ABRSM Gd 1 Piano Syllabus 2017 - 2018 ~ A review with Teaching Advice by E-MusicMaestro
General Advice and Guidance
Compared with the amount of work required for some other instruments and for singers it is true to say that the co-ordination demands for grade 1 piano are significant. Additionally, the fact that playing the piano is essentially a solitary experience can impinge on the confidence of the performer.
Without the support of an accompanist, or under a watchful eye of the teacher, it is easy for the nervous exam candidate to get derailed, whether by suddenly forgetting where they are as they look up an unusually long distance to the music on a grand piano music stand, or by inadvertently placing their hands at the wrong starting octave. The experience is over all too quickly and can be bewildering, if not deeply upsetting when things don't work out as anticipated.
Fortunately children are resilient - although we should always have in mind the need to give praise and encouragement and go to considerable lengths to stir the musical imagination at every corner along their learning path. A first grade exam should only ever occur under positive influences and in a timely way. It is well worth the effort to explain to competitive parents the need for time in establishing good foundations and the reasons behind using exams to bestow pride upon genuine achievements as opposed to trophy collecting.
Teachers have tremendous responsibility for the musical enjoyment of their pupils and the art of being able to truly inspire has a price beyond compare.
The published pieces make for an interesting, if challenging, selection. The J.C.Bach Aria serves to remind us of the importance of learning to play contrapuntal music right from the start but, for some, the inherent challenges of jumping in different directions as hands play together will be the cause of many an accident and possibly a not insubstantial amount of hesitation.
Nancy Littens’ arrangement of Verdi’s La donna è mobile sits very comfortably under the fingers and may be a good choice for pupils who are less confident about keyboard geography.
Canaries is a fun piece of Renaissance origin. That said, concerns about who might be capable of bringing this off at Grade 1 will be open to debate, due to the abundance of dotted rhythms at speed. By comparison, the Arnold Giga, which was set some years ago and now appears as A4, is a great piece to learn with its easy sequences and potential for confident, fast playing.
Aria in F - J.C.Bach
Note the two in a bar, which suggests a brisker tempo than 4/4 time. A safe and slow performance, whilst acceptably accurate and in time, will do little to inspire a pupil to find out more about, or to readily like Baroque music. However, it is worth remembering that the suggested metronome tempo of minim = 63 is only editorial and there are ways of using articulation and dynamics to make the music sound phrased and full of interest even if the tempo is slower.
Confident keyboard geography is at the root of a successful learning experience here. A performance in which the speed is quick but the phrasing, rhythmic control and evenness of tone are somewhat awry is unlikely to achieve more than a pass level in an exam. The advice is to choose with care as to the type of pupil to whom this piece is given and also the amount of time allowed for the safe and successful learning of the piece.
A major challenge comes down to putting it hands together. It will be almost inevitable that most pupils will need to look at the keys. For younger children the expanse of the piece across the keyboard (three and a half octaves) will seem huge and the potential for erroneous leaps into the dark highly prevalent.
Breaking it up into small, manageable phrases is always a good strategy, so the first seven bars can readily be put into four sections for practice purposes. Plenty of practice for remembering the next starting positions for hands (e.g. bars 3 and 11) will be needed, both in and out of context, so that a good degree of confidence and consistency can be built up. It is worth remembering that memory comes in many different ways but essentially entails learning small bits, known as 'chunking' which get joined up to larger bits to complete the process.
The suggested trill in bar 1 is an eloquent embellishment if beautifully done, but should otherwise be avoided as it will likely cause more of an interruption to fluency. Better to focus lesson and practice time on getting a taut rhythmic flow at a suitable tempo for that particular pupil.
CANARIES - ANON
Unlike La Moursique (Gd2/A3), Canaries will be a challenge for many. Its musical interest is more sophisticated than that of La Mourisque, and its preponderance of dotted rhythms will be challenging to most pupils. The character of the original dance is a spritely 2 in a bar. It will die a quick death at a lumbering 6 quaver beats to a bar, and at 20 bars in length may well start to feel interminable! For these reasons it is important to choose with care.
That said, the teacher’s challenge will be how best to teach the dotted rhythms for reliable recall. It would be wise to start by identifying the various different rhythmic groupings and taking each example separately:
(i) bar 1 etc (ii) bar 2 etc (iii) bar 4 etc
(iv) bar 9 (v) bar 11 (vi) bars 15 - 16
All pose different challenges in co-ordination and need to be well ingrained if there is to be a strong likelihood of a rhythmic performance up to tempo. With the number of different rhythmic patterns it is easy to become confused as to which one is next, so it is well worth spending time to establish a confident knowledge of all.
The mordent in bars 6 and 12 adds a stylish touch, and in the overall level of difficulty for this piece should therefore be included if possible. The printed suggestion is a good one to follow.
LA DONNA È MOBILE - VERDI
This arrangement works well from the perspective of suitability for the grade. The rhythmic demands are very appropriate and consistently encountered. Plenty of work away from the notes themselves will be beneficial in establishing a good grasp of the dotted quaver/semiquaver figure and, in contrast, the triplets of bars 15 and 19.
Whilst it is perfectly possible to play this piece well without knowing about its origins, it would be a pity to miss the opportunity to introduce your pupil to this aria in its context (so long as the story line is suitably simplified and contextualised for the age of the child). The aim should be to encourage your pupil to have confidence when they play this and not to be afraid to put on an air of showmanship and musical strength.
The traditional French folksong Dans la forêt lointaine may well prove to be one of the favourite B list pieces here. Its musical simplicity and approachability make for a good choice for the younger age group especially. To a certain extent, the same is true of Joan Last’s Bouncing Billy. Given the amount of children’s material that Joan Last produced, this might not at first stand out as an obvious choice (with its reliance upon a swift one in a bar feel for musical success), it is nonetheless imbued with a certain humour. At 26 bars in length, Bryan Kelly’s Gypsy Song may well feel like a long hike, and may not be a choice which necessarily inspires everyone.
BOUNCING BILLY - JOAN LAST
Most significantly, a one-in-a-bar feel is crucial to the musical success of this piece, not least on account of its (often) 8 bar phrase lengths. The music finds itself suddenly in Db major, pausing a moment, as if balanced precariously on some sort of precipice, before cheekily indicating that this was all just a little joke and moving on as if nothing had happened to disturb the home key. The fun is not yet over since a little more drama keeps us on our toes in the final line accelerando, buoyed up by its confident senza rit ending.
The technical demands of this piece are likely to manifest themselves at speed, and it is good advice to ensure that your pupil is very familiar with the hand positions and changes to them. It lies easily enough under the fingers once in position. Confident keyboard geography is crucial to mange the end without losing tempo and character.
GYPSY SONG - BRYAN KELLY
Most who choose this piece will play it at an appropriately sad tempo, as it has a haunting musical feel to it. This is curiously at odds with the suggested metronome tempo of crotchet = 80. In the hands of a capable pianist the piece would work quite nicely at that tempo, with lots of subtlety too, but this less likely to be the case in the hands of most Grade 1 pianists. A tempo of crotchet = 66 may well therefore provide a more suitable framework for an expressive and successful musical result. The use of brackets also suggests an editorial rather than composer’s indication.
The mournful nature of the song can be shown by adherence to the dynamic contrasts as well as the production of a good cantabile and projected legato touch. Notice where the LH melodic lines need to be projected (e.g. from bar 17). Use of rubato is also appropriate, especially when playing the more emotionally emphatic moments, such as bars 9 - 12.
Although a case could be made for the musical sophistication of this piece being more suitable for an older age group, with the right kind of encouragement, there is no reason why a child’s musical imagination cannot be successfully engaged. Make up a suitable story… about a gypsy who has gone into the wood with his horse to collect some firewood. He is busy engaged in chopping some wood and does not notice his horse has galloped away…well, whatever your imagination decides upon !
DANS LA FORÊT LOINTAINE - TRAD. FRENCH
Here is a simple and effective arrangement of this charming folksong: (Jean René ~ A la maternelle)
Its joyous mood is best captured at a fairly lively tempo. Whilst it could still be musically shaped and quite charming at a tempo as slow as crotchet = 72, that doesn’t quite portray the joviality of the original in the same way. Nonetheless this should appeal to a range of different pupils and abilities.
The cuckoo needs to heard as an echo and observation of the forte/piano dynamics will help achieve this.
Few technical challenges exist, save to sort out a suitable fingering for the LH descending chromatic pattern (bars 1 - 4 etc), and to ensure that the minim accompaniments are given full note lengths to create a suitably sustained texture to accompany the melody line. Don’t be afraid to bring out the LH tune well (between bars 17 - 24) where it leads the melody.
The C list is traditionally where one finds interesting, jazzy pieces and has, in the past, contained some notable arrangements from Top Cat to Chattanooga Choo-Choo, which were very popular.
When the saints go matching in may not have quite the same appeal but it gives opportunity to get involved in some jazz swing style playing. Skipping Rope by Khachaturian is musically straightforward and isn’t all that taxing, given the relatively fixed nature of many of its hand positions.
Asian Tiger Prowl comes alongside a collection of other such pieces which will appeal to many at different grade levels, including Tan Dun’s Staccato Beans at Grade 5, Wanghua Chu’s Love Song at Grade 7 and Peixun Chen’s Selling Sundry Goods at Grade 8 although in this instance the composer, Rob Hall, hails from the UK. It’s an attractive piece which may well achieve the popularity it deserves amongst more advanced pianists than those who might ordinarily find themselves at Grade 1 level.
ASIAN TIGER PROWL - ROB HALL
The principal element to grasp here is the taut rhythmic nature of the piece. It’s fun, it’s cheeky, well written and musically satisfying if perhaps stretching the imagination a little to play it in a ‘menacing’ way. Its indicated tempo should be aspired to if it is not to plod and lapse into a Siamese cat saunter!
Therein lies one of the challenges of this piece at Grade 1 level, for there are important articulation details which give rise to the essential character of the music - tenuto followed by staccato quavers, first in one then the other hand; LH leads and changes in patterns followed by RH leads (e.g. bars 5 - 10). It would be a pity if the intrinsic colour of the music were to be lost to a bland one size fits all staccato - there are lovely moments which would otherwise be glossed over, such as the quirky gesture in bars 9 - 10.
Becoming entirely conversant with the many changes of position is essential to feeling comfortable, and it is worth spending time thinking up various games which can help the learner to memorise the five different places of keyboard geography visited en route:
(i) bars 1 - 4 (ii) bars 5 - 10 (iii) bars 11 - 14
(iv) bars 17 - 20 (v) bar 21
Most of the rests have the same rhythmic context and should work once the pupil gets used to counting aloud (3 4), and then in their head as a rhythmic follow through to bars 2,13 and 18. Be sure to count the space at the first half of bar 4, as 1, 2, 3. The syncopated nature of bars 11, 16 and 19 will need careful analysis and practice to steer the pupil away from a more natural tendency to misread the rhythm and place the 4th quaver incorrectly onto the next main beat of the bar. Watch out for the Bb too in the fast RH notes of the final bar - it is easy to forget and play B natural.
Consider the LH fingering carefully - e.g. bar 5 where the suggested 1 and 3 (on beat 3) is fine for larger hands but is likely to warrant quite a big move towards the back of the keyboard for smaller children's hands. You might find find that by placing a 2nd finger on the Bb and either a 4th or 5th finger on the F that it becomes easier. Similarly, be prepared to experiment in bars 1 to 2 and 12 to 13, where use of the LH 4th finger on the lower Bb is likely to be more reliable than a 5th finger:
SKIPPING ROPE - KHACHATURIAN
This has a far easier rhythmic pattern than that of Asian Tiger Prowl, and a very natural feel to it. A feature of Khachaturian’s music for children is that the pieces are so well written and contain specific musical features which form the basis of each composition. That works well here, as the pupil has already understood 16 bars of the piece once the basic rhythmic nature of the hands has been established at the opening.
Contrast in the middle section is achieved by harmonically going to a chromatically embellished version of the dominant and by changing the LH articulation to legato. It is here that more work might be needed to ensure a really comfortable flow.
As a final touch it is nice if all the LH 3rds can sound and go down together. This is best achieved by using a little arm weight and sinking firmly into the keys rather than too much reliance just on finger control as this is more likely to emerge unevenly.
WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN - TRAD. AMERICAN
This lies easily enough beneath the hands and demonstrates that things do not have to be complicated to be musically effective. Sing the song with your student before playing the piece - it is worth remembering that many children will probably not know the tune and by hearing it, and perhaps even understanding something of its context, may well be more informed and play with greater confidence and musical colour.
Achieving a confident swing feel lies at the heart of the groove here. There are plenty of opportunities to take the basic ideas and extend them into additional exercises to really nail that feel (see the example).
Attention to detail often gains marks, but more importantly helps the performance to sound good. So too will careful observation of the dynamics to gain more light and shade, such as judging the initial crescendo suitably and getting a good length of line from bar 12 at mezzo-piano right to the final bar’s fortissimo.
The RH figure in bar 5 requires a hand movement shift towards the back of the keyboard to readily get the thumb on the lower Eb. In bar 7 it is worth considering 3 - 4 - 2 followed by a thumb on the A, then 2 and 4 over and onto the final 3rds of the bar as an alternative fingering.