Learning Pieces

The Trinity College London Series

Good news! The Online Academy Trinity Series is now complete, and in this post I shall be looking at a representative selection of pieces from some of the grades. In the full series, each piece that we’ve featured comes with some teaching notes and a detailed video tutorial – here are samples and excerpts from the most recent works published: Nathalie Béra-Tagrine: Conversation (Grade Initial) Let’s start with Nathalie Béra-Tagrine’s Conversation. This is an excellent little study in combined touches, beginning with three-note drop-roll slurs in the right hand against a legatoline in the left. There is plenty of articulation detail to work on here between the hands, relying on mobility in the arms and hands.  Felicitas Kukuck: The Rowboat (Grade 2) The Rowboat is a miniature tone picture relying on imagination and a sense of storyline to convey the musical message. What story is this piece telling? Remember this is personal, and every player can come up with their own version of what is going on – for them. Sensitivity to phrasing, developing a cantabiletouch and the technique of chord legato are explored in this video. Here is a snippet of it. Michael Proksch: And Now Let’s Handel (Grade 5) German composer Michael Proksch gives us a fun piece in neo-baroque style. And Now Let’s Handelfeatures a simple harmonic progression based on a cycle of fifths that repeats three times, each time with a different texture. The quaver patterns give each hand in turn the opportunity to develop forearm rotation while shaping the line. In this video extract, I demonstrate the technique. Joaquín Turina: Fiesta (Grade 7) Fiesta is one of a set of eight pieces entitled Miniaturesby Spanish composer Joaquín Turina. It makes a very effective recital piece for […]

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 […]

Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind

This week’s guest blog post features an article on using mental practise techniques when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken uses an example from his From the Ground Up edition featuring Chopin’s Waltz in E minor (Op. Posth.) to illustrate how to use a rhythmic context to achieve evenness in passage work. *** *** *** Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind We pianists tend to think of technique as a purely physical matter, a sort of gymnastics for the hands and arms. We imagine that if we develop the right muscles and make the right movements, the music will somehow come out right. But the way we move at the keyboard is deeply influenced by the way we think the music inwardly. It is therefore possible to make technical changes and improvements simply by hearing and thinking the music differently. In this way, a clearly imagined musical goal calls forth the technical means of achieving that goal. One of the technical challenges we work on most is evenness in passage work. We spend countless hours learning to play smooth, even scales, without unwanted accents at the changes of hand position. We work on the smooth passing of the thumb, the correct hand positions and arm angles, and so on, as indeed we must. But all this work will be in vain if we do not first hear inwardly what a smooth, flowing scale should sound like. This inward hearing is really a matter of rhythmic imagination. If we imagine a scale to be a series of equal, uniform notes, without nuance or direction, it will come out that way. If instead we give the scale a rhythmic context (two notes per beat, for example), then […]

Burgmüller’s Op 100 Studies on the Online Academy

One of the most popular series on the Online Academy is my exploration of Burgmüller’s set of studies, the Easy and Progressive Études, op 100. What makes these little pieces so special? Pitched at the elementary-intermediate level player, they fulfil all the requirements of what a study should be: Descriptive titles that inspire the imagination Technique that serves a musical goal Short and to the point Useful as a way to learn harmony, as well as form and structure The problem with many of the didactic études served up to young pianists through the centuries is just how dry, boring and repetitive they are. Instead of inspiring players to practise, they have deadened their spirits. I’ve noticed how many youngsters are drawn to Burgmüller’s op 100 – they still sound fresh, and are immediately engaging. In my series I take each étude in turn, giving a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough that highlights the learning outcomes and offers advice on the technical aspects as well as how we might practise. We’ve recorded the whole set, and are busy releasing them one by one each week. So far we have reached No. 11, and you can find details of the series by clicking here. The studies are progressive in their difficulty, ranging from approximately ABRSM Grade II at the start to approximately Grade V by the end. A good New Year’s resolution might be to learn the whole set over the course of the year – you will amass 25 studies you can draw on as part of your daily practice! Once you have learned them, you might choose three or four to practise for a week or so at a time before moving on […]

Trinity Syllabus – More Videos!

As part of the Online Academy’s series on Trinity College London’s current syllabus, I am happy to announce that three more video walkthroughs have been added – with plenty more to come. This week we are presenting one new piece from each of grades 5, 6, 7, and 8, beginning with the Moderato from Diabelli’s rather charming Sonatina in F, op. 168 no. 1 (Grade 5). Grade 5 (alternative) – Diabelli: Moderato (from Sonatina in F, op 168 no 1) Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) was an Austrian music publisher, editor and composer. Today he is most familiar as the composer of the waltz on which Beethoven wrote his set of 33 Diabelli Variations, but he also wrote a number of sets of sonatinas that are certainly worth playing, and which make very good teaching pieces. The first movement of the  F major sonatina is a model of sonata form in miniature, and an ideal piece for the intermediate player to learn about form and structure. In this video walkthrough, I demonstrate the art of finger pedalling in the left hand Alberti patterns to create resonance by hand (instead of by foot, which would cloud the texture too much). I also show how to use deconstruction techniques in a tricky left hand passage to improve control and coordination. To watch the full video walkthrough, click here Grade 6 – Max Reger: Versöhnung (Reconciliation) Max Reger’s Versöhnung (Reconciliation) demands from the player a vivid imagination, and the ability to tell a story in sound. This delightful late Romantic piece describes a character asking someone to be their friend again after a disagreement – pleading, commiserating and even dancing to win back their affection. In the video walkthrough, I show how to project a melody […]

Launching the 2018-2020 Trinity Syllabus

I am very happy to announce a brand new series featuring the current Trinity College London Piano Syllabus on the Online Academy. Having been commissioned by Trinity to write the teaching notes for the advanced grades, I was delighted to put together this series of articles and video demonstrations for a selection of pieces from the 2018 – 2020 piano examination syllabus, with several examples from each grade from Initial to 8. Within this series you will find plenty of tips for practice, overcoming technical problems as well as suggestions for piano teachers and guidance on matters relating to style and interpretation. The following are example excerpts from two video demonstrations from the series: Initial Grade – Canon by Henk Badings One of the pieces in the Initial grade is Canon by Henk Badings. There are so many different ways to get value out of this little piece, from call and response games and some singing in lessons to phrase shaping and developing equality between the hands. Grade 4 – Allegretto by Mozart Jumping to Grade 4, and Mozart’s Allegretto, we find a delightful minuet-style piece with a trio section in the minor, and many interesting compositional features that can be explained and demonstrated to the learner. It’s also interesting to know that Mozart wrote this piece on a trip to London when he was only 8 years old. In the video I demonstrate quarantine practice, and explore different fingering possibilities, as well as options for phrasing and expression. The series currently includes two articles which serve as guides to the foundation and intermediate grades, along with video demonstrations for five selected works from the initial grade through to grade 4. Please click on one of the […]

The Mysterious Ending of Mozart’s D minor Fantasy

Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor, K. 397, is one of his most popular and accessible works for the piano. It may surprise you to learn that Mozart left it unfinished (his manuscript stops on a dominant 7th chord in bar 97), and that the ending we all grew up with was probably finished by August Eberhard Müller. Scholars believe Mozart might have intended to write something else in conclusion, possibly a fugue, but mystery still surrounds his plans for the work. The idea of a fugue is a distinct possibility as there is a precedent, the Fantasy and Fugue in C minor, K. 394, written around the same time (1792). Here it is (with rolling score) played by Gianluca Cascioli in a performance that shows great attention to the composer’s articulation markings but without sounding at all dry or pedantic. If you are looking for an interesting alternative to a Bach Prelude and Fugue, you might want to consider this piece. Returning to the D minor Fantasy, many listeners are startled to hear what Mitsuko Uchida does at the point Mozart left off. Rather than finish with the traditional ending (we can’t be 100% sure it was by Müller, but we know it wasn’t by Mozart), she feels justified in coming up with her own ending. And fascinating it is too (listen from 5:50)! If you would like to delve further into the story of the D minor Fantasy, Ephraim Hackmey’s thesis is well worth reading. I have made my own walkthrough of the piece for the Online Academy, giving suggestions for pedalling, articulation and practice. Here is a short excerpt, focussing on the Adagio. Click here to view the complete video on the Online Academy (requires login or sign-up)

Observing the Score

I remember playing those spot the difference puzzles when I was a kid – where you have to find a number of differences between two images that at first glance look the same. With a little perseverance and a canny eye, it is a satisfying pastime. Perhaps this is a good thing for encouraging an essential skill for musicians – the ability to really observe what is there in the score. I am thinking of those pieces where a passage comes back again, not identically but with small variations. Two such examples come immediately to mind – of diploma repertoire that I teach regularly, where students often go astray stumbling over the notes. The cause of the stumble is not necessarily a technical error, rather a lack of clarity and perception about the structure of the music and the changes from one similar spot to another. Is the solution to practise the places more until they finally fall into place, or to sit away from the piano with a score making notes about the differences? Brahms Intermezzo in A, op 118 no 2 In Brahms op 118 no 2 we find several examples of developing variation technique, where returning material is subject to change. The changes create contrast with what has gone before by embellishing a certain feature for emphasis, or providing a change of texture or mood. Look at the first version of this ending (bars 6-8), where Brahms arrives in the dominant key of E. Notice there is a separate note stem for the top line (RH stems up), implying the top line is perhaps a little more important: The next time we find this ending (bars 14-16), we discover this stem has been […]

Q&A: Pedal in Brahms Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7

Continuing with my occasional Q&A series, a reader wrote in with the following query about Brahms’ Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7, currently on the ABRSM Grade 8 syllabus. I am a teacher and I would be grateful if you could help me with a pedalling query regarding the above piece. It is a current Grade 8 List C option. In my experience, I have learnt that it is fine to pedal through rests in Romantic music. Evidence to support this appears in the introduction notes in another Brahms volume, Seven Fantasies Op.116 where the author says ‘pedalled passages often contain rests……though illogical, this convention is acceptable’ (Ferguson, 1985). However, the current ABRSM Teaching Notes seem to suggest that the pedal should be lifted for the quaver rests eg. in bars 9 and 11 (Grade 8, 2017-2018, p.41). I have tried this, and at the increased speed of minim 60, I find this fussy and awkward, potentially spoiling the line. Is it acceptable to pedal through and just do a quick change on the first note of the quaver groups for each change of harmony? I am also doing two light pedal changes in a row for the RH A quaver and C crotchet slur in bar 9 for example, to relieve any clashing of the G sharp to A semitone. I am lifting and stopping the LH in bars 10 and 12 for the rests in the bass clef. Pedalling is a very personal thing, and very much open to experimentation – even when marked in the score by the composer. Conventional pedal markings cannot take into account depth of pedal depression, or vibrating the pedal to clarify the texture. Pedal markings even […]

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