Learning Pieces

How to Start Learning a New Piece

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Tips & Tools for Learning New Pieces

When learning a new piece from scratch, there are a number of tools we can use to get the maximum benefit from our practice time and to lay the foundations for a secure and successful performance.

Learning Khachaturian’s Toccata

Aram Khachaturian’s Toccata is one of the most effective showpieces for the advancing pianist. Although it looks and sounds very difficult, it is actually much more approachable than you might think, with patterns that are always highly pianistic and often surprisingly simple to memorise. There is plenty of scope for narrative and imagery in this piece, the pedal bringing textures together to create a soundscape that is at times savage and barbaric, then scintillating and brooding. In this excerpt from my video walk-throughs for the piece, I demonstrate an approach to learning bar 74 which looks daunting due to numerous accidentals: The full video walk-through of Khachaturian’s Toccata featuring over an hour of detailed information on learning, memorising and performing it is available on the Online Academy here. Other walk-throughs of pieces from the 2021 – 2022 ABRSM Piano Examination Syllabus are available here. Guide to the ABRSM 2021 & 2022 Piano Examination Syllabus We have published a comprehensive collection of resources for the 2021 & 2022 syllabus. The full set of over seventy video walk-throughs is included with a subscription to the Online academy. Please click here to subscribe or click here to find out more about the Online Academy. Alternatively, the complete set of video-walkthroughs for all ABRSM grades can also be purchased separately along with recordings from our recent workshop day on the syllabus. Please click here for more information or if you have already purchased a ticket then you can access the videos by signing in to your account.

How to Broaden Your Active Repertoire

This week’s post is by Online Academy co-founder, Ryan Morison. Ryan is a devoted and dedicated amateur pianist, and I’m delighted to welcome him as guest author to share his thoughts on ways to increase our active repertoire effectively and efficiently. * * * It is the season for virtuous resolutions and a good time to ponder pianistic plans and goals for the year ahead. Many of us (myself included!) will be tempted to embark upon stretch goals, tackling increasingly difficult pieces on our repertoire “bucket list”. Although setting challenges can be inspiring, being overly ambitious has its drawbacks. It often results in one spending ages on a single piece only to fall short of doing it justice finally when (or if!?) performing it. To avoid these pitfalls, I have opted for a different theme for 2021. Instead of tearing my hair out at a few fiendishly difficult works likely to be beyond my ability and available practice time, my objective is rather to broaden my active repertoire. The focus will be more on quantity and quality than difficulty, having a wider range of pieces that I can play at a reasonable level on the spot or brush up at short notice without too much effort. The benefits of increasing your active repertoire Broadening your repertoire can significantly increase the enjoyment you derive from your playing. It exposes you to a greater variety of music and opens up more opportunities to share your playing with others. In addition to enhanced enjoyment, playing more pieces also leads to significant improvements in your playing, teaching you new things and improving your ability to learn even more works faster. A realistic approach Rachmaninoff once said, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus – Initial Grade

The final instalment in my exploration of the pieces from the new ABRSM piano syllabus is now available on the Online Academy. This features video walk-throughs for each of the main pieces for the Initial Grade, an important exam on the path to Grade 1 (where a large number of technical and musical skills are already a requirement for success). In each of the videos, I stress the importance of developing a strong technical foundation that needs to get laid down right from the word go, at the most elementary level of piano instruction. These videos demonstrate the movements involved in the Initial grade, some of the pitfalls to avoid, and how to stimulate the imagination so that we might play with a sense of narrative. There are plenty of tips that will be helpful to the teacher and player. The following video provides a brief preview of the type of content featured in these walk-throughs (click here for links to previews for other grades): How to access? Please click here to view the full videos for the Initial Grade or click here for an index of other grades if you are an Online Academy subscriber (further information about the Online Academy is available here). The complete set of video-walkthroughs for all ABRSM grades can also be purchased separately along with recordings from our recent workshop day on the syllabus. Please click here for more information or if you have already purchased a ticket then you can access the videos by signing in to your account. What’s next? With the addition of the Initial Grade, I have now covered repertoire from all of the grades (over seventy pieces!) in the new syllabus. These will now be followed by: General […]

Happy Birthday Herr Beethoven!

Although there’s no authentic record of Beethoven’s day of birth, the registry of his baptism on 17th December 1770 has survived. Since it was custom to baptise within 24 hours of birth, the consensus is that his birthday was the 16th of December. To celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday tomorrow, we’ve created an instalment in our #piecestoplay series featuring a selection of piano works at various levels and our resources for them. Ecossaise in E-Flat (No. 4 from Six Ecossaises, WoO 83) A lively dance in 2/4 time, an ecossaise is actually the French word for “Scottish”! This piece is currently set as Grade 3 in the 2021 & 2022 ABRSM piano examination syllabus. Click here to view a video-walkthrough for this work. Sonatina in G (Anh. 5 No. 1) Although there are some questions as to whether this work is correctly attributed to Beethoven, it offers an excellent opportunity to assimilate essential elements of the Classical style: articulation, balance, ornamentation, and clear phrasing. Click here to view our From the Ground Up edition which provides a step-by-step approach to learning or teaching this piece. Für Elise (Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor) This evergreen miniature of Beethoven scarcely needs any introduction at all and many pianists attempt it before they are ready for it. This video from our Q-Spot series shows how to use quarantining and other practice tools to tackle two challenging spots within the work. Bagatelle in E-Flat (No.1 from Seven Bagatelles, Op. 33) Beethoven wrote short pieces (which he called “trifles”) throughout his creative life, which he published in three collections. This piece is the first from the earliest set, Op. 33 and is set as Grade 7 in the 2021 & 2022 piano examination […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus – Grade 8

The next installment in my exploration of the new ABRSM syllabus features some of the main pieces in the Grade 8 list, along with some from the alternative syllabus. In this post I provide an overview with notes on a selection of pieces from the list and a video preview of some highlights and tips for works by Bach, Haydn, Brahms and Bartok (click here for links to previews for other grades): The complete video walk-throughs for the pieces featured in this video are now available on the Online Academy with further works by Schubert, Schumann and Khachaturian to follow. Please click here to view the index of available walk-throughs if you are an Online Academy subscriber or click here if you’d like to to subscribe. Online Workshops As a complement to my Online Academy resources on the ABRSM syllabus, I am also running a series of online workshops. These workshops will cover repertoire in addition to topics such as scales, sight-reading and preparation.  Next workshops Part 4 (Grade 7) – Thurs 12th Nov @ 15:00 – 16:30 GMT (includes 4 videos) – Click here to purchase tickets Part 5 (Grade 8) – Tues 17th Nov @ 19:00 – 20:30 GMT (includes 7 videos) – Click here to purchase tickets Tickets can be purchased for individual sessions using the links provided above or you can save 20% by purchasing a combined ticket here! If you’ve missed a session then you can still purchase tickets for a past session (or a combined ticket) to obtain access to the event recording and included resources. Grade 8 Repertoire Overview LIST A1 J. S. Bach: Fantasia in C minor, BWV 906  This highly chromatic and brilliant piece featuring hand crossings and running triplets shows Bach trying his hand at the new galant and […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus – Grade 7

The next installment in my exploration of the new ABRSM syllabus features the main pieces in the Grade 7 list. In the following video I provide some highlights and tips for a selection of pieces from each of the three lists (A, B, and C) for the grade (click here for links to previews for other grades): The complete video walk-throughs for a selection of four of the ABRSM Grade 7 pieces are now available on the Online Academy. These include detailed video walk-throughs with practice suggestions, tips on style and interpretation. Please click here to view if you are an Online Academy subscriber or click here if you’d like to to subscribe. You can get further updates on my resources for the ABRSM syllabus by signing up for our mailing list here and subscribing to our YouTube channel for additional video previews.  New workshop series! As a complement to my Online Academy resources, I am also running a series of online workshops. These workshops will cover repertoire in addition to topics such as scales, sight-reading and preparation. The format will be interactive with opportunities for questions and answers. Please click here further information.   Grade 7 Repertoire Overview The following are brief overviews of each of the main pieces (an index with links to the full videos on the Online Academy is available here): List A A1  J. S. Bach: Sinfonia No.15 in B minor, BWV 801  Bach’s aims for the Inventions and Sinfonias were to encourage composition (an understanding and appreciation of musical structure), to foster good playing in two and three parts (or voices), and above all “to arrive at a cantabile style of playing”. Apart from good tone, a singing style relies on phrase shaping, an appropriate range of dynamics and colour, as […]

Pieces to Play – Birthday Offers

The next instalment in our “Pieces to play” series features a selection of popular works at a more advanced level for which we have published annotated study editions and other resources. JS Bach – Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from WTC Book I The prelude for the work is built on a continually repeated pattern of broken chords with sharp, often dissonant accents on main beats and constant movement in-between them. This makes the score conducive to simplification using blocking to discover the underlying harmonic progression. Click here to find out more about simplification methods or click here to hear a recording of this work on Spotify. Fugues are one of the most complicated musical structures and as a result, many pianists shy away from them. However, there are ways to approach learning a Fugue that make the challenge less daunting. One of these is to use the “practice stepladder” which is based on learning voices separately (or in various combinations) rather than hands. Click here to find out more about the practice stepladder. Click here to purchase our study edition for this work. Beethoven – Sonata in C# Minor (Moonlight), First Movement Beethoven’s Sonata in C# Minor (Sonata quasi una fantasia), Op. 27 No. 2, is surely one of the most famous pieces of music of all time. Completed in 1801, it was dedicated to his student, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The title “Moonlight” was given not by Beethoven, but by poet Ludwig Rellstab; even though Rellstab dreamed this up five years after Beethoven’s death, his nickname stuck. One of the particular challenges of the piece is voicing. In this video, Graham Fitch demonstrates exercises to help projecting the melody in the right-hand […]

The Story Behind Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu

Even though the Fantaisie-Impromptu was composed in 1834, the world had to wait until 1960 to hear the piece as Chopin intended it. This much-loved work was made popular through the version published by his close friend and musical executor, Julian Fontana, but it contains quite a number of textual discrepancies.  How Chopin’s autograph came to light makes a fascinating story. In 1960, Artur Rubinstein acquired an album owned by Madame la Baronne d’Este. The album contained a manuscript of the Fantaisie-Impromptu in Chopin’s own hand, dated 1835. It would appear that the reason Chopin had not published the work was because he had received a commission from the Baroness, and the piece was therefore her property. It is possible this manuscript might be a later copy of the work, which could explain the gap of a year between its composition and the date in the album’s copy.  Even though the autograph manuscript has since been published, many pianists prefer to play from the much more familiar Fontana edition. This is the version I learned as a student, and because it is very ingrained in my fingers, I have stuck with it. It seems like I am in good company. Let’s look at a few excerpts from the autograph score so we can see some of the differences. In the opening material Fontana adds pedal, and removes the accents in the left hand. Some left hand notes are not the same – the autograph has G sharps in the second groups of bars 5 and 6, and the layout of the broken chord in the second group of bar 7 is different.  In the autograph, the broad melody that appears in bar 13 in crotchets (quarter notes) continues in the […]