ABRSM Gd2 Piano Syllabus 2017 - 2018 ~ A review with Teaching Advice by E-MusicMaestro

Grade 2

General ADvice and Guidance

With the success of grade 1 behind you a significant, if early milestone has been reached.  It's all too tempting to rush out and buy the next grade level books and, in some ways the higher the mark the more likelihood that may be to happen.  Steering your pupil to do the right things for their own progress often requires tact and diplomacy, since the last thing we wish to do, as teachers, is to dampen such obvious enthusiasm.  However, in an ideal world it would be best if our pupils achieved higher grade levels without having only learnt exam pieces.

This can be a time to consolidate what has been achieved in the run up to grade 1 and setting out one's stall for what can be worked upon to improve confidence in areas which might have weaknesses.  Taking time out from preparation for the next exam allows you unpressured time to do lots of other musical activities.  Learning a single piece which stretches the capacity of a pupil requires significant focus and musical energy, whereas activities in the lesson which build up learning and playing skills, such as improvisation and duet playing among many, can be less exacting but at the same time very rewarding.

"Taking the pressure" off doesn't mean lowering ones expectations or dumbing down.  Not doing an exam, or even choosing to do an examination with a different Board is not dumbing down.  It may be that such a course of action gives new direction and motivation for a pupil.

Climbing a mountain is usually an arduous activity made more daunting every time you look up and see just how much further you have to go.  Most children don't find that the extrinsic reward of the view sustains them, especially over long periods of time.  Most children easily become absorbed in the right kinds of games and activities in short bursts and, as teachers, It's up to us to find the best way of managing the journey so that it's empowering and fun every step of the way. 

A list

There is plenty to attract the musical attention here, although, in reality, the easiest option will undoubtedly be the Thomas Attwood Allegretto, which lies comfortably under the fingers and poses few technical demands.  Whilst it’s always good to have the opportunity to play a popular operatic aria, and the arrangement of Mozart’s Ein Mädchen from The Magic Flute is a good example, it doesn’t come without its rhythmic challenges at this level.  Without good characterisation this piece will become dull to play and somewhat tiresome to teach!

The popular Susato arrangement will quickly be recognised by teachers, though not necessarily by most children.  It poses several challenges for the average Grade 2 pianist. Rhythmic control at speed is one, and few children at this early stage will find it readily achievable to play the right hand double thirds with control. It is a pity that this joyous piece may more likely be remembered for the obstacles it puts in the path of progression than its intrinsic musical rewards.

Allegretto - Attwood

It’s good to find a piece where there can be some flexibility in the overall tempo of choice. It can lead to more musical performances for those who might not be able to manage it at dotted crotchet = 84.  Faster than that and the lyrical qualities are likely to be lost, but it can be phrased in an appealing way even at dotted crotchet = 66 at the slower end of the spectrum.

It is usually in putting hands together that the hard work really begins.  It’s worth bearing in mind that initial habits last, meaning that it could be harder to achieve a musical balance between hands at a later stage if this is not in place from the start. Once muscle patterns have become automatic and errors or hesitations somewhat inbuilt it is harder to correct problems.  Aim to make listening at the heart of good practice and learning, and then the process can become more interesting.

Given the amount of repetition, there are only really 14/16 bars of music to learn well, not 29.  Pointing out the variations on previous material - such as comparing bar 7 with bar 3, and bars 13/14 with 9/10 - will not only help to quicken the learning process but help to establish better musical memory and a feel for the musical structure.

A good tip for learning to play acciaccaturas is to treat the two notes as a chord, playing them together from the outset, then separating them slightly once the effect has been integrated into the line.  That way you are less likely to end up with a rhythmic flaw or sudden accentuated tone.

Using some pedal always helps to make playing sound more musical once the piece is fluent. It is sufficient to add it just at cadence points on the final F major chords, making sure that the foot depresses the pedal just after playing, and not with the notes - otherwise previous sound is likely to be captured and blurred in.  Adding more pedal to include bars 2/6/23 & 27 can also be effective.

Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen - Mozart

This demands agility in order to negotiate the chord changes at speed and with confidence.  It’s not the kind of piece which will work at a slow tempo. Ideally a tempo of around 124 - 128 will best characterise this spritely song, but it will work at a tempo of around 104.

The dotted rhythms, when sung, tend to come out in many different and often inconsistent ways, sometimes as a result of the text perhaps, and sometimes due to the freedom to interpret in different ways.  However in the playing of it on the piano it is best to be consistent, and you should decide on what works best - whether to go for a crisp double dotted rhythm or something more exact.  It is best to avoid allowing it to lapse into a lazier triplet feel and certainly to encourage a good level of consistency and one which can be replicated at quicker speeds. 

Dotted rhythms can be practised in a slower tempo but in a way which still means that the two notes themselves are quick - a form of over-dotting perhaps.  Whilst it's hard to do at first, it is better than relying upon counting, since that cannot be achieved at speed.

La Mourisque - Susato

It is a challenge to any arranger to produce effective writing within the confines of lower grade pianistic capabilities. Accessibility is crucial and, at Grade 1, Nancy Litten’s arrangement of Verdi’s La donna è mobile achieves that very well.  Unfortunately that is less the case here.  Double third playing at speed is outside the normal capability at this level and, in this instance, produces an obstacle to fluency from bar 1.

A simple solution is to re-define the playing of the theme to this (see example) so that everything except beats 1 and 2 of the original arrangement is intact.  This adjustment, alone, would immediately render an awkward start playable.  There is no point in struggling to achieve the impossible and it is a great piece, so have the courage to present a technical solution which amply fulfils the musical demands of the piece. 


The only other RH difficulty will be the rapid chords and finger position change in bars 3, 7, 19 & 23.  Practise this in many different ways so that it will not flounder under speed.

The left hand is easy enough and, as the foot note suggests, where tiny hands cannot stretch an octave, leave out one of the Cs.  By leaving out the top C and going for the lower one the bass will sound richer and the musical effect more satisfying. Should such modifications be needed to enable fluent playing, it may be wise for a pupil to learn this piece purely for the pleasure of playing it, rather than for examination purposes.

The indicated metronome speed is, for the musical context, slow.  The original is more like minim = 116.  The likelihood of getting any but the most talented pupil to play at a tempo of 92 - 100 with rhythmic precision is slim so, if choosing this piece, be aware of the compromises needed to achieve an appropriate and successful outcome.

B list

There are two especially lovely choices here, and the odds for B1 (Song by Reinecke) being a favourite must be high. Whilst The Stowaway (B3) is an interesting enough piece, the degree of control needed (sempre pp) with relatively quick moving quavers and right hand chords may not be an obvious choice for performing on an unknown instrument, even if it does keep the neighbours happy whilst being practised!

Musically, Smetana’s Waltz in G is such an appealing piece, but technically it needs lots of confidence and a good memory to be looking at left hand leaps.  It will also sound very dour if it doesn’t move along at a good 1 in a bar, and therein lies the challenge for those average Grade 2 students.

Reinecke’s Song has charm and plenty of poetry to inspire the detailed pianist to get a solid distinction mark if they adhere to all the instruction in the score.  It lies easily under the fingers and it is one of those repertoire pieces which would bring a smile to audience faces at a school concert.

Song - Reinecke

Much of the musical success for this piece is down to the balance between hands and the shaping of the phrasing. Once a pupil is used to projecting the RH whilst playing much quieter with the LH, the ability to achieve that effect is down to listening and adjusting as much as anything else.  However the initial acquisition of that technique comes about through independence of hands - heavy RH feel/light LH feel. Don't leave this until the last moment, but get going at the start with exercises away from the notes of this piece so that a simpler solution can be grasped.

When applying that technique it is best to start at a very slow tempo, always listening and adjusting the touch so that the RH truly sings above that of the LH.  If you are aiming at ff (RH) and pp (LH) then that is a good start, since the pupil will have achieved quite a bit of control in doing so.  Subtlety can always be honed once the principles of cantabile playing and musical balance between hands have been understood.

Encourage the taking of time at climax moments such as that in bar 12.

Use of pedal will undoubtedly enhance the quality of tone, but start off sparingly and rely only on its use in the last 3 bars. Only if a pupil is really confident in playing this piece should you introduce more pedal than this, though you might start by adding some pedal to the longer dotted crotchet notes.  Less is better at this early stage.

Waltz in G - Smetana

This needs to be played at a comfortable one in a bar.  A steady three beats will lead to a plodding performance, even if the overall tempo is relatively quick.  Whilst the core of the technical work (LH chords and accuracy) should be tackled at slow speeds, a final quicker tempo needs to be borne in mind.

Waltz feel is quite a sophisticated musical concept and one which varies according to specific nationalistic musical traditions. It is unlikely and unrealistic to expect such sophistication at this level, but in order to avoid the monotony of a rather meaningless chugging along with 3 equal crotchets,  a musical sense of rubato needs to be explored. Once your pupil is familiar with the RH notes, it can be fun for you (the teacher) to play the left hand part, perhaps doubling the bass staccato note in octaves and pushing and pulling your student's playing with a musical rubato.  Encourage them to  play the right hand with a nice, singing cantabile touch.

It is worth pointing out the key patterns and modulations, for herein lies much of the musical structure, changes of mood and twists and turns of this particular charming waltz.

A more advanced pianist would automatically hold some of the first crotchet left hand notes for longer and some shorter to ensure a well sustained root bass note to the chords and a sense of harmonic flow to the line in quite a sophisticated way, but this over complicates things for a Grade 2 pianist.  A better solution is to ask them to lengthen the first crotchet to a minim and to release it, and the 2nd beat, at the end of the 2nd beat, followed with a staccato 3rd beat.  If this is consistently done it should stop the left hand from being overly short and unmusical in its staccato and also lend a truer waltz feel to the flow.

The Stowaway - Stanley Wilson

The imaginative title of this piece is a useful indicator for a more characterful final performance, and it may well have a certain musical appeal for some pupils. That said, it could well prove to be a lot of effort for little effective reward for others.  Many inexperienced pianists play pianissimo and even piano and mezzo-piano in a very unsatisfactory and inconsistent manner, mistakenly thinking that to play quietly, the fingers should barely touch the keys.  This results in playing which has very little tonal substance, a lot of tension and musical uncertainty. Couple that technical misconception with the uncertainty of playing on an unfamiliar instrument in the exam situation and this piece starts to look a less attractive option.

In teaching this piece, begin by ignoring the pianissimo marking and instead go for more solid mezzo-forte practice until the pupil is entirely comfortable with the concept of even, staccato touch. Avoid reliance on fingers alone.  In a Grade 2 pupil the independence and strength of individual fingers is usually very undeveloped and uneven and the result will not be good.  Go for use of the hand with a gentle flexibility from the wrist so that (e.g.) 5-4-3-2-1 in the left hand will be played by dropping the hand slightly onto each note whilst retaining a firm finger action (video demo ~ coming shortly).  This will ultimately be more reliable.

The right hand chords pose something of a musical and technical problem in bars 5 - 7, 17 - 19 and 21 - 23.  In order to achieve a full length minim against the left hand staccato quavers, the next chord fingering and location needs to be found very quickly and at the last minute, otherwise the player will more likely only hold the chords for a crotchet length.  This is more so as the hand moves from one bar to the next, rather than within each bar. Practise playing each bar up to tempo but pausing at the end of each bar, thinking through the next chord change and fingering then moving quickly and playing the subsequent bar.  Repetition of this process should help familiarity.

Memorisation is probably the key to successful playing here, so that the pupil can be most confident about negotiating the, often, large distances between hands.  Also err on the side of caution:   a slightly more mp/p but even version is preferable to one which only half sounds.

C list

The two most likely attractive pieces here will be Prokofiev’s The Cat and Manfred Schmitz’s Gospel Flair.  Of the two, Gospel Flair is good fun and the more straight forward.  It’s also very well written.  It’s not so much the wild speed of The Piper o’ Dundee which relegates it to a probable last choice as the sophistication and complexity of phrasing at this level and therefore the degree of independence of hands required.  This is a very considerable challenge at Grade 2 but it’s a great arrangement and could prove to be a fun and showy piece for a more advanced pianist.

C1 The Piper o’ Dundee - Trad Scottish

Richard Michael is a brilliant jazz teacher and pianist who continues to inspire many on their musical journey.  He is also an accomplished musician who is as much at home playing Bach in church on a Sunday morning as he is delivering an analysis of a jazz solo on radio.  His arrangement is great fun to play, albeit if with the caveat about grade level.

The key to the groove here is the feel of the phrasing with its changing 4 beat feel  (e.g. bars 1, 5/6) to 2 (e.g. bars 2 - 4/17 - 21).  The RH slurs are important musical features which should be very carefully observed.  This gives the musical flow its strength and wild dance characteristics.

Musical detail often underlies a good performance.  Where hands underpin the slurred pairs together in their phrasing, it is easier to achieve. Where imitation occurs, such as the delayed LH entry in bar 1, this is more of a challenge.  There are two options to the phrasing here.  The dotted crotchet can be let go as the other hand plays the next crotchet beat (this produces a neat and tidy effect), or it can be held whilst the other hand plays a staccato crotchet giving the dotted crotchet itself a longer length. This is but a small detail, although it will cause co-ordination concerns and it does occur right at the start and on two subsequent occasions.

The mood changes abruptly in bar 8 with its sudden drop to piano and its brief and cheeky reminder of Auld Lang Syne. The final 8 bars should romp along as the co-ordination between hands here is a regular two in a bar with its slurred  pairs.

Have fun and be bold!

C2 The Cat - Prokofiev

Another great arrangement which panders to the child’s musical imagination! We might do well not to take it for granted that children will necessarily know this tune.  Familiarity with the music and its context would be an excellent starting point for teaching this piece, well before fingers start to find the notes.  Otherwise there is no rationale for the kind of rubato and touch essential to get the notes to lift from the page and the music to come to life.

There is a certain independence required between hands.  Ideally the length of notes in RH and LH playing is often different.  The original clarinet solo sings through its crotchets even if they are tongued and not legato, whereas the bass is almost a pizzicato.  Achieving this distinction will help a lot in musical characterisation.  So too will adherence to the off-beat, slurred pairs in bars 7 and 18 which serve, in contrast to the more predictable on-beat slurring in bars 3 and 14, to characterise the quirky behaviour of this particular cat.

A careful use of rubato and sensitivity in the tone will help to enliven and colour the line, along with detailed observation of the many different dynamic levels and difference between staccato and tenuto notes so typical of passages between bars 8 - 10 and 19 - 21.

Gospel Flair - Manfred Schmitz

Repetition underpins structure in music and also shapes our sense of musical anticipation and satisfaction.  Nowhere is it more apparent than in this kind of simple, but highly effective, jazz music in Gospel style.  Be certain to play this with straight and not swing quavers.

Such repetition gives ample opportunity to really nail the jazz feel, for the notes themselves are not difficult. Construct an imaginative approach to teaching this piece which does not start with the dots on the page.  Instead devise some rhythm games and interaction in the lesson, based around getting to know the four, main rhythmic phrases by ear.  (video/audio demo - coming soon)

The nature of jazz phrasing goes against the grain of classical shaping and feel, but it is worth persevering to get it right.  This entails accentuation on the off-beat and subjugation of the on-beat note.  Work out simple examples, out of context, to give the chance to practise this essential feature, perhaps using clapping at first instead of playing. Call and response games, and playing together within the lesson, can easily give opportunities to have fun and to establish good foundations before learning the actual notes.

Learning to play this piece should be about establishing an inner sense of rhythm which can be switched on at a moment’s notice. Using the back-beats (2 & 4) as a regular aid to the playing (by clapping/clicking as the pupil plays) will help, as will practising this skill yourself.  If you are unused to teaching jazz this is worth doing , since it helps you to gain independence.  Try clapping/clicking on 2 & 4 whilst singing the musical phrase and feeling the phrasing and rhythmic impulse.

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