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.


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Weekend Competition: The Intermediate Pianist

Today’s weekend competition focuses on a new three-book piano course published by Faber Music. The Intermediate Pianist is intended for students and piano teachers tutoring students, from approximately Grades 3 – 5 level. Written by Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond, the course is designed to help students (and teachers) negotiate the intermediate stages of learning, where pupils are often prone to quitting. With this in mind, the books are progressive and roughly graded (Book 1 is equivalent to Grade 3 (ABRSM level), Book 2, Grade 4, and Book 3, to that of Grade 5).

Arranged in chapters, each volume features a collection of attractive pieces (both original (many by composer Heather Hammond) and arrangements), and provides a curriculum for teachers to work through with quick-learn studies, musicianship activities, sight-reading exercises and much theoretical information, helpful for those at this crucial stage.

I have three books to give away to three lucky readers, so please leave your comments in the comment box at the end of this blog post and I will announce the winners on Monday evening (British time). Good luck!

You can find out more about the books here.


 

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.

 

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 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.

A few thoughts on piano teaching in Singapore & Malaysia

I spent an energizing and inspiring Summer period away from home this year. For me, this was the perfect way to enjoy a substantial break from my conventional teaching and writing. After working trips to the US (New York) and Germany (Gelsenkirchen), I savoured a relaxing, short holiday in Devon (South West of the UK) before embarking on a three-week sojourn to Southeast Asia.

I was predominantly based in Singapore, but I did cram a jam-packed five days in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) too. This part of the world has always been a favourite; I have visited these shores many times as a young pianist, more recently returning as an examiner (for the ABRSM) and an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Festivals (BIFF). The culture, colour, and sheer vibrancy of this region resonate with me completely, and I particularly admire the deeply respectful attitude to my profession.

My work began with a visit to the Singapore Performing Arts Festival, where I was invited to adjudicate (for BIFF) small classes of solo piano and strings. This festival, which is based in Katong (to the East of the city centre), is fairly new and has yet to blossom into the colossal organisation of the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival where classes of sixty are a regular occurrence  (and where I will be adjudicating for a month in March 2018). The classes in Singapore were mostly filled with students preparing for exams or concert performances, and, as always, it was a real pleasure to hear their work and hopefully help with a few constructive comments.

The primary reason for the trip was to introduce and talk about my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music), and under the kind auspices of the festival, I gave two days of master classes and a further two of workshops, all of which incorporated my new books. The first workshop was for students and their parents, and the second, for teachers. Both were well attended, but the workshop for teachers was especially interesting (pictured above). My chosen topics (piano technique, scales & arpeggios, memorisation and sight-reading) were subjects of concern such is the regularity with which these elements are taught, often due to examination requirements (the British exam system thrives throughout the region).

All twenty-eight teachers were not just responsive to my work, they were also keen to come to the piano, one by one, and try out my ideas and suggestions. The day flew past, and it was extremely satisfying and heart-warming to see such an animated, engaged group.

A couple of days were then spent giving private lessons for the festival; working both with children taking their graded exams, and teenagers and teachers preparing for their performing and teaching diplomas. Practice and preparation is a serious business in Singapore, which suits my style of teaching, and I relished working on the FTCL and FRSM repertoire with several students.

There are a plethora of piano studios and music schools in this tiny country,  some of which inhabit shopping malls! My second engagement was giving private lessons and public classes at The Musique Loft and Musique D’amour, also both based in Katong, in a mall full of beauty salons and health shops. These busy studios teach students of all levels, and we had fun working on mainly exam repertoire. Parents are generally involved with their child’s musical progress and frequently come to the lessons. Some will disagree with this practice, but I find it can be very beneficial; it ensures fruitful practice and therefore bodes well for overall improvement.

The teacher’s workshop at The Musique Loft (pictured to the right, above) was held in a studio with a beautiful Steinway grand and with another group of dedicated teachers. Memorisation is a popular topic amongst teachers; ‘I can never memorise and therefore find it challenging to teach to students’ is a remark I commonly hear. We work at this subject in several ways, but memorising on the spot is a feature of my class, and I’ve yet to find anyone who can’t do it. Observing pianists who suddenly realise they can master this aspect of piano playing is always a happy moment.

Another element which appeared popular at all the workshops, were the sight-reading classes (which round-off the day); at the end of each session, I encourage groups to sight-read altogether (one of which is pictured to the left, at the Performing Arts Festival), with three pianists per piano or six hands (there were nearly always two or three instruments in the room (and we had five pianos to work with in Kuala Lumpur!)). I use one or two pieces, both of which are well within most student’s capabilities, and we run through them with me acting as the conductor; I use the same musical parts duplicated, which makes it easier for students to ‘hear’ and feel where they are in the piece (and in the bar) at any given time.

British composer Mike Cornick has written a splendid series of trios, 4 Pieces for 6 hands at 1 piano (there are several books in the series for different abilities), and the second piece, Sempre Legato, is a winner (the front cover of this volume was photographed many a time during these sessions, by those eager to get their hands on a copy). Sight-reading in groups is a sure way to improve reading, although most work on this demanding discipline is done individually in my classes before playing as a group.

In this part of the world, piano teachers sometimes work in music shops (where jobs are coveted). After working for three days at The Musique Loft and Musique D’amour, I gave classes and shorter workshops for two days at the Cristofori Shop and School (pictured below) near Marina Bay (with an impressive view of the renowned hotel, Marina Bay Sands). The Cristofori brand is new to me – it’s popular in this part of the world, originating in Singapore, and taking its name from the ‘inventor’ of the piano, Italian maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655 – 1731). The Cristofori instruments I played had a slightly muffled, ‘soft’ tone and a deep touch (which students responded to favourably).I took the bus from Singapore to Petaling Jaya, to the West of Kuala Lumpur, where I stayed for a few nights. A refreshing change from flying, it was a pleasant way to spend six hours and offered a chance to enjoy the scenery. Kuala Lumpur might be viewed by some as an assault on the senses with its stunning Batu Caves (I managed a quick visit), frighteningly imposing Petronas Twin Towers, endless traffic jams, bustling night markets, open-minded cultural mix, intoxicating heat, and stupendously spicy, fabulous food!

Gloria Musica is a popular piano school in this region with many students and teachers (and it’s about to become larger with a lovely new premises). I had been invited to coach several three-hour master classes and two days of workshops; one for students and another for teachers (pictured above, at the end of the day, with Play it again: PIANO). A factor which I feel is important when giving workshops is the inclusion of all. Active workshops seem the best way to assimilate information, and to this end I urge each participant to come to the piano and engage in what is being demonstrated (although this is a personal choice; students are never forced to take part). As a result, everyone does participate and they usually comment positively on how much more is learned.

After the final classes, the tour concluded with a teacher’s concert (see poster below). A group of teachers at the school (and professors from UCSI University) played short pieces to a large and appreciative audience. I played some of my own compositions. The range of music was interesting, from a duet version of Carnival of the Animals (by Saint-Saëns) to some compelling (and previously unknown to me) Chinese pieces.

I am extremely grateful to the teachers and piano studio owners who kindly invited me to their schools during this period (and spent much time and energy showing me around these enchanting countries), to the Performing Arts Festival in Singapore for its wonderful hospitality, and to Schott Music for their exemplary distribution and vital support.

The opportunity to travel is a privilege. And to incorporate travel and work together is an aspect of my life which I have never taken for granted. I left Singapore and Malaysia with a greater understanding of the culture and complete admiration for their dedication to music study. I can’t wait to return very soon.

You can find out much more about Play it again: PIANO here.


Weekend Competition; the winner….

Many thanks to all who took part in my weekend competition, which was to win a copy of the new Improve your sight-reading! Teacher’s book written by Paul Harris and published by Faber Music.

The winner is…

TAMARA BARSCHAK

CONGRATULATIONS! Please send your address via my contact page.

For more information on this book, please 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.

Weekend competition and review: Improve your sight-reading! Teacher’s book

Educationalist Paul Harris has written countless publications (over 500), and many have graced my music desk, both for my students (Improve your sight-reading! series, Improve your aural! series), and for my own reading (Simultaneous Learning, The Virtuoso Teacher).

This new volume (published by Faber Music) is intended to help teachers teach their students to sight-read. So just how important is a book like this? Very! I frequently run courses and workshops about sight-reading, such is the demand for finding the optimum way to improve what is essentially a demanding skill.

In this helpful publication, Paul has taken his own formulae, and carefully dissected it, step by step, running through the most important aspects, helping teachers to grasp a clearer understanding of how to ‘put it across’ easily to their pupils in lessons (always a challenge).

The book opens with much written information covering what must be considered before playing a note (I’m very keen on this; good sight-reading begins with sound preparation). Teachers are then guided through the most vital steps. After a note on how to use the book (and the Improve your sight-reading! series), everything is examined from developing musicality, to multitasking (which runs through the basics, such as rhythm, note and melodic patterns, verbalising, reading ahead, remembering the key, fingering) and the crucial Super Golden Rules. Handy sight-reading warm-up tips appear, before moving to the main body of the volume, which works through copious musical examples (in a similar manner to the Improve your sight-reading! series, but with more practice tips to implement in piano lessons).

Based on the Grade 1 – Grade 5 (ABRSM) piano exams, there are several stages of learning for each grade; each one focuses on a particular element (stage 1 in Grade 1 highlights the time signature 4/4, the crotchet beat and rest, and the key of C major, for example). These stages are clearly set out at the beginning of the chapter (for every grade), alongside an Activities notice board which seeks to explain various activities to be introduced to students whilst working through the corresponding chapters. Once the various stages have been worked through (with a page of musical tests for each one), we move onto Grade 2.

This book succinctly explains how to address the sight-reading factor, and teachers will no doubt find it a practical, convenient volume to keep at the side of the piano.

I have one copy to give away in my Weekend Competition, so please leave your name and comment in the comment box at the end of this post, and I’ll announce the winner on Monday evening. Good Luck!

You can find out more about this publication 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.

5 Tips for the Perfect Practice Schedule

A practice schedule can lead to fruitful progress in your piano playing, and this topic was the focus of my 5 tips for last month’s Pianist Magazine newsletter. For those who feel they would benefit from a few helpful ideas to make their practice time even more successful, I have republished the article below.


One question asked by many a student; ‘how can I develop a practice schedule which will be both beneficial and practical.’ It’s too easy to sit down at the piano, play through a few pieces, practice the ‘difficult’ sections (this usually translates as ‘areas where errors are occurring’), and then call it a day. Perhaps a better plan, would be to carefully build a workable, reliable practice schedule which can be easily implemented, and more importantly, adhered to! Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Begin by deciding how many practice sessions are realistically possible. Five per week is optimal, allowing for a piano lesson (if you take them) on the sixth day and then a day off. Next, how long can you devote to practising? For the purposes of this article, let’s suggest one hour per day (but elongate or shorten to suit yourself).
  2. Are you are morning person or an evening person? If you can’t face working for an hour without a break, then maybe two (or three) shorter sessions are a good idea (perhaps one in the morning and another in the evening?). Either way, make your plan and stick to it.
  3. How will you divide your practice routine? Some like to drift from one piece to the next with no specific time plan, whilst others use a stop watch! Aim to begin with a five-minute warm-up routine. This can be anything from slow scales to more complicated studies, but again, start slowly, sinking your fingers deep into the key bed. It can be helpful to employ ‘mindful’ practice here, which might give your warm-up a ‘meditative’ quality.
  4. After warming-up, those who are keen to improve sight-reading skills may like to focus on this for 10 minutes (sight-reading is best done when fresh, as it’s arguably one of the most demanding elements of piano playing). This could be followed by 10 minutes of technical exercises (or substitute the sight-reading for exercises, if you’re already a proficient reader).
  5. The lion share of your practice session will, of course, be focused on your chosen repertoire. If you are learning several pieces, it may be an idea to rotate them, practising just one or two per day, working on other pieces the following practice session, then returning to the first set of pieces (or piece) the day after that. When practising, try to break pieces into small chunks, again, rotating sections, so a whole piece has been addressed in any one sitting (depending on its length).

As a recap, your schedule may look something like this:

Warm-up – 5 minutes

Sight-reading – 10 minutes

Technical work – 10 minutes

Repertoire – 35 minutes

Change this to suit your needs, but if you keep to a regular schedule, improvement will be swift and you’ll hopefully feel as though you are making solid progress with your piano playing.

Read the original article 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: Trinity College London Grade 3

I’ve been enjoying selecting repertoire for this current series on my blog. I’m not so familiar with Trinity College London exams; my students generally take ABRSM examinations, with the exception of a few of my diploma students (I like Trinity’s more varied repertoire at this level, particularly for Contemporary music).

Grade 3 provides an interesting mix of genres and styles. Here’s my pick of three pieces chosen from the main repertoire list (all featured in the Grade 3 exam Pieces & Exercises publication). These options might make for an appealing combination, and I hope the tips are helpful (I’ve also added a performance of each piece (primarily to offer an idea of how they might be interpreted) selected from the huge array on YouTube).

  1. Study Op. 37 No. 34 by Henry Lemoine (1786 – 1854)

French composer Henry Lemoine is known for his piano studies and exercises (he also founded a well-known music publishing house); many of the studies are interesting, tuneful, and enjoyable to play.

Whilst some may not appreciate opening an exam programme with a more demanding, lengthy (for Grade 3) piece, this work encourages strong fingers, crisp articulation and a certain sensitivity. And if a student doesn’t fancy playing this at the beginning of their programme, it’s entirely possible to start with another work (I often suggest beginning with a Contemporary piece in a programme and working backwards, historically!).

  1. Set in 3/8, repeated notes are a recurring feature (in the right hand).  It’s worth experimenting with the fingering for repeated notes; many prefer to repeat using  the same finger (this works well if you have a strong finger with active joints, and a loose wrist). The tempo is stately as opposed to quick, therefore there’s plenty of time to use the same finger, however I would suggest applying the fingering written in the score, as the last note of the group (played by a thumb here) often leads to a large, interval rather like that between bars 1 – 2 and 9  – 10.
  2. The semiquaver triplet pattern will benefit from nimble fingerwork so as to fully ‘hear’ all three notes each time they sound; it’s all too easy to ‘skip’ notes when playing such a figuration, with usually one of the group not fully sounding. Stem this by taking each triplet out of context, practising it on its own with the intended fingering, and play each note very heavily (and slowly), using the finger tip. Ensure the triplet is even rhythmically. It can be helpful to accent the second note when playing the group (for practice purposes only), then accent the last note. Working with different touches can be a useful method too. When up to speed, lighten each triplet and you will hopefully have more control over the group as a whole.
  3. Passages with chords will need care (such as at bars 19 – 20 and 23 – 24). Each part can be practised alone first. Staccato markings and all accents (which are a feature), must be precisely conveyed, and bars with a slur marking followed by staccato (for example, bars 2, 3, 5, and 14 -15 (all right hand)), might benefit from detailed slow work.
  4. The left hand chords provide the accompaniment, and whilst the pedal could be used to join triads from bar to bar, it’s much cleaner to use a legato touch (particularly where marked with a slur; bars 5 – 8, for example). In bars 32 – 43 the lower note (a dotted crotchet) must be held for the entire bar, with light chords above. Aim to practice holding the Bs for as along as possible, then when repeating the note at the beginning of the next bar, take it down again very softly, so as to match the tone from the previous note.
  5. The success of any performance will depend on the ability to ‘lift’ off notes quickly. Therefore listen to the ends of notes; note ends are as important as their beginnings, especially when playing detailed articulation. Counting in triplets throughout (i.e. three semiquavers to every quaver) in order to ‘place’ every beat, may be helpful until the pulse is solid.

2. The Highway Robber (from For Children) by Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

I couldn’t resist this wonderful little piece written by Hungarian master, Béla Bartók. Young players in particular will enjoy the insistent rhythm needed here, with its rather sinister connotations (albeit tongue-in-cheek!).There’s ample opportunity to inject colour and drama.

  1. This work is only really effective at a fast tempo (crotchet equals 126 beats per minute), and Bartók has been very precise about accents and phrasing. Work at the hands separately, in order to implement articulation from the outset. The opening interval of a fifth (left hand) must be strong, with a powerful (although never harsh)  sound, therefore avoid ‘hitting’ the keys by using the wrist in a relaxed flexible manner, cushioning the sound as fingers sink into the key bed.
  2. Rhythm is intrinsic to Bartók’s style, adding intensity and shape to his beloved folk tunes. As has often been suggested in these tips, breaking down the rhythm and counting in subdivisions of the beat will help with accuracy. Whilst the smallest denomination here is quavers, counting is semi-quavers (for a while) may help place beats more efficiently
  3. The left hand moves around the keyboard quickly, so aim to know this musical line thoroughly, and once secure, for practice purposes, work through the piece without looking at the keyboard as you play; this is a great way to ‘feel’ the distances between note patterns. The tied crotchet to a minim at bars 2 to 3, which will be held with the sustaining pedal (as ‘reaching’ the interval of a tenth is not an option for smaller hands), will need to be cut short quite precisely (as marked) so the melody is free from resonance.
  4. Bars 3 – 6 of the right hand melody should ideally be completely non-legato (slightly detached). This, combined with the accents, will shape the theme nicely, giving it the necessary ‘bite’. Move from one note pattern to the next much quicker than necessary, and aim for a slight rotational wrist motion between larger intervals, like the first and second notes in bar 5 (F to a C, right hand).
  5. For passages requiring perfect coordination (bars 3 – 6, for example), it will be beneficial to work a beat at a time, taking fingers down into the keys (at a third or quarter of the intended speed) absolutely together, and bringing them off together too. Match the sound of each note as much as possible, especially at bars 4 & 5, where  patterns don’t necessarily move in the same direction.

3. Sad Song by Alexander F. Johnson (1968 – )

A simple, reflective work which offers excellent contrast to the others already selected. Written by Alexander Johnson, there’s many a chance for  expressivity, enabling pupils to explore a wide range of colour, shading, shaping and phrasing; crucial for musical development, and just as important as being able to circumnavigate the keyboard at speed.

  1. This sad song alternates between sorrow and hope, with its minor key (E minor) and gentle hint of sunshine in the harmonies, such a those in the second bar. The sustaining pedal will add a wonderful resonance, but in order to match the sound, start by practising the left hand chords alone, finding suitable fingering (if that written doesn’t feel comfortable). Using a legato touch will enable control of the sound between chords, matching and phrasing off with the melody (in the right hand).
  2. The right hand look fairly innocuous, but the challenge is all in the phrasing; aim to join every single note (or as many as possible!). When we play, it can seem as though notes are legato, but when we listen to them carefully, there may be a few inconspicuous ‘gaps’ in the sound, where fingers tend to artlessly leave the keys before their time. Slightly ‘overlapping’ notes may help, taking one note down before leaving the last, think about shaping each phrase. Take a pencil and write in the ‘high point’ or climax within the phrase (generally each phrase has one).
  3. Try to contour each phrase, with a much softer tone at the beginning, rising to the focal point, evenly, i.e. without any bumpiness in the sound or rhythm, falling away at the end (bars 1 –  8, for example). The trick here is not to play too slowly; keep the piece moving (it is marked Andante, after all),  at a steady but not dirge like tempo.
  4. Some rubato is preferable in this piece, conveying the expressive nature and meditative quality, however, observe the rests at bar 13, counting them accurately, and resist any temptation to cut long notes (such as those at bar 14).
  5. Added chromaticisms (notes not in the key) abound, and can inject character. In this case, they contribute a ‘blues’ like feel, and this is particularly obvious at the end, where the ritenuto (slowing down), and final chord with its pause gives the impression of ‘drifting off’ into an abyss! A fairly substantial ritenuto and very soft dynamics work well for the last 4 bars.

Please visit my archives for other exam repertoire posts in this series.


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 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.