Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 1

Today’s post focuses on the Trinity College London piano exam syllabus. As I’m exploring repertoire for both Trinity College London and the ABRSM exam boards, it has been interesting to note the differences and similarities between them and their syllabuses (I’ve chosen to highlight the syllabuses of just these two exam boards). Both have their strong points, and generally it will be your teacher (if you have one) who will determine which syllabus you follow.

Trinity College London places much emphasis on Contemporary educational music, written by living composers. This factor enhances the learning experience for students, particularly younger pupils, who love the idea of reading about, relating to, and possibly ‘meeting’ the composer who wrote their piano exam piece.

Trinity College London include technical and musical Exercises too, and as a result, there are generally fewer scales and arpeggios in the syllabus, compared to ABRSM. If you’re thinking about taking Grade 1, the following suggested programme (drawn from the current 2015 – 17 syllabus (as with the ABRSM exam tips, I haven’t included the alternative syllabus list)) might be of interest. I’ve also written five practice tips for each piece selected, which I hope will be useful, and I’ve added a performance, taken from one of many on YouTube.

1: Melody in C (from ABC du Piano) by Félix Le Couppey (1811-1887)

French composer Le Couppey’s piano music is synonymous with piano studies and exercises. The Melody in C is an effective opening to any exam programme; it’s a charming example of Le Couppey’s oeuvre, with transparent texture and four bar phrases. The piece addresses several important technical issues for students; balance between the hands, a cantabile melody line, and gradation of dynamics.

  1. It can help to learn hands independently for a while, so fingerings and note patterns are secure. In C major, this piece uses only white notes and much of it is centred around five-finger note patterns or positions. Practising each hand separately will provide the chance to hear both musical lines as important, whether it’s the melody (right hand) or accompaniment (left hand).
  2. The left hand material (particularly the quavers) must be even, rhythmical, and very legato (or smooth). Any bumpiness in the sound, will detract from the melody’s smooth simplicity. Aim to keep the thumb soft and light in patterns such as those from bars 1 – 4, leaning slightly on the lower notes, as they provide the bottom of the harmony. Where larger note values occur (bars 5 – 7, for example), try a bolder dynamic in order for the sound to last longer, and match (tonally) to the next note.
  3. The right hand will benefit from a deeper touch (than that of the left), so encourage fingers to play into the key, and find the climactic point of every phrase. In the first phrase (bars 1 – 4), the G in bar 2 (beat 2), might need more colour, as would the F in bar 6, beat 2, as these are the climaxes within each phrase. Developing a feel for shaping and phrasing takes time, therefore it’s a good idea to experiment with dynamics from the outset.
  4. When combining the two hands, start by playing the notes in each bar altogether as a chord (you can do this either beat by beat or bar by bar, depending on the harmonic structure i.e. if the notes are from the same chord or triad). If you can locate the notes all at once (i.e. playing the E in the right hand (bar 1, beat 1), with both the C and E in the left at the same time, then progressing onto beat 2), moving swiftly from one position to another, when played as written, the note patterns will feel easier and conveniently ‘under the fingers’.
  5. Counting a regular pulse is crucial. How will you keep time? There are many methods, but whichever you chose, stick to it religiously. Always keep the rhythm in mind when practising, and try to count aloud (counting quaver beats is probably easiest).

2. Ghostly Conversations (from Music Through Time Piano Book 1) by Paul Harris (1957 – )

One of my favourite Grade 1 pieces, this ethereal work really captures a student’s imagination. Written by British composer and music education expert Paul Harris, Ghostly Conversations is an excellent contrast to Le Couppey’s Melody in C. It demonstrates ‘harmonics’ beautifully, requiring pupils to hold a chord silently with the left hand for the entire piece. The resulting ‘echo’ effects (when the right hand melody sounds) add an unearthly quality to this spooky number. As mentioned in the score, listening throughout is vital, thereby developing an often overlooked aspect of a musician’s armoury!

  1. The right hand needs much attention, especially at the beginning. Aim to tackle each two bar phrase at a time. Leaning the fingerings (all suggested in the score), and hand positions, which may feel alien at the start. In bar 2, the 2nd finger on the C, followed by a thumb on the G might be an uncomfortable gap for the smaller hand; play the two notes together (interval of four notes, or a fourth), consciously relaxing the muscles in the hand and wrist as you play, and after a while, the relaxation process will hopefully make this gap feel easier.
  2. The opening material (repeated in bars 4 & 5, 12 & 13, 14 -16 and 23 – 26), can all be played ‘in position’ (i.e. using fingering which doesn’t require moving the hand under or over the thumb) whether black notes are present or not. The accents and tenuto markings must be observed (on beat 2 and 4 of the first bar of each phrase) for the full force of the ghost’s ‘cry’, and the last note of each phrase (bar 3, beat 3, an E flat, in this case), is also enhanced by a fuller sound (until bar 24, where the music dies away).
  3. The passage work at bar 7 & 8 (also repeated at bars 18 – 21, and 28 & 29), must really contrast with the previous melody (denoting two different ghosts!?). It requires the right hand to reach over the left, and down into the bass clef. Practice this passage work separately from that of the material at bars 2 – 5, ensuring suitable fingering and a very detached, spikey, staccato touch. When playing the melodies together, keep them rhythmical, and work at the leaps between the clefs, slowly at first, and without  the left hand.
  4. Despite the fact that the left hand plays just one chord, it will need some work. Locate all five black notes in bar 1, and at first play them as expected i.e. with all the notes sounding. When secure, practice taking the chord down into the key bed but incurring no sound from the hammers at all. This may look easy, but it will require much balancing and careful evaluation of the key bed (or ‘biting point’ where notes sound). Once assimilated, keep the chord depressed but relax the hand.
  5. Practice both hands, giving plenty of time to depress the left hand chord (this can be a feature!). The right hand should be able to negotiate between the two staves (and voices), with the left hand in position. Keep tempo strict for a while, and then relax as per directed in the score. Enjoy the ethereal quality the depressed chord brings to the piece; especially important are the pauses (usually in the form of a bar’s rest), and allow a ‘whisper’ at the end.

3. The Owl and the Pussy Cat by Mark Tanner (1963 – )

This piece completes the line up for Grade 1, and is sufficiently contrasting to both the Melody in C and Ghostly Conversations. Written by British pianist, teacher, examiner and writer Mark Tanner, pupils will enjoy the bright and breezy demeanour of this work, as well as it’s slightly off-beat character. Set in D major with a two-in-a-bar feel, it moves around the keyboard fairly quickly, and demands accurate articulation.

  1. The right hand will benefit from slow practice in two bar phrases (as written). In the opening phrase, pairs of slurred notes and staccato must be negotiated at the same time. The drop-roll technique (where the wrist sinks down whilst playing the first note, rolling up and forward, after the playing the second), will be useful for phrasing such as that of bar 2, beat 2 (E to an A). This can be contrasted with staccato crotchets and quavers in both bars 1 & 2.
  2. In bar 2 of the right hand, the second finger will turn over the thumb at the end of beat 1. Ensure a flexible hand and easy movement for this turn; practice keeping the thumb (on the G) and the second finger (on the F sharp), depressed together, allowing the muscles in the hand to relax whilst in position. After this, the hand turn will hopefully feel more relaxed and loose. Apply this to all such movements in this piece.
  3. Similarly, the left hand also faces detailed articulation marks. Aim to employ the drop-roll for all slurred pairs of crotchets, taking particular care of secondary melodic material. The melody is generally given to the right hand, but bars such as 6, 7, 8, 10, and 14, contain thematic material in the left hand. The tenuto (or leaning) markings at bars 4 & 14, must be adhered too, adding extra emphasis and colour.
  4. When playing hands together, slow practice will be necessary in order to implement each articulation mark, especially when they are different in each hand (at bar 8, for example). Also, note each rest, ensuring it’s counted for its full value; bring the finger off the key, clearing the sound thoroughly in keeping with the ‘jaunty’ style.
  5. Constantly changing dynamics will breathe life into the piece, and be sure to notice the sign under the left hand stave at bar 20, which means to play an octave lower than written.

    My Books:

    For much more information on how to practise repertoire, take a look at my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with copious practice tips and advice for each 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.