ABRSM Gd3 Piano Syllabus 2017 - 2018 ~ A review with Teaching Advice by E-MusicMaestro
GENERAL ADVICE AND GUIDANCE
Most pupils will have been learning the piano for several years by the time they are at this level. One or two may have taken less time but they are likely to be in the minority. By this time they will have fairly strong ingrained patterns of learning and approach to playing the piano. It is worth taking a moment to consider where they are at in overall terms of their learning.
(i) What are their current strengths and weaknesses ?
(ii) What is their attitude to learning ?
(iii) How effective my lessons, as a teacher, compared to when they first began learning ?
(iv) What single thing could I change, as their teacher, to make their learning more self- motivated ?
It is easy to get swept along by others’ agendas and for the focus of learning to be driven by the learning of content itself and/or the need to pass the next exam. By thinking about the acquisition of musical skills and processes there may be a fresh opportunity to change the pattern of lesson activities to include a more diverse range of skills. These might include learning to compose little pieces, playing duets to help improve reading and listening to new piece of music (other than piano music).
Broadening horizons can often have positive impacts and bring renewed vigour to learning. We all need change from time to time and exams are not everything.
Talk to your pupils and find out how they feel they are getting on. Take the pressure of questions about practice, and find out what they are enjoying and how music fits into their lives outside the piano lesson itself.
The two favourites here may well be the Mozart and Beethoven for very different reasons. The opportunity to play one of perhaps the best known of Mozart’s tunes will be a great boost to an adult learner’s musical aspirations and will also appeal as a lovely piece of music to younger learners. For those with a more robust and rhythmic flair, Beethoven’s German Dance is a perfect springboard from which to project a confident musical performance.
The Handel Allegro is attractive, although musically a busy piece at the indicated tempo. For the more aspiring pianist it is excellent training ground for disciplined playing with consistent observation of fingering patterns and for the development of independent playing between the hands. Those who master this will be well placed to tackle the equally challenging pieces by Purcell and Seixas at Grade 5 level later on.
Sonatina in G - Handel
It is interesting to note that this was a piece which Handel probably used for teaching purposes. Independence of hands has always been a crucial part of piano playing. Long before the advent of the the Alberti bass (during the Classical period) which featured a different type of compositional process based more around chords than counterpoint, the main structural form of pieces was often a contrapuntal one. This was a perfect way in which to train independence of fingers and educate the learner to the system of playing in a linear fashion with two, three and eventually more independent parts.
Young learners todays are less steeped in that tradition and may well come to the learning of such a piece with questions about why it is so hard. It is always worth seeking an explanation so that your pupil can better understand the way it works musically. The writing is usually based around the chordal structure of the passage. So for example bars 15 - 17 can be shown to be this harmony in outline:
Finding out how the patterns work may give insights into the compositional process which, for some pupils, could make the difference between motivation to learn the piece well or not.
There is a lot of work involved in learning this piece, not least in being consistent about the fingering applied and in knowing what good articulation sounds like. Without going into great detail it is sufficient to generalise by saying that Baroque articulation on the keyboard emanates from the kind or articulation heard on wind and string instruments.
Detached bowing, for example, produces a slightly disjoined sound between two notes such as the octave leap in bar 2 and in the LH crotchets of the D major cadence in bar 4 and the G major cadence at the end. Even though a passage such as that in the LH bars 7 & 8 might be played with detached, bowed quavers there may well be a musical emphasis in pairs to give this effect:
You are unlikely to be able to achieve that level of sophistication with an average Grade 3 pupil, so will need to have a strategy to set about how to teach the articulation with some degree of effectiveness. It will sound odd if played all legato and it will also make it harder to play with agility and at a good tempo, since the hands need to jump into new positions fairly readily without the hindrance of joining by legato.
Listen to any of the Bach unaccompanied cello sonatas and work out how the bowing and articulation is employed to underpin the shape of the line and the musical structure.
Romanze - Mozart
It’s tempting to take it for granted that everyone will know this piece of music, but there’s no reason why a 7 - 10 year old should. Listening to the original is always an excellent starting point.
Capturing the essence of the phrasing is dependent upon getting used to the correct way of phrasing, for feminine ending cadence figures and the taking of tiny amounts of time to place the final chord at the cadence or the syncopated crotchet, in bars 2 & 3 for example.
As ever, a balance between hands which favours the RH tune will more musically satisfy the line, and particular care should be taken not to let the repeated LH chords, in bars 9 & 11, become too obtrusive. It may often be the case of having to over-do the slurred phrasing of quaver pairs in order to arrive at a more musical effect in the long term.
Crotchet = 72 is probably a perfect tempo, noting that although the piece is in 4/4 the rate of harmonic movement is in 2, and therefore the gentle background feel of two in a bar should form the underpinning for the phrasing. Otherwise it could plod and, more untypically, sound like a march by Mozart !
A3 German Dance in B flat - Beethoven
There is a certain robustness about this piece and this needs to be reflected in the phrasing and also through a solid and clean tone in the chord playing.
The long-short, long-short nature of the phrasing should not be missed and indeed it can benefit from a little more emphasis so that the sforzando chords are 'placed' just a little rather then simply being metronomic. To a certain degree the same is true of the third beat leaps in bars 5 - 7 and 13 - 15. To run through the bars in unyielding fashion can make the music very plain and uninteresting.
Where interval leaps are significant, yet still a part of the melodic line, the player (especially the pianist) needs to bear in mind what musical significance that has in other contexts, and for other instruments. Whilst this is a rhythmic piece it needs to have character and dance features in its phrasing. Therefore be careful that a rhythmic effect does not become simply a metronomic one.
Here's an interesting performance showing what the original orchestrated version may have sounded like:
For more, visit:
Adding a dab of direct pedalling to the first beat, sforzando chords will also help to effectively colour the mood and tone. Be sure to place the sforzando chords with a little time and not to over emphasise the tone in the second line of the trio. Sforzandi playing should never sound harsh.
The Burgmuller, Caroll and Saint-Saens (B4, 5 & 6) may well appeal more than the published selection. Whilst the Tom Bowling arrangement is a beautiful piece in its own right, it demands a certain sophistication of musical awareness and technical accomplishment to bring it off successfully, although for young pianists who like to play rhythmic pieces, Tchaikovsky’s March of the Wooden Soldiers is a perennial favourite.
The haunting, more Eastern European feel, in Hiller’s Polish Song may be reminiscent of that particular folk music tradition, but is likely to be less readily appreciated by those without such roots.
Tom Bowling - Charles Dibdin
Written originally as a lament and a song to Dibdin’s older brother, this rich and sophisticated arrangement brings beauty and pathos to the tune in this arrangement by Julian McNamara. Its song-like nature should be amply explored through a rich cantabile tone for the top melody line as well as plenty of imaginative rubato to help float each phrase on its way.
The score is full of helpful suggestions about where to do this and it is hard to imagine becoming too indulgent, and if so, then better that than not indulgent enough!
The LH textures should support the RH melody through its well held minim notes, but be sensitive to its accompaniment nature by being quieter in its tenor register and always fitting in gently to the overall musical shape.
Pedal is needed to warm the textures and can be used with some consistency for a crotchet and a half’s length in bar 1 and similar harmonic contexts. It makes all the difference, especially at places such as the first two beats of bar 17. Begin by defining just a small but essential part of the score in which pedal can be effectively employed, and avoid over-complicating the score by using it at more complex moments such as bars 10 & 11.
B2 Polish Song - Hiller
There is a certain introverted musical melancholy here. It is poignant rather than simply sad. There is a certain yearning and resignation that are not necessarily emotions which younger learners will readily know about or be able to connect with. Nonetheless, through imaginative use of story telling it could be possible to engage a child at their own musical level and get to encourage them to create a meaningful and colourful performance.
Much of that relies upon interpreting the staccato in slurred patterns with a certain poise, taking careful note of the hairpins too. The interplay between hands also needs a lot of work and independence, especially if it is to sound rich and mournfully expressive. This is made more challenging by the tendency to demand opposites, such as that seen in bars 13/14 and 24 - 26 where the musical effect is reliant upon achieving that level of detail between the hands.
A confident level of rubato is needed to give due weight and emphasis to the expressive tenuto crotchet beats at cadence points and also to stretch out the individual bars with their hairpin shaping in bars 1 - 4. Having made this a central expressive device, consider moving the phrases on and pushing to the cadence bar (8) in the following 4 bars. Otherwise the mood will become stilted and lose its sense of overall structure.
March of the Wooden Soldiers - Tchaikovsky
There are two main challenges here:
(i) crisp, rhythmic chord playing at pianissimo levels and (ii) clearly defined, even repeated notes in the LH.
Due to the amount of repetition this piece is easier to access than initial glances at the two pages and 48 bars might suggest.
Treat the pianissimo as an eventual goal rather than the starting point. Good clear chord playing is best learnt whilst playing at mezzo-forte levels where focus can be given to a consistent weight and firmness from the fingers and arm. Once the chord patterns are secure and the playing consistent you can then explore controlling the playing from closer to the key surface and with a gradually quieter tone. It’s worth remembering that you can never guarantee the evenness of a piano in another setting, and therefore when coming to the exam to attempt to play at too quiet a level may result in notes not sounding, and that can be a distressing experience for the performer.
The repeated note LH figures can best be controlled with either 1 - 2 - 1 - 2 - 1 fingering, as suggested, or 1 - 3 - 1 - 3 - 1 fingering instead. It is likely to work better in bar 16 by leaving the LH, E minim early in order to place the thumb at the start of that pattern, as in bar 8 and 40. It will be more secure that way.
Pay attention to the LH, minim chords (bars 18, 20, 26 and 28) which can be held for their full length and joined to the following bar, quaver chord by holding 2 & 5 but letting go of the thumb on the F natural at the top to find the new top note E.
There is plenty of choice to be had in this list, from the old favourite Clowns by Kabalevsky to two newcomers - an effective swing style piece by Nicholas Scott-Burt and a more esoteric but lovely, expressive piece by the Russian composer, Nikolay Rakov.
Clowns - Kabalevsky
This is straightforward, fun and also a good piece to have up your sleeve to play at school concerts or just to impress your friends at how fast you can play !
It hardly matters when you are trying to impress friends if the music goes off the rails a bit because of your excitement, although it is likely to gain higher exam marks to be more prudent at choice of tempo, when it comes down to it!
Choice of fingering is crucial to the evenness of touch, rhythmic stability and accuracy (especially in LH). The suggested fingering works well enough but does depend to a certain extent on the size of the hand. Whilst it is obvious to start with the RH thumb on A some players may find it easier to control the semiquaver rhythm by using 2 - 3 - 4 rather than 1 - 2 - 3, (just as it suggests) though for slightly different reasons, in bars 9 - 12.
Assuming that an octave stretch in the LH is easy enough then the suggested use of 3rd finger on A may well be fine. If the hand span is smaller then it could be worth exploring use of the 5th finger on both the A and then by jumping, without stretching out, on the E as well (bars 1 - 8). This fingering would then be similar for bars 9 - 12.
In the penultimate bar, the RH fingering might work better by using 3/1 followed by 4/1 on the last two quaver beats of the bar, rather than starting off with 4/a and having to shift the weaker 4th finger up to the G sharp at speed.
Be attentive to detail, such as the exact length and release point of the LH crotchets in bars 13 & 14 as it has a rhythmic impact for the RH line too.
Best to musically avoid an accent on beats 1 & 2 of the RH. It should be a simply staccato tone. The only accents marked are at the very end.
The Day is Ended - Rakov
An imaginative, expressive piece which tells a story. It brings a gentle, sighing to its mood and more reflective emotions through its chromatic harmonies, as well as some haunting moments with its alternating Gb minor and Eb major lydian harmonies in the final bars.
The technical challenges encompass some short-lived moments of crossing hands in bars 9 & 10 and in 18 & 19, where success will be more guaranteed by memorisation.
The top melody line always needs to sing, although will be easier to do this where the line is in single notes and not in thirds or as part of a chord. LH minim chords in bars 1 - 4 should be very gently played in their accompaniment role and use of pedal, where indicated in the score, will certainly enhance the colour of tone and mood.
Be certain to bring out the imitation between hands in bars 13 & 14 and take time in the final four bars. Whilst no rit is marked, those final haunting harmonies need space in which to linger and stir the imagination with dreams to come.
Attitude! - Nicholas Scott-Burt
Sometimes you just have to get on with it, and this is the kind of piece where you need to do just that! As a teacher, the question of where to start is a good one to ask. It is tedious beyond measure to start with the RH at the beginning and work through to the end. Not only is it too long a span of music to most effectively invoke memory but it encourages too slow a learning process and is less likely to involve the acquisition of musical gesture from the start.
Perhaps a foray into the LH walking bass could be an appropriate starting point. After all, it’s only a repeated descending D minor melodic pattern in the first 6 bars with a little variation in bar 4, and latterly (bars 18/19) a chromatically embellished one. That would give you the opportunity to play the RH lines at the same time and to bring the music quickly to life. The mood of the bass line should be just as you hear in a walking bass line, not short staccato, but with good length, detached and feeling a strong 2 and 4 to the back beats.
The swing feel in the RH stems from feeling and playing the off-beat quaver more loudly in a kind of back to front fashion (for classical players). It’s not obvious to do but can become more natural after plenty of practise. Getting your head around this concept is worthwhile.
Two other rhythmic challenges: (i) quaver patterns in bars 7 & 8; (ii) the off-beat RH quavers in bar 11 with its triplet rhythm in bar 12.