Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 5

Continuing with my series surveying piano exam repertoire, today’s post examines Trinity College London Grade 5. A collection of diverse and well-chosen pieces, List A comprises composers such as Richard Jones, Anton Diabelli, Moritz Vogel and Dmitri Kabalevsky!

The exercises, of which each candidate must prepare three (played alongside scales and arpeggios), can help with various technical issues within the pieces, so with this in mind, it’s prudent to select (if possible) those with similar technical and musical elements. Here’s my suggested programme, which provides a smorgasbord of mediterranean flavoured delicacies, plus five tips for those working at the pieces.

  1. Capriccio in G by Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757)

A lively, exacting work which will keep pianists on their toes. In G major (it may be helpful to refresh the scale and arpeggio at this time), Italian composer Scarlatti’s huge keyboard output (over 550 sonatas) were intended to be played on the harpsichord, and therefore demanding precise articulation. This type of precision can be a useful exercise, as mastering finger control and hand position changes helps prepare for more advanced repertoire.

  1. Chords appear at various points (Bars 1 – 2, 31 – 32, & 59 – 60). They will require some extra arm weight and sound in order to project (especially at the beginning and end of the work). There’s often much homophonic (chordal) movement in Scarlatti’s keyboard music; it might be beneficial to begin by working on these chords, balancing the hand, so the notes sound altogether (despite usually being spread or arpeggiated on the harpsichord!). Chords can provide ‘anchors’ at various points, not just proffering a richer texture, but adding shape and fostering a steady pulse.
  2. Ornaments (embellishments or added notes) are prevalent throughout this work, and for many can cause grief. when working separate hands, aim to choose fingering which accommodates the ornament (if marked), but which you can play without adding it. Then work at the entire piece (practising hands separately and together) without the embellishments (this will help awareness of the musical and dynamic shape). Add them into the piece only when you can play it sufficiently well i.e. without many hesitations or inaccuracies. If added earlier, ornaments tend to destabilise the pulse, and can cause a host of rhythmical issues. Therefore, sort this out beforehand by not playing them until confident.
  3. Ornaments occur in the right hand, and are generally mordents (a particular ornament or trill) of some kind. In the example to the left; the first mordent is sometimes known as an ‘upper’ mordent and the second (with the line through it), a ‘lower’ mordent. Underneath illustrates how they might be played. In the Trinity exam book, it’s been suggested that they might be played as triplets (three semiquavers per mordent), which works well. Try to isolate each embellishment, working thoroughly with your chosen fingers, playing heavily and deeply into the key bed. Then when you lighten your touch and play faster, they should sound and feel even.
  4. Each semiquaver pattern (group of four to every crotchet) must be even rhythmically, with plenty of clear, crisp articulation. To practice, aim to play every note with a deep touch (as already suggested for the ornaments), and ensure fingers leave notes accurately (i.e. not holding on or over lapping with the next note). Equally important is to place notes exactly. Either use a metronome, set on a semiquaver beat (when practising slowly), or count every single semiquaver aloud as you play. This should help alleviate any rushing or lingering!
  5. Good coordination is vital. There’s nothing as helpful as playing a quarter of the speed, hands together, working two (or one) bars at a time. Careful work at bars 15 – 18 (and all similar), where the left hand has rapid passage work, will be necessary. Don’t ignore staccato markings and short slurs – they contribute shape and energy.


2. Dedicatoria (from Cuentos de la juventud, Op. 1) by Enrique Granados (1867 – 1916)

A tranquil, reflective work which contrasts nicely with the Scarlatti, written by Spanish composer Enrique Granados. It hails from the set entitled Stories for the Young, and the first piece of the group is Dedicatoria.  Granados’ piano music is often complex, so it’s refreshing to hear a relatively simplistic piece which still captures his distinctive style and harmonic language.

  1. A cantabile approach will work well in the right hand, where all the melodic material is placed. There are three layers of sound here; the left hand accompaniment, the right hand ‘inner’ part and the melody, which forms the top line. I would begin by playing the top line alone, taking care to use the fingering you intend to use whan combining the two right hand parts together. Focus on producing a rich, warm sound, joining as many notes together as possible in a legato fashion (and if this isn’t possible, aim to create the illusion of legato, by holding down the note until the very last moment, matching the sound of the dying note with that of the next one.
  2. The ‘inner’ part or line can also be practised alone; try to play with a full sound until notes and fingerings are secure, and then lighten your touch keeping a firm triplet beat. Counting in three equal quaver beats per crotchet throughout can help, remembering to leave a quaver rest at the beginning of the beat (for the tune). If you practice using a firm pulse to begin with, it will feel easier to relax it when eventually adding rubato.
  3. When combining the two parts (melody and ‘inner’ parts in the right hand), aim to weight the hand towards the weaker fingers (i.e. the fourth and fifth fingers). The melody will need the support from the hand, wrist and arm, because a deeper sound is required. Experiment by moving the hand and wrist fractionally, away from the body. The middle or inner parts should ideally be much lighter, as they play an accompaniment role. The larger leaps at bars 9 & 11 might need fast-slow practice (moving much quicker than needed at first, then slowing the leap down, so it feels comfortable). Place the semiquaver (bar 10 & 12, right hand), slightly after the last triplet quaver of the inner part.
  4. The left hand must be soft, light and supportive. Smooth legato will work best, and try to keep fingers depressed until the very last possible moment, particularly when playing the minims in bars 10, 11, 12 and all similar.
  5. The sustaining pedal will add an expressive warmth and resonance if used, as directed, on virtually every crotchet beat. Observe tempo changes and strive for a really soft, distant ending.


3. Spanish Dancer (from Les Miroirs de Miró) by Edwin Roxburgh (1937 – )

Continuing with the Spanish theme, this energetic work might transport the listener to Seville for an evening of Flamenco dancing, complete with guitar effects! But for me, it represents a more serious, contemplative Spanish character.  Written by British composer Edwin Roxburgh, it requires a sure sense of pulse, which calls for a solid rhythmical grip.

  1. The triplet rhythm will probably need some attention; start by clapping the rhythm, taking the issue away from the keyboard. Place the semiquaver triplets carefully, whilst counting in quavers throughout. To play the triplets (which are in the right hand at the opening), practice the figuration (an E & B played together followed by an F) as a chord first of all, then loosen the wrist  and move (the hand and wrist) quickly from right to left (and back again), supporting the fifth finger on the E (and second finger, which will probably be used to play the B in the opening bars). Place more emphasis on the E & B and play the thumb, slightly lighter.
  2. The triplet figuration moves into the left hand from bar 3, as part of the accompaniment; in order to fully sound all three notes, without missing any out or producing a ‘jerky’ unrhythmical accompaniment, as always, play the whole accompaniment powerfully, into the key bed, then when the patterns are lightened, the triplets will hopefully sound even. Aim to play them softer than the melody.
  3. The simple but vibrant tune consists of short phrases (which are interrupted at various points with the introductory two bars, or a variation on them). Generally, the phrase develops as it progresses, making a fuller sound necessary towards the end. For example, at bar 10 – 13, which become increasingly dramatic, climaxing at the quasi cadenza (which is ad. lib, or played with a certain amount of freedom). This also happens at bars 19 – 23, perhaps reminiscent of a Spanish guitarist.
  4. In keeping with the Spanish feel, accents, pauses, staccato & tenuto markings abound and their inclusion in any performance will determine its success. With this in mind, it might be prudent to add such details in towards the beginning of the learning process, so they become a natural part of the piece, as opposed to an afterthought.
  5. The sustaining pedal should ideally be out in force here, and is a much-needed addition, amplifying the sound. But caution is required! Too much of a good thing will obscure finger work and more importantly, harmonies, and this is particularly true of the third beat of the bar (at bars 1 – 2 and the like), where the pedalling has been carefully omitted.

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.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


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The London College of Music Piano Syllabus 2018 – 2020

The much awaited London College of Music (LCM) piano syllabus has finally been published. A new syllabus is always exciting – both for student and teacher. I am an enthusiastic supporter of piano exams; they provide a veritable goal for anyone learning, particularly for younger players. And whilst an exam syllabus should never be used as a piano ‘method’ per se (i.e. where the student moves from one exam to the next with little or no solid repertoire or technical work in between), they can provide a whole host of benefits for the conscientious learner. Employing any exam syllabus as a method in itself is rarely a good idea, and eventually becomes a non-starter, as inevitably students can’t keep pace with the escalating difficulties from one exam to the next. However, if exams are used in a positive way, to occasionally measure progress and afford interesting musical discoveries, then they are a very valuable tool.

The new LCM syllabus is a winner. In recent years an oft-discussed topic has been the relative lack of lesser known repertoire, with particular reference to the scant inclusion of works  by female composers. Sadly, there still aren’t enough female composers or writers working in the industry, let alone being featured on the exam syllabuses (this goes for professorial staff too – there may be many female piano teachers locally, but try to study with one at a higher level, and they suddenly become a bit thin on the ground).

Hopefully, these issues are finally being addressed, and they have certainly been addressed in the new LCM syllabus. Female composers abound here, leaping from the pages with aplomb. And it’s wonderful to behold. Any examination board must uphold standards, but such ingenuity in programming is not only much appreciated, it may also make the difference when selecting which board to use.

I like the layout of the syllabus in general; not all exam boards include the technical work (scales, arpeggios and exercises) for each grade in the same volume as the pieces. This works well, and there are also sight-reading examples and aural tests at the back of the books too. Buying many books for each exam (i.e. purchasing the scales, sight-reading and aural tests separately) is a costly business and having them all under one roof might avert the recurrent scenario of ‘forgetting’ books at the weekly lesson too!

Each handbook (for every grade) comes with nine pieces (twelve for Grade 8), and three (four for Grade 8) from each list, but there is an alternative syllabus too, for those who prefer to go off-piste. Beginning with pre-piano exams, the Pre-Preparatory and Piano Steps 1 & 2, offer simpler tunes for those just starting to play, we then move swiftly to Grade 1, which features works by expected composers such as Attwood, Diabelli, Mozart, Rossini, Bartók and Weber. These are set alongside Contemporary favourites by renowned educational composers such as Christopher Norton, Elissa Milne, Ben Crosland, Heather Hammond, Alan Bullard, and Pamela Wedgwood. It’s refreshing to see Rebekah Maxner, June Armstrong and Barbara Arens on this list too – certainly a strong female line-up.

Perusing the handbook, other interesting Contemporary options throughout the syllabus (in my opinion) might be the following: The Lonely Traveller (Evelyn Glennie, Grade 2), From the Rue Vilin (Max Richter, Grade 3), Cicada Sketch (Arlene Sierra, Grade 3), When Rivers Flowed on Mars (Nancy Telfer, Grade 4), Every Morning, Birds (Rachel Grimes, Grade 5), Curroco Molto (Tony Pegler, Grade 6), Railroad (Travel Song) (Meredith Monk, Grade 6), Forest Musicians (Sofia Gubaidulina, Grade 6), Lowside Blues (Joanna MacGregor, Grade 7), and The Barnyard Song (Alwynne Pritchard, Grade 8).

Each Grade spotlights expected classics (with ample Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Twentieth Century selections), but there are a few other unexpected choices from female composers far and wide; Liza Lehmann, Teresa Carreño, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn, Ethel Smyth, Céclie Chaminade, Amy Beach and Yvonne Adair. A larger selection awaits if you decide to venture on to the alternative lists. An aspect pleasing to me, is the careful selection of jazzy and ‘blues’ options. Whilst these jolly pieces are enjoyed by students, there often seems an unnecessary deluge of them littering some syllabuses.

I’m reasonably familiar with the handbook selections as one of four writers commissioned to write the Performance Notes for Grades 1 – 8. I wrote around 30 notes in all (for Grades 1 – 6), including nearly all those for Grade 1 and 2. Pianists and teachers, Kirsten Johnson, Zubin Kanga and Daniel Grimwood, also wrote copious notes interspersed with those of some of the highlighted composers, who wrote their own.

The inclusion of suggested practice and performance ideas (alongside the background history of each piece) is excellent and, again, separates the LCM syllabus from other exam boards; buying separate practice notes might not appeal to many, and so to have them printed next to the pieces is a beneficial, user-friendly initiative.

For those who may have previously over-looked the LCM examination board, this new offering will afford plenty of food for thought. The syllabus offers much-needed variety and might just introduce students to previously unknown composers, encouraging them to delve deeper and explore more unusual repertoire options. And that can only have a favourable outcome.

You can read (and download) the new syllabus here, and find out much more about the London College of Music Exams, 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.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Workshop for the Performing Arts Festival in Singapore

After a thoroughly enjoyable Southeast Asia tour over the Summer, I will be returning to Singapore and Malaysia at the beginning of November. This time, I’ll be predominantly based in Kuala Lumpur (where I’m looking forward to presenting at the UCSI University Piano Pedagogy Conference, and giving presentations for Schott Music), but will also be briefly visiting Singapore too, for lessons and a workshop (see flyer below).

This workshop is intended for students, parents and teachers, or anyone preparing for a piano exam of any level or any examination board. We will discuss practice methods and preparation, and a number of students will have the opportunity to play their programme (or part of their programme) to a friendly audience, after which they will receive helpful, constructive feedback as we work on various technical and musical ideas to improve performances. There will also be a chance to present technical work such as scales and arpeggios.

I know many from Asia read my blog, and it would be wonderful to see you in Singapore on November 4th. Please follow this link to secure your place. I look forward to meeting you.


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.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 4

Today I am continuing my series on selected exam repertoire. I’ve chosen three complimentary pieces from the ABRSM Grade 4 list (taken from the main syllabus (shown to the left), as opposed to the alternative syllabus) and have offered five practice tips for each one, as well as a recording (taken from the many on YouTube).

A list: A 1, Minuet and Trio (Second movement from Sonata in A flat, Hob XVI: 43) by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Austrian composer Haydn wrote over 60 piano sonatas, and this work is thought to date from 1771 – 1773. The Minuet and Trio forms the second movement of this Classical sonata, and the genre was originally intended as dance music.

  1. Why not begin practice with the scale and arpeggio of A flat major (key of both the Minuet and Trio)?; observe the fingering carefully (which is rather different to that of the standard pattern) particularly noting the position of the fourth finger, sinking into the keys as you circumnavigate four flats.
  2. This elegant piece requires a fairly strict pulse, with a bouncy, precise dotted quaver/semiquaver upbeat. For ease and accuracy, it’s a good plan to count in semiquavers throughout the Minuet, ensuring the fourth semiquaver (of the dotted quaver/semiquaver pattern) is placed exactly on the fourth beat within each crotchet.
  3. The ‘wedge’ marks in the opening phrase signify staccato, therefore crisp enunciation throughout the first 2 bars is ideal. The first beat of the bar (in bars 1 & 2), is the most important note in the motif, so allow a deeper sound and slightly longer touch for these notes. The second and third beat (of a bar) in a minuet should be lighter than the first, proffering the three-in-a-bar dance feel; aim to lighten crotchets on these beats in every bar, for example in bar 3. However, bars 13 -15 need a stronger touch, as do the third beats from bars 18 – 20.
  4. The ‘drop-roll’ technique (where the hand and wrist sink into the first note of a pair, rolling upwards and off the second note, to make elegant pairs of slurred or joined notes) can be useful for phrased crotchets at bars 3, 10, 11, and 14 – 16, 19, 20 and 21.
  5. The Trio should be a complete contrast to the Minuet, with softer, more delicate dynamics. Keep the left hand in the background, but ensure it is even both rhythmically and tonally; practise by using a heavy touch to start with, playing deep into the key bed, securing fingerings and note patterns, then lighten for even quavers. The right hand melody needs much more colour, so balance accordingly, ‘leaning’ into the appoggiaturas (at bars 23, 29, 33, 35 and 39) for additional expressivity.


List B: B 2, The Merry Peasant (No. 10 from Album for the Young, Op. 68) by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

German composer Robert Schumann wrote the Album for the Young in 1848 in less than a month, and there are 42 pieces in this beautiful collection. Set in F major, the joyous romantic nature of this work contrasts well with the controlled phrasing required in the Haydn.

  1. Why not start by working at the right hand alone; secure the fingerings and hand position changes and then play each chord (which forms the accompaniment here, as the melody is predominantly in the left hand), with a full tone, moving slowly from one to the next, taking note of the movements necessary to find the chords with ease. Chords containing black notes need a slightly different hand position i.e. moving inwards, over the keys, placing the hand so it guides the particular finger to the intended black note. Being in position to play any chord well beforehand is the surest way of attaining accuracy.
  2. As it provides the melody, the left hand will probably require much slow, solid work. Aim to find the notes without adhering to a rhythmic pulse to begin with; this allows plenty of time to locate notes and hand position changes.
  3. The left hand pattern at bar 3 might need some careful manoeuvering; practice the thumb turning under the hand carefully (bar 3, beats 1 & 2 – 3), with a completely relaxed hand (and thumb joint), so the thumb can easily turn underneath (without any strain) to reach the interval. It can help to practice a slightly larger interval at first, so the smaller one (written in the piece) feels more comfortable. Isolate this bar, working at this pattern slowly. Similarly, the triad at the beginning of bar 2  (beats 1 & 2, left hand), can be played as a chord, and then, in order to play in time and with a full tone (as this is the climax of the phrase), swivel the wrist freely (using a lateral motion) to guide fingers and the thumb to the correct position.
  4. Rests must not be ignored in this piece. Those in the right hand (in bars 1 & 2, for example), are to be ‘counted’, so as to ‘place’ each chord accurately (and lightly), giving shape to the melody line.
  5. When the melody appears in both hands together (last beat of bar 8 – 12, and last beat of 14 – 18), the right hand can assume prominence. Practice the top musical line (or texture) on its own (with the fingering to be used when playing both lines together), and then the lower part (chords). When combining, ensure the outer parts of the hand (and 4th & 5th fingers in particular), are well supported, in order to bring the tune to the fore. Very little rubato is required in this work, with the exception of a small ritenuto at the end.


List C: C 1, Uzbuna (from Na velikom brodu) by Bruno Bjelinski (1909 – 92)

Always one to choose unusual repertoire, I’m drawn to this piece, which is fun to play with interesting harmonies and rhythms. It makes for a good contrast with the Haydn and Schumann too. Bjelinski was a Croatian composer who apparently studied law and composition. This piece comes from his collection, On the Great Ship, composed in 1961.

  1. Excellent articulation will bring this work to life. The pairs of slurred notes (in the right hand)  with a staccato marking on the second quaver, can be taken out of context and practised, perhaps using the drop-roll technique. Resist the temptation to rush the second quaver, picking fingers up swiftly after all staccato quavers particularly, giving the necessary spikey quality this piece demands.
  2. The rapid semiquaver passagework in the right hand (bars 13 – 22), will benefit from heavy, slow finger work; try to rotate the wrist after each group of four semiquavers, alleviating or releasing any tension. When finger touch is lightened, crisp, even notes should prevail.
  3. The left hand tune often uses black notes (for example, at bar 12). Keep fingers close to the keys, over the notes, and experiment by using flatter fingers, which can provide plenty of grip (if played at a suitable angle), adding a different tonal colour.
  4. Bars 28 – 31 contains three parts (or musical lines); work at each one separately, especially those in the right hand (practising with the fingering to be used when both parts play together). Keep the top line (minims) as legato as possible, so the sound is almost unbroken, contrasting with the highly articulated melody line in the lower right hand part.
  5. The pulse will need some special attention; not only must there be a very incisive rhythmic beat throughout, but semiquavers should also be even and accurately placed. The accent markings can be helpful here; short, sharp accents (of which there are many in this piece), can define and add shape.

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.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Practising Piano Waves

Piano Waves consists of 5 little pieces for the intermediate pianist (approximately Grade 4 – 6 level ABRSM). They were written in 2016 (published by EVC Music Publications), and have proved popular with all ages, but particularly with teenagers. This year, two pieces from the collection are set works on the Around The Globe Piano Festival syllabus (to be held in London during November).

I was inspired to write this volume after many years giving solo piano recitals on cruise ships around the world. This provided ample opportunity to observe the sea in all its forms; from beautiful calm sunsets to ferocious hurricanes and storms. Each piece depicts a different side of sea life; I hope they are fun to play and make for intuitive study.

In this post I offer five tips for each piece, which will hopefully be helpful for those considering learning them, whether for a recital, music festival or school performance.

Seahorse Dream

The first of the set dwells in the melancholic key of A minor. The seahorse briefly enjoys its peaceful slumber before being lulled into a progressively frenetic nightmare. Peace triumphs at the conclusion.

  1. The melody requires a very legato (smooth) line; the thumb turns under the hand at bar 3 beat 1, so ensure evenly placed quavers and a matching tone. Each note becomes gradually louder, the phrase crescendoing up to the end of bar 4. Aim to voice the A (beginning of bar 5) with care, as this is the top of the phrase.
  2. Every phrase (and they are mostly four bars in length), will benefit from a slightly different timbre and emphasis, as the shifting seahorse moves around in its sleep. Bar 10 should ideally tail off to nothing (or pianissimo).
  3. The left hand features a recurring figure: two quavers followed by a crotchet. Try to play the second quaver and crotchet beat lightly with the thumb, giving extra colour and sound to the first and third beats of the bar (as indicated by the tenuto marking) – they actually provide a counter melody. The fingers should brush over the notes lightly with a fluidity, offering an almost ostinato accompaniment to the cantabile melody.
  4. The middle section can be practised as a sequence of chords; start by playing each minim beat from bars 11 – 16, learning the shape and fingering of each chord, before playing as written. Give an emphasis on the top note of each broken chord from bars 13 – 16, adjusting the colour to suit each chromatic shift.
  5. Aim to quell any temptation to rush by counting vociferously, and listening to each note – especially the fourth semiquaver of each group. The sustaining pedal will add an atmospheric resonance.

Waltz on a Sunken Ship

A rather sombre piece with a slow waltz tempo and a reflective ambience. This work was inspired by French composer Eric Satie, and it’s on the syllabus of the Elena Cobb Star Prize at the British and International Federation of Music Festivals this year.

  1. The left hand moves considerably during virtually every bar and might benefit from slow, sustained practice. Find the note patterns and fingering for each chord and work slowly at the leap from beat 1 to beat 2 (or beat 3 from bars 17 – 24). As always when practising larger movements, practice playing much quicker than necessary, so when the tempo assumes its original, slower speed, the jumps feel comfortable.
  2. In keeping with the waltz style, aim to play the first beat of the bar with more sound and colour (or a decisive touch); the subsequent beats need a lighter, softer approach. This will bestow the necessary dance-like lilt.
  3. The right hand can also be practised in groups; ‘block out’ or try to play each bar altogether, at the same moment. This will allow you to become familiar with fingerings, note patterns and movement from one bar to the next (especially if you can play several bars (perhaps each four bar phrase) at once).
  4. When playing the right hand as written, ensure the top note in each bar is given its full value (i.e. resist any urge to rush), and add a richer timbre on the tied quaver (to a minim) beat (especially from bars 1 – 16).
  5. The sustaining pedal will enhance the melodic line, imparting the appropriate watery demeanour; observe the (8va) from bar 17 (playing an octave higher than written), and ensure the music floats off into oblivion at the end!

Ocean Surge

The name of this piece gives away its character! The surge come from the distinctly Minimalist flavour; with a turbulent climax, the outer sections meander around the C minor triad and offer a simple theme.

  1. Begin working from bar 17 – 28. Try to find the shape of each bar and therefore, each chord. Playing all the notes in each bar at once (as mentioned before) allows you to learn quickly, with fingers and chords comfortably under the hands. When practising bar 17 – 20, work slowly, counting every semiquaver; there can be a tendency to rush this type of note pattern, therefore placing accents on beats 2 and 4 (particularly beat 4) can help keep a steady pace.
  2. The chord patterns from bar 21 – 28 are effective if given accents or a ‘push’ on the first semiquaver of every crotchet beat. Ensure total fluency and evenness here, both in sound quality and rhythmic accuracy. Don’t be tempted to miss the pause at the end of bar 28! This is gives the music a chance to breathe.
  3. The opening has an improvisatory character. The third crotchet beat of each bar (from 1 – 8) is more effective with a slight ‘leaning’ into the note (almost akin to a tenuto), which helps convey the yearning quality.
  4. In the second line, the motif moves down to include the left hand, this can be thought off as an extension of the melodic line, and you could even give this ‘upbeat’ motif more colour here.
  5. The melody develops from bars 9 – 16 and is accompanied by a light, Alberti bass-like left hand. Keep this even, rotating the hand a little as you play; try to resist accenting or sudden sound surges in the left hand here, a neat, soft, flowing accompaniment is what’s needed.

Asilomar

The title for this piece comes from Dr Wayne Dyer’s film, The Shift, which is set on an Asilomar or a refuge by the sea. The thematic material is in the left hand; although it’s not really a theme, more a melodic movement, complimenting the right hand’s continuous accompaniment.

  1. The melodic strands in the left hand (during first two and last two lines) contain a dynamic ‘arch’, or a point at which the sound must slightly crescendo, only to decrescendo quickly afterwards. It can help to mark in which notes you consider most important tonally, and then decide how much tone variation is appropriate
  2. The right hand chordal pattern can be practised as one chord per bar, assimilating the note shapes, fingerings and patterns, as well as the movement needed from bar to bar as the patterns change.
  3. Ensure a very smooth legato for each phrase; both hands must ideally sound fluid, effortless and tranquil, and as though the fingers are brushing or ‘stroking’ the notes or chord patterns. Aim to banish any jerky sounds or tonal unevenness by listening very carefully to the ends of each note, matching them to the beginning of the next.
  4. The piece will benefit from careful counting as, rather like the evenness in sound, each note and phrase must be exactly placed on the beat for precision. Whilst this appears to be in an almost ‘slushy’ almost Romantic style, only a small amount of rubato is necessary.
  5. Practice the left hand alone with and without the sustaining pedal, so you become aware of the resonance required to highlight the melody.

Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman is the mythical ghost ship, which sails the seas, never quite reaching port and bearing bad news for those who are unfortunate enough to catch a glimpse.

  1. The opening and closing phrases are merely signalling the arrival and departure of the vessel. They require a distant quality, and a smooth legato line, fading off into the distance. Aim to use a light, but firm touch, and keep the sustaining pedal down as long as you dare (right to the end of the phrase is ideal!).
  2. The oscillating figurations from bar 6 onwards move through a series of sometimes quite chromatic harmonic progressions; aim to find the progressions easily by playing each half bar as a chord, moving quickly to the next beat, so as to become comfortable with the patterns.
  3. An easy, rotating wrist motion will help achieve the accents and changing metre within the semiquaver note patterns. Keep your wrist flexible and your arm and elbow ‘light’ so movement isn’t an issue.
  4. An even, smooth tone is important so try to select legato fingering as much as possible, joining the sound from one figuration to the next; this can be practised without the pedal to begin with, and when secure add in the sustaining pedal for a more sonorous timbre.
  5. It can help to focus on particular chromaticisms (such as those at bar 22 and 24), giving them extra colour and perhaps a slight tenuto too.

You can find out more about Piano Waves and purchase your copy from EVC Music Publications, 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.

Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 3

Selecting and practising piano exam repertoire continues today with ABRSM Grade 3. I’m selecting contrasting works or those which sit well together, thereby producing an interesting programme.

This element should not be underestimated; examiners are pleased to hear all the repertoire on set lists, but for the student, who might spend a good few months learning these pieces, enjoyment is paramount. It’s therefore a good idea to either listen to the audio CD provided with the piano exam syllabus book, or ask your teacher to play each piece for you, just to make sure you like the sound of your prospective programme before learning begins. Those who enjoy playing their pieces are generally motivated and will therefore practice more frequently.

I’ve included a link to one of the many performances of these works on YouTube.

Here’s my chosen programme of three pieces, each with 5 practice suggestions:

List A: A3, German Dance in B flat (No. 6 from 12 German Dances, WoO 13) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827)

A dance for couples in quick triple time, the German Dance was popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Articulation (or touch) will prove vital here in order to convey the appropriate lively dance characteristics. Start with the scale and arpeggio of B flat major, to assimilate the key signature.

  1. This  energetic piece requires some leaping around the keyboard, so begin by practising hands separately, securing fingering and learning the necessary movements needed to play the piece up to speed with ease, thus avoiding any hiatus or hesitations rhythmically. When moving around the piano, make sure posture is aligned, and use a flexible approach, practising jumps (such as those at bars 5 & 6, from beats 2 to 3, right hand), with a relaxed wrist and arm, learning the distance and ‘feeling’ of the jump (try do this until you can jump without looking).
  2. Consistently crisp articulation will determine the success of any performance. The wedge markings under and over notes (for example, the upbeat to bar 1, right hand) are 18th century staccato marks. These can be light, short and elegant, but try to avoid accenting.
  3. The second crotchet of each phrased pair (bar 1, beats 1 & 2), needs to be non-legato (or slightly detached) and, again, unaccented, supplying the dance-like character.  Acciaccaturas in the right hand at bars 5 – 7 and 13 – 15, must be clearly audible (resist the urge to rush the short first note), and slightly playful, with the attached crotchet short and light. It’s a good idea to learn note patterns without ornaments, adding them only when those patterns are assured and the pulse, tight.
  4. The left hand entry in bar 1 (beat 3), mirrors that of the right hand, and will be more effective if played with deeper sound, giving it prominence and colour as it imitates the right hand material. The sf (sforzando or suddenly loud) chords (bar 2, beat 1), need a decisive touch.
  5. Quavers in the Trio should ideally be light and totally rhythmical; when selecting a speed, think about bars 17 – 24 as a benchmark; just how fast can you play this passagework without errors or unevenness? Counting (preferably out loud and to a quaver beat) will be important, and aim to keep quavers legatissimo. As a rule, try to lift crotchets (non-legato) in the Trio, and keep the whole section fairly soft, so when returning to the Da Capo, there will be plenty of contrast.

List B: B 2. Polnisches Lied (No. 18 from Leichte Lieder und Tanze, Op. 117) by Ferdinand Hiller (1811 – 85)

This lovely piece in A minor written by German composer, Heller, provides an excellent contrast to the Beethoven, encouraging expressivity and musicianship. In the minor key, it might be useful to practice the A minor scale and arpeggio first. The tune is played twice here, the second time with a more elaborate accompaniment, and a brief coda at the end.

  1. Independence (and precise coordination) between hands is necessary throughout. Therefore lots of separate hand practice might be wise, and is particularly important where the left hand contains more movement or semiquaver passagework (such as at bars 15 – 23). Start by learning fingerings, note patterns and hand position changes (at bars 5 – 6, and 17 – 18, for example), using a legato touch throughout. When secure, experiment with staccato (as marked), implementing gentle finger strokes (in keeping with the espressivo marking at the top of the score), as opposed to a short, spikey touch.
  2. When practising bars 1 – 3 (and all similar), ensure the first two semiquavers are slightly detached (really semi-staccato) whilst the bass note (A in the left hand) remains held for the entire bar. A miniscule break between the phrases of Bars 1 & 2 will give appropriate space to breathe, and capture the ‘longing’, wistful feel. Legatissimo where possible will help to characterise this work, and provides contrast with staccato passages.
  3. Bars 4, 8, 16, 20, 28 & 29, all contain tenuto markings on the second beat of the bar. As this is a recurring feature, aim for a slight ‘lift’ on the first quaver of the bar, sinking into the crotchet second beat, using a fairly full sound and a slight lingering on this chord (as suggested by the tenuto marking); it usually signifies the end of a phrase. This can still be done at bars 16 and 20, where the left hand contains semiquavers.
  4. Dynamics are very precise, sometimes with each bar containing crescendo and decrescendo marks. Spend time experimenting with the sound, gradually ‘crescendoing’ up to the second quaver (bars 1 & 2), for poignancy.
  5. The sustaining pedal can add resonance if used where the tenuto chords occur (second beat of each of bar 4, 8, 28 & 29, and the last two bars, 30 & 31), but use it sparingly elsewhere, so as not to blur the harmonies or the semiquaver passage work.

List C: C1, Clowns (No. 20 from 24 Easy Pieces Op. 39) by Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904 – 87)

One of my favourite early intermediate level pieces, Clowns, is also a great little contrasting number to the Beethoven and Hiller, and students respond well to its playful character. In ternary form (A – B – A), it effectively oscillates between A major and A minor, which is perhaps suggestive of a Clown’s happy-sad demeanour.

  1. I would write most of the fingering in the score, as the speed at which the piece must be played necessitates some finger (or muscle) memory; repetitive separate hand practice with firm fingers, keeping close to the keys wherever possible, will be beneficial here.
  2. Pulse is important, so aim to count in semiquavers throughout, preferably out loud; ‘speaking’ every beat will help keep the tempo (providing your beat is similar to that of a ticking clock!) free from rushing or lingering.
  3. Articulation plays a vital role in this piece: the right hand staccato markings at the ends of phrases (such as those at bar 1, beats 1 & 3), need a snappy, short approach and a slender accent, colouring the chormatic changes (C sharps to C naturals for example). The left hand notation could be ‘blocked out’ throughout (where the notes in each bar are all played together for ease of learning), then ensure a relaxed wrist when playing the crisp staccato quavers, regularly resting the arm and wrist in order to avoid tension (which can creep in whilst using any repeated movement).
  4. Each accent mark (i.e. those at bars 4, 8, 12, and 21 in the right hand, and bars 24 & 25 in both hands), requires a brusque, powerful touch, as they usually signify the end of a phrase.
  5. The left hand can be kept soft and light until bars 13, where chords punctuate the melody. Aim for clean fingerwork throughout for a vibrant performance, without using any sustaining pedal.

For more posts in this series, exploring other grades and syllabuses, please click 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.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

9 Tips for Piano Exam Success in 2017

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire is a new series on my blog, which will begin in earnest next week. Today’s post is in preparation, offering a few practice ideas to make piano exam study a more fruitful and rewarding affair.

Some of you have written (over the past year or so) requesting information about piano exam programmes and how best to select and practise various pieces, so I hope this series of posts might be helpful and of interest. Choosing appropriate pieces from any syllabus is always a major consideration; an important part of exam preparation is deciding which set works combine effectively, offering an attractive, interesting programme whilst also displaying your particular strengths.

I’m going to focus on two exam boards: ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London (starting with the old syllabus (2015-2017), moving to the new one over the coming months). Every post in the series will feature three pieces (for each grade) which complement one another, are fun to play, and supply engaging technical and musical demands.

These pieces are usually contrasting in style and character, which is an element I will emphasise in my selections. These selections are merely personal preferences, because all works within the syllabus lists have already been carefully chosen to present engaging programmes. My objective is to provide a few tips and practice ideas for the chosen three pieces (much of which can be transferred to other repertoire too), and I hope you find these helpful and informative.

Before I launch into the repertoire, I offer a few suggestions for those preparing for piano exams. Whether you’re a young student taking Grade 1 or a mature student taking Grade 8, there are many ways of making sure you achieve your goal. Here are a few practice ideas to utilize during the months leading up to the big day.

  1. A piano exam practice schedule is a good idea. It doesn’t need to be fanatically followed, but if you can make a promise to yourself to practice little and often, your playing will immeasurably improve. Decide just how much time you can devote to piano playing every week; it might be 20 minutes per day, or 20 minutes twice per day. The regularity of your practice is important, as is focused, mindful concentration. Five days per week is optimum, and it can be useful to work in two sessions as opposed to one.
  2. Include all exam elements in each session. Piano exams normally consist of three pieces, scales & arpeggios (or technical exercises), sight-reading and aural (there are other options too, for some exam boards). Aim to include all (or at least three of the four tests) elements at every practice session, perhaps working with a stop watch or clock, so you don’t spend too much time on one area.
  3. A set routine can be profitable. During the practice session try to establish a ‘rota’; perhaps start with sight-reading and follow this with scales and technical work at every session. By doing this, you will quickly cover two important parts of your exam whilst you are still fresh and able to fully concentrate. Leave the set pieces until later in the practice session.
  4. Sight-reading usually requires your full attention, and although it might seem tedious and onerous, if you can regularly devote time to it, improvement will be significant and will make all other piano endeavours feel easier. Ten minutes at the beginning of every session is ideal.
  5. Moving onto scales, arpeggios and technical work, you may need a quick pause between sight-reading and scales; it’s best to take regular breaks. If you’re preparing for a higher grade exam (Grade 6 or above), you might need to practise scales and arpeggios in rotation, as aiming to include all in one session can prove taxing and take too much time. Work out a timetable whereby all technical  work is practised thoroughly, allowing you to concentrate fruitfully on each one.
  6. Set pieces; each piano piece may also benefit from a rotational approach, particularly if they are advanced and complicated. It’s a better plan to practise slowly and assiduously as opposed to skimming over lightly, which may necessitate working at a smaller amount of material at each practice session.
  7. Performance goals. Once the pieces are within your grasp i.e. you can play them through slowly, aim to finish the final practice session of the day with a ‘play-through’ of at least one piece. This can be a valuable exercise to gauge your progress, note what has been achieved weekly (or daily), and become accustomed to establishing the mental thought process required to think from beginning to end without any breaks or hesitations.
  8. Time keeping. A worthwhile exercise is to play each piece slowly with a metronome. Set the metronome to a very slow speed and go through your piece, playing along precisely to the electronic pulse. This can highlight any technical problems, as well as instilling accurate pulse-keeping, and it will also consolidate fingerings, notes and rhythms. Many find it beneficial to ‘play through’ a work slowly, devoid of emotional content, proffering the space and time to think about physical movement around the keyboard i.e. how flexible, relaxed and comfortable you feel whilst playing each piece (for me, a really important aspect of piano playing).
  9. Aural. Surprisingly, it is possible to practice parts of this element on your own. Singing can be done at the piano, testing yourself on the expected patterns, such as intervals and scalic movement (I provide my students with various intervallic ‘tunes’). You can even play (and sing) the actual singing tests yourself. This is also true of cadences and any chord progressions; you can ‘learn’ how they sound whilst playing. More tricky tests such as recognising styles of music should ideally be honed over a period of time; YouTube provides all the music you’ll ever need in order to become familiar with how various genres ‘sound’.

These ideas can be easily implemented. Piano exams can be daunting, but if prepared carefully and not left until the last-minute, they offer much enjoyment and the perfect opportunity to really improve your playing.

The first post in my new series will feature the ABRSM Grade 1 piano exam. You can find out more about Grade 1 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.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Weekend Competition: Piano Notes 2017-18

PNotes17_18_001_Cover_0812BWM.inddPiano Notes were published last month and offer students and teachers a wealth of practical advice for the entire ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music examination board) piano syllabus from Grade 1 through to Grade 8, which started in January 2017 and goes through to Spring 2019. The notes include all alternative pieces as well as those printed in each graded book, so they make for a very beneficial and handy guide, irrespective of your standard or ability (and are great to keep by the piano as a reference).

Published by Rhinegold (the leading music education publishers, who also organise the Music and Drama Education Expo Event held in February 2017 at Olympia in London), the notes can be purchased from Rhinegold’s website.

Piano Notes have been written by a team of five writers, all of whom are  experienced teachers; Fiona Lau, Katharine May, Michael Round, Murray McLachlan and myself, and we wrote around 200-350 words on each piece (depending on the grade), detailing the most important elements, advocating various practice tips and performance suggestions.

My contribution was to write notes for all list C pieces from Grades 1 – 6. I was pleased to find a fairly widespread selection of works; from masters such as Kabalevsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Bartók, through to vibrant piano arrangements, and many Contemporary composer’s works too. Although for my taste, there is probably too much emphasis on the ‘jazz’ inspired style, and not enough on Contemporary classical music (which I believe should be introduced to students from the beginning).

I’ve two copies of Piano Notes to give away this weekend, so please leave your comments in the comment box at the end of this post and I will announce the two winners on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

You can find out more about Piano Notes here, and order your copy 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.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Improve Your Sight-Reading Skills: 5 Top Tips

leer-y-tocar-piano-a-la-vezMy latest article for Pianist Magazine’s New Year’s newsletter focuses on sight-reading. I’ve written about this subject many times, but it’s an important topic for pianists, and is often ignored or sidestepped in piano lessons until absolutely necessary i.e. just prior to an exam or audition, when testing is unavoidable. Few pianists are keen sight-readers, many believing a specific talent is required to read quickly. Aptitude is helpful of course, but there are copious ways to improve reading. For those who feel their skills would benefit from an over-haul, here are a few suggestions. You can read the original article here.


1. Sight-reading is all about the preparation. On first glance, check the score for the key signature (noting the major and relative minor of that written). Note the time signature (particularly if it changes during the piece), obvious note patterns such as scales, arpeggios, chords, octaves and the like (aim to decipher fingerings for such figurations before you play).

2. Separate the rhythm from the notes. Focus on the general pulse; always start with very slow speeds when learning to read (perhaps a third of the intended tempo). Then tap the rhythm of the treble clef in the right hand, and the rhythm of the bass clef, with the left hand (at the same time), keeping in mind the slow pulse you have already set.

3. Now play through the left hand alone (without adhering to any pulse), locating note patterns, hand positions changes and fingering (and remembering the key!). Then do this with the right hand. If you’re preparing for an exam, you will probably have just enough time to run through each hand separately in the 20 or 30 seconds allocated inspection time beforehand.

4. Decide how you will keep time during the exercise. A metronome may be helpful (for ‘sitting’ on the pulse), but counting out loud along to your playing is also a reliable method (providing your count is rhythmical!). Try to sub-divide the beat (i.e. if crotchets are the main beat, count in quavers). Counting a bar’s rest at the beginning can be useful too (for setting a firm tempo).

5. Play your chosen exercise very slowly, reading ahead all the time, whilst aiming to play through your mistakes (it’s tempting to stop and correct errors, but by playing slowly, you will eventually be able to resist this urge).

When reading, keep in mind the overall rhythmic structure and play the notes to the pulse as opposed to the other way around. This preparation will become gradually quicker over time, as will your reading. If you can spend 10-15 minutes sight-reading at every practice session, you’ll be amazed at what can be achieved.


www.pianistmagazine.com


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.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

The Mindful Pianist: An Interview with Mark Tanner

4f07a817201ecThe Mindful Pianist is a new book written by British pianist, author, teacher, composer, researcher, examiner and adjudicator,  Mark Tanner (pictured above). This volume forms part of EPTA‘s (European Piano Teachers Association) Piano Professional Series, and is published by Faber Music. I invited Mark to answer twelve questions about his life and diverse career as a musician.  Here are his thoughtful, erudite responses (in italics). I hope you enjoy reading as  much as I did.


You’ve enjoyed a varied, eclectic career; performing, writing, editing, composing, teaching, researching, and working as an examiner and adjudicator. How is your time divided between these different pursuits?

I’ve evolved what musicians often like to call a ‘portfolio existence’ – partly out of necessity, but mainly in response to my varied interests, many of which I’ve been lucky to watch blossom over the years.

My performing career has spurred off into many directions. Appearances include five solo recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and St John’s Smith Square, along with many other appearances up and down the country as soloist, in concertos and with a variety of ensembles. A venue close to my heart is St George’s Bristol, where I have appeared with Allan Schiller, Richard May, Gillian Poznansky and Michael Langdon-Davies – I’ve also made several recordings there. Recitals on cruise ships continue to form an important part of my life, too – I’ve given over 300 recitals on all of the Cunard, P&O and Saga ships, many of which have been with my partner, flautist Gillian Poznansky, with whom I have also recorded a couple of CDs.

I have made an especial feature of British piano music, with recordings, recitals and broadcasts of previously unrecorded music by York Bowen, Peter Wishart (I later edited Wishart’s entire output of piano music for Edition Peters), John McLeod (various premières in the presence of the composer, including live on BBC Radio 3), Graham Lynch and Graham Fitkin. Performing – and indeed the whole process of gearing up for recitals and recordings – has always fed naturally into my professional life. I went through a phase of playing piano/keyboards for musicals, pantomimes and backing well-known comedians in cabaret, which has certainly stood me in good stead when it comes to living off my wits (a surreal engagement in more recent times involved playing on a dummy piano to ‘accompany’ Susan Boyle for her guest appearance on the X Factor). Although these days there tends to be extended periods during which I allow practising to slip, I can’t really imagine a life without the challenge of new repertoire.

Teaching seems always to have played a role in my musical life. Any aspiring professional musician who is not prepared to consider a certain amount of teaching is probably being rather unrealistic. Moreover, teaching is a way of tapping into the realities and passions of others. For some sixteen years I was Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset. Teaching in a public school environment carried with it all kinds of parallel activities (I was head of squash, umpired the 2nd cricket team, edited the school magazine, became deputy house master of a boys’ boarding house, as well as the usual musical activities such as running bands, doing bits of conducting and putting on musicals, carol services and so on). I have enjoyed teaching privately too, as well as at summer schools. These include the Chetham’s International Piano Summer School, Jackdaws Educational Trust and Dillington House in Somerset, Maryland College in Woburn, the Farncombe Estate in Gloucestershire and the National Young Pianists at Uppington School. Commitments at home and abroad have always discouraged me from taking on regular work at higher education establishments, though I do pop up at various colleges and universities from time to time, to give recitals and masterclasses, and also to talk with students about career paths. These days, I give occasional consultation lessons, the odd Skype session (perhaps in a student’s run-up to a diploma or recital), though I can’t usually offer the kind of continuity most pianists seem to need.

Composing continues to play a very robust role in my musical life. Stimulated initially by an interest in obscure contemporary piano music, I found myself partly switching tactic as far as my own compositions are concerned. This triggered what would turn out to be a very fruitful ongoing relationship with Spartan Press, an enterprising publishing company based in the Highlands of Scotland. For Spartan, I have now composed, transcribed and arranged over 60 volumes of music, roughly half of which is for piano, the remainder for a variety of other instruments and voices. Writing music for the ‘educational’ milieu requires a sensitivity to what is practical, not merely an idea of how one might like a particular piece to sound. This has undoubtedly tugged me towards a more pragmatic way of thinking and writing, which is no bad thing, for a piece is ultimately more likely to hit the mark as regards general appeal and approachability.seascapes

It was gratifying to have my ‘Scapes’ piano series (published in five volumes) shortlisted for a recent Music Teacher Award, and indeed to follow the progress of around 20 pieces onto the current syllabuses of ABRSM, TCL and LCM. I continue to get lively responses via my website (www.marktanner.info) regarding the five piano pieces featuring on the TCL syllabus. It is in the very nature of writing educational music that composers keep their fingers crossed every time a new syllabus launch is in the offing. My Lullaby for Prince George (a grade 5 piece composed for Pianist Magazine) captured the attention of Classic FM a couple of years back; this spike in interest certainly heightens the presence of a composer (incidentally, the Lullaby, along with Nocturne for Princess Charlotte, is now published in a volume entitled Sleep Tight).

I am particularly pleased with a recent five-volume series of piano pieces, which I ended up calling Listen to the World – it taps into all kinds of ‘sound-moods’, which range from Bangkok Busker to Air Balloons over Albuquerque. I like to think I have remained fairly true to the philosophy of my first series of published books – Eye-Tunes – which evolved over a few years into a twelve-volume set comprising exactly one hundred pieces; from these, I went on to cherry-pick some arrangements for flute and piano, which became Creature Comforts and Flute Pastilles. As a spinoff from my ‘usual’ approach to composing, I enjoyed putting together a four-volume series of Elizabethan pieces from the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Pieces – intriguing miniatures, which seemed to be screaming out for a contemporary face-lift; I called it A Renaissance Keyboard Anthology. This later prompted me to compose a one-off set of quirky pieces in response to the originals, which I called The FitzTanner Collection.

Writing has always been something which gives me terrific pleasure and satisfaction. I wrote my PhD thesis on the performance history of Franz Liszt, and this spawned various articles in scholarly journals, published both in the UK and US. I then enjoyed writing several hundred articles and reviews for International Record Review, Classical Music, International Piano and Musical Opinion. For Pianist Magazine, I have written two dozen feature-length ‘masterclass’ articles, which cover aspects of piano playing such as rubato, improvisation, holding momentum, pedalling and so on. I was pleased recently to take on the role of Guest Editor for EPTA’s flagship Magazine, Piano Professional.

Examining for ABRSM is by its very nature hard work. It involves a lot of traveling around, plus an amount of administration and organisation, not to mention sitting behind a desk for six or more hours at a time, scribbling like a crazed man. The challenge of examining is to listen intently to what is happening, while keeping in mind the previous item about which you will probably still be writing! In the UK, I usually examine for about a fortnight in each of the three sessions, which is the maximum I can tuck in due to other commitments. Though I live in the South West, some of this will end up being in London, as I am on the Examiner Training Panel, which takes prospective examiners from interview on through a rigorous process leading to (hopefully) the finished article.

I find the international side of examining tremendously rewarding, though challenging work. There can be language difficulties to overcome, hassles with getting to and from obscure venues, issues with food (‘examiner’s tummy’ is an irksome topic all to itself) and of course the accumulation of tiredness, which can take a lot out of you as you move from one city or country to the next, perhaps leaping across time-zones. I have conducted several diploma-only tours to Hong Kong and Singapore, though most of my ‘solo’ tours these days involve a mix of grades, diplomas and teacher seminars. Each year I take on two lengthy international tours, which has proved to be an excellent way of seeing the world. Examiners get ‘under the skin’ of a foreign place in ways the holiday-maker is less likely to, and I find this an immensely rewarding experience – though undoubtedly the most fatiguing work I have ever done. I have undertaken over 30 international tours, to five continents (alas, we don’t examine in South America, as yet). These have taken me to the snow-topped Himalayas, the dreamy coasts of New Zealand, the stunning Swiss Alps, eerily abandoned South African diamond mining towns, Kathmandu (I happened to be working there just a fortnight before the major recent earthquake), all over the Far East many times, several trips to the USA and Canada, and (a particular favourite) India. I’ve just returned from an extended tour of South Korea and Japan, and am about to depart for New York and Princeton – next year I’ll be in Turkey and Sri Lanka.

I also undertake annual Presentation Tours for ABRSM, which involves making whistle-stop fortnight-long trips all over China (as many as a dozen internal flights), explaining to teachers how the exam system can be of help to them, providing a ‘system’ for serious study as well as fostering the simple joy of learning. I occasionally get involved with other aspects of ABRSM too, such as co-writing the Teaching Notes, an informative book to accompany the latest piano syllabus, and composing bits and pieces for various ongoing projects/syllabuses. One such project, which has just come into fruition actually, is the Piano Star series: three ‘repertoire’ books leading from pre Prep Test to about grade 1, containing solo items and duets. I also spend the equivalent of about a fortnight per year working for ABRSM’s Reading Panel, which forms part of the organisation’s ongoing quality control machine; we provide forensically detailed critiques (and of course positive feedback!) to support examiners in their quest to write helpful, consistent, well-matched comments.9781848499249

Adjudicating for the British and International Federation of Festivals is another strand of my work which I find very rewarding. Festivals in the UK tend to happen in March and November (when I’m invariably examining overseas), so I would generally expect to manage only perhaps a week or two of adjudicating each year. That said, I have adjudicated many of the festivals in the south of England, plus a sprinkling further north; this year I adjudicated the Singapore Festival of Performing Arts, with a few masterclasses and one-to-one lessons bolted on for good measure. I have adjudicated the EPTA Piano Competition several times, and this year also judged the National Composer’s Competition.

An important distinction between examining and adjudicating is the nature and depth of feedback. In a festival, it is often entirely appropriate (and sometimes specifically expected) that the adjudicator will get up onstage and offer help and advice on how to improve what was just heard. In an exam, by stark contrast, there is no provision for feedback ‘in the moment’ – just the comments given on the mark form, which is really the only lasting evidence that the exam ever actually took place.

If you were to pick one (or perhaps two!), which has been the most rewarding and satisfying, and why?

The first time we accomplish something important, I guess we tend to etch it into our memory and accord it a certain fondness. My first solo performance was at Bristol’s Colston Hall, aged 11 (the Bristol Evening Post described me as “the intrepid Mark Tanner” – I seem to remember getting lost walking off stage…) and this was followed shortly after by my first BBC TV appearance as semi-finalist in a piano competition called Major-Minor, adjudicated by Sir David Willcocks. My inaugural live BBC Radio 3 broadcast, in which I included a previously unknown work by Constant Lambert and a piece of my own, would certainly rank as a seminal moment, as would my Wigmore Hall debut. Completing my PhD, while simultaneously teaching full-time and establishing myself on the playing circuit, was an especially important five-year period for me, especially since it opened my eyes to the prospect of a side career in writing, from which I continue to gain a great deal of satisfaction.

You spend much time in the Far East presenting and lecturing for ABRSM, what differences have you noticed in the approach to teaching and playing in that part of the world, or are they very similar to those in the West?

Well, this a question I am often asked, and to which I doubt if I’ve ever given a fully honest answer! My feeling, having examined something in the region of 20,000 candidates all over the world, is that every examining day brings with it the potential for something memorable. In truth, examiners get to experience the full gamut of possibilities (in terms of playing quality) on virtually every tour they undertake. They also get to experience a very occasional tragic or humorous event, which may well turn out to be something they can dine out on for years to come. From my personal experience, the ‘average’ playing one hears in Cardiff will probably shake out as similar to that experienced in Dhaka or Helsinki, though as you might imagine, the extremes of the playing one encounters overseas can be an entirely different matter. As far as I can detect, the teaching in foreign countries (gauged purely in terms of the outcome of an exam) is every bit as effective as we would expect to find here in the UK – sometimes more so.

Many young students (including mine!) have loved playing your piano compositions (which have been published worldwide, and feature in a plethora of exam syllabuses), when did you start composing educational piano pieces? How would you describe your style?

I studied composition at college – my first ever piece was a full-blown orchestral work actually, which I’d probably shy away from doing today – and it would be fair to say that this angle of my life has grown exponentially over the last decade or so. Composing is something I can do while I’m sat on deck sipping a mocktail on the Queen Mary 2, or squeezed into the corner of a Starbucks in San Francisco, so I suppose this might explain why I have enjoyed devoting more and more of my time to this line of work.index

As far as style goes, I’m a bit hard to pin down. I have always been interested in jazz and lighter styles (I was an avid fan of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Uriah Heep in my teens), though of course my training as a concert pianist took me down myriad complex routes, too. In truth, I tend to allow a part of my imagination to run riot while I’m engaged in a particular project. So, by way of example, I’m mid-way through a five-volume piano series called Jazz Hands, which regularly ventures off-piste into more impressionist and even minimalist territory, and I have composed a series of study books for tackling the ABRSM Quick Study called Know the Score, which has helped a variety of instrumentalists to engage more fruitfully with this component of the DipABRSM. My two volumes of folk song arrangements came about as a natural consequence of a CD I recorded with veteran bass-baritone, Michael George, and these again encouraged me to dip my toe into an array of contemporary styles. I love playing around with different textures and re-working familiar structures and progressions until they yield something new and intriguing. Many TCL grade 6 pianists will have enjoyed thrusting their way through The Wit and Wisdom of the Night, a Bernstein-esque little ditty, or finessing The Owl and the Pussycat (a TCL grade 1 piece which is over before it’s begun). The style of these two examples could hardly contrast more, it now occurs to me (The Owl and the Pussycat is more reminiscent of Haydn than Bernstein). Apart from Mozart and Chopin, whose styles were pretty much in place from the earliest age, style seems generally to be a continually moveable feast (Stravinsky is an excellent example of a composer who was forever reinventing himself). The minute we attempt to define style, it has already begun to morph into something else. Composers, not unlike artists in my experience, can be a little disingenuous in that we wish to be regarded as ‘individual’, while at the same time often enjoy dabbling in genre-crossing. Besides, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a little derivative as a composer. Improvisation of course ties in inextricably with composition (the latter in some senses emerging as a ‘formalisation’ of the former), though the miracle of composing amounts to a coming together of real experiences in resonance with imagined ones.

When composing, what aspects are, for you, key? Do you hear the piece in your head before writing, or do you prefer working it all out at the piano?

An excellent question, which I shall proceed to dodge, strategically. In the same way that some Beatles melodies foreshadowed the lyrics, and others the reverse, I tend to respond to the moment and then run with it. There have been times when, for example sitting next to an elderly gentleman tapping his stick on the New York subway, I have found myself itching to compose a piece using an unusual 15/8 rhythm. But there are also occasions – for example, when I am getting close to finishing off a book pitched at a particular grade – where a more pragmatic approach proves necessary in order to hit the brief. For a piano piece to be fully pianistic, it would be silly not to road-test it thoroughly, sat at the instrument, or in the case of a violin or flute piece, to run it past an expert. Composers generally write pieces in order to coax a strong emotional response from the player and listener, not simply to be ‘clever’. This requires an appetite for new ideas, though in reality some of these may be partially preconceived. Ultimately one must trust in one’s musical intelligence.

mindfulI  thoroughly enjoyed reading your new book, The Mindful Pianist, which has just been published by Faber Music, and is part of the ongoing Piano Professional Series (published by EPTA or the European Piano Teachers Association). ‘Mindful’ piano playing has become fashionable, why do you feel it’s important?

The whole mindfulness platform brims with potential; it can be of great value to musicians of all persuasions. To say that mindfulness has enjoyed a recent resurgence (I’d entirely agree – everything from macramé to bread-making and surfing) is perhaps a bit like saying that religion has grown in popularity. In truth, mindfulness is probably as old as human thought, though it evidently came of age through the earliest Buddhist teachings.

Musicians, and perhaps pianists in particular, often become side-tracked by their longer-term ambitions – for example, an upcoming exam or public performance – and though entirely understandable, such preoccupations tend to uproot our sense of the present moment. We end up overthinking, over-reaching, over-compensating and over-reacting to aspects of our musical lives lying some way off in the future, instead of focussing on what is happening right now, sat at the piano. This remarkably simple starting point is nevertheless the trigger for my book – we need to learn how best to harness all this energy and ‘spend’ it where it will be most likely be of optimum value. From here, pianists can gradually home in on the practicalities of learning and evolving, attending to details and working up a really compelling performance.

The Mindful Pianist is split into four broad areas of study: focussing, practising, performing, engaging. Each area challenges the reader (who might be a seasoned pianist, or perhaps a keen amateur) to reappraise what they are doing and head off the blight of performance anxiety. Occasionally, it seems the teacher can unwittingly contribute to a less than robust approach also, perhaps by glossing over the specific needs of the individual student, or else by over-emphasising a particular facet of playing and skimming over others. The role of the teacher, as I reinforce more fully in the book, is to teach the pupil to teach himself, so that every practice session becomes a self-taught lesson. If we are not encouraged to take responsibility for our practising and performing, we can never fully flourish.

Did you re-exam you own approach to the piano when writing this book, or are the ideas mostly derived from your work over time as a teacher?

The book is most definitely a coming-together of different strands of my teaching (and of course thinking) over thirty years, and feeds directly into the whole conundrum of piano playing. Though piano playing is a fine motor skill, I feel it ought not be segregated too far from the broader objectives of teaching and learning. Analytical approaches (I go into these in some depth in the book, and offer some innovative models) are examples of how the enlightened teacher can trigger a creative response from their pupils. Teachers of course learn all the time from their pupils’ mistakes, not to mention their own.

The book is peppered with quintessential advice and suggestions from other piano teachers and pianists, which adds a richness, emphasizing your fundamental points. In your own education, which teachers have been an important influence, shaping your teaching and playing?

The power of a teacher to help you learn is, I believe, inextricably tied to your own capacity to respond and adapt. This is why we feel more tuned in to certain approaches and correspondingly switched off by others. Nonetheless, I like to feel I have gained as much from participating in masterclasses with pianists such as Peter Donohoe, as I have from my ‘regular’ teachers, who have included Gwyn Pritchard, Geoffrey Buckley, Philip Martin and Richard McMahon. They each played to their strengths as pianists (and in Gwyn’s and Philip’s case, as composers, too) as much as their qualities as teachers, which explains what I was able to take away from those lessons. Gwyn first opened my eyes to the value of thoughtful, methodical practising; Geoff endlessly impressed me with his extraordinary repertoire and powers of recall; Philip had me rolling around in fits of laughter (while gently nudging me to tackle some mammoth pieces); and Richard showed me what it is to be a resourceful ‘virtuoso teacher’ (as Paul Harris optimistically coined it in his book by the same name).

sp1297You teach many advanced adult students (at Chethams Summer School, Jackdaws Educational Trust, EPTA, and other educational institutions), how do their issues differ from those of the younger piano student?

Adults present a wholly different set of challenges for the piano teacher. Just as children are not small adults, adults are not big children; we so easily overlook this stunningly obvious observation. Younger players abound in energy, confidence and a gung-ho approach (not universally, but often, in my experience), while adults not infrequently fall victim to their own idiosyncratic psychological foibles. One manifestation of this (which, again, I tackle briefly in the book), would be choosing repertoire – for the physical capacity to play Rachmaninov is a quite different matter from the desire to do so; unfortunately, overstretching our capabilities can have a profoundly negative outcome over the longer term. Piano playing is hard enough without adding to the difficulties by persevering with repertoire which lies beyond our scope. Similarly, the acquisition of a reliable technique is but one among many equally worthy elements of successful piano playing. While stretching ourselves to the next level is always a commendable goal, arguably we will reach grade 6 more efficiently by first working up a clutch of grade 5 pieces to a good level, rather than by toying around ineffectually with a bunch of grade 7 pieces.

In summer schools, teachers routinely encounter a startling range of promising students – youngsters who can whizz through the Emperor Concerto without turning a hair, or older teenagers who are already able to improvise in any style from Scriabin to Coldplay. But there will be others for whom piano playing seems to have become all about persisting with a couple of pieces with which they feel a certain bond or kinship; this bittersweet tussle can endure for decades and is not always the most profitable use of their time, I’d suggest. The younger player could undoubtedly learn from his more senior counterpart, whose grasp of the musical landmarks in a piece may well be more sophisticated; conversely, the older pianist might take a leaf out of the teenager’s book as regards holding momentum and generally ‘going for it’. Knowing oneself is key to honing an approach that will prove fruitful over the longer term.

Another thing occurs to me regarding the adult learner, which is that teachers all too easily become counsellors or armchair psychologists – I am sure many teachers of adults will be familiar with the student who spends the first 45 minutes of an hour’s lesson discussing Brexit or Fracking, as if compelled to stave off the moment when they sit squarely at the piano, by which time the next pupil can be already be heard parking his car outside…

sp1180What advice could you bestow to the many pianists preparing to take performing and teaching diplomas, particularly regarding programming?

Mm…this is a knotty one. For a performing diploma, I would usually recommend a less-is-more approach. My father has a saying: “Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it”. In other words, why open yourself up to the possibility of demonstrating what you cannot do? Playing from memory, when this is not something that comes naturally to you, would be a prime example. If there is an own-choice component (as is the case for all three of the established ABRSM diplomas, and indeed the new ARSM, which is exclusively concerned with performing), then this is most definitely something worthy of serious consideration.

In general, my advice would be to put your best foot forward – start and end your programme with a strong item you know you can play exceedingly well (even if a noisy demonstration suddenly starts up on the street outside – which happened to me once in a St John’s Smith Square recital). Don’t feel hidebound by tradition, convention or chronology – it’s ok to end with Bach, so long as your choice ‘works’ – and by the same token you might consider launching your recital with Shostakovich. Pace yourself, both as regards the mental and physical stamina demanded by the occasion. Listen at least as intently as the examiner will be, and if something goes astray, airbrush out the memory in an instant – don’t let it snowball into a series of debilitating calamities.

For teaching diplomas, my best advice would be to know your stuff inside out. Many candidates sidle into an exam room with what looks like a shopping trolley brimming over with books they’ve borrowed; but when asked to put their hands on something specific, let’s say a grade 4 piece with issues of pedalling, they find themselves completely scuppered. Better, in my opinion, to bring in two handfuls of material with which you are wholly familiar, so that you can dip into it at a moment’s notice, even when under exam pressure. In the viva voce, take your time and answer the question. If you slip off topic too frequently, your examiner will be bound to lower his/her opinion of you. When you speak, aim to form sentences which have a beginning, middle and end; stick to your guns and think ahead to where you’d like to steer the topic next. Doing this will place you more in control of what is being discussed; from here you will be more able to reveal those little nuggets of information you’ve stored away.

In a few words, can you sum up the most crucial aspects of mindful piano playing; ones which students can immediately implement into their practice routine?

Start each session with something you can already play quite well, and finish with something you can play even better. In the middle part of your practice session (which in the majority of cases ought not to exceed an hour or so at a time), be prepared to fulfil a series of small, achievable objectives – tick these off one by one in your mind. If you are not measurably better after your practising, you cannot claim to have been working very effectively. Breathe calmly, pause for thought and reflect on what just took place at regular intervals. Think clearly about what you are broadly hoping to achieve for each task – then pursue it with confidence, courage and determination. Shake things up a bit when you are getting bored or restless, and in general, work from the back of a piece to the front, especially if it happens to be a large-scale work, for example a sonata or concerto. Queue up the bits of a piece which are giving you the most trouble and deal with each ‘quarantined’ passage one at a time, thoughtfully and methodically. Resist the temptation to pound away at something difficult, getting faster and faster as you do so; instead, isolate the problem, rather as a surgeon might, and deal with it mindfully: less haste, more speed. Record yourself practising from time to time, to gain a more ‘fly on the wall’ perspective, and take all opportunities to play for others, especially if your ultimate goal is to perform in some kind of ‘event’. Finally, practise practising, then practise performing – these are two quite distinct modes of working, each of which requires a specific mental outlook.

Most musicians in today’s world find social media a vital ‘tool’, however, you have successfully managed to side-step this marketing device, was this a conscious decision? Do you feel it isn’t as important as many might have us believe?

Twitter is something I am beginning to get to grips with, at long last, though I have been less enamoured by Facebook so far; I may well give in soon though. As with any form of communication, or networking, my feeling is that we shouldn’t bother to proclaim things unless we feel confident they are worth hearing; otherwise, we end up contributing to a bottomless quagmire of trivial nonsense. I also feel that if we do not impose a restraining order on our social media activities they can end up draining away every spare moment in our lives. On balance though, we cannot hope to gain advantage from social media if we are not prepared to take an active role. With this in mind, I have begun to add a series of ‘how-to’ videos to my Twitter feeds. I now have two: @MarkTannerPiano and @MindfulPianist.  It strikes me that we all use social media in different ways in order to accomplish different objectives. It falls upon each of us to decide where the useful stuff turns the corner into banality.

You can explore Mark’s music here, and purchase The Mindful Pianist, 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.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.