Learning Pieces

Burgmüller’s Op. 100

Burgmüller’s charming set of 25 studies, the Easy and Progressive Études (Op 100) still manages to sound fresh after all these years, and continues to inspire intermediate pianists. Each étude is short and to the point, with a descriptive title to stimulate the imagination. The technique always serves a musical goal, and because they are so well written each is useful as a way to learn about harmony, as well as form and structure. In my Online Academy series on op. 100, I take each étude in turn. You will find a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough that highlights the learning outcomes, with advice on the technical aspects as well as how to practise. So far, we are up to no. 18 and look forward to completing the series within the next few weeks. A short while back I wrote a blog post featuring short excerpts about the first five études, in this post I’m going to look at the next few – Progrés, Le courant limpide, La gracieuse and La chasse. 6. Progrès We return to C major for this lively, cheerful piece entitled Progrès (Progress). With touches of laughter suggested by the staccato quavers, this study celebrates the pleasure in making progress, featuring scales in parallel tenths, a contrary motion scale, changes of touch from legato to staccato, rapid changes in hand position with jumps in both hands, and syncopated slurs. Some of the patterns we find in Progrès can be practised not only upwards as written, but also backwards – on a loop, repeating up and back until fluent and comfortable. In this snippet from my full-length video demonstration, I look at how to practise the semiquavers in a dotted rhythm (long-short, and short-long), a good exercise […]

An Elizabethan Gem

When Trinity College London commissioned me to write the teaching notes for the advanced grades of the current syllabus, I was delighted to discover a little gem by William Byrd heading up the Grade 6 group A pieces. The Coranto gives the intermediate player an excellent opportunity to explore music of one of the leading Elizabethan virginalist composers, and learn a bit about the style. William Byrd (c.1540-1623) was an English composer of the Renaissance period, remembered for his church music, choral works, consort music and pieces for keyboard. This Coranto is among his many contributions to an important collection of keyboard music from the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, known as The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. A virginal (or pair of virginals) is a rectangular type of harpsichord, smaller and simpler in construction. The sound is produced by quills that pluck the strings, creating a crisp and incisive tone quality. A coranto is a type of triple-meter dance common in instrumental music from the period (the title literally means “running”). Annotated Study Edition Byrd’s example is lively in spirit, and needs to be articulated cleanly, especially with regard to the ornaments (indicated by diagonal slashes). It is advisable to practise the piece without the ornaments at first, adding them in very lightly only when you have developed some fluency. In my annotated study edition and online resources for this work, I give some written-out realisations of the ornaments, and above each ornament suggest one or two options for how they might be done. You might experiment until you find the ornament design that you prefer on each occasion. Unlike ornament symbols from other periods, there is no ornament chart for Elizabethan music and the same diagonal-slash sign is used for […]

The Myth of Evenness

This week’s guest blog post features an article on evenness and rhythmic groupings by Ken Johansen with an example from his From the Ground Up edition for Bach’s Prelude in D Minor (BWV 935). *** *** *** For many pianists, playing evenly is a bit of an obsession. We spend long hours trying to make our scales, arpeggios and passage work perfectly smooth and equal. This ideal is embodied in the famous jeu perlé, in which each note is like a pearl on a necklace – separate and identical, though united on the same string. But do we really want every note to be identical? Clearly, we don’t want unintended irregularities of tone or timing, such as bumps on the thumb in scales and arpeggios. Music, however, absolutely requires constant expressive, intended inflections of tone and rhythm. A string of equal notes doesn’t make a musical line. To modify Socrates’s famous saying, the uninflected line isn’t worth hearing. Nowhere is the need for expressive inflection more important, or its absence more noticeable, than in the music of Bach. The continuous sixteenth-note (semiquaver) motion of much of his music seems to invite the kind of uninflected, mechanical playing that used to be called “typewriter” playing. At the same time, the beauty of Bach’s writing can inspire playing of great rhythmic subtlety and vitality. For Bach designs motives and melodies to have a built-in momentum and rhythmic drive. He does this in the subtlest of ways using the simplest of means – namely, the intervals and melodic changes of direction he chooses. This subtlety is on full display in the Prelude in D minor, BWV 935, currently set in the Trinity College London piano examination syllabus, Grade […]

Mendelssohn’s Children’s Pieces, op. 72

This week I am featuring a video tutorial on Mendelssohn’s beautiful miniature, the second from the set of Kinderstücke, op. 72, currently on Trinity College London’s Grade 7 syllabus.  Mendelssohn wrote his set of six Children’s Pieces for his young relatives during his summer holiday to England in 1842. No. 2, an andante sostenuto in the key of Eb, close in spirit to the composer’s many Songs Without Words, features a lyrical melody in the right hand supported by gently flowing semiquaver patterns in the left.  Cantabile style After a short introduction based on the tonic and dominant chords the melody appears with the indication cantabile (in a singing style). What does this mean for the pianist? Apart from playing the melody more strongly than the accompaniment, we also need to add shaping and shading to the line. Singing it is the very best way to find where the line needs to breathe; you will also discover where the high and low points occur. When you play, aim to replicate the line as though you were singing it. Intervals that are close together are easier to sing (seconds and thirds); those that are further apart may need a little more time to be expressive. We will surely want to give a little more space to the interval of the sixth in bar 9, for example.  The Left Hand The left hand needs lightness and delicacy of touch, subtly pointing out the implied bass line (the melodic element in the left hand that underpins the right hand’s song) while hiding the repeated notes in between the beats. The left hand, like any good accompanist, needs to accommodate the singing line between phrases as well as helping to move it forwards […]

Bach Partita in B Flat Video Walkthroughs

Even though they were among the last keyboard suites Bach wrote, the six Partitas, BWV 825–830, appeared from 1726 to 1730 as Clavier-Übung I, the first of Bach’s works to be published under his direction.  The format follows the typical recipe for a suite, the mandatory allemande–courante–sarabande–gigue framework expanded by the addition of an opening movement, and then the galanteries (chosen by Bach from a pool of optional extra dances) towards the end of each suite.  The Partita in B flat, the first of the set, is the lightest and most intimate, and to my mind the most charming. The gigue even ends in mid air! The ABRSM has set the Menuets I and II for Grade 6. They make a beautiful contrasting pair of dances – the first sprightly and elegant, the second more solid and sustained.  Menuet I Make sure to add your own dynamics (probably between a range from forte to piano) as well as articulations (a range of touches including legato, staccato, tenuto, leggiero, slurs and short phrasings, etc.). If you look into the score you will discover most of this is implied by the structure of the music – its shapes, designs, modulations, and patterns. Remember there is no one right way of playing this music, but many possibilities. Menuet II Menuet II is only 16 bars in length, and thicker in texture than Menuet I. This texture implies a stronger dynamic, more legato cantabile – a more solid approach in general. If you play the repeats (not required in the exam) you might play them softer and more reflectively; experiment too with the left pedal (una corda) on one of the repeats. The soft pedal can be effective in baroque music if used very occasionally on a repeat – not necessarily to change the […]

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