dedicated to Harriet Cohen. The 2015/16 ABRSM syllabus includes the fourth dance in the set, No. 151, and it appears on List C (C1).  Bartók’s music has been described as dissonant and violent, and whilst there are elements of these qualities in his works, the breadth of musical variety found in this particular Dance (and in the set as a whole), is breath-taking.

For those considering this piece as an option for the Grade 8 exam, or perhaps who have already started learning this work, I have compiled a few practice ideas for combatting certain difficulties within the work, which may be helpful.

Of utmost importance is the rhythm, and more specifically, the Time Signature: 3+2+3 over 8. Unusual Time Signatures are renowned in the Hungarian composer’s style,  and Bartók has used the rhythm of traditional Bulgarian Dances here, but the melodic material is all his own. Interestingly, he described this dance as in the style of Gershwin but with his (Bartók’s) own tonality. This becomes apparent just by clapping the pulse. The unusual  rhythmic patterns may be unfamiliar to some, so they need complete assimilation before practising commences. Clapping the pulse followed by the rhythmic pattern of the melody (which can really in grain the ‘feel’), is the best way to start. After which, focus on clapping the rhythmic pattern whilst counting each beat out loud at the same time. Although there are few accent markings in this work, but there is a definite ‘push’ (or groove?) on the fourth beat of each bar (akin to jazz).  Once the rhythm has been understood, it’s easy to make swift progress.

The melody is featured in some guise or other most of the time during this short piece, whether alone in the right hand (bars 1-8), the left hand (bars 9-16, where it’s inverted (or reversed)), played in unison (bars 20-24), played in repeated notes (44-50), in right hand octaves (bars 55-58) and in sixths too (bars 59-66).  So the trick is to find a way to vary the sound and touch throughout. Bartók is always very specific about tempo and dynamic markings, but beyond this it is the job of the interpreter to work some magic. Here’s the original tune, which is bright and jocular, and must be played very softly and serenely at the opening:

Bartok Dance No

Start by compartmentalising the melodic sections, so you know where the melody occurs and how it has been transformed as the work progresses (analysing a piece can prove extremely effective; using red pencil is a good way to identify sections!). Then write as much fingering in as possible; suitable fingering makes all the difference when honing a smooth performance.

Next, concentrate on the ‘accompanying’ material, which is just as important (often more so), again, write in all fingerings, and touch should be predominantly legato (pedal should be kept to a minimum). The copious chordal left and right hand passages ably demonstrate Bartók’s use of bitonality (two keys at once) and in many cases, polytonality (many keys at the same time). Although this Dance is in the key of C major, the increasingly dissonant harmonic progressions throughout, provide the exotic flavour and spice.

As always, working in small sections usually proffers the best results, and certain passages require special attention. Take note of the ‘off beat’ accompaniment sections; bars  25-32 and bars 33-39 are a couple of examples. The syncopated chords can be lighter and generally shorter than the melodic material, but placing them correctly is vital and challenging. Success will depend on the grasp of the pulse, and assimilation of the ‘groove’. If rhythm is causing some grief, try breaking down further, dividing each bar into three sections, literally playing the first three quaver beats (the first ‘3’ in the time signature), then take a short pause. Now continue with the two quaver portion (the ‘2’ in the time signature), now another  pause. Then finally the last three quavers in the bar (last ‘3’).  It I. s  easier to understand a complicated pattern when broken up completely. This will take time, but eventually the 3+2+3 will be easily grasped, and joining bars or groups of bars will be relatively straight forward.

Chordal progressions such as those in bar 51-54 need flexibility technically. The 3+2+3 pattern provides the perfect opportunity to split the bar. Play the first three quaver group, immediately followed by the duplet (quaver) group, then a slight pause (to ‘rest’ the hand), before playing the last group of quavers. Giving the wrist a ‘rest’ in between the chords, allows for release of any tension and encourages a slight ‘push’ on the sixth beat of the bar, adding to the rhythmic energy and momentum. All chordal sections can be broken down in this way.

The other issue which needs addressing is moving at speed from one ‘section’ to another. Dance No. 4 has a swift tempo, with many figurations moving from one place on the keyboard to another quickly, and this combined with the fact that the dynamics sometimes change just as rapidly, mean a free arm and body are needed for accuracy. Try taking two bars such as this (bars 8 and 9);

Dance Bartok Example 2

And start by working hands separately. Leaps or jumps can be surmounted by slow, deliberate work. Play the last beat of bar 8 going to the first beat of bar 9, over the jump,  carefully calculating the movement needed by each hand to land accurately in the middle of the note with correct fingering each time.  Play the last chord of the left hand, in bar 8 (A, C sharp and E), then take your take time when finding the low E in the next bar. Once found, don’t play it, just sit on it and survey the movement needed for the jump. Do this slowly, taking your time. Once you’ve done this a few times accurately, you can go ahead and play the notes. Do this with the right hand too and then slowly put hands together, gradually building confidence with each jump before increasing the speed.

Another useful tool is to practice going too far i.e. one octave higher or lower than necessary (in this case, jumping in the left hand of bar  to bottom E, just below low F). Leaping much faster than actually needed, can also work well. When the speed is slowed down to the actual or original tempo, the jump can seem easy. Also working with accents and different touches  (especially important for changing dynamics) can reinforce the accuracy of the jump. Preparing the body mentally and physically for any jump is important, and this is made much easier when the upper body is loose and relaxed. Build a feeling of relaxation (or physical freedom) into jumps, so that at the crucial moment your body resists the urge to ‘lock-up’ and your arm feels light and free during the leap. Leaps are easier to judge if they are memorised.

These tips are just to help you get started. There are so many ways to work at a piece such as this. Here’s a great recording of Bartók playing all six dances. The fourth can be heard at 4 minutes 30 seconds.

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.

Some thoughts on chordal playing in the Scottish Legend Op. 54 No. 1 by Amy Beach

It’s great to highlight female composers and Trinity College Exam Board’s Grade 8 syllabus has revealed a gem of a piece, by the American pianist and composer Amy Beach.

Beach (1867-1944) was the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music. Most of her compositions and performances appeared under the name of Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. A member of the Boston Group of composers or the Second New England School, She used her status as the top American woman composer to further the careers of young musicians and was also head of several organizations, including the Society of American Women Composers, of whom she was the first president.

Beach’s writing is generally Romantic stylistically, but in later works she experimented, moving away from tonality, employing whole tone scales and more exotic harmonies. She wrote choral works, symphonies, a violin concerto, piano concerto, many solo piano works and chamber music, but is most synonymous with songs. Two delightful, but less known piano works are the Scottish Legend and Gavotte Fantastique Op.54.

The Scottish Legend is a beautiful character piece similar in style to that of the European Romantic tradition present in the last half of the Nineteenth Century. Beach loved this genre and has written an attractive, albeit small-scale, work which is characterised by full chords, an enchanting melodic line and opulent, lush harmonies. Particularly interesting is the definite Scottish rhythm, no doubt highlighting the composer’s partially Celtic background. The melody is very similar to a Scottish Folk tune and effectively accentuates the ‘Scottish snap’ (or short accented down beat), giving the appropriate patriotic flavour. The piano texture is thick and mostly in the mid-range of the keyboard, with plenty of widespread chords and parallel sixths.

The predominant technical feature here is chordal playing. From the outset, Beach has written in a rich homophonic style. A chord is a cluster of two or more notes played at the same time. Chords can sometimes feel rather awkward to play, particularly in both hands simultaneously, but therein lays the technical challenge; chordal playing is all about voicing or deciding just which notes or lines of music are the most important at any given time and consequently need highlighting. With this in mind, one of the most crucial elements here is fingering. Each chord must be allocated appropriate fingering allowing for smooth transition from one chord to the next. Not every chord has a thick texture, but it’s a good idea to be quite sure of your fingering before starting to learn the piece (writing it in the score if necessary). Correcting fingering is painful and takes time, so bypass this by studying it accurately from the start! How you move from one chord to the next will determine the success of your performance.

Whilst polyphonic music such as that written by J.S. Bach may seem far removed from the Romantic style discussed here, playing plenty of contrapuntal works serves as an excellent ‘warm-up’ to dense chordal texture. Both styles require well-developed finger control in order to cope with various melodic lines of varying importance, because in nearly all chordal based works, there will be some musical lines that are far more interesting than others. So, strong fingers are vital for good voicing. The outer voices are normally the most crucial musically, and yet they routinely involve employing the weakest fingers; the fourths and fifths. In order to prepare to play this piece, it might be prudent to study a few Hanon or Czerny exercises (with the help of a good teacher) building up these fingers, as well as examining some polyphonic works. Fingers must be able to move independently, as I have mentioned on many occasions here on this blog.

To play chords effectively it’s a good idea to keep your hands close to the keys, preferably resting on the keys as opposed to hovering above. Then you will be able to move efficiently from one chord to the next, allowing your fingers to control the change between chords and the depth of sound required for each one. This is why firm, strong fingers are necessary. Also take care to make sure the hand is arched properly and not ‘collapsing’ – the knuckles must protrude, otherwise strong, equal playing amongst each finger will be almost impossible. Power to change the sound comes from arm-weight as opposed to just using your hands and fingers.

In the Scottish Legend, the melodic interest is usually in the top line, so the top three fingers of your right hand will be working continuously (third, fourth and fifth fingers). The first phrase of this work illustrates the chordal style;

Scottish Legend 1

 Here’s the right hand (or melodic material) with some suggested fingering;

Scottish Legend 2

You can break this down further by isolating the melody (in this case, the top part or line of music) and focusing on it completely, always employing the fingering you intend to use whilst playing all the parts of the chord together. Once you have practised this using a full, beautiful sound and total legato, try playing the remaining parts of each chord altogether, pianissimo and then fortissimo, changing the sound will help with fluency. You may find it helpful to play the left hand or bass line alone too.

Here’s the bass line with some suggested fingering – it may be useful to play the two parts separately, in a similar way to the right hand;

Scottish Legend 3

Crucially, play them very smoothly and without pedal. Then play the phrase as written, making sure the melody is always voiced above the other notes in the chord; with careful practice you will find this becomes easier over time. A flexible, pliable wrist really helps when negotiating homophonic music because it will ultimately help with balancing the tone correctly.

Using your ears properly is another deciding factor in the success of legato phrasing and well-spaced chords. It’s imperative to really listen to the sound you are producing and the effectiveness of any gradation (i.e. going from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again), when moving from one chord to the next. Resist the temptation to use pedal. Pedal should be added after you have learnt the notes sufficiently and then used to enhance the overall sound, as opposed to masking a lack of legato touch, incorrect fingering or hesitant, uneven playing.

The chordal progressions require careful work and many of them have ornaments; it might be worth practising these passages without the ornaments to begin with, making sure the rhythm is accurate and pulse, secure; then add them in (carefully adjusting the fingering where necessary) when your chordal grasp is firm (this is because ornamental playing tends to knock the pulse, as incorporating them in tempo can be challenging). Similarly, articulation of the spread or arpeggiated chords must not disturb the pulse. A quick rotational hand movement can be effective here, allowing a swift hand ‘roll’, aiding rhythmical playing.

There are copious tempo changes and rubato passages in this piece. It’s probably best to start by working rhythmically at each phrase, making sure the pulse remains stable. Once you have mastered the whole work, then it’s time to incorporate the tempo changes. You will find it much easier to do this once you have acquired an ‘overview’ of the piece.

Here are some quick tips or reminders when practising chords;

  1. Break the piece down into phrases, and then work at each one separately.
  2. Sort out the fingering before you begin, writing it in the score if necessary.
  3. Work at the outer parts of the chord or the top line (usually the melody) and the bottom, or bass line (the right hand first, then the left – separately to start with, then together), playing as legato or smoothly as possible – no ‘breaks’ in the sound.
  4. Then incorporate all the notes in the chords (again, right hand first, then the left, and finally together), slowly playing from one chord to the next, very smoothly, always making sure your wrist is free from tension (otherwise moving will be difficult).
  5. Practice voicing each chord in several ways (playing the middle parts from pianissimo to fortissimo), but always making sure the melody line is predominant.
  6. Use a metronome to check whether your chordal progression is rhythmical and then slowly increase the speed.
  7. Add the pedal only when you are able to play the passage fluently.

Master this chordal style, and you will be able to convey the meaning of this beautiful stately Scottish Ballad effectually.

Amy Beach

Amy Beach

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.


Pulse Perfection

Over the past few weeks I have been coaching several Grade 8 and diploma candidates; pianists who have come to me to play through  their set pieces and other aspects of their respective exams. It’s the time of year for cramming, studying and practising way beyond the norm in order to achieve that coveted high mark. There have, however, been recurring issues in many performances and perhaps these are fairly common place amongst those preparing for exams so, as a good blogger, I am going to write about them!

All advanced exams follow a similar format, irrespective of the exam board you have selected for your grade or diploma. Graded exams are slightly more restricting than diplomas due to the more limiting choice of repertoire. One aspect of critical importance in all musical forms, but especially the Baroque and Classical style, is rhythm. This may seem an obvious observation, but not adhering strictly to the pulse is a very easy mistake to make.

I’m not referring to basic rhythmic errors because these generally don’t occur in more advanced playing (well they may happen occasionally). However, some pianists are so locked into their performance or interpretation of a work, that they have become immune to the pulse or tempo.

I have been guilty of this crime in the past. When I developed my cabaret show, I had to learn to play with a live band and use a ‘click track’; an electronic beat similar to the sound of a  metronome which runs throughout an entire piece usually via a pair of ear phones. A click track makes no allowance for even the slightest tempo deviation, and I quickly realised just how un-rhythmical my playing could be. As soloists, pianists are at free will to play as they please, which encourages the habit of copious rubato (or taking time) everywhere. Some works do suit this type of playing, but it isn’t a requirement for whole swathes of twentieth century and popular music.

The best way to solve tempo problems initially is to work with a metronome; use it every time you practice for several weeks before an exam or concert, making quite sure you are playing on the beat all the time (this requires careful listening). However, that is only addressing half the problem; pulse deviation can be the result of many shortcomings including uneven playing, lack of concentration or even basic rhythmical awareness.

Uneven playing is a common culprit. Take a group of four semi-quavers like those below in Example A. If these notes have awkward fingerings or are difficult to place accurately for whatever reason, then this may lead to uneven articulation, thus throwing out the pulse completely. The second example (B) demonstrates what can often be heard in place of rhythmical semi-quavers (this is slightly exaggerated but you get the idea).

Uneven rhythm copy

A metronome can help to develop a sense of pulse, but it is the ‘inner-pulse’ that needs be cultivated for long-term rhythmical success. The ‘inner-pulse’ generally refers to a musician’s own sense or natural sense of rhythm, where pulse has become internalized; but when applied to playing, if sub-divisions of the beat are un-rhythmical then this can all be challenging to say the least.

One solution to this problem is for pupils to count fastidiously in small denominations; dividing the beat, counting 1,2,3 and 4 very evenly as suggested (in the example below), at the same time as playing the notes (this example is taken from the opening of Prelude in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 by J S Bach):

Bach Prelude Example copy

If your piece contains many semi-quaver passages such as those frequently found in works from the Baroque or Classical eras, then in order to ensure ‘even’ playing, it can be really useful to count every single semi-quaver beat accurately and separately. If you account for each semi-quaver beat vocally, then you really do have to concentrate and play with your mouth literally! (success also depends on your vocal counting being absolutely exactly in time). If you are unable to count rhythmically and play at the same time, then another way of addressing the problem is to set your metronome to beat on every single  semi-quaver (it can be done although needs to be on a very fast setting and the passages must be practised slowly too). Beware, this is exhausting. Start slowly building up speed gradually.

Once you have practised in this way for a while, you will find you are then totally ‘tuned in’ to the necessary precision required for rhythmical accuracy because you will be focussing on the beat inside the main crotchet beat (in this case). A steady ‘beat’ or ‘pulse’ is effortlessly achieved as a result, and it is much easier to play along with the metronome too. Sufficient regular practice in this way encourages the development of that elusive ‘inner-pulse’. If you work at this you will find that you never, ever rush or play un-rhythmically and your piano playing will definitely sound more professional.

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.