Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 1

Today’s post focuses on the Trinity College London piano exam syllabus. As I’m exploring repertoire for both Trinity College London and the ABRSM exam boards, it has been interesting to note the differences and similarities between them and their syllabuses (I’ve chosen to highlight the syllabuses of just these two exam boards). Both have their strong points, and generally it will be your teacher (if you have one) who will determine which syllabus you follow.

Trinity College London places much emphasis on Contemporary educational music, written by living composers. This factor enhances the learning experience for students, particularly younger pupils, who love the idea of reading about, relating to, and possibly ‘meeting’ the composer who wrote their piano exam piece.

Trinity College London include technical and musical Exercises too, and as a result, there are generally fewer scales and arpeggios in the syllabus, compared to ABRSM. If you’re thinking about taking Grade 1, the following suggested programme (drawn from the current 2015 – 17 syllabus (as with the ABRSM exam tips, I haven’t included the alternative syllabus list)) might be of interest. I’ve also written five practice tips for each piece selected, which I hope will be useful, and I’ve added a performance, taken from one of many on YouTube.

1: Melody in C (from ABC du Piano) by Félix Le Couppey (1811-1887)

French composer Le Couppey’s piano music is synonymous with piano studies and exercises. The Melody in C is an effective opening to any exam programme; it’s a charming example of Le Couppey’s oeuvre, with transparent texture and four bar phrases. The piece addresses several important technical issues for students; balance between the hands, a cantabile melody line, and gradation of dynamics.

  1. It can help to learn hands independently for a while, so fingerings and note patterns are secure. In C major, this piece uses only white notes and much of it is centred around five-finger note patterns or positions. Practising each hand separately will provide the chance to hear both musical lines as important, whether it’s the melody (right hand) or accompaniment (left hand).
  2. The left hand material (particularly the quavers) must be even, rhythmical, and very legato (or smooth). Any bumpiness in the sound, will detract from the melody’s smooth simplicity. Aim to keep the thumb soft and light in patterns such as those from bars 1 – 4, leaning slightly on the lower notes, as they provide the bottom of the harmony. Where larger note values occur (bars 5 – 7, for example), try a bolder dynamic in order for the sound to last longer, and match (tonally) to the next note.
  3. The right hand will benefit from a deeper touch (than that of the left), so encourage fingers to play into the key, and find the climactic point of every phrase. In the first phrase (bars 1 – 4), the G in bar 2 (beat 2), might need more colour, as would the F in bar 6, beat 2, as these are the climaxes within each phrase. Developing a feel for shaping and phrasing takes time, therefore it’s a good idea to experiment with dynamics from the outset.
  4. When combining the two hands, start by playing the notes in each bar altogether as a chord (you can do this either beat by beat or bar by bar, depending on the harmonic structure i.e. if the notes are from the same chord or triad). If you can locate the notes all at once (i.e. playing the E in the right hand (bar 1, beat 1), with both the C and E in the left at the same time, then progressing onto beat 2), moving swiftly from one position to another, when played as written, the note patterns will feel easier and conveniently ‘under the fingers’.
  5. Counting a regular pulse is crucial. How will you keep time? There are many methods, but whichever you chose, stick to it religiously. Always keep the rhythm in mind when practising, and try to count aloud (counting quaver beats is probably easiest).

2. Ghostly Conversations (from Music Through Time Piano Book 1) by Paul Harris (1957 – )

One of my favourite Grade 1 pieces, this ethereal work really captures a student’s imagination. Written by British composer and music education expert Paul Harris, Ghostly Conversations is an excellent contrast to Le Couppey’s Melody in C. It demonstrates ‘harmonics’ beautifully, requiring pupils to hold a chord silently with the left hand for the entire piece. The resulting ‘echo’ effects (when the right hand melody sounds) add an unearthly quality to this spooky number. As mentioned in the score, listening throughout is vital, thereby developing an often overlooked aspect of a musician’s armoury!

  1. The right hand needs much attention, especially at the beginning. Aim to tackle each two bar phrase at a time. Leaning the fingerings (all suggested in the score), and hand positions, which may feel alien at the start. In bar 2, the 2nd finger on the C, followed by a thumb on the G might be an uncomfortable gap for the smaller hand; play the two notes together (interval of four notes, or a fourth), consciously relaxing the muscles in the hand and wrist as you play, and after a while, the relaxation process will hopefully make this gap feel easier.
  2. The opening material (repeated in bars 4 & 5, 12 & 13, 14 -16 and 23 – 26), can all be played ‘in position’ (i.e. using fingering which doesn’t require moving the hand under or over the thumb) whether black notes are present or not. The accents and tenuto markings must be observed (on beat 2 and 4 of the first bar of each phrase) for the full force of the ghost’s ‘cry’, and the last note of each phrase (bar 3, beat 3, an E flat, in this case), is also enhanced by a fuller sound (until bar 24, where the music dies away).
  3. The passage work at bar 7 & 8 (also repeated at bars 18 – 21, and 28 & 29), must really contrast with the previous melody (denoting two different ghosts!?). It requires the right hand to reach over the left, and down into the bass clef. Practice this passage work separately from that of the material at bars 2 – 5, ensuring suitable fingering and a very detached, spikey, staccato touch. When playing the melodies together, keep them rhythmical, and work at the leaps between the clefs, slowly at first, and without  the left hand.
  4. Despite the fact that the left hand plays just one chord, it will need some work. Locate all five black notes in bar 1, and at first play them as expected i.e. with all the notes sounding. When secure, practice taking the chord down into the key bed but incurring no sound from the hammers at all. This may look easy, but it will require much balancing and careful evaluation of the key bed (or ‘biting point’ where notes sound). Once assimilated, keep the chord depressed but relax the hand.
  5. Practice both hands, giving plenty of time to depress the left hand chord (this can be a feature!). The right hand should be able to negotiate between the two staves (and voices), with the left hand in position. Keep tempo strict for a while, and then relax as per directed in the score. Enjoy the ethereal quality the depressed chord brings to the piece; especially important are the pauses (usually in the form of a bar’s rest), and allow a ‘whisper’ at the end.

3. The Owl and the Pussy Cat by Mark Tanner (1963 – )

This piece completes the line up for Grade 1, and is sufficiently contrasting to both the Melody in C and Ghostly Conversations. Written by British pianist, teacher, examiner and writer Mark Tanner, pupils will enjoy the bright and breezy demeanour of this work, as well as it’s slightly off-beat character. Set in D major with a two-in-a-bar feel, it moves around the keyboard fairly quickly, and demands accurate articulation.

  1. The right hand will benefit from slow practice in two bar phrases (as written). In the opening phrase, pairs of slurred notes and staccato must be negotiated at the same time. The drop-roll technique (where the wrist sinks down whilst playing the first note, rolling up and forward, after the playing the second), will be useful for phrasing such as that of bar 2, beat 2 (E to an A). This can be contrasted with staccato crotchets and quavers in both bars 1 & 2.
  2. In bar 2 of the right hand, the second finger will turn over the thumb at the end of beat 1. Ensure a flexible hand and easy movement for this turn; practice keeping the thumb (on the G) and the second finger (on the F sharp), depressed together, allowing the muscles in the hand to relax whilst in position. After this, the hand turn will hopefully feel more relaxed and loose. Apply this to all such movements in this piece.
  3. Similarly, the left hand also faces detailed articulation marks. Aim to employ the drop-roll for all slurred pairs of crotchets, taking particular care of secondary melodic material. The melody is generally given to the right hand, but bars such as 6, 7, 8, 10, and 14, contain thematic material in the left hand. The tenuto (or leaning) markings at bars 4 & 14, must be adhered too, adding extra emphasis and colour.
  4. When playing hands together, slow practice will be necessary in order to implement each articulation mark, especially when they are different in each hand (at bar 8, for example). Also, note each rest, ensuring it’s counted for its full value; bring the finger off the key, clearing the sound thoroughly in keeping with the ‘jaunty’ style.
  5. Constantly changing dynamics will breathe life into the piece, and be sure to notice the sign under the left hand stave at bar 20, which means to play an octave lower than written.


    My Books:

    For much more information on how to practise repertoire, take a look at my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with copious practice tips and advice for each 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.

     

     


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 on how to practise repertoire, take a look at my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO. Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with copious practice tips and advice for each piece.

If you are thinking about playing the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? is full of useful information.

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


Recommended Piano Resources for November 2016

Badge Graphics Draft 3In the run up to Christmas, many of us are on the lookout for gift ideas for friends, family, piano teachers, students and piano lovers everywhere. I hope this fairly substantial selection will inspire a host of piano related shopping. As usual, there’s something to interest all levels. I’ve made a few exciting composer discoveries (which is always fun); today’s list features a historical novel, a new piano method, a practice notebook, a Children’s piano concerto, and new compilations, as well as publications from our favourite publishers. Enjoy!

Beginners/Elementary

Piano Junior

ed_13801-heumann_648_This new method published by Schott Music consists of a series of books (8 books in total) and has been written by German pedagogue and composer, Hans-Günter Heumann. I was a consultant on this method, and it has been exciting to see the finished product. PJ is a robot who is the main ‘character’ (he has a friend called ‘Mozart’ the dog too!) in this tutor series for youngsters (age 6 and above). Piano Junior is designed as a ‘fun and interactive’ piano method, starting with black notes, employing innovative, user-friendly graphic notation before introducing white notes, traditional staves, clefs and time signatures. In addition to each book, there is also extra material on the website, which includes videos, audio demos and play-alongs for all the pieces, as well as downloadable rhythm checks, workouts, sight-reading exercises and other resources. Find out much more here and purchase here.

My Practice Palette

my-practice-palette-coverWritten by British teacher Roberta Wolff, this book can be enjoyed in paperback or e-book version and is designed to assist students and teachers in their quest for effective practising. My Practice Palette  is essentially a notebook which aims to educate parents, teaches, and students about how to practise while eliminating the need for teachers to write practice notes. This is done by teaching practice methodology and metacognition. Roberta recommends using My Practice Palette from grades 1-5. Teachers can also work through the Practice Palette during lesson time. The benefits of this are, no extra time is required for planning, and teachers can be spontaneous yet easily keep track of a student’s progress. It’s certainly a colourful volume and would no doubt encourage those who might otherwise find practising dull. Find out more and get your copy here.

14 Easy Pieces for Piano

lane_richard_14_easy_pieces_for_piano_pno73American composer Richard Lane (1933 – 2014) has written a group of charming little pieces for those of around Grade 1 level (ABRSM). I discovered Richard’s music through the ABRSM list C pieces (for 2017/8), whilst writing the Piano Notes series (due to be published by Rhinegold in January). These works, which are published by Swiss publisher BIM Editions, are tuneful, attractive and all feature particular technical elements (important for teaching repertoire). Duets, an arrangement and original pieces all feature in this volume. Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Star

9781848499249This is a new series published by the British examination board, ABRSM, for beginners (or for those up to prep test level). There are three books in the series, each containing new arrangements and original pieces written by a host of different composers and teachers, all associated with the popular British exam board. The volumes include solo pieces and duets, offer a mix of styles, plus fun extension activities and plenty of illustrations. There are 74 pieces in total, written by 20 composers including Christopher Norton, Paul Harris, Mark Tanner and Mike Cornick, and children will love the tuneful simplicity of the pieces; this is certainly useful teaching material. Find out more and purchase here.

Intermediate

Piano Concerto No. 1 For Children

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An interesting discovery, written in 1993 by Russian composer Ilia Chkolnik and published by BIM Editions, in their Junior Series. Piano concertos written solely for children are becoming increasingly popular, with many, particularly Russian composers, highlighting this potential gap in the market. This score has an orchestral reduction (or second piano part), and at first glance, could be mistaken for advanced level. However, it consists of idiomatic, essentially tonal writing and lasts just 11 minutes. There are three movements, two fast outer sections, and a beautiful slow movement, which reminds me of Shostakovich’s Second Concerto in F major Op. 102. Teachers looking for varied contemporary repertoire will enjoy this piece. To hear, find out more and purchase, click here.

Intermediate to Advanced

My First Chopin

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A new publication from Schott Music, compiled by German pianist and pedagogue, Wilhelm Ohman. This collection of 20 pieces lies well within the capabilities of the advanced player, and contains some of Chopin’s best-loved works including a group of Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas and Nocturnes. These genres are popular amongst students, and with the Raindrop Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6, Waltz in B minor Op. posth. 69 No. 2, Mazurka in B flat major Op. 7 No. 1, Nocturne in C sharp minor No. 20 Op. posth., Funeral March (from Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35), to name a few favourites. An excellent addition to any student’s library. Find out more and purchase here.

The Piano Playlist

ed_13860-turner_648_

A large selection of 50 popular classical pieces arranged by British arranger and editor Barrie Carson Turner, and published by Schott Music. Arrangements have always been a favourite with pianists, and this offers a comprehensive list of music across several centuries, all transcribed for intermediate up to advanced players. From opera arias (Habanera from Carmen by Bizet, Nessun Dorma from Turandot, and O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schicchi both by Puccini), to ballet numbers, famous gems from orchestral works (Ode to Joy (Beethoven), The Swan (Saint-Saëns), Adagietto (Mahler’s 4th Symphony)), to piano concertos, instrumental music and  arrangements of piano pieces. My choice piece is When I am Laid in Earth from Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. This is a beneficial volume for those wanting to discover some of the best-loved works in the Classical repertoire. It would also serve as excellent sight-reading material. Find out more and purchase here.

The Ultimate Easy Piano Songlist

e20016ac-d186-4c15-a350-c7c3873fd590A new publication from Faber Music. Containing 45 arrangements of best selling songs, this will please those who enjoy a wide variety of pop and easy listening music. Numbers from artists such as Adele, Cilla Black, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Rea, Michael Buble, Eagles, One Direction, Wham!, Nina Simone, Muse, Vera Lynn, David Bowie, Justin Beiber, Jamie Cullum, and Radiohead, to name a few. This is designated ‘Easy Piano’ but few elementary pianists will manage these arrangements; I would suggest intermediate level as minimum. Complete with lyrics and chord indications, this is a lovely volume, and would make a perfect stocking filler! Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Collection by Jevdet Hajiyev

indexThe first book of a special centenary edition of selected piano works inspired by Azerbaijani traditional music, written by Azerbaijani composer, Jevdet Hajiyev (1917 – 2002). This volume is published by EVC Music Publications, in a project commissioned by the Muradov family archive. For intermediate to advanced level players, this book will be a useful addition to any piano teacher, advanced student or keen amateur’s piano library. With the expected Russian inflections, this music is generally tonal but with a direct influence of Twentieth Century masters such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich (Jevdet Hajiyev’s teacher). Some pieces are short (such as those from Musical Sketches), whilst the Scherzo and Sonata are more substantial. Listen to the music, find out more and get a copy here.  

Online

Flowkey

flowkeyFlowkey is a piano learning-app geared for all levels, whether beginner or advanced. It’s also a useful music education tool for parents, teachers, and adult learners, as it’s easy to get started. A wide spectrum of music is covered, from classical music to pop songs. You can apparently practice interactively and receive instant feedback; progress can be tracked and piano lessons are also on offer, in the form of various courses. Flowkey is partnered with Yamaha, and can be easily connected to digital pianos. Find out much more here.

Books

Ghost Variations

getattachmentthumbnailThis is the latest novel by British author, writer, and critic Jessica Duchen. Whilst not strictly focused on the piano, it is a very interesting musical tale. Jessica tells the true story of Hungarian-born violinist Jelly D’Aranyi’s quest to recover Robert Schumann’s forgotten violin concerto. It’s also the story of an aging woman in a world which is becoming progressively more hostile. Jelly negotiates her way through the changing world of 1930s London. War is ever-present, and the heroine has to come to terms with her fading powers and upcoming young stars such as Yehudi Menuhin. As a woman, she faces the ultimate decision, choosing between music or love.  Find out more here and buy your copy here.


You can find out more about my new Faber Music Piano Anthology here.

And my beginner’s guide, So You Want To Play The Piano? here.