Intervals – training or teaching?

In my second guest post of this new series, George Bevan (an organist, choirmaster and Director of Music at Monkton Combe School), pictured below, writes about his experiences whilst teaching intervals, and offers some suggestions for effectively tutoring this important skill. I hope this may be useful for all who teach instrumental music exams. Over to George…


It is not uncommon for students to be sent my way, usually a few weeks before an impending grade exam, to go through some aural tests. So this morning I found myself exploring grade 4 Trinity tests, which include identifying intervals – my favourite! As with many of the aural tests set for exams, I find that there can be several different approaches and that these generally fall into two categories: those which just work, and those which actually deepen the musical instinct of our students.

Those which just work

The age-old technique is to associate each interval with a well-known tune ie. a perfect fourth sounds like the beginning of Away in a manger. This was how my piano teacher taught me to recognise intervals as a child. It’s okay I guess, but since I was a chorister at the same time, it always struck me as a little strange to be imagining the opening of Away in a manger in the middle of a Palestrina mass – yes it works, but on so many levels surely that can’t be right?!!

At least the student has to match up in their head what they hear with their ears. [Anders Ericsson would call this a mental representation; Paul Harris would call it making connections.] But aside from this, I can’t see any merit at all to this approach. If you just want your student to get the answers right for the exam, then this method works. But why is this skill being tested? Trinity say it’s to develop your skills in recognising intervals. I’m afraid that doesn’t answer the question.

Those which actually deepen the musical instinct of the student

There are so many more connections which can be made here, all of which are going to develop our students’ understanding and skills, and ultimately their musicianship.

Let’s consider the nature of each interval, starting with seconds. Instantly we have the scope to introduce or revisit all of these concepts: minor second = same as a semitone; major second = same as a tone; seconds are dissonant.

Thirds are major or minor. It may seem obvious, but even without the fifth of the triad above them, they sound like a regular chord. [Add the perfect fifth above and most students will hear this clearly]. At this point, I play a quick game of ‘second or third?’ Never mind the major/minor-ness of the interval for the moment – it’s simply a question of is it a dissonant sound, or a pleasing one? Insist on an immediate answer. This will develop an instinct to listen for dissonance or consonance. Once they have this, then you can narrow it down to whether it’s major or minor.

Perfect fifth. Is this chord major or minor? Neither! A great opportunity to discuss that all important third in a triad as being responsible for making the chord either major or minor. Without, it sounds hollow, almost like you can put your hand in the empty space in the middle. [Add a third, either major or minor, and then play it without again to illustrate the point.]

Sixths. These are major and minor too. So now we play a variant on the ‘second or third?’ game, but now it’s called ‘small or big?’ and we play it with either thirds or sixths. They all sound major or minor, so now what we’re focusing on is this: are they close together or far apart? Again, insist on an instant answer to develop instinct, this time for spacing. Then refine – major or minor?

And now ‘second, third or sixth?’ Answer straight away – is it small, big or dissonant? And then refine.

Another way of approaching intervals is to sing. Specifically to sing a scale. It’s called a scale for good reason – it’s what we use to measure the size of an interval. But I had a problem this morning with my student – it quickly became apparent that he can’t sing (yet!) I played him a perfect fifth, B flat to F, within his vocal range, and asked him to sing a scale from the bottom to the top. He sang the B flat (pretty badly but near enough). This was followed by four more notes, and he finished sort of close to an E. It certainly didn’t resemble a major scale; I asked him whether he knew what a major scale sounded like, and he replied – perhaps a little doubtfully – that he did. His second effort at singing the scale was even worse. I’m sure he does know what a major scale sounds like, but he couldn’t find that sound for himself in his own head, and he couldn’t reproduce it. From what I know of him, I suspect that this causes him no end of problems. In short, each note that he plays on his instrument is an external entity, and not part of a linear progression running in his head. Surely that can’t be right?

Not so long ago I heard an examiner at a training session, outlining the ways in which she had prepared a piano pupil, who couldn’t sing, to score adequately in the aural tests despite his weakness. The one suggestion which she didn’t make was to teach him to sing. Is it a piano teacher’s job to teach their pupil to sing? If necessary then yes, of course it is! The importance of singing is not so much the external sound, but the need to have a mental representation of the sound inside your head. When I play a rising minor sixth, I know what it is going to sound like before it happens because I can hear it. And the proof that I can hear it? – I can sing it.

Being able to sing up and down a scale, in the same way as we might measure centimetres on a ruler, is an invaluable skill in learning to measure accurately. We can get a sense of magnitude in comparing a second with a sixth by singing our way up, step by step. It focuses listening skills, especially if we are insistent that our students sing in tune, and it helps them to create all sorts of aural connections.

Intervals are also harmonic. Understanding how thirds and fifths (and fourths and sixths for that matter) fit in the wider context of chords will immediately make sight-singing so much more straightforward. And if you can sight-sing, instrumental sight-reading is so much easier. Tonic solfa is an incredibly useful tool as well, in as much as it also gives intervals context within the scale. Singing a perfect fifth from doh to soh feels very different from singing from mi to ti – in the case of the latter interval, it is so much easier to aim at the characteristic sound of a leading note than it is to try to summon up Twinkle twinkle little star out of nowhere…. If we are serious about teaching rather than training our students, I can’t see how the name that tune method stands up to any level of scrutiny whatsoever.

In many aspects of instrumental technique, the best method is simply to show our pupils what works; leaving them to work it out for themselves takes too much time. But in developing musicianship, we need to encourage them to explore for themselves at every turn; ironically, just teaching them what works deprives them of so much opportunity for discovery. I cannot stress how important it is to spend time exploring these sorts of things with our pupils – the very things which some teachers say they don’t have time for because they need to cover repertoire, technical work etc. What’s the hurry? Let’s take a little more time, and teach in a way which will serve our pupils well beyond the confines of the exam room.

www.musicatmonkton.com


My Publications:

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

My Publications:

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

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


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Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 4

Surveying the syllabus for Trinity College London exams Grade 4 (2015 – 2017), I’m happy to find a more eclectic mix of repertoire than that of the lower grades. From Haydn and McMillan to Gounod and Köhler, there’s definitely something for everyone in this collection, and the pieces are also segregated into groups; ‘A’ and ‘B’ (in a manner not dissimilar to the ABRSM A, B & C lists). Pupils and teachers can choose one piece from list A and one from list B, with a third from either list.

One aspect I particularly like about Trinity College exams, is the concept of a candidate presenting one of their own pieces (as the third piece option). Surely an imaginative and forward-thinking idea which can only encourage composition, and hence invite students to delve deeper into the compositional and analytical process of piano writing. As always, I’ve added a recording for each chosen piece (selected from one of the many on YouTube).

Here are my selections and practice tips:

  1. Allegro Moderato (first movement from Sonatine, Op. 300) by Louis Köhler (1820 – 1886)

A lovely tuneful movement in a Classical style, German composer Köhler is known for his sonatas and sonatines for young players. This work, in the key of G major, is bright, breezy, with a darker central section in E minor, and it offers many useful piano techniques: staccato combined with legato, left hand melody, short slurs and plenty of dynamic variation too.

  1. After learning hands separately, making sure all fingerings, notes and rhythms are fully understood and absorbed, continue by practising the left hand accompaniment alone. This is not dissimilar to an Alberti bass (a broken chord or arpeggiated accompaniment figure), and will benefit from slow, solid heavy fingerwork, before lightening your touch and adding speed. it’s important to keep the thumb light (as nearly always with this compositional technique), placing a slight emphasis on the lower notes, as this will help to shape the bass line.
  2. Similarly the right hand chords (bars 8 – 12 and 31 – 35) need to sound altogether but must also be light and soft, allowing the left hand to ‘speak’. Practice ‘balancing’ each chord i.e. taking each note down with a firm finger supported by the hand, aiming to use a soft, loose wrist whilst balancing each note, so they all sound absolutely together. This skill takes time to master, so keep working at it slowly (it’s easier to be guided by a teacher).
  3. When practising the melody line, note every phrase climax, and then grade sound accordingly. Staccato notes within a phrase (bar 1, in the right hand, for example), should ideally not be too short, but rather elegant and carefully graded. The slur markings at bars 6 – 7 and 29 – 30 (also in the right hand), need a ‘drop-roll’ technique (sinking the hand and wrist into the first note, and lifting up and forward on the second), plus an added tenuto (on the first note) and staccato (after the second note of each slur) for extra ‘leaning’ or accentuation. The left hand tune (bars 8 – 12 and 31 – 35) must soar above the right hand, with a fulsome forte (loud), and marcato (marked) touch.
  4. Coordination between the hands could be an issue here (bars 8 – 12 and 31 – 35). In order to alleviate any potential problems, start by working on one crotchet beat at a time (hands together), slowly assimilating the necessary movements between the hands. Bar 6 – 7 might be one such area (for example), where the left hand plays legato quavers whilst the right hand is in the midst of drop-roll slurring coupled with tenuto and staccato. By isolating each beat, and taking them out of context, playing a quarter of the intended speed, time is given to ‘feel’ the movements and the differing articulations needed. This technique might also be required for note patterns such as those at bars 8 – 12, where the left hand is the star, and bar 22, where passage work is in unison. When learned, practice playing through to a slow pulse, and then varying rhythms, touches and volumes between the hands, in order to gain control and become really fluent.
  5. Left hand accompaniment such as that at bar 14 (where minims must be held for their full length), and bar 17-18 (where the left hand contains a double note pattern and tenuto  markings), must be practised with extra care. A steady pulse should prevail, with sudden dynamic contrasts adding shape and colour.


2. Garden Path by Elissa Milne (1967 – )

There’s much to enjoy in this piece by Australian composer Elissa Milne. A reflective tranquil mood is offset with ‘blues’ inflections and an atmospheric resonance created by the inclusion of the sustaining pedal. This provides an excellent contrast to the first piece.

  1. Balance between the hands will be crucial. Left hand chords must be soft and light, particularly at the opening, and played as legato as possible. Time spent working at each hand separately will secure confidence around the keyboard. Work at taking each chord (in the left hand) down into the key bed slowly, balancing the sound and making sure each note is in unison. Now grade the sound (a little more on the crotchet than on the minim in each bar, for example, in bars 1 – 4, 5 – 7, and 9 – 12). The larger leaps (in the left hand) on the second page, might benefit from the notes being located on the keyboard and played much quicker than necessary, then when they are played at the suggested tempo, they will hopefully feel easier.
  2. The right hand melody contains an important technical element: holding the first beat of the bar and colouring it with sufficient sound so as to join smoothly and ‘match’ the sound of the next note (often a triplet or the third beat (in many bars)). To produce the deeper sound, play with the flatter part of the finger tip, and use plenty of weight from the arm (via a relaxed wrist, loose arm and elbow), playing into the key bed. By doing this a warm cantabile tone should emerge; the sound should hopefully be cushioned (avoiding ‘hitting’ the key from above, which produces a harsher, thinner sound), and will ‘ring out’ for longer.
  3. The triplet figures are another technical issue for many. Aim to play three quavers in the time it usually takes to play two, by practicing counting a regular (even) ‘three’ beats out loud; experiment by clapping the rhythm to begin with. Then place  it in context, in its place on the last beat of the bar (of bars 1, 3, 5, 9, 11, 13, 19, 21, 23, 27 and 29). To do this, clap all three crotchet beats in each bar, but sub-divide each one equally into three, whether there’s a triplet on the beat or not (in other words, for practice purposes, clap a triplet on every beat). If you can do this for the first two lines of music, keeping a strict pulse, when you actually play the notes as written, the triplet should fall into place and the rhythm will hopefully feel natural.
  4. The effective addition of the chromatic scale in the right hand at bars 13 – 14, and 31 – 32 offers the chance to either learn the expected fingering (as written for scales), or the fingering suggested at bar 13, which uses a 4th finger (instead of the traditional 1, 2 & 3).
  5. Chords (for example, at bars 15 – 16 and 17 – 18) should ideally be graded carefully, with the top line at the forefront of the texture (the 4th and 5th finger might need some extra support from the hand and arm here), and as legato as possible. Experiment with the sustaining pedal, which is used (as directed) for every bar, to add resonance, and when confident, relax the tempo adding appropriate rubato.


3. Matsuri (Japanese Festival) by Michael McMillan (1980 – )

Full of vibrant colour and rhythmic energy, this work is fun to play and compliments my selected pieces from lists A and B, nicely. Composer Michael McMillan has created the Japanese ‘sound’ with open fifth intervals in the accompaniment and a colourful offbeat, quirky melody.

  1. The left hand accompanies throughout, often with staccato quavers a fifth apart. It’s relatively to easy to learn the fingerings and positions for bars 1 – 9, but its essential for the hands to remain flexible and relaxed. Tension can rear it’s head if the wrist and arm remain ‘locked’ in position. Alleviate this by encouraging the wrist to keep moving freely, finding places to rest the wrist, so any stiffness can be ‘released’ (many find it best to do this at the end of a bar, or possibly after a four bar phrase). Practice by leaving small gaps at first (stop playing and take a short rest), and as the wrist becomes accustomed to the break (or muscle release), the gaps will become increasingly shorter, until they are imperceptible.
  2. Minims in the left hand at bars 10 – 19 must be held for their full value. Aim to practice this bass line on its own, holding down the note until the very last possible moment before finding and playing the next one. The crotchet/quaver pattern above each minim, requires a firm first note and much lighter second (quaver).
  3. The right hand melody should ideally be very rhythmical, with little opportunity for tempo ‘changes’. With this in mind, start by setting a slow speed on the metronome (probably a third or quarter of that intended), and work through learning all fingerings and position changes. In bar 3, the 4th finger will need to be strong, so ensure a deep touch (using the finger tip), supported by the hand and arm (try to move the hand slightly to the right and away from the body supporting the weaker part of the hand).
  4. Articulation will be crucial, and to create the sharp, fairly clipped sound, observe all staccato and tenuto markings closely; the offbeat right hand fifths in bar 2 and bars 18 – 19 will need a steady, solid and rhythmical left hand in order to ‘bounce’  with characterful colour.
  5. The three and four parts spread between the two hands from bars 10 – 17 are probably the most complicated in the piece. Work a bar (or beat) at a time, first combining the two outer parts (bottom note with the tune), then the inner parts, before playing together. The last line of this piece is fun to play; every semiquaver must be equal rhythmically, so try to avoid rushing the second and fourth beat of each crotchet (it can help to accent these when practising).

For more information on this series, click here.


My publications:

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

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