Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 4

Surveying the syllabus for Trinity College London exams Grade 4 (2015 – 2017), I’m happy to find a more eclectic mix of repertoire than that of the lower grades. From Haydn and McMillan to Gounod and Köhler, there’s definitely something for everyone in this collection, and the pieces are also segregated into groups; ‘A’ and ‘B’ (in a manner not dissimilar to the ABRSM A, B & C lists). Pupils and teachers can choose one piece from list A and one from list B, with a third from either list.

One aspect I particularly like about Trinity College exams, is the concept of a candidate presenting one of their own pieces (as the third piece option). Surely an imaginative and forward-thinking idea which can only encourage composition, and hence invite students to delve deeper into the compositional and analytical process of piano writing. As always, I’ve added a recording for each chosen piece (selected from one of the many on YouTube).

Here are my selections and practice tips:

  1. Allegro Moderato (first movement from Sonatine, Op. 300) by Louis Köhler (1820 – 1886)

A lovely tuneful movement in a Classical style, German composer Köhler is known for his sonatas and sonatines for young players. This work, in the key of G major, is bright, breezy, with a darker central section in E minor, and it offers many useful piano techniques: staccato combined with legato, left hand melody, short slurs and plenty of dynamic variation too.

  1. After learning hands separately, making sure all fingerings, notes and rhythms are fully understood and absorbed, continue by practising the left hand accompaniment alone. This is not dissimilar to an Alberti bass (a broken chord or arpeggiated accompaniment figure), and will benefit from slow, solid heavy fingerwork, before lightening your touch and adding speed. it’s important to keep the thumb light (as nearly always with this compositional technique), placing a slight emphasis on the lower notes, as this will help to shape the bass line.
  2. Similarly the right hand chords (bars 8 – 12 and 31 – 35) need to sound altogether but must also be light and soft, allowing the left hand to ‘speak’. Practice ‘balancing’ each chord i.e. taking each note down with a firm finger supported by the hand, aiming to use a soft, loose wrist whilst balancing each note, so they all sound absolutely together. This skill takes time to master, so keep working at it slowly (it’s easier to be guided by a teacher).
  3. When practising the melody line, note every phrase climax, and then grade sound accordingly. Staccato notes within a phrase (bar 1, in the right hand, for example), should ideally not be too short, but rather elegant and carefully graded. The slur markings at bars 6 – 7 and 29 – 30 (also in the right hand), need a ‘drop-roll’ technique (sinking the hand and wrist into the first note, and lifting up and forward on the second), plus an added tenuto (on the first note) and staccato (after the second note of each slur) for extra ‘leaning’ or accentuation. The left hand tune (bars 8 – 12 and 31 – 35) must soar above the right hand, with a fulsome forte (loud), and marcato (marked) touch.
  4. Coordination between the hands could be an issue here (bars 8 – 12 and 31 – 35). In order to alleviate any potential problems, start by working on one crotchet beat at a time (hands together), slowly assimilating the necessary movements between the hands. Bar 6 – 7 might be one such area (for example), where the left hand plays legato quavers whilst the right hand is in the midst of drop-roll slurring coupled with tenuto and staccato. By isolating each beat, and taking them out of context, playing a quarter of the intended speed, time is given to ‘feel’ the movements and the differing articulations needed. This technique might also be required for note patterns such as those at bars 8 – 12, where the left hand is the star, and bar 22, where passage work is in unison. When learned, practice playing through to a slow pulse, and then varying rhythms, touches and volumes between the hands, in order to gain control and become really fluent.
  5. Left hand accompaniment such as that at bar 14 (where minims must be held for their full length), and bar 17-18 (where the left hand contains a double note pattern and tenuto  markings), must be practised with extra care. A steady pulse should prevail, with sudden dynamic contrasts adding shape and colour.

2. Garden Path by Elissa Milne (1967 – )

There’s much to enjoy in this piece by Australian composer Elissa Milne. A reflective tranquil mood is offset with ‘blues’ inflections and an atmospheric resonance created by the inclusion of the sustaining pedal. This provides an excellent contrast to the first piece.

  1. Balance between the hands will be crucial. Left hand chords must be soft and light, particularly at the opening, and played as legato as possible. Time spent working at each hand separately will secure confidence around the keyboard. Work at taking each chord (in the left hand) down into the key bed slowly, balancing the sound and making sure each note is in unison. Now grade the sound (a little more on the crotchet than on the minim in each bar, for example, in bars 1 – 4, 5 – 7, and 9 – 12). The larger leaps (in the left hand) on the second page, might benefit from the notes being located on the keyboard and played much quicker than necessary, then when they are played at the suggested tempo, they will hopefully feel easier.
  2. The right hand melody contains an important technical element: holding the first beat of the bar and colouring it with sufficient sound so as to join smoothly and ‘match’ the sound of the next note (often a triplet or the third beat (in many bars)). To produce the deeper sound, play with the flatter part of the finger tip, and use plenty of weight from the arm (via a relaxed wrist, loose arm and elbow), playing into the key bed. By doing this a warm cantabile tone should emerge; the sound should hopefully be cushioned (avoiding ‘hitting’ the key from above, which produces a harsher, thinner sound), and will ‘ring out’ for longer.
  3. The triplet figures are another technical issue for many. Aim to play three quavers in the time it usually takes to play two, by practicing counting a regular (even) ‘three’ beats out loud; experiment by clapping the rhythm to begin with. Then place  it in context, in its place on the last beat of the bar (of bars 1, 3, 5, 9, 11, 13, 19, 21, 23, 27 and 29). To do this, clap all three crotchet beats in each bar, but sub-divide each one equally into three, whether there’s a triplet on the beat or not (in other words, for practice purposes, clap a triplet on every beat). If you can do this for the first two lines of music, keeping a strict pulse, when you actually play the notes as written, the triplet should fall into place and the rhythm will hopefully feel natural.
  4. The effective addition of the chromatic scale in the right hand at bars 13 – 14, and 31 – 32 offers the chance to either learn the expected fingering (as written for scales), or the fingering suggested at bar 13, which uses a 4th finger (instead of the traditional 1, 2 & 3).
  5. Chords (for example, at bars 15 – 16 and 17 – 18) should ideally be graded carefully, with the top line at the forefront of the texture (the 4th and 5th finger might need some extra support from the hand and arm here), and as legato as possible. Experiment with the sustaining pedal, which is used (as directed) for every bar, to add resonance, and when confident, relax the tempo adding appropriate rubato.

3. Matsuri (Japanese Festival) by Michael McMillan (1980 – )

Full of vibrant colour and rhythmic energy, this work is fun to play and compliments my selected pieces from lists A and B, nicely. Composer Michael McMillan has created the Japanese ‘sound’ with open fifth intervals in the accompaniment and a colourful offbeat, quirky melody.

  1. The left hand accompanies throughout, often with staccato quavers a fifth apart. It’s relatively to easy to learn the fingerings and positions for bars 1 – 9, but its essential for the hands to remain flexible and relaxed. Tension can rear it’s head if the wrist and arm remain ‘locked’ in position. Alleviate this by encouraging the wrist to keep moving freely, finding places to rest the wrist, so any stiffness can be ‘released’ (many find it best to do this at the end of a bar, or possibly after a four bar phrase). Practice by leaving small gaps at first (stop playing and take a short rest), and as the wrist becomes accustomed to the break (or muscle release), the gaps will become increasingly shorter, until they are imperceptible.
  2. Minims in the left hand at bars 10 – 19 must be held for their full value. Aim to practice this bass line on its own, holding down the note until the very last possible moment before finding and playing the next one. The crotchet/quaver pattern above each minim, requires a firm first note and much lighter second (quaver).
  3. The right hand melody should ideally be very rhythmical, with little opportunity for tempo ‘changes’. With this in mind, start by setting a slow speed on the metronome (probably a third or quarter of that intended), and work through learning all fingerings and position changes. In bar 3, the 4th finger will need to be strong, so ensure a deep touch (using the finger tip), supported by the hand and arm (try to move the hand slightly to the right and away from the body supporting the weaker part of the hand).
  4. Articulation will be crucial, and to create the sharp, fairly clipped sound, observe all staccato and tenuto markings closely; the offbeat right hand fifths in bar 2 and bars 18 – 19 will need a steady, solid and rhythmical left hand in order to ‘bounce’  with characterful colour.
  5. The three and four parts spread between the two hands from bars 10 – 17 are probably the most complicated in the piece. Work a bar (or beat) at a time, first combining the two outer parts (bottom note with the tune), then the inner parts, before playing together. The last line of this piece is fun to play; every semiquaver must be equal rhythmically, so try to avoid rushing the second and fourth beat of each crotchet (it can help to accent these when practising).

For more information on this series, click here.

My Books:

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.

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.



Scales – 6 reasons why you need to practice them.

‘Now we will test your scales, C major hands together please’, the examiner smiles glancing at the student who is waiting with baited breath……

This is the usual scenario when pupils are faced with scales. Most pianists don’t like scales or scale practice. Some ask if they are really necessary. For me, they are the most important part of exam practice. Not only do they teach piano students everything they need to know about fast playing (or fast passagework) but they also build up finger technique, tone production and provide the opportunity to learn every key. They should be approached as something to enjoy rather than dread.

I love scales. I always have and particularly relish watching my hands running up and down the keyboard, but I realize that I am in the minority. Scales are very useful and if you can play them well you will be on the way to developing a secure technique. Technique is essential for good playing and it really means the ability to get around the notes accurately.

Scales and arpeggios are important for all of the following reasons:

1. Scales develop hand co-ordination. Absolute co-ordination is paramount between both hands as they run up and down the keyboard.

2. Scales help develop the ability to play accurate fingering as in order to play them rapidly, you need to be very precise with your fingers. The fingerings need to be adhered to rigidly so they become a habit which will be repeated every octave as you move up and down the keyboard.

3. Scales help develop finger strength; every finger is utilized when playing scales, forcing the pianist to make every finger work properly.

4. Scales help to improve a pupil’s keyboard geography; to play them up to speed, large amounts of keyboard need to be covered quickly so the pupil will build up a sense of keyboard awareness which is necessary for good playing.

5. Scales help the student learn all 24 keys – which is no mean feat. This is an extremely useful and important feature in itself.

6. Scales help students develop a strong sense of rhythm, articulation and speed, which are all important for playing the piano. They also encourage good tone production.

Here are just a few reasons why scales are probably the most important test in any piano exam. So when you next sit down to do some practice, why not start with scales? This way you will not only get them over and done with, but you will also practice them when you are fresh and receptive. You never know, you may end up enjoying them.

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and useful information, here.