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 publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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 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 publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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 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 publications:

    For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.



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) andTrinity 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 publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.

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!


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.

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.


Piano Concerto No. 1 For Children


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


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


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.



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.


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.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.