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.


.

 

Advertisements

Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 5

Continuing with my series examining effective exam programming combined with five tips for the suggested listed pieces,  ABRSM Grade 5 is the focus today. Some of my tips could be applied to similar repertoire, so if you’ve already settled on your programme, you might be able to use some of the ideas mentioned here. These pieces come from the Piano Exam Pieces volume published by the ABRSM (as shown to the left).

List A: A 3, Waltz in A J. 146, (No. 4 from Sechs Favoritwaltzer) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826)

German composer Weber, who studied with Haydn, was a fine pianist, although he was primarily known as an opera composer. ‘Six favourite waltzes of the Queen of France, Marie Louise’ were written in 1812; this piece exemplifies perfectly Weber’s ebullient style, demanding utmost precision, virtuosity and delicacy from the performer. Why not start by learning and practising the scale and arpeggio of A major (key of the piece)?

  1. The Trio (or middle section) has a distinctly different character from the outer sections; the opening is full of elegance and grace, whereas the middle section is rather dramatic, dark and almost sinister with its rhythmic insistence and minor key (A minor; again, perhaps explore this key too by working at the scale and arpeggio).
  2. The opening consists of an elegant theme and accompaniment. Aim to block out (play all at once) the left hand quaver patterned Alberti Bass (broken chord or arpeggiated accompaniment); playing one chord per bar, where possible), noting fingerings and position changes (this could also be done from bars 17 – 24 too). Then, taking a very slow practice speed, using a deep touch, ensure each quaver is played heavily, allowing a flexible wrist and lateral wrist movement between each note at the start, to quell any potential tension. When speed is added, lighten the touch; it may be necessary to break any wrist tension either at the end of every bar (to start with) or after each group of four bars. This can be done be releasing the hand and wrist’s ‘grip’, creating a very slight break or hiatus (only for a split second), allowing relaxation. If this proves tricky, practice by resting the arm down by the side of the body during each four bar mini-break (which you will have created if practising using this method).
  3. The melody (right hand) requires a very smooth legato, observing the four bar phrase structure with care. Accents (in bars 2 & 4) help shape the tune, and the acciaccaturas can bounce swiftly onto the main crotchet beat, adding a playful touch. It may be prudent to practice the quaver runs heavily securing all fingering, but when played up to speed, these rapid figurations must be light, delicate and graceful. Resist any temptation to accent the second and third beats of the bar, and turn the thumb under the hand flexibly, so as to avoid lumpy, jerky hand turns.
  4. Balance between the hands might take some work; a cantabile (singing) right hand will really enhance any performance, whilst the left hand can be light and soft. I find it helpful to reverse touches in this instance (left hand, cantabile, with the right hand playing softly, then adding non-legato coupled with legato into the mix).
  5. The left hand arpeggiated chords in the Trio need some kick and swagger; aim for a quick lateral movement (from left to right) in the forearm and wrist. Fingers need to be really active though, so that all notes of the chord sound. Keep the left hand thumbs (on the As) powerful but short and detached, throughout. The right hand needs firm touch; place each beat precisely, colouring the melody, with the arpeggiated chords merely adding to the texture.


List B: B 1, Sostenuto in E flat (KK IVb No. 10) by Frederyk Chopin (1810 – 1849)

A short, slip of a piece by the great Polish Romantic composer, but in just one page, many hallmarks of Chopin’s style are clearly displayed. This charming work was written in Paris for a friend and pupil, Emile Gaillard in 1840. In the style of a Waltz, it contains characteristics synonymous with the 19 Waltzes written throughout Chopin’s career. First of all, focus on the E flat major scale and arpeggio. And then the chord of the home key (tonic or chord I), consisting of E flat, G & B flat, followed by the dominant or chord V; B flat, D & F; these appear several times in the first half of the piece (left hand). The work is in binary form (or two sections).

  1. Secure the left hand first; try to learn the fingerings, notes and hand position changes without keeping time or adhering to a pulse. To gauge the leaps and jumps (which waltzes and similar dances often contain), always use larger jumps than necessary (experiment by moving an octave more than written), and once you’ve played the interval, practice it in reverse (i.e. backwards; you could even play the bar backwards, or beat three first). Each bar will need slow work, and after practising a lone bar, try to end on the first beat of the next, to ensure continuity. Always aim to land on each chord in good time. When played up to speed, give the first beat of the bar more promienence, keeping the second and third, lighter.
  2. In the first section (bars 1 – 16), the right hand melody must be cantabile (in a singing style), as often in Chopin’s music. For this, use a very relaxed wrist with the weight of your arm behind each note, playing into each key deeply, as opposed to sliding or skimming over the top. The depth of key, coupled with weight of the arm, will determine the quality of sound, therefore flexible posture, strong fingers, and a keen ear will be important here. Think of the Acciaccaturas as part of the melody line; slightly relaxed rhythmically, as opposed to the more precise ornamentation often found in Baroque music.
  3. Bars 14 & 15 contain a double note passage in the right hand; separate each pair of notes, (from bar 14 last quaver beat), and work at the lower note first, then the upper (alone but with correct fingering). When playing together, play with various touches (staccato, non-legato, etc.) in order that the notes sound at the same time, before focusing on the top line. Try to support the fourth and fifth finger, with the hand and arm, to produce a legato melody.
  4. The left hand melody from bar 16 (upbeat)  might need plentiful separate work; the acciaccaturas tend to dominate; practice without the ornaments to establish shape and fingering, then play them as regular quavers until they have been incorporated successfully. When confident, add speed to each acciaccatura and play ‘lightly’ and swiftly as a scant upbeat to the main quaver pattern. The right hand’s accompaniment requires soft colours and rhythmical placing.
  5. The sustaining pedal is part of the fabric of this piece; listening is the best method! Pedalling on the first beat of each bar might be a good start, then let your ear be your guide. Rubato is a useful addition to the end of phrases (such as bars 15 – 16), but try not to use it constantly, as, even in this genre, too much renders a performance unrhythmical.


List C: C 1, Staccato Beans (No. 2 from Eight Memories in Watercolor) by Tan Dun (1957)

Staccato Beans contains an exuberant vivacity with a Chinese inspired folk melody. Premiered by Chinese pianist Lang Lang in 2003, it has already proved a favourite on this syllabus. Written by Chinese composer Tan Dun, and set in D minor, dynamic contrasts and melodic inflections abound, providing an excellent exam programme line-up with the Weber and Chopin.

  1. Coordination is paramount, and due to the many different articulation marks, separate hand practice should suffice until fully assimilated. Jumps between sections around the keyboard must also be taken into account, before playing hands together.
  2. The left hand opening quaver pattern has been carefully marked and must be even rhythmically; two slurred quavers followed by two staccato. Once the overall chordal patterns have been learned (particularly at bars 1 – 8 and 24 – 34),  play legato at first, then work at the articulation, allowing a free wrist (as often mentioned here!); avoid locking-up whilst playing repetitive patterns of any kind; find places in the music to break any tension and release the wrist.
  3. The right hand melody is heavily articulated, a bold touch with added shape and definition courtesy of the accent markings is ideal. When playing staccato, try not to rush from one note to the next. This can happen when playing in a detached manner, as the shortening of a note can allow the next to be sounded too quickly. Avoid this by counting meticulously, ‘feeling’ the pulse.
  4. The left hand minims at bars 13 – 18 must be held for the entire bar, as they provide the bottom of the harmony. Coordination may need attention, so the middle Cs above, are well placed rhythmically with the correct articulation.
  5. Sforzandos are the key to a successful interpretation; accents in the right hand, at bars 26 – 43 particularly, need highlighting with a brusque, sharp timbre, bringing the Chinese characterisation to the fore. This is especially true of the passagework in the high register of the instrument (at bars 40 – 43, for example). When the melody repeats (bars 44 – 61), softer colours can be employed. Keep the sustaining pedal to a minimum; a dry, austere sound mimics the folk-song semblance nicely.

For more practice information relating to other piano exams and exam boards, please visit my archives, 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.


 

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.


The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide: the winner is…

Many thanks to all who took part in this weekend’s competition. The prize is a copy of the new Faber Music book, The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide written by Anthony Williams.

The winner is…

JULIE REEMAN

Congratulations! Please send your address via the contact page here on my blog, and your book will be on its way!

You can find out more about this publication, here.


 

The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide: Weekend competition!

Continuing with my recent focus on Faber Music’s Piano Month, pianist, teacher and ABRSM examiner Anthony Williams has contributed the following interesting guest post about the perils and pleasures of piano teaching, in relation to his new book. The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide (published by Faber Music). This generous volume contains so much useful information for piano teachers everywhere.

Anthony’s post is entitled, A Journey for Survival, and it first appeared in the Faber Music Piano Catalogue, which you can read here. I have one copy of this book to give away, and If you would like to win please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of the post. I will pick a winner on Sunday night, British time (do check my blog on Sunday evening to see if you’ve been selected). Good Luck! Over to Anthony…


I remember vivdly, and with some embarrassment, giving my first piano lessons to young piano pupils in North London. As a young concert pianist I had no previous experience in piano teaching but parents who had heard me play thought that this gave me the expertise and understanding to teach their son or daughter. I loved teaching but it was a huge responsibility and I fear I bluffed my way through, always acutely aware of my fallibility and failings. Despite my best efforts to find out more about teaching at this level I found it very hard to glean much advice from colleagues or to find any books which gave me the fundamental knowledge or appropriate musical strategies that

I needed to teach young pupils.

In an effort to find out more, I made the development of a free and relaxed technique the focus of my Master’s degree and, whilst continuing a performing career, devoted myself to piano teaching and to developing my own expertise and understanding. I explored, researched and analysed recordings and videos of my own teaching to discover what worked and, of course, what didn’t, and I consulted with more experienced teachers. Eventually I found myself talking to and discussing teaching in seminars and became a mentor and tutor on a number of Professional Development Courses. As a result I have had the privilege of sitting in on hundreds of piano lessons given by other teachers, naturally embracing some of their fabulous ideas to use in my own teaching and hopefully offering some of my own in return.

More recent presenting work and masterclasses over a number of years have given me the opportunity to explore areas of teaching in even greater depth, to share ideas in more detail and to pass these on to other teachers, both in the UK and internationally. It wasn’t long before I had a huge resource of material on all areas of piano performance, piano teaching and piano technique and I found myself being contacted regularly by piano teachers asking for help on specific areas of their teaching. Keen to do this, I also promised numerous times that I would eventually put all my thoughts and pooled knowledge in one place and the idea (though not the title) of The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide came to mind, and for some time was an ambition close to my heart. A sabbatical and some much-needed encouragement from Faber Music finally encouraged me to put in the work and the book became a reality.

It’s not a ‘how to teach’ book, it’s a book of ideas, thoughts and fundamental principles, and yet I wanted it to be more than just a sharing of information about piano technique and performance. In my early years my inexperience as a teacher meant I often neglected the musical imagination and creativity that inspires pupils to put in hard work and practice. I now strongly believe in putting communication, a love of the beauty of sound and an understanding of the physical relationship with the piano at the heart of teaching to nurture a truly instinctive and musical performer. Combine this with a relaxed, balanced and instinctive (rather than drilled) physical approach to the piano and you allow the natural personality of the performer to emerge. This philosophy became the overwhelming context of the book and linked all the threads together.

The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide is a comprehensive and practical guide providing essential advice for all piano teachers. Aiming to improve and develop confidence in teaching skills and piano technique, the book focuses on the best ways to support pupils and develop their love of the piano. Featuring many case studies, musical examples and problem-solving clinics, this is a rich resource of basic principles, useful tools and thought-provoking ideas.

 


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.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attending a Piano Pedagogy Conference

Until last week I had only ever attended one piano pedagogy (teaching) conference, and had never participated in such an event; so it was with a spirit of adventure (as well as slight trepidation) that I ventured into the unknown. After a successful trip to the Far East over the Summer (where I gave three weeks of classes, lectures and workshops), I was invited to present at the UCSI University Piano Pedagogy Conference 2017, in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). It was an offer I couldn’t refuse; I’m accustomed to travelling around the world alone (having done so for years as a young pianist), and find the challenge of working in exotic places simply irresistible.

Piano pedagogy conferences appear the world over (with arguably the most well-known being held in the USA and Australia). The UK equivalent is organised by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) and is usually a three-day marathon. Most conferences offer a continuous stream of master classes, workshops, lectures, recitals and presentations given by various expert pedagogues, with the aim of inspiring teachers and students.

By all accounts, they can be somewhat dull, dry affairs (or so I’ve often heard), where groups of teachers might congregate to discuss the benefits of the five-finger position (or not, as seems to be the case these days if you read the raft of comments on the various online piano teaching forums!). Luckily, I have found students and teachers in Malaysia in particular, more open to different ideas and teaching practices. This was bourne out during my Summer trip, where learning and sharing were the order of the day everywhere I worked.

The UCSI University is often considered the number one higher education institute in Malaysia, in terms of music; its Institute of Music is very active, offering its student body recitals, master classes and prominent Malaysian teachers. Headed by Dr. P’ng Tean Hwa (who runs the department;  pictured above, closing the conference in the concert hall), the institute is thriving, with a new concert hall and music building (which had opened only the day before the conference). Assistant Professor Dr. Christine Tan and her team of organisers had paid meticulous attention to every detail, so that both presenter and participator should want for nothing. I stayed in the hotel at the campus; which, rather like the concert hall, had only opened very recently.

This was the university’s first piano pedagogy conference and it featured two action packed days (6th and 7th November). Conference attendees consisted of a mix of teachers and students. The students were primarily drawn from those studying at the university (fortuitous students indeed; I don’t remember anything of this nature being held at the Royal College of Music during my student days), and the teachers were largely local, although there were some from Indonesia and other nearby countries.

The key-note speaker, Professor Dr. Michael Campbell, gave a series of master classes and workshops, including an interesting improvisation lecture, where four students (using two pianos) experimented with ‘group’ improvisation. Dr. Campbell closed the conference with a recital which encompassed a large selection of styles and genres; from Scarlatti and Mendelssohn to Bartók and Fats Waller.

The Plenary speaker, jazz pianist Michael Veerapen, is a renowned figure in the Malaysian jazz scene. Michael gave a master class, several lectures and a jazz concert complete with band. Both speakers also took part in a pre-conference event the day before (5th November), offering further workshops on their specific specialties.

Sandwiched in between the keynote speakers were a group of presenters, including myself. Each presentation lasted 35 – 40 minutes, with a brief Q&A at the end. We spoke on an extensive selection of topics, and those I attended were fascinating. Musicologists picked subjects close to their heart, like Decoding Idiosyncratic Hairpins of Schubert, Chopin and Brahms—Dynamics or Rubato?  (given by Dr. Cheong Yew Choong) and then there were the practical workshops, which sometimes required audience participation, such as Nurturing Musical Abilities: A Creative Movement in Piano Lessons Using Dalcroze Eurhythmics Approach (given by Dr. Onpavee Nitisingkarin; pictured at the piano (above) with a keen group of conference attendees).

Austrian pianist Dr. Andreas Eggertsberger’s lecture was very informative, focusing on a much debated issue, Focal Dystonia. The talk, entitled Focal Dystonia: My Experience with the Injury, highlighted this debilitating physical problem of which many are not even aware. Focal Dystonia is, by all accounts, similar to repetitive strain injury or tendonitis. Dr. Eggertsberger carefully plotted his story, illustrating how he managed to find his way back to relative health, demonstrating  the patience and resilience required to ‘re-learn’ to play by acquiring a more secure, solid technique (technical issues are frequently the cause of physical injury).

I felt fortunate to be able to talk about my new piano course, Play it again: PIANO (it’s often deemed inappropriate to openly ‘advertise’ your own publications at conferences, but such rigid views aren’t upheld in this part of the world). My presentation (pictured to the right), entitled Developing an Effective Programme for Those Returning to Piano Playing, touched on the need for this student demographic to have a progressive, graded collection of pedagogically sound pieces, with plenty of technical help, enabling them to easily re-acquaint themselves with the instrument. My lecture was indeed popular (with around 75 in the audience; as seen in the photo below) and a fair few books were sold too.

We were treated to a splendid array of culinary delights over the two days, with a variety of tasty Malaysian dishes, all included as part of the conference. During these extended breaks, teachers and students could mingle, network and discuss the pleasures and perils of piano teaching. There was also an opportunity to purchase piano music, piano memberships and the instruments too, courtesy of a trade floor in the basement of the building.

I really enjoyed making new friends and acquaintances, and found the whole event a stimulating, worthwhile learning experience. I hope to attend many more piano pedagogy conferences in the future.


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: JukeBox – Fun Piano Solos and Duets

This weekend my competition features a new publication by British composer Olly Wedgwood. JukeBox: Fun Piano Solos and Duets (Volume 1) is a colourful new volume containing 10 original piano pieces, all published by Olly’s own publishng company, OllysPianoSheets. Intended for students between Grade 1 – 2 Level (ABRSM), the 10 pieces can be accompanied by performance and backing tracks, which are downloaded as mp3s from Olly’s website.

The pieces all contain Olly’s musical hallmarks, and comprise popular styles from jazz and blues, to swing and soul. Olly suggests the pieces are for those who have been learning the piano for around a year, and he provides a helpful sentence or two at the top of each one with practice suggestions. The final two works are duets, and my favourites are Silver Lining and Pentatonic Prairie.

I have two copies to give away to two winners, so as usual, please leave your comments in the comment box at the end of this post and I will select the winner on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!


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.


 

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.


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: 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 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.