Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 1

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire is a new series on my blog. It will essentially examine selected repertoire across the grades.

I’m focusing on two exam boards: ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London; both syllabuses require three piano pieces per grade (plus supporting tests). These works are usually contrasting in style and character, which is an element I will emphasize.

My selections are merely personal preferences, as all those within the syllabus lists have already been carefully picked in order to present engaging programmes. My aim is to provide a few tips and practice ideas (5 tips in all) for each of the three chosen pieces, and in many cases these tips can be applied to similar music elsewhere. I hope you find them helpful and informative.

My ABRSM Grade 1 exam programme comes from the 2017/18 syllabus, drawn from the main list (as opposed to the alternative list); I’ve also included a video recording of each piece, taken from YouTube, where there are many performances from which to choose!

When working at the repertoire, try to incorporate the necessary scales for the grade, and some sight-reading at every practice session (see my last post on exam preparation for more information).

List A: Aria in F (BWV Anh. II 131) by J.C. Bach (1735 – 82)

From the Little Keyboard Book, this attractive, lively piece was written by J.S. Bach’s youngest son when he was just a ten-year old; an excellent opening for a Grade 1 exam, it provides the opportunity to demonstrate nimble fingers and rhythmic poise. Divided into two distinct sections (and therefore in binary form), each section is repeated, although this isn’t strictly necessary in an exam.

  1. Start by practising the scale of F major, noting the key signature (with a B flat). Learn each hand separately, and ensure you know the left hand particularly thoroughly, before playing hands together (practice either a bar or phrase at a time until familiar).
  2. This piece is all about the articulation (or touch). Each crotchet in the bass can be non-legato i.e. lifting off a note after it has been played, leaving a slight gap in the sound between the notes. Minims could also be played non-legato, especially at bars 12 & 14, where marked with a ‘wedge’ or staccato sign.
  3. To keep a firm grip on the pulse, count in quavers, and place each crotchet precisely on the beat avoiding the urge to rush or linger.
  4. The right hand should ideally be legato (or smooth and joined up) where phrased (i.e. in bars 2 and 3), and after the double bar, a legato phrase from bar 8  –  11 will form a cantabile (singing) musical line. The trill in bar 1 could be played as suggested, or simplified to a four-note upper mordent (always leave out when practising, adding only when the piece is rhythmically secure and the trill has been fully mastered).
  5. The ‘wedge’ markings in both hands at bars 4, 12 and 14 need a decisive sound and staccato (detached) touch. A very slight slowing down (or ritenuto) at the end, is the only tempo change necessary here.

List B: Gypsy Song (No. 6 from A Baker’s Dozen) by Bryan Kelly (1934 – )

In contrast to the Aria in F, this melancholic piece proffers the chance to become acquainted with the A minor scale (which can be learned alongside the piece), as well as the opportunity to develop musical colour and atmospheric sound; perfect for encouraging sensitive, expressive playing. Think about this piece in terms of a song, with each hand providing important thematic material. Whilst this is a contemporary piece, it offers a romantic character.

  1. When practising hands separately, notice how the left hand begins in the treble clef, moving down to the bass from bar 6, and how the left and right hand phrases tend to overlap. Experiment with each phrase, joining the notes smoothly, beginning softly (right hand, bar 1), with a crescendo to bar 2, playing each a fraction more powerfully than the last, but without any sense of rushing or lingering. Bars 5 – 8, 13-14, 15-16, 17-18, can all be given similar treatment in this respect.
  2. Attention to detail in the right hand is advised from bars 9 -12 particularly; both accents and tenuto (leaning) markings need a special sound, adding poignancy.
  3. Aim to work at the left hand carefully from bars 9 – 12, where a detached, deeper touch will represent the tenuto quaver passages, and the last line (bars 20 – 27) will require solid fingering and precise quavers and semiquavers; when playing hands together, work at this section at a quarter of the intended speed, practising with a heavy touch, lightening it when secure.
  4. Hand position changes are common, so be prepared to move quickly, and plan the move (in your mind and fingers) ahead of time, so as not to leave it to the last moment.
  5. Be sure to count the rests (in bars 2 and 4) of the wistful opening line. The sustaining (right) pedal could be added at bars 8 and 26, to add resonance. Place the last right hand C sharp with deep touch, emphasising the tierce de picardie (or major third).

List C: Asian Tiger Prowl by Rob Hall (1969 – )

This is such fun! It’s full of drama, imagination, and colour, and written by British composer Rob Hall; it’s a great way to end a Grade 1 exam programme. The tiger is preying on its potential dinner, as it ‘prowls’ and waits for the perfect moment to pounce on its object of desire at the end.

  1. Staccato and tenuto chords are the important features here, appearing in alternating hands, the former needs a very crisp, erudite approach, whilst the latter can be held, creepily for slightly longer than deemed appropriate! Aim to use firm fingers for each chord (so they sound absolutely together).
  2. Rhythm is paramount, and counting in quavers is probably the best method, placing every beat precisely (especially the quavers in bars 2, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18 and 19).
  3. Rests in bars 2, 4, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 17, and 18 must be adhered to and fully counted in order to conjure the tiger’s indecisive movements.
  4. Ensure the bars rest is held for its full value, and don’t be tempted to skip the beats at bars 20 and 21 either. Accents and phrase markings bring this piece to life.
  5. The last 3 bars need a full fortissimo, allowing the sustaining pedal to catch the final chord (bar 19; last quaver beat), providing a macabre final flourish.

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 Power of Repetition

Finding the appropriate practice tool for a specific issue can, as we all know, be a matter of trial and error. When all the usual methods have been exhausted or have perhaps already been overused, it’s time to experiment with new ideas and find a fresh approach in order to nail that awkward passage.

Recently, I’ve been working with a couple of students who are both preparing Mozart’s Sonata K. 311 in D major. The first movement can be deceptive, with many rapid passages containing unforgiving twists and turns in the right hand particularly. Changing fingers at speed can be a major challenge for many, especially during the trills, which whilst look similar, in fact require different fingering depending on the succeeding note  patterns.

There are  many ways to finger an ornament, but copious hand rotations, or thumbs set under or over the hand often need a different practice regime, so that fingers are literally programmed to play the pattern accurately every time. If this doesn’t happen, then hesitations or a slowing down (or destabilising) of the tempo may occur. Here’s a notorious spot for some (bars 35 – 36):

New Mozart exampleIt’s the second time this trill appears (first time is at bar 31), and the material following the ornament takes a different turn (than that after the first time), hence the unexpected finger change at the end (turning the hand over the thumb to play a 2nd finger), which can sometimes upset the flow (the following is only a suggested trill interpretation):

Mozart 1Here, I normally suggest applying many different touches (non-legato, staccato etc.), followed by different rhythms (dotted rhythms, triplet figures and the like), and a whole array of accents (I love using accents for practising purposes), as well as playing in various octaves around the keyboard (I could go on here, but you get the picture!). However, occasionally further detailed work is necessary.

This is when we turn to the repetition method. A successful ornament demands strong independent fingers; ones which will work very quickly,  cleanly, and rhythmically. If trills are becoming sluggish, slower than necessary, or notes are not fully sounding or are unequal, try the following suggestion.

The ornament must be isolated and taken out of context. Banish any sense of rhythm or pulse and just focus on the notes, working at the right hand. Start by playing the pattern in double notes. Follow this with triplets:

Mozart 2And finally you could try playing four semiquavers per note! Make sure you use the fingers with which you will play the ornament. Always practice slowly to begin with and, most importantly, free of any tension. With this in mind, you may need to ‘bounce’ the hand after each note (at first), especially at the beginning of each beat (to free the wrist), so that it doesn’t ‘lock up’.

Now experiment with accents; start with one on the first beat of every group, then on the second beat. Follow this with accents on beats 1 and 3 of every note group (for the triplet group). Add speed gradually until you can play quite fast and with a warm sound. Ensure each note is completely even tonally and rhythmically (whilst you are not yet adhering to the pulse, the notes must still be equally played). You could also try using dotted rhythms on each repetition, whether two, three or four notes are being played.

Once you’ve mastered this, return to playing the ornament as written. Lighten your finger touch and, hopefully, the practice repetitions will enable an even trill (fingering, notes, rotations) with all notes clearly articulated and fully sounding. Try now to combine the trill with the left hand.

You might require a fair amount of practice in order to become acquainted with the feeling of repeating the notes with flexibility (the wrist must always be free of tension and ideally should move after every quaver beat, albeit imperceptibly). Playing the repetitions with the left hand semiquaver pattern might also be beneficial (at very slow speeds), enabling perfect placing of each note.

Repeating notes in a pattern can be successfully applied to all tricky passages and ones which combine both hands too; if there is a unison pattern of quavers or semiquavers, this may be a useful way to help coordination. Happy practising!

Here’s Daniel Barenboim’s interpretation of Mozart’s Sonata in D major K. 311:

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.