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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.