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 […]

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 […]

Watch What You Say!

Over the years in my teaching, I have noticed the tendency for some students to need to preface their playing with an often lengthy verbal introduction – a description of what is going to go wrong in their performance, delivered with a sense of impending doom. Either they think I am not going to notice or they are somehow trying to hold on to their dignity by alerting me that they are aware of their errors. “I always go wrong in this bar” “The LH in that passage is lumpy and uneven” “I can’t get the pedalling right here” “It’s taking me ages to learn this piece” A genuine problem with a passage is one thing, and if you are able to get everything right by yourself you may not be in need of lessons. Those who know me realise I do not expect a performance of a piece until it has been fully digested and assimilated (this is always a process). But a post-mortem before we even play belies either guilt that we’ve not done enough work that week or – more likely, I’ve found – shame that we believe we are not good enough, not up to the task. Our brain will believe what we say over and over again.  If we say we can’t do something, we will always feel we can’t do it.  This may not be rational, but we already said it: “I can’t do it”.  The brain hears and takes that thought in.  Over time it becomes a belief.  When we believe we can’t do it, we are caught up in a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. And if we think learning a particular piece or solving a particular problem is not possible […]

The Myth of the Easy Piece

Very often people tell me as they skim through a score “I don’t really need to practise this bit because it’s easy”. I also hear “I totally messed that bit up, and yet it’s so simple!”. While the notes themselves may be readable at sight and present no apparent technical difficulties, I don’t believe there is any such thing as an easy piece – when it comes to performance.  We soon realise this when we take this so-called easy piece into a performance situation and suddenly it is not such plain sailing. All the same prerequisites of performance apply to this piece as to the next piece – communicating the musical message, playing with rhythmical awareness, quality of sound and phrasing, and good tonal balance between the hands. Let’s look at an example from Mozart’s C minor Concerto, K.491 – a small phrase from the Larghetto (solo piano part is on the upper systems):   Any self-respecting relative beginner would be able to read the notes of this passage, they are simplicity itself. And yet to create the right sound and mood with just these few notes, to feel the phrase gradually gaining in intensity until it flowers in the last bar without overdoing it – these things are far from easy and take quite a bit of judgment and control. In the hands of a great artist this passage sounds sublime, as it should. During the Mozart year in 2006 I played a solo programme consisting of some sonatas, variations and a selection of baby pieces (assorted Klavierstücke, some of which are suitable for elementary players). I did this not only to give the programme a bit of lightness, but also to show that these small pieces […]

The Weakest Link

In the run-up to Christmas, I am reminded of the low-tech decorations we used to make at school back in the day – paper chains. We would lick the gummed end of the coloured paper strip, wince a bit because it tasted horrible, then stick it to the other end and make a link. This we did until we had formed a long chain, which we taped to the ceiling and then draped across the room, making a festive decoration. Trouble was, those links we hadn’t stuck down properly caused a breakage later on, and the chain would be on the floor when we got to school the next day. A quick repair and a trip back up the stepladder usually sorted the problem. A break in a musical performance can be much more devastating, and the consequences more far-reaching – especially if the stakes are high such as an exam or a public performance. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link Let’s say you have learned a piece and yet find it difficult to get through without error. Suddenly you go blank, or your fingers stall and you break down. You have rarely managed to get through the piece from beginning to end, but it’s frustrating because the mistakes seem to happen in different places each time. If this happens when you are alone in your practice room, then it probably means you have not done enough spadework. You are likely trying to run before you can walk and you’ll need to go back to some really solid slow practice, with each hand separately, working in small sections at a time. If it happens in a more stressful situation, this is a […]

Playing by Ear

I had an email from a reader asking how he could learn to play by ear, so here are some random thoughts on the subject. When we play by ear we play an existing piece heard before, without using the notes. Mozart is reported to have learned Allegri’s Miserere from one hearing, after which he wrote it out from memory. I am sure there are other similar stories from prodigious musical figures throughout history, but mere mortals can certainly develop the skills to improve our ear and at the same time our understanding of keyboard geography, musical structure and harmony. Ear training (or aural training as we tend to call it in the UK) is absolutely vital for any musician and, like harmony and theory, shouldn’t be thought of as a separate subject in the context of the weekly lesson. All these areas of music can be integrated into the lesson and during our practice. Examination boards include tests in aural and sight reading for a very good reason – to aid and abet in the process of forming an all-round musician. The more theory you know, the more you appreciate how music is built. You will also be able to decode the information from the printed page more quickly and with deeper understanding, and as a result of this you will have the skills to read at sight, to learn pieces more quickly, efficiently and thoroughly and (not least) to memorise. I find it sad that many young pianists’ experience of piano playing is restricted to sitting one grade exam after the other, sticking with three pieces and a bunch of scales for the best part of a year. Playing by ear, reading at sight, […]

On Touch, Articulation and Phrasing

This week my third video demonstration on touch went live on Pianist Magazine‘s YouTube channel. When I was given the original commission for three articles for the magazine, I knew I wanted to write firstly on legato and staccato touches, and secondly on those grey area non-legato touches, but I wasn’t sure at that stage how to round off the series. It struck me that there was a lot of confusion about how to articulate the music of Bach, in particular, and I’m constantly frustrated by how pianists can misunderstand the short slurs we find from Mozart onwards, right up to Brahms. So, I thought I would pull this all together and give some suggestions for articulation. Three main points come out of all of this for me: In the absence of any markings from the composer, articulation is decided based not on whimsy or for cosmetic reasons, but rather on the structure of the musical material. There is usually a variety of possible articulations of a given subject, theme or motive. When playing Bach, some pianists have the mistaken sense that the music is to be curated rather than enjoyed and fully lived. Here is the video: ***   ***   ***   ***   *** I am launching the first two volumes of Practising The Piano ebook series! It is presently in “beta” mode which means that while the publications are fully functional and the content is of a high quality, there are still a few small issues that we are ironing out.  Furthermore, I would also like to obtain further feedback and suggestions during this beta phase in order to refine the final versions.  As a concession I am offering the publications at a […]

Trimming Down For The Holidays

A family in my street has gone to absolutely no trouble with their Christmas tree whatever. It has virtually nothing on it, except for a few red ribbons and the tiniest string of plain white lights – not the usual dog’s dinner of glitter, baubles, beads, and candy canes. From its vantage point in the bay window of their living room, it looks stunning. The beauty of the natural shape of the tree is plain for all to see, showing that it needs hardly anything to enhance it at the end of its journey from forest to plant pot. Don’t get me wrong, I like the gaudiness of the tree in the picture above as much as I like the over-ornamented music of the French rococo (when I’m in the mood for it), but sometimes less is more. If a stick figure equivalent of a Christmas tree can be drawn with a few symmetrical zigzags, how about Heinrich Schenker‘s graph of Bach’s C major Prelude (from Book 1)? From this, we can see a representation of the notation pared down to its very barest essentials, enough to give us the highest of aerial overviews: BUILDING A HULL Drawing up such a graph takes quite a bit of doing, and is probably outside of the scope of most practical musicians. I mean, we should be practising, right? However, I think we can take the general idea of coming up with a simplified version of a piece of music by first building a hull.  I mean doing this at the piano, we don’t need to write it down. Definition of hull (noun) the main body of a ship or other vessel, including the bottom, sides, and deck but not […]

Feeling an Interpretation

I would like to throw out some ideas that might help develop an interpretation during practising, always keeping in mind that the process of practising should move us ever nearer to our ideal of what the music means and how it should sound. Digital or muscular practice is inextricably linked with developing what Heinrich Neuhaus calls the “artistic image”, namely the message of the music as we see it. In a word, our interpretation! As a student, I noticed that my technical ability with a piece was in direct proportion to the sharpness of my artistic image, and conversely if I wasn’t sure about the tempo, character, moods and so on, then I seemed to struggle physically with it. I recall a class on scales I gave many years ago (not my idea – I was invited!) where a girl was really having difficulties. All the classic mistakes were present, and in the short time I had with her, I wondered how to make best use of this opportunity. I asked her if she knew Beethoven’s Third Concerto, and she said she did. I then asked her to imagine the beginning of it and then to play a scale of C minor in the style of this concerto when she had this clearly in her mind. I’ll never forget the reaction on her face (and in the room) when she played the scale in this way. She was no longer self conscious of what she was supposed to be doing with her thumbs, or where the elbows were meant to be. Rather she had a sound and a feeling in her head, and this was strong enough to command her physical apparatus to produce this. Now, […]

A Supplement to Slow Practice

A few weeks ago, I gave some suggestions for practising Mozart’s Rondo alla turca and I would like to apply this principle to another piece, which really couldn’t be more contrasting in style and effect. I have just been working with a student who this week made a start on Tchaikovsky’s fabulous Dumka. He was struggling with this spot: The reason for the struggle was because he had not realised there would need to be an additional process after practising hands together slowly note for note, that no amount of slow practice alone is going to enable a reliable, let alone virtuosic performance of this extract. Don’t get me wrong – regular readers will know what a diehard fan of slow practising I am, but there are supplementary ways of working that do the job better at a certain stage in our learning of a piece. Why plod through something in this way for weeks on end when we might need a more energy-efficient and artistically satisfying way of doing it? I asked him to play the left hand melodic line (the tune at the top of the bass stave), or the theme in all its heroic, brassy glory. I wasn’t interested in a spelling-out of the notes, but a vivid, up-to-speed characterisation of the theme. We worked on this until the shapings and timings were just right, and the character could stand proud on the stage (albeit deprived of fellow cast members and scenery) and deliver his lines from memory (the register dictates that this is a “he”). Then we connected the theme to its lower bass notes, and found a way of making this physically comfortable by pivoting on the E flats in the first […]