Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 2

Continuing my series on selecting and practising piano exam repertoire, today we  move on to ABRSM Grade 2. I’ve chosen three works (one from each of lists A, B & C) which are hopefully complimentary, offering a balanced exam programme, with five practice tips for every piece.

As always, selections come from the standard exam repertoire (as opposed to the alternative pieces). It’s possible to programme a large cohort of pieces, particularly for ABRSM exams, but I hope my selection offers lots of variety, both technically and musically. There are links to performances too (taken from the many on YouTube).

List A: A1, Allegretto (First movement from Sonatina No. 3 in F) by Thomas Attwood (1765 – 1838)

This joyful little piece, with a catchy tune, set in ternary form (A – B – A), was written by British Classical composer Attwood (1765 – 1838), who studied with Mozart. The texture is essentially melody and accompaniment. Start by dusting off the F major scale and arpeggio, which serves as useful preparation.

  1. Focus on the left hand, and play each half bar as a chord or ‘blocked out’ i.e. sound the F, A ,C of bar 1, beat 1 altogether, (this can be done in the right hand at bars 9 -18 too). Write the fingering in as you go, and note the necessary changes in hand position, to accommodate the movement around the keyboard (at bar 5, for example, where the left hand leaps to the treble clef).
  2. Now play the left hand quaver figurations as written, ensuring they are totally rhythmic and even. Either count aloud or use a metronome on every quaver beat. Keep fingers close to the keys for good control. It can be helpful to memorise the bars where the leaps occur (bars 5 and 26).
  3. The right hand needs a much deeper colour than the left. The melody would benefit from a smooth legato touch from bars 1 – 8 and 22 – 29. Using a relaxed wrist, encourage the hand and whole arm to assist the fingers in playing to the bottom of the key bed, producing a rich tone, and join each note carefully with no gaps in the sound.
  4. Balance phrasing in the right hand at bars 2 & 3, shortening the crotchet very slightly (before the quaver), playing it softly (phrasing off from the dotted crotchet). Aim to project the hidden melody at bars 9 – 16, formed of the first note of each group of quavers.
  5. Balance and coordination between the hands is crucial; slow practice, bar by bar will help with precise coordination between quavers in each hand especially (bars 4, 7, and the like). Try to keep the left hand much softer and lighter than the right. Add speed only when notes and fingering are secure.

List B: B 2, Waltz in G (No. 2 from Poklad melodií, Vol. 2) by Bedrich Smetana (1824 – 84)

A charming dance with a steady one-in-a-bar feel, written by Czech composer Smetana. This provides a contrast to the first piece (A 1), with its Romantic demeanour, and whilst it’s in the style of a Waltz, the title is apparently editorial! Working at the G major scale and arpeggio may be helpful as a warm-up.

  1. The right hand melody consists of phrases of different lengths which would profit from separate hand practice, and a deep but smooth (legato) touch. It can help to mark the most important note (or notes) within each phrase, contouring the dynamics to suit your markings. Listening carefully (especially to the ends of phrases) as you play will prove vital.
  2. The left hand can be ‘blocked out’; play each bar as one chord (as mentioned before), to learn fingerings and position changes, then give the first beat of each bar a slight ‘push’ or deeper touch, whilst keeping beats two and three softer, projecting the lilting Waltz character.
  3. The brief modulation to the minor (bars 12 -15) will require slow practice, in order to secure notes and fingerings and to accommodate the more unusual phrase breaks between the right and left hand. When playing on groups of black notes, move the hands slightly forward, placing fingers over the keys in preparation.
  4. There might be a temptation to rush bars such as those at bar 2, 4, 10 and 12, where both hands must coordinate precisely; set the pulse to a third of the intended speed, and work at the last two beats in the bar first (stopping on the first beat of the next bar), really listening, taking down each note (or group of notes) absolutely together. When secure, add the first beat of the bar.
  5. The last line particularly is full of accents, staccato, and tenuto markings, which must all be observed; insert these when notes are fully under the fingers. To place the last G in the left hand (bar 33) accurately, practice playing an octave lower than written (i.e. leap down two octaves as opposed to one!). When returning to playing as written, the jump will feel easier.

List C: C 1, The Cat from Peter and the Wolf Op. 67 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

For me, the third piece on any exam programme should be fun and perhaps slightly irreverent (especially for the lower grades). Many enjoy the jazzy pieces which pervade the C lists, but some of the other works are just as interesting. From Prokofiev’s orchestral masterpiece, Peter and the Wolf, comes this arrangement; the cat is characterized (and played) by the clarinet in the original version.

  1. Articulation rules in this piece. The contrasts between staccato and legato must be marked appropriately as they denote the cat’s impish, playful nature. Aim to use very short, spikey staccato; try tapping (or ‘flicking’) the keys with the top of the finger (pulling it inwards, towards the palm of the hand), leaving the keys extremely quickly.
  2. In both hands, quavers (playing the melody) need exact counting in order to ‘place’ each beat in the bar giving breathing space, but with no sense of rushing or pushing the beat. It can help to count in semiquavers.
  3. The C sharp (bar 1, beat 3, in the theme) is given a rich colour and slight tenuto (held or leaning into a note), and the C in bar 2 (beat 2), an appropriate accent, giving the melody shape. Each thematic appearance requires specific articulation in order to project the cat and its shenanigans.
  4. The left hand accompanies with short, well placed chords; play first alone (without the right hand), and place each one using a metronome, to make sure you are really playing on the beat. Sense of timing will make or break any performance.
  5. Tasteful appropriation of short phrasing and the many varied dynamic markings will ensure a colourful rendition; the printed narrative will aid the understanding of the piece (particularly for younger learners), but resist inclusion in the exam!

For other grades in this series please visit my archives by clicking here.

My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.


The Perils of the Glissando


The Glissando seems like a relatively simple piano ‘manoeuvre’. We know it represents the quickest way ‘to glide from one pitch to another’ (according to Wikipedia) and it’s often presented as suggested in the image above. Essentially the fingers ‘slide’ over the keys in order to produce a very swift and even sound, providing plenty of drama and élan. Glissandi appear reasonably infrequently in piano music, although are much more common in Twentieth Century and Contemporary music. Some see them as ‘cheap tricks’, an added ‘extra’ to thrill an audience, but many composers such as Ravel, Bartók and Prokofiev, have used them to powerful effect.

The question is this; how do we play them without injury? Unfortunately, they are often the cause of a blood stained finger, ripped, or even worse, shredded skin. Sweeping fingers across keys from one end of the keyboard to another can be hazardous, especially when experimenting with various fingers and finger combinations. Most pianists will agree that whilst there might be several ways to play the glissando, few guarantee total safety for the pianist. Plasters and antiseptic at the ready….!

I’ve been pondering this for a couple of months after writing several glissandi passages in my little piano duets, Snapchats. They provide a fun addition to the pieces, but perhaps a few practice hints might avoid any painful accidents.

Here are several (hopefully) helpful steps for easy glissando practice:

  1. Decide where the glissando must start and finish; locate all the notes and keep the distance firmly in mind.
  2. If going from bottom to a top note (in the right hand), use the back of the hand (i.e. the top of the hand) and hold fingers close together, to form a firm position.
  3. Start the glissando using mainly the middle finger (third finger), the others (index and fourth finger) may join later, as the hand heads up the keyboard.
  4. Crucially, only use your finger nails to play the notes or keys (if the skin is used, it will usually tear), and lightly swipe the keyboard, with just enough strength or power to sound every note evenly, but without any jerky, bumpy notes. The left hand can also use this technique when playing downward glissandi.
  5. For glissandi heading down the keyboard in the right hand (and up in the left), try using the thumb on its own on the starting note, and drag it downwards across the keys quite lightly but firmly, again, enough to sound every note but not to get ‘stuck’ and cause unevenness. Again, it’s best to use the finger nail, making sure all notes sound properly, and are even and clear.

    Using finger nails encourages fingers to slide easily from one key to the next, and hopefully stops any injury. Black key glissandi need even more care, but again, employing finger nails can also be effective, if used judiciously. Practice fairly slowly at first until you have got the hang of the necessary ‘swiping’ movement. Aim to ensure fingers are at a forty-five degree angle too.

    You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with many practice tips and important piano information, here.

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It’s All In The Preparation 3: 5 Top Tips


This is the third post in my series intended to help those who would like a few tips on how to prepare and practice piano pieces from the very beginning. It can be beneficial to have a strategy, or ‘tried and tested’ method which can be used on a whole range of pieces and genres. The first two posts examined elements for consideration at early stages of the learning process; the first post dealt with pre-practice preparation (you can read it here), and the second looked at separate hands practice (you can read it here). This post will survey ways of playing and practising hands together.

By now you are familiar with your chosen piece. You have marked up the score and have worked at it hands separately in various guises. So now it’s time to take the plunge and work hands together.  Here are a few ideas:

1. Depending on your level of fluency, a good way to start practising your piece both hands together, can be to assess the rhythm and pulse. Tapping the pulse and rhythms (both hands; the right hand tapping the top and left hand tapping the bass line) will help to solidify the tempo, pulse and rhythmic patterns in your mind. Work on rhythms line by line  (or bar by bar if you prefer), tapping about a third of the intended speed to start with, building up until you can tap a page at a time up to tempo, followed by complete sections and finally the whole piece. Add the metronome if necessary, however, developing your own reliable pulse is preferable. This should help with co-ordination.

2. Play the right hand material  (just one bar at a time), and then the left hand (which can serve as a useful reminder of the separate hand patterns). Follow this by playing both hands together with accurate slow, deliberate rhythmic patterns. You may need to play one bar at least 10/20 times at a very slow speed to really get the hang of how hands fit together, technically and rhythmically. When practising, always continue to play over the bar line (as opposed to stopping at the end of a bar). I work with students on much smaller areas, examining perhaps just one beat at a time. Often it’s necessary to break beats down too, particularly if a crotchet beat, for example, contains four semiquavers, played with both hands, in different or changing directions, such as this:

Article for Monday example

The bracket indicates a potentially awkward passage which may require careful attention (and very exact fingering), or segregated, targeted work. Taking the notes out of context (and without adhering to any rhythm), can be a good way to asses the movements and coordination needed for smooth playing. Now try changing the articulation (if your piece is legato, try playing non-legato then staccato etc.). You could also experiment with varying tonal control; play deep into the key bed on the tips of your fingers with a powerful, full sound, and then pull back and play the same passage lightly – you will see the difference in evenness and coordination immediately.

3. Within each bar, try to asses problem areas or difficulties, essentially be your own teacher! (although it’s not a good idea to learn alone, as this can lead to many technical deficiencies). Really listen carefully and attentively to everything you play, and when practising aim to ‘think through’ passages; focusing on the left hand line (even when playing hands together), then the right hand line. Look for elements such as rapid passage work or awkward rhythmic patterns, which will need very slow work; practising in patterns, rhythms, and as well as with various articulation can help (as described in tip 2). Other problematic areas include jumps or leaps of any kind. Spot practice is also required here; take technical issues out of context and work on them alone as this usually encourages a greater knowledge of a work. This is especially true of chords or chordal passages; work slowly positioning chords (with the correct fingerings), moving from one to another, mentally making note of the changes, until they become a habit. Also make sure sufficient arm weight is used here, to cushion the sound.

4. Watch your movements when starting to play hands together. Aim to move your arms laterally, freely and easily, supporting the wrists and fingers. Working at this element hands together takes a lot of concentration, and it also requires mindful, conscious practice. Beware of tension as you work slowly, and even more so as the tempo is raised. How does your body feel? Do you feel tight and uncomfortable, are shoulders raised? It can help to observe your hands and their positions, so you may need to memorise note patterns in order to do this.

5. A particularly useful tip is to land on a note (or group of notes) as quickly as possible, and before it/they need to be played, essentially ‘arriving’ too early. To produce a good sound, each note requires proper preparation. This usually involves preparing arm weight as well as the required touch, so the quicker you can ‘land’ on a note (without actually playing it) and be in the ideal position to play it, the better the tone quality. This is particularly true in fast pieces. To prepare, practice moving between notes as swiftly as possible, landing in the correct position ahead of playing, with accurate fingering, but try not to ‘cut’ beats as a result, the endings of notes are as important as the beginnings. Quick, light lateral arm movement is necessary, as is quick mental preparation and coordination.

Work bar by bar and line by line, making every minute you are at the piano, count. In the next post, I will provide a few tips for acquiring a beautiful sound and dynamic colour. Happy practising!

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.

My First Article for Pianist Magazine – Get your copy here…..


Pianist Magazine is the international piano magazine for people who love to play the piano. Published every other month, it’s brimming with piano tips, advice,  lessons, interviews, a plethora of complete piano scores ( a forty page pull-out), accompanying CD, online tuition, and everything piano lovers want and need to know. I am thrilled to now be a member of the writing team; my first article has been published in issue number 78, the June/July publication which is available today. Order your copy NOW!

In this month’s Pianist Magazine house pianist, the Chinese concert pianist Chenyin Li, is the cover star. Chenyin performs recitals and concertos all over the world but she still has time to record all the pieces on Pianist’s covermount CD to perfection. She talks to Jessica Duchen about this all-important work that she does for Pianist.

There are some real delights inside the Scores pages this issue. There’s the ‘Child Falling Asleep’ from Schumann’s popular Kinderszenen (perfect for the intermediate pianist) with a ‘How to Play’ on it too from Janet Newman. Lucy Parham gives her Advanced Lesson on Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau. It’s such a monumental work – no doubt a lot of Pianist’s more advanced pianists will be keen to learn it. Other pieces include a Bach Bourrée, a waltz by the unknown Oskar Merikanto, a little gem by Dvorák, a Scarlatti minuet and much more. Not forgetting Jelly Roll Morton’s fabulous King Porter Stomp (with an article about the composer alongside it). Plus, all beginner pieces have notation written within the music, giving bar-by-bar technical advice.

My own instructional column is entitled ‘How to Play’ for Beginners! and this month I write about a lovely minuet by British composer Charles Villiers Stanford, taking you step by step through the learning process. This is the perfect first recital piece and a great introduction to English music. I will be writing about many more piano gems inside every issue of Pianist.

Other How to Play articles include Graham Fitch on Practising at Different Tempos (you can watch Graham give video lessons too, on the Pianist website!) and Mark Tanner on Improvising.

Must-read articles include: 
Piano Exams: Should we or shouldn’t we, that might be the question? But the benefits are numerous. Read what shadow chancellor Ed Balls has to say about his past exam experience!

Then there’s an article on How to keep your piano in tip-top condition (whether it’s an upright, grand or acoustic).

‘Week in the Life Of…’  features Sunday Times Music Critic Hugh Canning.

Erica Worth flies to Istanbul to discover a very exotic orchestra about to appear at this year’s Proms.

Plus CD and Sheet Music Reviews, Makers, Q&As, News from the piano world, and more…
Watch lessons by John Maul, Graham Fitch and Tim Stein on the Pianist TV Channel.

Plus, you can also watch Pianist’s house pianist Chenyin Li perform some of the pieces featured inside the Scores. There’s nothing like watching the experts. Enjoy!

Screen shot.png of my article for Pianst

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.

More Memorising tips…

That poor piano...

I had some interesting responses to the post I wrote a few days ago dealing with memorisation (which you can read here). It was suggested that I should also focus on what happens when memory fails – i.e. a memory slip! So here are my thoughts on this incredibly stressful event in any pianists life. Memory slips happen to virtually everybody at some point and they can be difficult to ‘get over’ because lots of courage is needed to get back on stage and try again. However, this is a must if a pianist is to overcome the problem.

Whilst Liszt and Clara Schumann both loved to play from memory (and indeed invented the concept), it does put so much extra pressure on public performance. A pianist needs to develop a different kind of mind set entirely in order to perform large concert programmes without the score effectively. If I know I am going play a piece from memory before learning begins, I approach it in a different way from the outset thus making  a conscious effort to memorize every bar, nuance and phrase as I’m going along. A lot of memorisation takes place in the early learning stages as you become more familiar with the piece.

One problem with memorising digitally i.e. fingerings, note patterns, shapes on the keyboard and how the work ‘feels’ under the fingers (although this type of memory is normal and should be cultivated), is that it makes forgetting very easy. Reliable memorisation really comes from thinking about the music and analyzing it. If you can spend time working through the piece away from the piano looking at the structure and form, then this will be a great help when playing without the score. It was also aid your interpretation skills too.

Even after methodical analysis and careful preparation, it is still possible to get into a muddle on stage. Nerves often undermine practice and preparation so what do you do when a memory slip occurs? Whatever happens, don’t stop playing! Some pianists have the ability to extemporize or improvise when they lose where they are in the score until the ‘find themselves’; apparently Vladimir Horowitz, amongest others, was blessed with this ability and used it from time to time.

I can’t improvise at all sadly, so I make sure that I know the piece in sections and am able to ‘jump’ quite cleanly (hopefully!) into another section or passage of the work. I find it’s not helpful to ‘go back’ and play the elusive passage again as this just encouarges another slip and can make you more and more frustrated and upset too. Once it has gone from your mind it doesn’t seem to reappear miraculously a few minutes later so it is best to move on and finish the piece in a convincing way. I find it helpful to try to completely eradicate the slip from my head otherwise I am constantly thinking about it for the entire recital.

I hope this is helpful to those working on their memory skills. Everybody finds their own way of remembering ultimately and the main factor in successful memorisation is to do it regularly in front of an audience thus building confidence. Good luck.

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and useful information, here.

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