Learning Pieces

How to Practise when Learning New Pieces

When learning a new piece, not all practice makes perfect. We’ve all had occasion to stumble at the same learned-in mistakes that originated when we first started learning the notes, and weren’t perhaps as careful as we might have been. To establish good habits we need a thorough, mindful approach from start to finish. Here are some tips and suggestions for how to break down the process of learning and refining a new piece to avoid typical pitfalls: Prepare your mind Making time vs. instant gratification You have chosen a new piece and are excited to get stuck in to learning it. One or two read-throughs is a good idea, but take care to avoid the repeated read-through method or you risk ingraining all sorts of sloppiness. What to do away from the piano & why This is the start of a new relationship between you and your new piece. Laying the groundwork starts with some research into the origins of the piece, its raison d’etre. Listen to recordings, make notes and begin to explore the score away from the piano. By the time you start work at the piano, you will already have an idea of what you want to convey with your interpretation. Analysing the music Study the music and analyse its structure in whatever ways are meaningful to you. Look at the various sections, phrases, tempo relationships, patterns, chords, and so on before your fingers even touch those keys. Have a sense of the overall design and what you want to bring out in your performance means you can hit the ground running. Taking a logical, patient approach Learning a new piece takes time and discipline, also a certain amount of patience. […]

Pieces to Play – ABRSM Highlights

Are you looking for a few ideas for some new pieces to learn? Or are you a teacher searching for interesting pieces for a student? In our new Pieces to Play series we will be featuring a selection of works to provide you with some ideas and inspiration. These will include links to resources with tips and suggestions for each work. Instalments in this series will be published on our blog, and you can get updates from our mailing list. We hope that this series will give you some interesting ideas for what to learn next and perhaps introduce you to some exciting new discoveries! Highlights from the ABRSM Syllabus We’ve recently embarked upon an ambitious project to create a detailed collection of guides to the pieces in the new ABRSM syllabus. The first instalment in this series kicks off with some highlights from the syllabus at the late elementary (grades 3 and 4) and intermediate levels (grades 4 to 6). Even if you’re not preparing for an examination, the new syllabus contains a curated selection of graded pieces, many of which are open domain and therefore freely available online. Exploring this rich and varied collection of works is highly recommended as you are bound to find some delightful additions to your repertoire! JS Bach – Prelude in C minor (BWV 999) Grade 4 Originally written for the lute, this piece is based on a harmonic progression that Bach opens out into figuration (we find one texture throughout). It makes an ideal preparatory piece for the C major and C minor Preludes (from Book 1), constructed in similar ways. Click here for links to the full video walk-through, open domain score and a Spotify recording […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus – Grade 6

The next installment in my exploration of the new ABRSM syllabus features the main pieces in the Grade 6 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: The complete collection of video walk-throughs for ABRSM Grade 6 is now available on the Online Academy and includes 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.  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 Pescetti: Allegro (4th movt from Sonata No. 8 in C)  There is plenty of scope for experimentation with dynamics and articulation in this lively Allegro by Pescetti. It requires considerable agility in the right hand and solid, rhythmical support from the left. Mozart: Allegro (3rd movt from Sonata in E -, K. 282)  Composed when Mozart was just 19, this challenging and brilliant sonata form movement requires precision and clarity in touch, and imagination in characterising the different themes. We find just two dynamic markings (p and f), leaving room for the player to add more shadings in between. C. Nielsen: Snurretoppen (No. 2 from Humoreske- Bagateller, Op.11)  This witty character piece is based on spinning patterns in the right hand that require a high level of technical control. Once mastered, this piece is great fun to play. Pay attention to details of phrasing and […]

Get It Right from the Start

It’s the start of a new school  year! With it comes new challenges, new examination syllabi and many wonderful pieces to learn. Whether you do it for pleasure or an exam, here are seven tried and tested steps to help you lay a solid foundation when starting a new piece. 1. Familiarise yourself Get to know the piece better before you start: Reading up on the piece beforehand will give you context Tune your ear by listening to several recordings of the piece  Analyse the piece by considering its form and character 2. Select your fingering Organise and condition your fingers at the start: Note down your chosen fingering for both hands in the score Adjust as learning progresses until you find the perfect fingering Once you’ve found your fingering sweet spot, stick to it! 3. Divide & conquer Avoid overloading your working memory by: Separating the piece into smaller, more manageable sections Exercising mindful repetition using the bar by bar plus 1 method Learning one section at a time before you move onto the next! 4. Take it slow! Learning a piece correctly is more important than developing speed: Start slowly to get your notes, rhythms and fingerings right Give yourself enough time to think and plan in between notes Patiently repeat small sections of music as often as you need it 5. Start in different places Avoid developing weak spots and superficial learning of the work by: Exercising tracking to test and strengthen your memory Working backwards through sections of your piece Starting with any Quarantine spots identified early on 6. Separate hands & strands Simplify the process by deconstructing the piece: Tackle separate-hand activities Break your piece into simple strands Isolate notes […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus – Grade 5

Continuing my exploration of the new ABRSM syllabus, this week I am having a look at the pieces in the main book for Grade 5 (click here to view my previous post featuring Grade 4, click here for Grade 3, and click here to view Grade 2). The following video is a preview where I pick out a selection of pieces from each main list (A, B, and C) for the grade: The complete collection of video walk-throughs for ABRSM Grade 5 is now available on the Online Academy and includes 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.  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 J.F.F. Burgmüller: La chevaleresque (No. 25 from 25 études faciles et progressives, Op.100)  The last étude from Burgmüller’s evergreen op. 100 set, La chevaleresque. We can see the little horse trotting – maybe in a circus or maybe showing off at a dressage event. Either way the moves are highly organised, elegant and controlled. Sometimes translated as “The Spirit of Chivalry” the title has connotations of gallantry (courtesy between men and women). T. A. Arne: Presto (2nd movt from Sonata No. 6)  A lively and joyous English jig from the composer of Rule, Brittania!, there are plenty of opportunities to explore various different touches, textures and articulations. Don’t let the ornaments put you off – trills placed on quavers may be […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus – Grade 4

Continuing my exploration of the new ABRSM syllabus, this week I am having a look at the pieces in the main book for Grade 4 (click here to view my previous post featuring Grade 3, and click here to view Grade 2). The following video is a preview where I highlight one piece from each list (A, B, and C) for the grade: The complete collection of video walk-throughs for ABRSM Grade 4 is now available on the Online Academy and includes 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.  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 J. S. Bach: Prelude in C minor, BWV 999  Built from a harmonic progression and originally written for lute we can recreate some of the resonance of that instrument either by short touches of pedal, or by overholding some notes of the broken chords.  Kabalevsky: Etude in A minor (No. 3 from 30 Children’s Pieces, Op. 27)  A valuable étude for the lower intermediate player that will accelerate technical development, this piece is built from familiar scale patterns in right hand against a simpler left hand featuring slurred quaver pairs. It makes an excellent recital piece.  Schubert: Minuet and Trio, D. 41 No. 21  An elegant minuet and trio with some pleasing chromatic touches, this pair of dances is full of interest as well as challenges […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus – Grade 3

I’m currently in the process of producing an extensive collection of resources for the syllabus on my Online Academy. These include detailed video walk-throughs providing practice suggestions, tips on style and interpretation and other ideas for each of the main pieces (from initial to Grade 8), and a selection of alternative pieces. Continuing my exploration of the new ABRSM syllabus, this week I am having a look at the pieces in the main book for Grade 3 (click here to view my previous post featuring Grade 2). But first here is a preview where I highlight one piece from each list (A, B, and C), as a taster of the type of content you’ll find in the Online Academy’s ABRSM resources: The following are brief overviews of each of the main pieces (an index with links to the full videos for my ABRSM resources on the Online Academy is available here): LIST A Beethoven: Ecossaise in E (No. 4 from Six Ecossaises, WoO 83)  A lively dance in 2/4 time, an ecossaise is actually the French word for “Scottish”! Flexibility in the right hand is necessary to avoid tension, and flexibility in the pulse (while not indicated in the score) is essential to bring grace and elegance at the start, and then some forward movement in the forte ending. Burgmüller: Innocence (No. 5 from 25 études faciles et progressives, Op.100)  A study in delicacy of touch and articulation, tonal balance between the hands and control of scale patterns in the upper register, Innocence gives plenty of scope for developing an understanding of harmony. The beauty of Burgmüller’s études is that they develop musical as well as technical skills.  Handel: Gavotte in G, HWV 491  A model of symmetry and tightly organised musical structure, Handel’s Gavotte […]

Voicing in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata

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 name “Moonlight Sonata” was not given by Beethoven but comes from German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab who, five years after Beethoven’s death, compared the effect of the first movement to moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. Given the popularity of the first movement, I decided to make my own series of video walkthroughs that guide you through the piece step-by-step. You will find advice on style, tempo, pedalling, fingering, practice method and technique, especially how to avoid tension in the right hand as it is called upon to play both the soft triplet accompaniment and to project the melodic line on top. Voicing the Right Hand How do we set about voicing the right hand when the main theme comes in? Despite the pp dynamic marking, the upper voice needs to be projected with a firmer tone than the misty triplets underneath. It is helpful to think of two dynamic levels: mp (top voice) and pp (triplets). The following exercises will help with the voicing. The process involves first playing the upper voice at the stronger dynamic, then afterwards the thumb note at the softer dynamic. Gradually allow these two events to happen closer together until you find you can synchronise them: Another practice suggestion that works wonders is to play the upper stave using two hands. Thus the right hand plays the melodic line, and the left hand the accompaniment triplets. Achieving the right sound this way is of course much easier. Once you have the ideal sound […]

Burgmüller’s La candeur

At first glance La candeur, the first of Burgmüller’s twenty-five studies, opus 100, looks like any other elementary study in C major – with a stream of quavers (8th notes) in one hand and some chords in the other. On closer inspection we discover a satisfying musical structure – a clear modulation to the dominant key at the end of the first half, and an effective coda that wraps the piece up, with moments of chromatic colouring that add interest.  When we start singing the lines we discover they are rather lovely (not at all dry or mechanical-sounding), offering us the opportunity to explore melodic shaping and to concentrate on balance between the hands and beauty of tone.  In last week’s post, I introduced my new study editions for Burgmüller’s Op. 100 (La candeur being the first in the set), in which I focus not only on the technical factors but also highlight some compositional techniques used by the composer. This is an important consideration when the ability to analyse becomes necessary further along our musical journey! I have added a number of footnotes to the score that will assist you as you practise. For example, as we approach the climax of La candeur, Burgmüller divides the RH into two lines: This requires a certain amount of coordination and organisation in the hand, hence my suggestions for practice in footnote 7. If you scan the QR code a short video will pop up on your device of me demonstrating how this is done. You will notice that footnote eight points out a stock harmonic progression that can be appreciated even by inquisitive players at the elementary level.  The study editions also contain links to a detailed video walkthrough, as well […]

New Study Editions for Burgmüller’s Op. 100

As readers of my blog will know, I am not a great believer in too much separation of the study of technique from real music. Therefore, when I recommend studies and exercises they have to be really good – either easy to memorise and very much to the point (if an exercise) or on the short side and with enough musical interest to capture the imagination (if a study).   Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Études (Op. 100) have been a mainstay of elementary étude repertoire for many generations – and deservedly so. Like all great études, the study of technique merges with attention to quality of sound and a musical purpose. The musical content of these pieces is on a level with the technical challenges they pose, so that the listener would not necessary realise they have any didactic focus whatsoever. Because each has its own descriptive title, the études inspire imagination and characterisation in the player, elevating the works to the status of real music (as opposed to the dry and boring studies that are so often the diet of pianists). I cannot imagine any young pianist or elementary player who would not immediately engage with this charming set of pieces, or benefit from learning them. Following on from my series of video walk-throughs for the full set of twenty-five études, I’ve been working on creating accompanying study editions to assist you in learning these works. These editions focus not only on the technical considerations but also on the compositional techniques used by the composer – including an appreciation of harmony. Each edition has a number of footnotes that are designed to assist you as you practise. There are also QR codes that can be […]