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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


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Practising Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor Op. Posth. by Fryderyk Chopin

I wrote about practising this beautiful Nocturne a few years ago (you can read the article here), and it has become one of my most ‘viewed’ blog posts. This work is now especially popular partly due to the fact that it is on the current ABRSM Grade 7 syllabus (2017 – 2018). I was invited to rewrite the article for EPTA’s Piano Professional magazine; it was published earlier this year, and is more in-depth than the first one, with a few different practice ideas. I hope you find it of interest.


Fryderyk Chopin’s Nocturnes offer a rich array of depth, emotion and expressivity. Written between 1827 and 1846, they consist of 21 short pieces. The genre was developed by the Irish composer John Field, but Chopin expanded on this original conception, producing what are generally considered to be amongst the finest short pieces ever written for the instrument. This Nocturne was composed in 1830 for Chopin’s older sister, Ludwika, and was first published 26 years after the composer’s death. It is frequently referred to as the ‘Reminiscence’ Nocturne.

The Nocturne typically constitutes a romantic, dreamy character, suggestive of the night. The main feature of most Nocturnes is a beautiful song-like melody, often with melancholic overtones accompanied by a rolling unobtrusive bass. Ornament passages and filigree in the melody are commonplace, and the importance of the sustaining pedal cannot be overestimated, bestowing the overall dramatic effect. There are many variations, but the formula has produced some of the most haunting, emotional and exquisite piano music.

Whilst Nocturnes are generally slow and may sound fairly ‘straightforward’, in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. A Nocturne, or any similar slower paced work requiring a cantabile (in singing style) touch and a deep connection with the key bed in order to produce a full, rich timbre, needs specific practice methods, and those ideas presented here could therefore be applied to a host of similar works.

During 2017/18, the piece featured on the syllabus of the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) Grade 7 piano exam. So with this in mind, here are a few practice suggestions for students to digest and apply, with the intention of making the path to examination success a little smoother.

The opening chords can present a few problems and need consistent balancing; an active, strong fourth and fifth finger (used to colour the top line) must be combined with a ‘soft’ approach in the wrists so as to cushion the sound. A daunting opening such as this, where each note must sound fully, should ideally be voiced perfectly and yet still extremely soft. The trick (other than trying the concert or examination piano first!) is to focus on the top note (or melodic material) making quite sure it’s completely legato; ask students to change fingers, where necessary, keeping the legato line, and then combine with sparse pedalling. By making sure arm weight is transferred to the fourth and fifth finger (experiment by moving the right hand and wrist slightly to the right, away from the body, therefore providing more support for weaker fingers), pupils should be able to produce a full sound in the melody line allowing other notes  (accompanying chords) underneath to fade into the background.

I encourage students to join fingers wherever possible in a legato melodic line – it’s more effective than relying on the sustaining pedal. Play the remaining notes in the chords with a very relaxed arm and wrist, depressing the keys slowly, testing the key bed, checking where the sound kicks in. Note too that the repeat of the opening chordal passage must be played much softer, like an echo. Here’s the passage;

And the melodic line, which needs special attention (with suggested fingering);It can be helpful to practice the inner parts of the chords (as shown in the first example here) on their own, gauging the necessary feeling, balance, and sound in order to play sufficiently quiet, yet altogether. Add the top (melody) line when secure.

After the introduction, the remainder of the piece consists of a rolling, quaver bass constructed from arpeggio or broken chord figurations over which a captivating right hand melody prevails. There are many different layers of sound in this work requiring a whole gamut of touches and pianistic colour; the three layers at the opening can be separated and practised in isolation (from bars 2 – 5);

  1. The melodic material in the right hand:

     2. The broken chord quaver figurations in the left hand:

    3. The bottom of the chord (the bass line) which is usually the first quaver of every minim group which generally occur twice in every bar:

It’s always worthwhile practising the left hand alone for an extended period, until notes are fully grasped (it can help to know the patterns from memory too), because absolute consistency and evenness is necessary with regard to rhythm and tone.  Rubato (or taking time) is a feature of Chopin’s music, but even the composer himself apparently insisted on a rhythmical bass, proclaiming ‘The left hand is the conductor of the orchestra’, above which the melody can enjoy some rhythmical freedom.

Students might benefit from using a variety of touches when practising; start by playing the bass line fortissimo, playing deep into the key bed, because then it is easier to pull back and achieve a smooth, soft, even sound. The bass notes at the beginning of each broken chord are the most important as already mentioned, and need slightly more sound and a tenuto (or held) approach (this note can be held for a fraction longer than the other quavers), because it’s providing the bottom of the texture harmonically (the constant bass C sharps in the following extract. The example shows all three strands or layers of music from the examples above, combined (or as written));

It’s a good idea to be aware of the musical structure (which is ternary form) and the harmonic structure too, as this aids quick study, particularly if the piece is to be performed from memory.

Each quaver in the bass leads musically to the next, yet at the same time must provide the ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ layer of sound, and therefore should generally be in the background with regards to volume. Try to avoid the temptation to ‘poke’ or ‘jab’ at notes.  To play these bass quavers evenly, it might be beneficial to play them in ‘blocks’ at first; blocking out chords involves playing the notes in each group (here, on every crotchet beat) all together, so the correct fingerings, hand positions and movement needed between notes is swiftly learned. When this has been done and thoroughly assimilated, ask pupils to play as written, encouraging the hand and wrist (especially) to roll from left to right, guiding the fingers into their positions, allowing fingers to ‘hover’ over the notes in preparation.

The large gaps between the notes in the left hand (i.e. between the C sharp, G sharp and the E, during the first two crotchet beats of bar 1, in the musical example above), is more comfortable with a wrist rotation (or lateral wrist movement), the hand moving quickly back to the C sharp on beat 3 (from the previous middle C (sharp) on the second quaver of beat 2 (bar 1)). To do this rhythmically and evenly, encourage students to stay on each note for as long as possible, quickly swivelling the fingers and hand into place in preparation for the next one; this way legato will hopefully prevail and there will be few gaps in the sound.

For note security and gradation of tone, the left hand can be practised without any pedal at first and certainly without rubato. As the bass part becomes more secure, so pedal can be gradually added. It’s crucial to constantly listen when pedalling; the pedal is often best controlled by the ear as opposed to written suggestions on the page. This might sound obvious but it’s easy to pedal mindlessly, not listening to everything clearly.  During the ‘busier’ passages, pupils might experiment with ‘flutter’ pedalling; where the sustaining pedal is constantly moving up and down (or hovering) in order to ‘clear’ the sound and avoid blurring too many harmonic progressions.

The melody, as with many of Chopin’s works, requires a real cantabile (or singing style) touch. It must soar above the bass and consist of a wonderful operatic quality synonymous with Chopin’s style (Chopin was reportedly a fan of the Italian composer Bellini’s operas). A free wrist with plenty of arm weight can provide a suitably rich, warm sound; even the pianissimos need some arm weight and the overall timbre should ideally project fully. The success of this line relies on  an understanding of the nuances of each phrase. Rather like sentences, a melody must have punctuation. Aim to study each phrase ‘feeling’ the direction of the music, seeking where the most important note or notes lie and adjusting the sound and shape of the phrase accordingly. Ask pupils to listen to where and how the melody rises and falls, therefore enabling dramatic sections to stand out musically. Space is vital in this work, so students must allow ‘breathing’ time between phrases.

The tricky ornamental or fioritura (or embellished) passagework and scalic runs can be negotiated by working again with a full sound (for practice purposes only), encouraging all fingers to play fully on their tips (particularly the fourth and fifths), and deeply into the keys, as opposed to sliding over the top (make sure the fingerings have been written in the score before practice begins). Then experiment with different types of articulation (staccato, non-legato, varying accents and dynamics); complete clarity is desired in every figuration, with all notes ‘sounding ‘equally, as opposed to being rushed or concertinaed together.

A particularly helpful method of practising trills, like that found in the musical example (in the right hand at bar 2), is to take the ornament out of context, working at it alone. Begin by securing the fingering (and sticking to it!), then ask students to play each note in the trill slowly and heavily, using the full force of each finger (always ensure a relaxed free wrist and arm, preferably after every note, so tension doesn’t arise). When the shape or pattern of notes has been understood, practice using accents on the weaker fingers, then on the stronger fingers.

Each note in the trill can be played twice or as a double note; every finger needs to enunciate the notes cleanly and with force here (but without any tension). Pupils can then play triple notes or triplets (three notes per trill note). When employing this approach, the wrist must be relaxed between every note, so the hand appears to be ‘bouncing’, as opposed to stuck in one position, which could indicate tension. By playing more notes than necessary, when the trill is played as written it feels much easier and more comfortable.

Elongating trills can also be useful, and by making them more challenging than originally written, when pupils return to playing Chopin’s score, inserting the ornaments into their rightful place, they seem much smoother and more controlled.

After practising the suggested methods using a distinctly heavy touch, a lighter finger touch should reveal even, accurate trills and florid passages, with fingers skating over the keys lightly. As with the left hand, work on the right hand separately until secure and confident. It might be a good plan to practice with the metronome until total rhythmic grasp is honed, and only then start thinking about rubato. Working under tempo is also advisable until any hesitations and insecurities have been ironed out, and coordination between the hands is exact.

Scale passages in the right hand from bar 55 onwards, can be contoured to ‘fit’ with the bass line; encourage students to mark the score at the most convenient ‘meeting’ places between the right and left hand passagework, and then stick to this every time during practice sessions; within a short space of time, these ‘meeting’ places will feel increasingly natural, and will eventually allow for more rhythmic flexibility. The left hand quavers will also need to be elastic rhythmically in order to accommodate the group of thirty-five right hand semiquavers at bar 56.

At bar 19, new material heralds the start of a less sombre section, characterised by a dotted rhythm and insistent triplet figure (which appears in the left hand from bar 31 to bar 42 (the main theme returns at bar 44). Chopin has marked all details very thoroughly, from dynamics (‘ff’ to ‘pp’) to the precise musical markings, which must all be noted.

If students can colour each layer of sound accordingly, and combine this with a thorough technical grounding, they will be on their way to creating a persuasive reading of this enchanting piece. And they will hopefully be able to tackle any subsequent Nocturne or similar work effectively, whether it be for a graded exam, diploma, or concert performance.

Suggested further reading:

Chopin, Pianist and Teacher; As seen by his pupils: Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger (published by Cambridge University Press)

After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton (published by Oxford University Press)

Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces Grades 1 – 8, 2017 – 2018 (published by ABRSM)

ABRSM Piano Notes 2017/18 (published by Rhinegold)

You can read the original article here: Practising Nocturne No 20 in C sharp minor by Fryderyk Chopin


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 winners…

Many thanks to all who took part in my weekend competition. The prizes are two copies of Olly Wedgwood’s JukeBox: Fun Piano Solos and Duets.

The winners are:

PAMELA DENISON and LUCY SLANE

Congratulations! Please send your addresses via the contact page here on my blog. You can find out much more about this publication 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 Intermediate Pianist: The winners….

Many thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition, which was to win one of three new books written by Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond.  I really enjoyed reading all your comments. The Intermediate Pianist is a new piano course for those from Grade 3 – 5 level.

The winners are:

Liz Gethings wins Book 1

Flora Tzanetaki wins Book 2

and, Rebekah Hanna wins Book 3

Congratulations! Please send your address via my contact page here on the blog, and your books will be on their way.

You can find out much more about these publications here.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

Weekend Competition: the winners…

Many thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition. The prizes include five volumes of the Relax With Series of piano music edited by Samantha Ward and published by Schott Music.

The winners are:

Lisa Lewis wins Relax With Baroque Music

ADA wins Relax With Classical Piano Music

Antonina Lax wins Relax With Romantic Piano Music

Katherine Farr wins Relax With French Impressionist Piano Music

and, Ann Coleman wins Relax With Folk Piano Music

CONGRATULATIONS! Please send your addresses via the contact page on this blog and your book will be on its way.

For more information about each book, 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.


 

15 Top Piano Resources for 2015

Happy New Year!

I’ve discovered many great piano tutors or methods, educational piano books, sheet music and online resources  over the past year, some of which have already been reviewed or mentioned on my blog.  So here’s a round-up of useful and interesting publications for pupils,  teachers, and piano lovers everywhere. This is a random selection, but I have included resources for all levels, and hopefully these recommendations might be helpful.


For Beginners:

My Piano Trip To London

COVER NEW FRONT copy

My Piano Trip To London will be a hit with beginners everywhere. Written by British composer and piano teacher, Elena Cobb (who is the creator of the popular Higgledy Piggeldy Jazz Series), it combines lots of fun games, stickers (yes, stickers!), and inventive musical ideas, with sound learning tools and advice (there is a Top Tip on every page). I particularly like the duet aspect; pupil and teacher playing together in virtually every piece. Not only does this provide a confidence boost for the student (more often, helping them to keep time), but it also makes any piece sound wonderful (the teacher’s parts being more complicated, definitely enhance each little piece). All centred around famous images of London, Fab Facts are interspersed with swift learning. Highly recommended! (All Elena’s books are available in the US from her distributor.)

Dogs & Birds

Written by Hungarian pianist and teacher Elza Lusher, Dogs & Birds, is already a popular method for very small children. Little children can find reading conventional notes tricky, and this tutor book introduces them to reading music via beautiful colour illustrations and adventures with animals. Learning through familiar animals is more fun, and progress can be quick too; each animal shows the position of notes on the keyboard and staves, using small animal tiles and coloured staves. There is no need to know your alphabet and pupils sing each animal as they play, reinforcing learning. A supplementary book, Notes & Lesson Plans for Parents and Teachers enables parents to understand and help their children practice, which is crucial. An excellent approach.

Tales of a Musical Journey

Irina

This piano method is written by highly experienced Russian teacher, Irina Gorin. Irina regularly publishes her piano lessons on YouTube and has a large following around the world (she lives in the US). Tales of a Musical Journey employs a fairy tale setting and characters to introduce and expand musical concepts. Entertaining and magical, the stories develop a pupil’s understanding of music and piano playing. The book comes with a ‘kit’ comprising a foam squeeze ball (for hand positions), picture cards, a plush monkey, music alphabet cards, and noise putty for ‘jelly keys’ exercise! There are ear training exercises and theory too (very important), and a CD with musical examples is also included to accompany students. Good fun and cleverly devised.

Delightfully Easy Piano Duets Book 2 

The Delightfully Easy Piano Duets Series provides a great introduction to ensemble playing.  I reviewed Book 1 here on the blog. Written by British music teacher and writer Rosa Conrad, these books are really useful for beginners who want to perform tunes with their teachers (or parents). The second book is equally bright and cheerful, with slightly more complicated Secondo parts (for teacher), and great little diatonic melodies for the young pupil. It’s not easy to find simple duets, as Rosa says herself, and these will be a welcome repertoire addition for teachers everywhere.

Fun, Games and Party Pieces

Fun, Games and Party Pieces is intended for the young solo pianist. It is designed to be used alongside other piano tutor methods, adding more interest and variety to lessons. The composer, Rosa Conrad, has added a myriad of imaginative ways to learn pieces, and there are important elements such as learning about the major and minor, modes, the pentatonic scale, improvisation and the Twelve Bar Blues structure. They are presented in a way which is easy to grasp, and pupils are encouraged to explore, with plenty of experimentation. I like the illustrations too, which are by Catherine Eley.

For Intermediate to Advanced:

Jazz Exercises, Minuets, Etudes and Pieces for the Piano

Oscar

An interesting pedagogical publication written by legendary Canadian Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. A colleague suggested this book for all those who enjoy playing written out jazzy pieces, but who aren’t confident with the jazz idiom. It’s suitable for those around Grades 3 – 5 exam standard, and provides an excellent introduction. The exercises provide a base for those wanting to get to grips with this style, and they are placed next to repertoire pieces, so ideas can be immediately transferred. The studies  increase in difficulty as the book progresses.

Daily Expressions

Daily-Expressions-by-Paul-Birchall

Daily Expressions are written by British composer Paul Birchall. They are suitable for Grade 5 level upwards, and could be described as mood music, verging on Minimalist. Paul wrote one new piece everyday for a month, then included seven of the compositions in this new volume. Students will enjoy the various ‘moods’ conjured by the different feel depending on the days of the week. Perfect for those who want to play modern pieces without a strictly Classical edge. You can listen to a sample of each work and purchase them here.

Variations for Judith

I was asked to write an article recommending ten easy (ish) piano pieces (between Grades 4-6 exam standard) for amateur pianists, for the Classical music website SinfiniMusic.com (you can read my article here). The brief was to include at least two or three Contemporary pieces, so I set off on a mission to find suitable works, and what I found was a revelation. This  volume of short pieces was written for Judith Serota by various Contemporary British composers including Judith Weir, Tarik O’Regan, Michael Berkeley, Diana Burrell and others. The collective title is  Variations for Judith for Piano, 11 short reflections on “Bist du bei mir” by G H Stölzel arranged by J S Bach. You can read my blog post on the history behind these little gems here. From around Grade 4 – 7 standard, and a must play!

Arabia

Arabia

An advanced piece written by Elena Cobb. This dramatic work is primarily  a concert study for those wanting to hone their octave technique. Arabia was inspired by a family train journey across the desert taken by Elena as a young child. These memories are heard clearly at the opening, where a couple of recitative or improvisatory style solo treble passages create the necessary Arabic flavour. This flavour pervades the piece. All kinds of octave passagework is explored plus thoughtful places to ‘rest’ the hand (vital in a stretchy piece so as to not cause injury). This is around Grade 7 or 8 level, but those working towards their diploma will also enjoy this piece, and you can read my review here, which was published in the International Piano Magazine last year.

Ypakoë and In Memory of Two Cats

John Tavener Ypakoe for Piano (Music Sales America)

Students tend to enjoy meditative or reflective music. There are many composers who comply; Satie, Glass, Einaudi, for example. However, it’s always preferable to be able to recommend something different, and these works by British composer John Tavener (who died in 2013) are perfect. In Memory of Two Cats (1986), is the ideal introduction to Tavener’s style. It’s reflective with interesting harmonic progressions; great for those of approximately Grade 5 or 6 technical level upwards. You can listen here. Ypakoë (published in 2008) was commissioned by the city of London Festival in 1999 (and first performed by pianist Elena Riu), Tavener comments ‘Ypaköe, in Greek refers to the Yapöe of Easter, Why seek ye among the dead, as though He were mortal man? Ypaköe for solo piano is a meditation on both the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.’ This work has 5 movements.  It will please those who want to explore contemplative, yet dramatic, Contemporary music. Listen here. Approximately Grade 8 or diploma technical level.

Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter

VPS-Harry-Potter-PD-Cover-Art

I discovered these great arrangements of popular film music last February, when one of my students insisted on performing them both in a couple of concerts. American pianist and composer, Jarrod Radnich has created extremely effective transcriptions. They are not for everyone (purists look away now!), but are fairly demanding technically, and require careful preparation. I like the way they use the entire keyboard and are a useful vehicle for practising finger technique too. Around diploma level. Listen here: Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter.

Resources for pianists, teachers and pupils:

The Foundations of Piano Technique

This splendid new volume, published by Faber Music, has been written by Scottish pianist, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music, and Professor of Piano at the Royal Northern College of Music,  Murray McLachlan. Murray has written an ongoing series of articles for the International Piano Magazine, many of which have been included in this publication. All aspects of technique are considered (this is the first of three books), and there are relevant exercises too. Intended for all levels and abilities, there is much emphasis on a healthy approach to technique (so important), and the realisation that piano technique does not need to be divorced from artistic creativity. This book will work for all different standards.

The Art of Piano Fingering

The Art of Piano Fingering

Written by Israeli pianist and expert teacher Rami Bar-Niv, this helpful and very detailed guide examines countless fingering permutations. I reviewed The Art of Piano Fingering earlier in the year, and you can read my review here. Beginning with simple scale and arpeggio fingering, progressing through to creative and innumerable ideas for the advanced player. There are many photos and musical examples, and a positive emphasis on healthy hand and finger positions too. Lots to learn in this volume.

Practising the Piano e-book Series

Practising the Piano

British pianist and expert teacher Graham Fitch has written a series of four e-books on the subject of practising the piano. Graham writes an illuminating and very popular blog (practising the piano), and he has transferred many of his teaching ideas and tools to his e-book series. There are copious demonstrations and videos, plus lots of sound advice and innovative practising strategies. Great for all levels, but particularly beneficial for more advanced players, teachers and good amateurs.

E-Music Maestro

E-MusicMaestro

This is a superb site with bountiful different musical aspects designed for the music teacher and pupil. E-music maestro is an American site, and essentially a resource website providing access to knowledge about teaching, learning and playing the piano. It employs up-to-date technology combined with a continually expanding database, and it is simple to navigate. You can buy a subscription or just log on and make immediate purchases, there are plenty of free samples and a continuing professional development section too. It is exam based, so there is much information on the various exam syllabuses. Very handy!


If you haven’t yet subscribed to Pianist Magazine or Piano Bench Mag, then this could be a good New Year’s resolution! These publications provide a wealth of information on how to play (Pianist) and great ideas for piano teachers everywhere (Piano Bench Mag).

I’m looking forward to making lots more exciting piano resource discoveries over the coming year, but in the meantime I wish you health, happiness and peace in 2015.

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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.


 

Do pianists really need to play the entire piano repertoire?

This is a topic relevant to performers of all standards and abilities. How can we build an effective and enjoyable recital programme which is varied, interesting and more importantly, will compliment a pianist’s abilities and talents? For younger, inexperienced performers, teachers are paramount here, hopefully suggesting works beyond the scope of those found in various exam syllabuses. Not that there is anything wrong with examination set pieces, quite the contrary in fact, but if students only stick to them, they will develop a very limited set of skills. Learning three pieces (or four depending on the exam board), a few scales, minimal sight-reading and aural tests, does not constitute an all-round musical or piano education, and parents would do well to bear this in mind. It is a subject hotly contested by many instrumental teachers; the main complaint always appears to be the almost inevitable parental ‘pushing’ towards the next exam or grade which will not help overall improvement in a student’s playing in the long run, as all good teachers know.

Beyond exams, it’s a good idea to start compiling programmes or collections of works you particularly enjoy playing and crucially, those you play well. A common misconception amongst students playing classical music is that they must demonstrate many different pianistic styles and historical periods. Whilst this may be true for examinations and competitions where set works must be adhered to, concert programmes do not need to be devised with this in mind. Surely a much better plan is to highlight those composers and works which show case a pianist’s personality in the most complimentary way?

Music colleges and conservatoires tend to perpetuate this; it’s mandatory (or certainly was when I was student) to include a Prelude and Fugue (by J S Bach or similar), several Etudes or concert studies (usually by Liszt, Chopin or Rachmaninov), a Twentieth Century work and a Classical or Romantic sonata (all played from memory) at the end of year exam (for which you must pass or face losing your place on the course). This may be great for working at technical skills and obtaining thorough knowledge of the piano repertoire (and I certainly don’t regret my wonderful training at all), but in the saturated world of the concert platform, how often will young players really need these works after graduation? We’ve all heard pianists, whatever their ability, play mediocre and random cross sections of the repertoire, only to leave the concert thinking that we loved their Mozart (or whatever) but what a pity they didn’t play more of it.  Pianists should always play to their strengths.

Those who specialise in particular composers or areas of music most certainly attract attention and are often viewed as more interesting propositions to concert organisers and promoters because they offer something different. As many world-class classical pianists will attest, their specialisms have become their trademarks. So with this in mind, is it prudent to encourage ‘specialising’ in younger students and pupils?

Most of us gravitate to works we really enjoy and those we play well anyway, but these may not necessarily be the most demanding or virtuosic show pieces, on the contrary, they may only demonstrate certain aspects of musicianship, but if that is your métier then so be it. Luckily the piano repertoire is so vast it’s relatively easy to do this. A handful of pianists are associated with the works of J S Bach for example, (think Glenn Gould) but have performed this demanding repertoire with such panache and élan; they have become revered for their specialism. Not that Gould didn’t or couldn’t play anything else, but rather he became synonymous with Bach’s music.

So when developing short recital programmes, or even pieces to play to family members and friends, choose works you love and can play with total conviction as opposed to offering the obvious show pieces or works with which you have little affinity. At a recent music festival, several competitors chose to play a couple of pieces by Einaudi. Not everyone’s favourite composer and only on the fringes of ‘classical’ music at most, but these pupils played with such joy producing beautiful colours from the instrument that they waltzed off with first and second prize. Their playing convinced me of their love for the music and the instrument.

Another moot point is the need for a ‘varied’ programme. Certainly playing the same type of music for an hour would be dull, but it is possible to perform works by the same composer (or genre) which are both complimentary and completely captivating. It’s more important to ensure variety of colour, tempo and character than selecting multiple composers or periods of music. So if Minimalism is your love (it certainly is one of mine), then find a few pieces illustrating different emotions and sonorities within that genre. Perform these exquisitely and you may just have found a winning combination. However, it does take a brave pianist, at whatever level, to feel so comfortable with a particular composer or musical genre, that they are confident enough to ‘champion’ that, and only that, music. It also takes a brave teacher to recognise the strengths of their students and ‘allow’ the student to specialise.

It’s really not about abandoning those works which must be studied to ensure a well-formed musical education, but rather finding music beyond this, in order to inspire and encourage improvement and personal growth. By delving into the depths of the piano repertoire you may find exciting new musical paths and hopefully it will be a happy voyage of discovery too.

 


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.