Weekend Competition: The Intermediate Pianist

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

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

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

You can find out more about the books here.



Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 4

Today I am continuing my series on selected exam repertoire. I’ve chosen three complimentary pieces from the ABRSM Grade 4 list (taken from the main syllabus (shown to the left), as opposed to the alternative syllabus) and have offered five practice tips for each one, as well as a recording (taken from the many on YouTube).

A list: A 1, Minuet and Trio (Second movement from Sonata in A flat, Hob XVI: 43) by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Austrian composer Haydn wrote over 60 piano sonatas, and this work is thought to date from 1771 – 1773. The Minuet and Trio forms the second movement of this Classical sonata, and the genre was originally intended as dance music.

  1. Why not begin practice with the scale and arpeggio of A flat major (key of both the Minuet and Trio)?; observe the fingering carefully (which is rather different to that of the standard pattern) particularly noting the position of the fourth finger, sinking into the keys as you circumnavigate four flats.
  2. This elegant piece requires a fairly strict pulse, with a bouncy, precise dotted quaver/semiquaver upbeat. For ease and accuracy, it’s a good plan to count in semiquavers throughout the Minuet, ensuring the fourth semiquaver (of the dotted quaver/semiquaver pattern) is placed exactly on the fourth beat within each crotchet.
  3. The ‘wedge’ marks in the opening phrase signify staccato, therefore crisp enunciation throughout the first 2 bars is ideal. The first beat of the bar (in bars 1 & 2), is the most important note in the motif, so allow a deeper sound and slightly longer touch for these notes. The second and third beat (of a bar) in a minuet should be lighter than the first, proffering the three-in-a-bar dance feel; aim to lighten crotchets on these beats in every bar, for example in bar 3. However, bars 13 -15 need a stronger touch, as do the third beats from bars 18 – 20.
  4. The ‘drop-roll’ technique (where the hand and wrist sink into the first note of a pair, rolling upwards and off the second note, to make elegant pairs of slurred or joined notes) can be useful for phrased crotchets at bars 3, 10, 11, and 14 – 16, 19, 20 and 21.
  5. The Trio should be a complete contrast to the Minuet, with softer, more delicate dynamics. Keep the left hand in the background, but ensure it is even both rhythmically and tonally; practise by using a heavy touch to start with, playing deep into the key bed, securing fingerings and note patterns, then lighten for even quavers. The right hand melody needs much more colour, so balance accordingly, ‘leaning’ into the appoggiaturas (at bars 23, 29, 33, 35 and 39) for additional expressivity.

List B: B 2, The Merry Peasant (No. 10 from Album for the Young, Op. 68) by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

German composer Robert Schumann wrote the Album for the Young in 1848 in less than a month, and there are 42 pieces in this beautiful collection. Set in F major, the joyous romantic nature of this work contrasts well with the controlled phrasing required in the Haydn.

  1. Why not start by working at the right hand alone; secure the fingerings and hand position changes and then play each chord (which forms the accompaniment here, as the melody is predominantly in the left hand), with a full tone, moving slowly from one to the next, taking note of the movements necessary to find the chords with ease. Chords containing black notes need a slightly different hand position i.e. moving inwards, over the keys, placing the hand so it guides the particular finger to the intended black note. Being in position to play any chord well beforehand is the surest way of attaining accuracy.
  2. As it provides the melody, the left hand will probably require much slow, solid work. Aim to find the notes without adhering to a rhythmic pulse to begin with; this allows plenty of time to locate notes and hand position changes.
  3. The left hand pattern at bar 3 might need some careful manoeuvering; practice the thumb turning under the hand carefully (bar 3, beats 1 & 2 – 3), with a completely relaxed hand (and thumb joint), so the thumb can easily turn underneath (without any strain) to reach the interval. It can help to practice a slightly larger interval at first, so the smaller one (written in the piece) feels more comfortable. Isolate this bar, working at this pattern slowly. Similarly, the triad at the beginning of bar 2  (beats 1 & 2, left hand), can be played as a chord, and then, in order to play in time and with a full tone (as this is the climax of the phrase), swivel the wrist freely (using a lateral motion) to guide fingers and the thumb to the correct position.
  4. Rests must not be ignored in this piece. Those in the right hand (in bars 1 & 2, for example), are to be ‘counted’, so as to ‘place’ each chord accurately (and lightly), giving shape to the melody line.
  5. When the melody appears in both hands together (last beat of bar 8 – 12, and last beat of 14 – 18), the right hand can assume prominence. Practice the top musical line (or texture) on its own (with the fingering to be used when playing both lines together), and then the lower part (chords). When combining, ensure the outer parts of the hand (and 4th & 5th fingers in particular), are well supported, in order to bring the tune to the fore. Very little rubato is required in this work, with the exception of a small ritenuto at the end.

List C: C 1, Uzbuna (from Na velikom brodu) by Bruno Bjelinski (1909 – 92)

Always one to choose unusual repertoire, I’m drawn to this piece, which is fun to play with interesting harmonies and rhythms. It makes for a good contrast with the Haydn and Schumann too. Bjelinski was a Croatian composer who apparently studied law and composition. This piece comes from his collection, On the Great Ship, composed in 1961.

  1. Excellent articulation will bring this work to life. The pairs of slurred notes (in the right hand)  with a staccato marking on the second quaver, can be taken out of context and practised, perhaps using the drop-roll technique. Resist the temptation to rush the second quaver, picking fingers up swiftly after all staccato quavers particularly, giving the necessary spikey quality this piece demands.
  2. The rapid semiquaver passagework in the right hand (bars 13 – 22), will benefit from heavy, slow finger work; try to rotate the wrist after each group of four semiquavers, alleviating or releasing any tension. When finger touch is lightened, crisp, even notes should prevail.
  3. The left hand tune often uses black notes (for example, at bar 12). Keep fingers close to the keys, over the notes, and experiment by using flatter fingers, which can provide plenty of grip (if played at a suitable angle), adding a different tonal colour.
  4. Bars 28 – 31 contains three parts (or musical lines); work at each one separately, especially those in the right hand (practising with the fingering to be used when both parts play together). Keep the top line (minims) as legato as possible, so the sound is almost unbroken, contrasting with the highly articulated melody line in the lower right hand part.
  5. The pulse will need some special attention; not only must there be a very incisive rhythmic beat throughout, but semiquavers should also be even and accurately placed. The accent markings can be helpful here; short, sharp accents (of which there are many in this piece), can define and add shape.

My Books:

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

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

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

My Compositions:

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

Approaches to Staccato Playing

I’m a regular contributor to Piano Professional (the British European Piano Teachers Association (EPTA) magazine); I really enjoy writing for this publication, which focuses on providing piano teachers with helpful information. The following article was written for Issue 43 (published earlier this year), and examines various approaches to staccato. I hope it’s of interest.

When it comes to tackling articulation, there are numerous different touches to embrace, but the most crucial to master are legato and staccato. Staccato (or short and detached), tends to be ignored as lessons commence, perhaps due to the fact that some exam boards only require staccato scales above certain grades, therefore short, spikey playing is generally limited to a few notes or phrases in certain pieces at the beginning. This is possibly adequate for Grade 1, but if pupils can acquire a feel for the quick release of the keys and highly developed reflexes necessary for staccato technique, it will certainly prove beneficial even for relative beginners.

Legato generally poses few problems for students; it may take a little practice to become accustomed to the ‘overlapping’ of notes or ‘walking’ over the keys in order to join them smoothly, but most find the task surmountable fairly quickly. Legato scales can therefore be easily grasped. This is often not the case with staccato; crisp, short passage work at speed rarely feels comfortable (especially in the beginning), hence staccato scales are frequently taken at much slower tempos than intended. Scales are only one small facet of acquiring an effective staccato technique, but they can provide a convenient vehicle for those getting to grips with detached playing.

There are many variations on the staccato theme, including ‘close-to-the-keys’ staccato, finger staccato, wrist staccato and whole-arm staccato. Each touch demands a different technique and therefore a different body movement or motion. Making progress can take time and patience, because excellent coordination is a prerequisite. Tension can also be an overriding concern, sometimes irrespective of standard, and it can ruin the best of intentions. Economy of movement is essential, as is an inbuilt flexibility, so practising fruitfully, in small but regular sessions is probably the best approach. Aim to encourage students to work little and often, with a totally focused mind-set, building up muscle power and flexibility.

How do we help students conquer thorny issues associated with short, detached playing? Each staccato technique requires a multifarious perspective, so let’s look at them individually.

Finger staccato is the most commonly used for rapid passagework. When working at any new motion or technique with pupils, it’s helpful to ask them to drop their arms by their side at the start of practice sessions, as well as after practising a repeated movement, for a minute of two. If they can assimilate the feeling of ‘dead’ or heavy arms (which is my terminology, but really this only means a totally relaxed upper body), they will learn just how relaxed and ‘free’ they should ideally feel when playing. It can also help students become aware of any tension building as they work, and it provides a default relaxation position to assume after engaging muscles.

Finger staccato implies that only the fingers should move. However, if the arms and wrists remain completely static, tension will quickly arise, rendering fast movement challenging. Ensure complete freedom in the upper body.   If you can replicate this feeling when playing, flexibility won’t be an issue. As with many technical challenges, focus on how your body feels when playing, not just on what is being played.

Practice rapid finger movement away from the piano. Fingers should work from the knuckles, without much assistance of muscles in the hand or wrist, and every joint must be complicit; they need to move independently, making sure the first two joints of each finger particularly (nearest the fingertip), are ‘active’. Aim for a very swift finger motion; encourage fingers to make tapping movements or a quick, sharp pulling ‘inwards’ of each finger (towards the palm of the hand). This can be built up, so work in short bursts for a minute or so at a time, returning to dropping arms by your side at the end of each brief session.

As with most techniques, starting slowly often produces the best results. It can be useful to use heavy finger strokes to begin with; playing deeper (in to the key bed), forcefully and with strong fingers (in order to strengthen them).  It’s important to pay attention to how every note ends. Think spikey, pithy, sharp, and extremely short. Combine this with a free wrist at all times; letting go of tension in designated places.

Once heavy movements have been grasped and they feel comfortable, lighten the touch, using the fingertip (or top/pad of the finger), and aim to acquire a ‘scratch’ or flicking motion, so every note can remain incredibly short and effectively sounded. Once the finger has ‘flicked’ it will usually draw inwards (as already mentioned), almost into the palm of the hand, but best not to allow it to go too far, as quick finger changes necessitate fingers to resume the usual position promptly. When playing a whole scale or passage using finger staccato, it can be beneficial for the hand to employ a very slight ‘bouncing’ motion, allowing flexibility, but keeping the flow.

Practice passage work in different rhythmical groups; groups of four semi-quavers can be accented slightly on every first beat of the group, to improve co-ordination (if hands are playing together). Practice assorted strong beats (or accents), so all fingers can attain control, making it possible to achieve totally even playing, both rhythmically and tonally. Every time the thumb turns under (or the hand turns over it)  in a passage, encourage the wrist to use a small rotational or circular movement, providing a place to release any tension caused by the incessant ‘picking up’ finger motion necessary for finger staccato. Even when using a ‘scratch’ or flicking technique, fingers still need a ‘picking up’ movement, which after a while, becomes tiring. If tension does build, stop immediately, and only practice a few notes or a group of notes at a time. Divide passages into small sections, building up as and when strength is acquired.

If fingers consistently key-bed whilst practising slowly, the less the eventual effort when playing fast, light and crucially, detached.

For close-to-the-keys’ staccato, fingers need hardly leave the keys; they are really playing ‘in position’, and on the surface of the keys. Close-to-the-keys staccato is generally used for certain effects and isn’t as widely employed as finger staccato. Allow fingers to assume their positions over the keys (do this by placing fingers over notes from C-G in the right hand, using the thumb on C, as if playing the first five notes of a C major scale, but with fingers 1-5). Practice each finger separately at first, playing deep into the key bed with each finger, again employing the ‘scratch’ movement (build in a slight break between each note). Using a free wrist will help here. Once the fingers have played heavy, but short notes, lighten the touch considerably, and aim for a very quick movement with each finger making an upward (as opposed to inward) motion. This will encourage speed, rapidly moving onto the next note, taking less time and effort than downward movement. Repeat this with the left hand (also starting in a five-finger position).

Due to the title, it’s easy to misinterpret wrist staccato as merely the wrist in a ‘fixed’ position bobbing up and down at the end of the arm, but if this is the only physical action taken, rigidity and extreme tension may prevail. Unlike finger staccato, wrist staccato requires much more movement than just that of the wrist.

To achieve success, it really must be harnessed to a very flexible, moveable forearm, upper arm and upper torso.  As with many other techniques in piano playing, each movement benefits from being cushioned and supported by other parts of the upper body.

Practice away from the piano at first; begin with the hand in its natural position, then move it upwards using the wrist only, then downwards, with your forearm remaining fairly static, the wrist acting rather like a hinge. Gradually build up speed. The faster the speed, so the motion becomes smaller and smaller, and is eventually similar to a ‘vibrato’ action, as if shaking the hand rapidly.

Once the basic movement has been assimilated (by both hands) away from the instrument, experiment by applying it to a few chords (or single notes to start with) on the keyboard. Play hands separately at first and as you play every chord, using a large hinge-like motion with your wrist (almost like a ‘throwing’ action), land on the chord accurately using the tips of the fingers. After the chord has been struck, completely ‘release’ the wrist and arm, letting go of any tension, before the next chord is played. This is tricky to do at speed, so as always, slow practice can help. As speed is built, be sure to release any elbow tension too, as this can feel uncomfortable after a while. To release muscles, swing your arm down by your side; this will serve as a reminder of the feeling of relaxation with no tension.

In order for the arms, elbows and upper torso to remain as free and flexible as possible (so they can support the wrist), it’s important to have an in-built ‘breathing’ space between each chord, therefore, release the upper body after every single one. The wrist and arm will eventually become accustomed to the whole tension/release mechanism. I find it useful to make a rotational movement with the wrist too (when practising slowly) as opposed to only moving it up and down, because the use of arm weight seems to cushion the movement, providing a richer sound and freer action, in preparation for brisk tempi. Some prefer a ‘throwing’ motion, the flexibility stemming from the wrist’s release between each ‘throw’ of the hand.

After a while (and when the feeling of freedom has been honed), move from playing one chord at a time, to several using one wrist motion. An example of wrist staccato, is shown below (which is the first bar of Czerny’s Study No. 40, from The Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740):

This passage might be practised in the manner suggested below, the rests providing spots to release tension, and build stamina. During the crotchet rests in the right hand, ensure the wrist and whole arm is loose and floppy or free, before continuing, then you will know if you have released tension successfully.

Practice on passages which don’t require a large hand stretch; if octaves or big chords feel strained, choose smaller triads as in the example above. It’s important to feel comfortable, not over-stretched. Also, by giving a slight accent on the first beat of a passage or group (such as the first triad in the chordal group above), it’s possible to facilitate the movement required to play all three chords in the group with ease. The action needed for the strong beat sets the motion rolling, helps to rotate the wrist, and keeps the arm and elbow soft and light too. As the wrist and arm become used to the feeling, so the breaks between each chord can be less and less, although it is always necessary to free the wrist very swiftly between groups of chords, ridding the arm of any tension before continuing.

Speed will come eventually, when the wrist and arm feel able and willing to relax the muscles between passagework, then it will be possible to play longer sections without tiring.  Once this aspect has been understood, velocity and virtuosity should miraculously appear.

Fore-arm, whole-arm or elbow staccato are probably used less frequently than the other types examined so far, and are generally in more advanced repertoire. As the titles suggest, considerable body movement is necessary, and in order to really understand and make use of these techniques, the arm-weight concept (i.e. employing weight from the upper torso whilst playing passages via flexibility in the wrist) needs to be secure, and wrist staccato must also be completely integrated. When playing staccato passagework with the whole upper body, we should ideally still be flexible between notes and chords, so when delivering short but hefty chords or octaves, a warm, controlled sound emanates. These staccato techniques are generally used for slightly slower figurations; those with which will be enhanced by a powerful sonority. Practising with added ‘breaks’ in the score, as has been suggested for wrist staccato above, can also be beneficial.

Within this framework, there are countless effects required when playing staccato, depending on the composer, stylistic traits and character of a piece, but these practice ideas will hopefully provide a veritable starting point. If pupils are introduced to basic staccato playing from the outset, they will be able to build and develop this technique alongside their legato playing.

Suggested advanced repertoire featuring staccato:

Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 3 in E flat major; Scherzo (2nd movement) by Ludwig van Beethoven, Andante & Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14 by Felix Mendelssohn, Puck Op. 71 No. 3 and March of the Dwarfs Op. 54 by Edvard Grieg, Polichinelle Op. 3 No. 4 by Sergei Rachmaninov, Étincelles Op. 36 No. 6 by Moritz Moszkowski, Étude Op. 23 No. 2 by Anton Rubinstein and Gnomenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes) from 2 Konzertetüden, S.145 by Franz Liszt.

You can read the original article here:

Approaches to staccato playing

My Books:

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

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

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

My Compositions:

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


Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Books:

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

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

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

My Compositions:

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

Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 3

Selecting and practising piano exam repertoire continues today with ABRSM Grade 3. I’m selecting contrasting works or those which sit well together, thereby producing an interesting programme.

This element should not be underestimated; examiners are pleased to hear all the repertoire on set lists, but for the student, who might spend a good few months learning these pieces, enjoyment is paramount. It’s therefore a good idea to either listen to the audio CD provided with the piano exam syllabus book, or ask your teacher to play each piece for you, just to make sure you like the sound of your prospective programme before learning begins. Those who enjoy playing their pieces are generally motivated and will therefore practice more frequently.

I’ve included a link to one of the many performances of these works on YouTube.

Here’s my chosen programme of three pieces, each with 5 practice suggestions:

List A: A3, German Dance in B flat (No. 6 from 12 German Dances, WoO 13) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827)

A dance for couples in quick triple time, the German Dance was popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Articulation (or touch) will prove vital here in order to convey the appropriate lively dance characteristics. Start with the scale and arpeggio of B flat major, to assimilate the key signature.

  1. This  energetic piece requires some leaping around the keyboard, so begin by practising hands separately, securing fingering and learning the necessary movements needed to play the piece up to speed with ease, thus avoiding any hiatus or hesitations rhythmically. When moving around the piano, make sure posture is aligned, and use a flexible approach, practising jumps (such as those at bars 5 & 6, from beats 2 to 3, right hand), with a relaxed wrist and arm, learning the distance and ‘feeling’ of the jump (try do this until you can jump without looking).
  2. Consistently crisp articulation will determine the success of any performance. The wedge markings under and over notes (for example, the upbeat to bar 1, right hand) are 18th century staccato marks. These can be light, short and elegant, but try to avoid accenting.
  3. The second crotchet of each phrased pair (bar 1, beats 1 & 2), needs to be non-legato (or slightly detached) and, again, unaccented, supplying the dance-like character.  Acciaccaturas in the right hand at bars 5 – 7 and 13 – 15, must be clearly audible (resist the urge to rush the short first note), and slightly playful, with the attached crotchet short and light. It’s a good idea to learn note patterns without ornaments, adding them only when those patterns are assured and the pulse, tight.
  4. The left hand entry in bar 1 (beat 3), mirrors that of the right hand, and will be more effective if played with deeper sound, giving it prominence and colour as it imitates the right hand material. The sf (sforzando or suddenly loud) chords (bar 2, beat 1), need a decisive touch.
  5. Quavers in the Trio should ideally be light and totally rhythmical; when selecting a speed, think about bars 17 – 24 as a benchmark; just how fast can you play this passagework without errors or unevenness? Counting (preferably out loud and to a quaver beat) will be important, and aim to keep quavers legatissimo. As a rule, try to lift crotchets (non-legato) in the Trio, and keep the whole section fairly soft, so when returning to the Da Capo, there will be plenty of contrast.

List B: B 2. Polnisches Lied (No. 18 from Leichte Lieder und Tanze, Op. 117) by Ferdinand Hiller (1811 – 85)

This lovely piece in A minor written by German composer, Heller, provides an excellent contrast to the Beethoven, encouraging expressivity and musicianship. In the minor key, it might be useful to practice the A minor scale and arpeggio first. The tune is played twice here, the second time with a more elaborate accompaniment, and a brief coda at the end.

  1. Independence (and precise coordination) between hands is necessary throughout. Therefore lots of separate hand practice might be wise, and is particularly important where the left hand contains more movement or semiquaver passagework (such as at bars 15 – 23). Start by learning fingerings, note patterns and hand position changes (at bars 5 – 6, and 17 – 18, for example), using a legato touch throughout. When secure, experiment with staccato (as marked), implementing gentle finger strokes (in keeping with the espressivo marking at the top of the score), as opposed to a short, spikey touch.
  2. When practising bars 1 – 3 (and all similar), ensure the first two semiquavers are slightly detached (really semi-staccato) whilst the bass note (A in the left hand) remains held for the entire bar. A miniscule break between the phrases of Bars 1 & 2 will give appropriate space to breathe, and capture the ‘longing’, wistful feel. Legatissimo where possible will help to characterise this work, and provides contrast with staccato passages.
  3. Bars 4, 8, 16, 20, 28 & 29, all contain tenuto markings on the second beat of the bar. As this is a recurring feature, aim for a slight ‘lift’ on the first quaver of the bar, sinking into the crotchet second beat, using a fairly full sound and a slight lingering on this chord (as suggested by the tenuto marking); it usually signifies the end of a phrase. This can still be done at bars 16 and 20, where the left hand contains semiquavers.
  4. Dynamics are very precise, sometimes with each bar containing crescendo and decrescendo marks. Spend time experimenting with the sound, gradually ‘crescendoing’ up to the second quaver (bars 1 & 2), for poignancy.
  5. The sustaining pedal can add resonance if used where the tenuto chords occur (second beat of each of bar 4, 8, 28 & 29, and the last two bars, 30 & 31), but use it sparingly elsewhere, so as not to blur the harmonies or the semiquaver passage work.

List C: C1, Clowns (No. 20 from 24 Easy Pieces Op. 39) by Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904 – 87)

One of my favourite early intermediate level pieces, Clowns, is also a great little contrasting number to the Beethoven and Hiller, and students respond well to its playful character. In ternary form (A – B – A), it effectively oscillates between A major and A minor, which is perhaps suggestive of a Clown’s happy-sad demeanour.

  1. I would write most of the fingering in the score, as the speed at which the piece must be played necessitates some finger (or muscle) memory; repetitive separate hand practice with firm fingers, keeping close to the keys wherever possible, will be beneficial here.
  2. Pulse is important, so aim to count in semiquavers throughout, preferably out loud; ‘speaking’ every beat will help keep the tempo (providing your beat is similar to that of a ticking clock!) free from rushing or lingering.
  3. Articulation plays a vital role in this piece: the right hand staccato markings at the ends of phrases (such as those at bar 1, beats 1 & 3), need a snappy, short approach and a slender accent, colouring the chormatic changes (C sharps to C naturals for example). The left hand notation could be ‘blocked out’ throughout (where the notes in each bar are all played together for ease of learning), then ensure a relaxed wrist when playing the crisp staccato quavers, regularly resting the arm and wrist in order to avoid tension (which can creep in whilst using any repeated movement).
  4. Each accent mark (i.e. those at bars 4, 8, 12, and 21 in the right hand, and bars 24 & 25 in both hands), requires a brusque, powerful touch, as they usually signify the end of a phrase.
  5. The left hand can be kept soft and light until bars 13, where chords punctuate the melody. Aim for clean fingerwork throughout for a vibrant performance, without using any sustaining pedal.

For more posts in this series, exploring other grades and syllabuses, please click here.

My Books:

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

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

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

My Compositions:

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

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 2

Today’s blog post continues my piano exam repertoire selection and tips series by exploring the Trinity College London Grade 2 exam.

There’s a wide range of choice on this syllabus with a very definite emphasis on the living composer. I have chosen three pieces which contrast in style and genre. For me, this is an important criteria; these tests provide an excellent opportunity for those wishing to become acquainted with various styles  and different historical periods. It can be a fun and worthwhile exercise to put this all into context, therefore why not take time to explore a composer’s background and output too? I’ve added a performance of each piece from the many on YouTube.

  1. Ländler by Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

A notoriously difficult composer to tackle, Austrian master Franz Schubert has written some of the most lyrical music of all time (particularly his songs (or Lieder), of which there are over 550). This little piece is typical of his style, with a flowing, simplistic melody, and dance-like bass. Set in triple time, it is the perfect example of a folk dance.

  1. It might be beneficial to begin with the scale and arpeggio of G major, due to the many arpeggio-based figurations in the right hand. These note patterns fit comfortably under the hand; each bar can be isolated and worked at separately. Use fingering which allows for the hand turns; it’s easier to play such passage work ‘in position’.
  2. When playing passagework like that of bar 1, ensure all notes are sounding equally. This will be important for both the tone and the rhythm. To play bar 1 evenly, roll the hand and wrist slightly to the right to easily accommodate and support the fourth and fifth fingers (which will play the Ds and E in bar 1, beat 1 – 2), then roll to the left when playing the Bs and G (beats 2 – 3). This is known as lateral wrist motion, which supports the fingers. Aim to apply such movements for all similar figurations.
  3. Turning the right hand will be necessary; at bar 3, the hand will turn on beat 1 (C with a 3rd finger to the D with a thumb). This may come as a surprise after the relatively easy movement required in the previous two bars; when playing slowly, exaggerate the movement when turning, using a large hand and wrist rotation. When played at tempo, the turn will use a much smaller movement, but should feel easier and smoother.
  4. Try to keep all right hand passagework legato, breaking very slightly at the end of each phrase mark. During the second and third line, pairs of slurred notes (bar 10, beat 1) might need a drop-roll lift, before short detached staccato quavers. Although short, these should ideally be kept in character with the expressive dance-like feel, therefore a softer approach to staccato will work well here.
  5. The left hand can be practised a chord per bar, to assimilate hand positions and fingerings. The bass dotted minim (bottom of the chord at bar 9) must be held throughout each bar during the last two lines. Ensure the left hand plays these notes as legato as possible, and aim to use sustaining pedal sparingly. When working hands together, practice a bar at a time, stopping over the bar line (on the first beat of the next bar) which can be helpful for continuity.

2. Willow, tit-willow (from The Mikado) by Arthur Sullivan (1842 – 1900), arranged by Janet and Alan Bullard

A delightful arrangement of an expressive song from the much-loved comic opera written by British composer Arthur Sullivan. In the opera, the song is sung by Ko Ko and is all about an unhappy bird who dives to his death into a river. This piece provides a good opportunity to explore soft colours and musical expressivity.

  1. The dotted crotchet beat (6/8) might need some work, particularly as there are a few tricky corners and many rests  requiring careful counting. Perhaps start by clapping the rhythm of each hand separately (whilst counting aloud), and then clapping both hands together; the right hand clapping the top line, and the left hand, the bottom. Particular ‘spots’ to watch out for are bars 3, 7 and 15 -18, where semiquavers and rests must be all in their rightful place.
  2. Work at the left hand first, and ensure dotted minims (in bar 1 and 5) are held whilst the notes above are legato and smooth. The same applies for all held bass notes at bars 2, 4, 6, and 8. The left hand chords should ideally punctuate and support the melody in the right hand, so aim to move from one chord to the next smoothly. Fingering and easy, flexible hand and wrist movements will be important in this regard.
  3. The melody might need some slow practice in order to grasp the turn (bar 2, beats 1 – 2), which must be smooth without any sense of jerkiness or unevenness. The A (bar 2, beat 1), needs more colour, dying away on the D (Bar 2, beat 2). Each semiquaver group (for example, bar 3 – 4), calls for a drop-roll movement; where pairs of slurred quavers require a very legato drop then lift on the second note of the pair.
  4. Where the dotted quaver-semiquaver pattern occurs in bars 9 -14, counting in semiquavers can help for precision and poise. The una corda will be effective for the last two bars (as indicated). Keep the sustaining pedal to a minimum, and observe the rest at bar 14.
  5. Tonal colour will determine a successful performance. Try tapering off the sound at the end of a phrase. It can also help to play passages at varying dynamic markings exploring what works before making a final decision. Generally, a crescendo to the middle of a phrase (with a decrescendo towards the end) will highlight the musical line effectively.

3. The Swing Detectives by Ben Crosland (1968 – )

An energetic, dramatic swing piece for all those who enjoy a romp around the keyboard. Written by British educational composer Ben Crosland, this fast-moving piece with heavy accents and insistent rhythm is a lively contrast to the Schubert and Sullivan; those who love jazzy styles will certainly appreciate its colourful harmonies.

  1. In order to understand the swing style, it might be a good plan to practice thinking and counting the triplet beat as per directed at the top of the score. The quavers – in both hands in the first bar (an F sharp and G (bar 1, beat 1)), would be played as a crotchet – quaver pattern; think about counting in three quaver beats, then give the F sharp the value of a crotchet (or two quavers), and the G, a quaver. Add the suggested marked accent onto the F sharp, and lighten the G (you can apply this technique to all quaver passages). This should provide the necessary ‘laid back’ swing feel.
  2. Coordination between the hands will be important in the first and last line particularly. When practising hands together, experiment by using different rhythms, accents, and touches, listening carefully to each note as its played. Take the notes down absolutely together, slowly at first; it can help to play the left hand with more power than the right (and vice versa!), as the left hand can sometimes feel weaker.
  3. The left hand chords from bars 5 – 7 and 9 – 11 might need some attention, as the hand moves out of position and ‘jumps’ fairly quickly. Isolate the chords, and move very swiftly, working at the leaps alone, before playing each passage; first of all, move much quicker than necessary, then work slowly, leaping further than needed i.e. an octave lower than written. When playing at the suggested tempo with the written notes, chords and fingerings should be more comfortable.
  4. Left hand chords in the second and third line are effective if played with non-legato (or slightly detached touch), and the tenuto markings at bars 8, 10 and 11 will add an emphasis needed for this style.
  5. The key to a successful rendition is an incisive, regular pulse. If you count every beat, syncopations, such as those in bar 12 and 16 will be accurate and full of energy. Ensure szforzandos such as those in bars 12 and 16 are given a real kick too!

For more information on other posts in this series, please click here.

My Books:

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

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

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

My Compositions:

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

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.

5 Tips to Instantly Improve a Performance

If there’s a possibility to immediately improve any performance, most of us would jump at the chance! My latest contribution to Pianist magazine’s newsletter offers a few suggestions which can be easily implemented into your practice session. I hope you find them helpful.

5 Tips to Instantly Improve a Performance

As a teacher, I’m often asked how to instantaneously improve a performance. This is a perpetual dilemma when adjudicating at competitions and festivals. During the adjudication (before announcing the winners), I strive to help pianists in their quest for improvement, offering a few tips and practice ideas. The following suggestions have been born as a direct result of hearing numerous performances and I hope they are of interest.

  1. Pedalling. It can be a major issue, particularly for nervous performers, because there’s often a tendency to ‘ride’ the sustaining (or right) pedal. Why work so hard with the fingers, playing accurately, and in many cases, beautifully, only to hide under a cloud of pedal? For practice purposes, aim to play your piece sans pedal (from beginning to end). Once confident, add smaller amounts of sustaining pedal (to start with), for a cleaner performance. Listening is crucial. Know the work inside out, so you can focus on the sound and how the pedal changes that sound; particularly observe ends of phrases, rapid passage work and chordal passages.
  2. Legato. The knock-on effect of a heavy right foot (i.e. the sustaining pedal), sometimes manifests itself in a general lack of smooth or legato playing. It’s easy to forget to join notes effectively, especially when the pedal is readily available to do it for us. Once stripped of the pedal ‘security blanket’, students can be upset by the sheer clipped, detached nature of their playing. Bypass this by preparing a piece using fluent legato fingering from the outset (depending on the piece; generally Baroque music will require a non-legato touch), adding the pedal only once notes have been fully digested. If you have already studied and learned a piece, go through it without any pedal, checking you have used adequate ‘joining’ or legato fingering, creating a smooth contour, which is usually vital in melodic material.
  3. Tempo. Starting and ending in the same tempo can prove problematic, and this ties in with the important matter of providing adequate thinking time before beginning. Once seated to play, resist the urge to start at once. Instead, take a few seconds to mentally prepare; ten seconds should be ample (although it will feel like two minutes!). This will apportion time to collect thoughts and allow space to set a speed which is both comfortable and realistic. Always feel the pulse, and aim to count two bars before playing, almost as an introduction. Use this time to think about the fastest or smallest time values in the chosen work; semi-quavers or demi-semi-quavers can be negotiated with ease at a carefully chosen tempo. Feeling the pulse religiously can also be helpful, and can stem the compulsion to rush (or slow down).
  4. Body Movement. Too much movement (whether swaying, nodding of the head, obsequious arm movements or moving around on the stool), can be detrimental and distracting. However, even more debilitating is not to move at all. Rigidity (which can lead to tension) can cause a harsh sound and, sometimes, inaccuracies. In order to play in a loose, supple manner, it’s important to develop flexibility by cultivating a relaxed stance at the keyboard. Start by careful observation; watch posture, hand positions and wrists, during practice. Try to focus on how you move around the keyboard. Basic tips are to keep shoulders down, wrists relaxed and use arms in a way so that they encourage hands to move freely. If this issue is worked on consistently and consciously in practice sessions, it will become a good habit, and one which will continue to linger in performances too, even under pressure.
  5. Close to the keys. Aim to keep fingers close to the keys as much as possible, even if body movement is considerable. Whilst wrists and arms should ideally be flexible and able to shift around if necessary, fingers and hands are best kept hovering over the keys ready for action.

Implementing just a couple of these suggestions will instantly improve and lift your piano playing, creating a more assured performance.

You can read the original post 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.

Image link

9 Tips for Piano Exam Success in 2017

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire is a new series on my blog, which will begin in earnest next week. Today’s post is in preparation, offering a few practice ideas to make piano exam study a more fruitful and rewarding affair.

Some of you have written (over the past year or so) requesting information about piano exam programmes and how best to select and practise various pieces, so I hope this series of posts might be helpful and of interest. Choosing appropriate pieces from any syllabus is always a major consideration; an important part of exam preparation is deciding which set works combine effectively, offering an attractive, interesting programme whilst also displaying your particular strengths.

I’m going to focus on two exam boards: ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London (starting with the old syllabus (2015-2017), moving to the new one over the coming months). Every post in the series will feature three pieces (for each grade) which complement one another, are fun to play, and supply engaging technical and musical demands.

These pieces are usually contrasting in style and character, which is an element I will emphasise in my selections. These selections are merely personal preferences, because all works within the syllabus lists have already been carefully chosen to present engaging programmes. My objective is to provide a few tips and practice ideas for the chosen three pieces (much of which can be transferred to other repertoire too), and I hope you find these helpful and informative.

Before I launch into the repertoire, I offer a few suggestions for those preparing for piano exams. Whether you’re a young student taking Grade 1 or a mature student taking Grade 8, there are many ways of making sure you achieve your goal. Here are a few practice ideas to utilize during the months leading up to the big day.

  1. A piano exam practice schedule is a good idea. It doesn’t need to be fanatically followed, but if you can make a promise to yourself to practice little and often, your playing will immeasurably improve. Decide just how much time you can devote to piano playing every week; it might be 20 minutes per day, or 20 minutes twice per day. The regularity of your practice is important, as is focused, mindful concentration. Five days per week is optimum, and it can be useful to work in two sessions as opposed to one.
  2. Include all exam elements in each session. Piano exams normally consist of three pieces, scales & arpeggios (or technical exercises), sight-reading and aural (there are other options too, for some exam boards). Aim to include all (or at least three of the four tests) elements at every practice session, perhaps working with a stop watch or clock, so you don’t spend too much time on one area.
  3. A set routine can be profitable. During the practice session try to establish a ‘rota’; perhaps start with sight-reading and follow this with scales and technical work at every session. By doing this, you will quickly cover two important parts of your exam whilst you are still fresh and able to fully concentrate. Leave the set pieces until later in the practice session.
  4. Sight-reading usually requires your full attention, and although it might seem tedious and onerous, if you can regularly devote time to it, improvement will be significant and will make all other piano endeavours feel easier. Ten minutes at the beginning of every session is ideal.
  5. Moving onto scales, arpeggios and technical work, you may need a quick pause between sight-reading and scales; it’s best to take regular breaks. If you’re preparing for a higher grade exam (Grade 6 or above), you might need to practise scales and arpeggios in rotation, as aiming to include all in one session can prove taxing and take too much time. Work out a timetable whereby all technical  work is practised thoroughly, allowing you to concentrate fruitfully on each one.
  6. Set pieces; each piano piece may also benefit from a rotational approach, particularly if they are advanced and complicated. It’s a better plan to practise slowly and assiduously as opposed to skimming over lightly, which may necessitate working at a smaller amount of material at each practice session.
  7. Performance goals. Once the pieces are within your grasp i.e. you can play them through slowly, aim to finish the final practice session of the day with a ‘play-through’ of at least one piece. This can be a valuable exercise to gauge your progress, note what has been achieved weekly (or daily), and become accustomed to establishing the mental thought process required to think from beginning to end without any breaks or hesitations.
  8. Time keeping. A worthwhile exercise is to play each piece slowly with a metronome. Set the metronome to a very slow speed and go through your piece, playing along precisely to the electronic pulse. This can highlight any technical problems, as well as instilling accurate pulse-keeping, and it will also consolidate fingerings, notes and rhythms. Many find it beneficial to ‘play through’ a work slowly, devoid of emotional content, proffering the space and time to think about physical movement around the keyboard i.e. how flexible, relaxed and comfortable you feel whilst playing each piece (for me, a really important aspect of piano playing).
  9. Aural. Surprisingly, it is possible to practice parts of this element on your own. Singing can be done at the piano, testing yourself on the expected patterns, such as intervals and scalic movement (I provide my students with various intervallic ‘tunes’). You can even play (and sing) the actual singing tests yourself. This is also true of cadences and any chord progressions; you can ‘learn’ how they sound whilst playing. More tricky tests such as recognising styles of music should ideally be honed over a period of time; YouTube provides all the music you’ll ever need in order to become familiar with how various genres ‘sound’.

These ideas can be easily implemented. Piano exams can be daunting, but if prepared carefully and not left until the last-minute, they offer much enjoyment and the perfect opportunity to really improve your playing.

The first post in my new series will feature the ABRSM Grade 1 piano exam. You can find out more about Grade 1 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.

Play it again: PIANO Book 1

The piano is an intoxicating instrument. Those who have played in their youth often harbour a desire to return to it later in life. Piano ‘returners’ make up an increasingly large cohort of amateur pianists. Whether younger or older, it’s usually fairly easy to pick up again and  progress can be swift, proffering the opportunity to fall in love with this majestic instrument (and its colossal repertoire) all over again.

My new two book piano course, Play it again: PIANO has been written with the ‘returner’ in mind. Book 1 was published just last month (and Book 2 will be available from the beginning of July). The first book takes pianists almost back to the beginning (but not quite; this isn’t a piano tutor or method book).

The course consists of 49 piano pieces, the majority of which are drawn from standard repertoire (with emphasis on pedagogical works), starting at elementary level (Grade 1) through to advanced (Grade 8). Each book has an extensive ‘technique’ section at the beginning, with plenty of technical reminders and practice recommendations, and a ‘theory’ section at the end. Each piece contains at least two pages of practice ideas and tips, as well as many musical examples, diagrams and photographs. As this is a progressive course, it’s possible to ‘return’ to a level to suit your current standard; some may want to start at the beginning (which is what I suggest, as this can be beneficial, even your playing is at a much higher level), whilst others may prefer to ‘drop in’ at Book 2 or a later stage.

In Book 1, the technique section focuses on flexibility, posture, and keeping relaxed during practice sessions, with a few warm-up exercises, posture suggestions, and scales, arpeggios, and sight-reading practice tips. The theory section offers note reading reminders and exercises, how to keep time, time signatures, and all the information needed to understand the music within the book.

Each book is divided into four parts, and Book 1 looks like this: Elementary, Late Elementary, Early Intermediate and Intermediate. Although this course is not necessarily exam based, it’s helpful to know the approximate grades for each level; Elementary is roughly Grades 1 – 2 level (ABRSM exam standard), Late Elementary, Grades 2 – 3, Early Intermediate, Grade 3 – 4, and Intermediate, Grades 4 – 5.

Each level contains seven pieces (therefore 28 in Book 1); a technical study, an arrangement and a selection of standard repertoire. My brief was to include a wide variety of styles and genres, so there’s plenty for those who enjoy rock, latin, jazz, blues and even a piece for those who want to try their hand at improvisation. I’ve endeavoured to add a number of favourite original works throughout both volumes, and have balanced these with some terrific lesser-known gems.

The Elementary section includes works by Purcell, Petzold, Bertini, Tchaikovsky, Elgar (an arrangement of Salut d’Amour), a latin number by John Kember and Elena Cobb’s improvisation piece, Super Duck. Whilst the Late Elementary portion features Clarke, W.A. Mozart, Schumann, Gurlitt,  a study by Schytte, a Scott Jopin arrangement and a rock piece by Tim Richards. In the Early Intermediate section you can expect to find works by J.S. Bach, Gounod, Chopin, a study by Lemoine, The Sailor’s Hornpipe (an arrangement), a ragtime piece by John Kember, and a blues number by Mike Readdy. And the final collection, Intermediate, offers Clementi, Burgmuller, Satie, a study by Czerny, an arrangement of Mozart’s A Little Night Music, a rock piece by Jurgen Moser and a minimalist inspired Contemporary piece (Karma from Digressions) by myself.

I’ve included the scale and arpeggio of each key (where appropriate), and warm-up exercises, tailored to certain pieces. There are a myriad of practice ideas, and different methods of breaking pieces down, resembling them with ease and with greater understanding. Each piece contains fingering, dynamic suggestions and (where necessary) some pedalling. Although you may choose to ignore this and add your own.

All the information provided for every piece is transferable to an infinite number of piano works, therefore building solid practical methods for tackling different styles and genres.

This book could be used by a plethora of students; adults returning to this pursuit (it could be useful for study on your own or whilst learning with a teacher), teenagers (or anyone of any age!) who fancy a progressive course with a variety of music (it could be used alongside piano exam preparation too), and piano teachers may find it a beneficial selection of repertoire to use with adult students in particular (several piano teaching friends have already started using Book 1 for this purpose).

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The pages are well laid out (see above) and are designed with ‘Tips’ and ‘technique’ box-outs (the books are published by one of the world’s leading music publishing houses, Schott), and I hope it’s an easy to use course, inspiring pianists to rekindle their love for the piano.

You can find out more here, watch my taster videos by clicking on the links below, and order your copy from many outlets worldwide, including:

For those in the UK: Schott Music or Amazon (there are many other online shops also selling the book).

For those in Europe: Schott Music

For those in the US: Amazon

For those in Canada: Amazon

For those in Japan: Amazon

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.