ABRSM Gd4 Piano Syllabus 2017 - 2018 ~ A review with Teaching Advice by E-MusicMaestro

Grade 4

General Advice and Guidance

Research shows and experience informs us that this is a time when we can see many pupils’ fervour for learning the piano start to wane. It’s often to do with the sheer amount of pressure from school and other activities. It’s unsurprising that many whom we might label as Grade 4 level don’t really have the range of skills or confidence in performing to equip them to comfortably get to grips with the kind of repertoire and challenges at this level. How we go about teaching them may well make the difference between whether they remember their piano lessons fondly and one day return to playing or whether they ditch their lessons with the secret and damning belief that they weren’t talented enough to continue.

It is understandable why teachers often feel in the middle, compromised by pressures from parents and school and limited by the current skill set of a particular pupil. If only we could do more to help….? 

Whether teaching privately or as a peripatetic teacher there are often things which can be done to avoid being shoehorned into a place where you know you are perhaps teaching the next set of exam pieces to an unwilling pupil or expected to achieve the impossible within a given timescale. Most directors of music are keen to know that you want the best for individual pupils and are often far more aware and willing to listen to a teacher's concerns than perhaps parents are.  Inappropriate exam pressure can sour a pupil's love of playing and potentially have more long term consequences for their own interest in music.

Change of direction, whether that be by not taking the next exam, placing greater emphasis on practical musicianship activities within the lesson or exploring different exam boards and different repertoire, can often mean the difference between a pupil stopping their lessons or continuing on a different learning regime which has less pressure.

A list

Our two strong contenders for the favourite A list pieces are the Haydn Minuet and Trio, with its optimistic musical outlook and confident personality along with the lovely, expressive and flowing mood of Vanhal’s 2nd movement - Allegretto - from his piano sonata in A, Op 41 No. 12. These will possibly appeal to different types of pupil, but each has its potential for allowing individuals to shine.

The Krebs Prelude, with its toccata like passage work, although musically rather more obtuse, may well appeal to the more serious student whose finger technique is already well developed.

Minuet and Trio - Haydn

It’s great to have access to the real thing! Unlike some of the earlier grade arrangements of famous operatic arias or traditional songs made simple for the grade, this is a gateway to more Classical piano music, many examples of which exist at this grade level.

There are relatively few technical challenges. It’s a good opportunity to improve your chord playing and, if you’ve not done this before, to get to play with an Alberti bass line in the Trio.

We all know that the route to confident playing is through slow practice but getting pupils to do that is another thing. Taking small bits and learning them hands together with confidence could be one way to tackle the learning of the Minuet. In bits, it is not difficult.  

There are also possibilities to introduce a little knowledge of keyboard harmony. After all, once you can play the opening six beats confidently in Ab, why not play the same idea in A major, and what might it be like played in C major? What does that perfect cadence in bars 21/22 sound like in different keys? What key are we in at bar 16? Can you play that in another key too?

Demystifying what might appear only as a set of notes into a simple and understandable musical structure is more likely to help the learner realise that this is less complicated than it seems. The harmonic structure of the Trio is also simple and can be appropriately analysed to helpful learning effect.

One of the technical challenges here, especially so for smaller hands, is to achieve a tonally even yet quiet LH Alberti bass. If fingers alone are used the result is likely to feel awkward and be uneven. Finger strength and control varies so much that the 5th finger may often not sound whereas the thumb and 3rd finger will accent notes. The repeated Eb with the thumb is a potential problem since it will interfere with the RH line if it stands out.

The use of rotary motion doesn’t in itself provide the solution, but it does give the wherewithal to come to more controllable grips with this kind of bass line, and it will be encountered many time as a technique in later playing. 

Rotary motion is important for two reasons. It helps to free up the hand from a potentially rigid position wherein the player is trying to control the production of tone simply with the fingers, thus stretching out with the 5th finger and thumb to cover what is often (for smaller hands) a stretch of notes which does not lie comfortably within their compass. Secondly it provides the mechanics by which to more comfortably control the relatively quicker LH passes with even tone and with the avoidance of a loud, bumpy thumb.

The Trio provides an opportunity to explore, in more depth, essential eloquent qualities of Classical playing and needs to be be fully understood and experienced ahead of putting hands together. The subtle shaping of tone and time taken at cadence points is important, as is the poised playing of consecutive, slurred quaver pairs (bars 30/31).

Putting hands together has its challenges, not least in maintaining the good balance of tone already experienced in separate hand work. As always, the key is to focus upon slow work in smaller sections, along with the tendency to over-emphasise the musical effects initially, with a view to tempering excess and achieving greater subtlety later.

Prelude on Jesus, My Joy - Krebs

Krebs is more associated with music for organ than piano. Unsurprisingly the writing is typical of a Baroque keyboard writing as a type of free toccata style and there is a certain virtuosity in the writing.

There are three different strands of musical ideas:

(i) scalic passages         (ii) broken chord configurations         (iii) arpeggio configurations

It could well be worth taking this as the starting point for exploration here, as it should help to make the learning process more effective. Frequent use is made of the scale on the dominant, and sequential material is also much in evidence.

The touch should be light and bright, detached where appropriate but not overly short in staccato. A brisk tempo works well and a metronome speed of crotchet = 80 is not too fast, since the rate of harmonic movement is two in a bar not four. Most of the texture is uncomplicated but demands confident and reliable finger work. Attention should be paid carefully to the few passages where denser chordal textures have some interest, such as bars 22 - 24 and bars 12 - 14.

Do include the mordent, as it adds a characteristic touch. It also works well if played exactly as indicated, noting that in bar 1 there is an intended clash as the RH must play C natural (against the LH C sharp).

Pedal is not required, but if you have a pupil who can play well and with virtuosity, then small touches at the bottom of the arpeggios in bars 3 - 7 can add a little colour if very sensitively done. Similarly it can add sheen to the descending arpeggios in bar 16. However, this is a highlight - a touch of gloss to an otherwise beautifully controlled performance. 

Of greater importance is the need for a taut interplay between the RH semiquavers and the LH chord stabs between bars 17 - 21.

Allegretto - Vanhal

This has charm, along with a sense of virtuosity in the closing lines of the piece too. The finger work is not difficult, many of the patterns being either scalic or chord-based and it should be a reasonably easy piece for pupils to access at this level.

One of the best ways to learn the piece would be to get to grips with the harmonic outline first. Starting with the first section the progression is simply I - II - V - I, followed by I - II/V (in E) I - V - I (having modulated to the dominant).  

The RH does two things:

(i) plays the theme        (ii) provides more virtuosic interest and adds embellishment

The piece really is that simple, and yet it’s a great vehicle for performing with both elegance and panâche. At around crotchet = 88 - 96 it becomes a gentle, eloquent piece with opportunity for plenty of poise in the phrasing, but owing to its harmonic rate of one in a bar it could easily be played at a tempo of up to crotchet = 112/116 and it then becomes even more fun.

The semiquaver slurred pairings are important to observe (bars 25/29 & 31). The footnotes suggest that the other articulation markings, with the exception of bar 7 and the tempo markings in bars 32 - 34, are the composer's and they should also be carefully observed to make best musical sense.

Direct pedalling can be sparingly applied in the coda to enrich the chordal playing, which should be bright and reasonably light, never hard and full bodied and certainly not harshly fortissimo at any time.

B list

There is plenty of opportunity here to cater for most tastes and abilities, supplemented too by some lovely pieces in B4 - 6.

Hoffman’s Scherzo provides a springboard for showing off a nimble technique whilst Schumann’s The Merry Peasant is not difficult to get to grips with. Žilinski’s Waltz in A is a delightful piece for the more sensitive pianists at the level.

Scherzo - Hofmann

A good choice for those who want to stretch themselves and are up for the challenge of playing in a fast and virtuosic style. To what extent you might steer a less able pupil away from learning this, even if they love it, is a moot point.  

The indicated tempo is modest enough and even somewhat tame, given that a more exciting one around 84 - 88 per crotchet puts the playing and musical performance at a different level. However the important point is that fun is conveyed and that at whatever tempo is adopted a good length of line is achieved.

Length of line is dependent upon phrasing that has some rubato in order to craft the line into its appropriate structure. Following the repeated, two-bar phrase introduction it falls into phrase lengths of four bars, then seven bars into the dominant. After a brief foray into E major (dominant of the relative minor - A) there is an eight-bar phrase followed by a very brief, four-bar coda.

Achieving a natural rubato is partly dependent on the careful measuring of increase and decrease in semiquaver speed as well as some subtle placing at the beginning of new phrases. This all helps to combat a tendency to play simply in time. We want our pupils to play in time and rhythmically but we don’t want performances which sound dull and metronomic, no matter how laudable it is to achieve that degree of control.

Slow, rhythmic practice with a metronome is to be expected, but once the principal elements are in place it is good to practise rubato. This doesn’t need to be at performance tempo. It is easy enough to play at a slower tempo and practise a gradual increase in semiquaver speed towards the middle of the phrase. Suggest that the opposite is tried too. It can easily be applied to scales as a means of becoming more in charge of how something is played rather than becoming merely a slave to the notes and possible never quite settled when it comes to performance. 

A good singing legato is crucial in the LH along with nimbleness of RH staccato. The RH can be practised fist in block chords (usually one per bar) so that the playing becomes based around a chord and not a constant shifting of fingering patterns (twice within each bar). A little relaxation of the tempo in the top line of the second page adds a moment of reflection to the performance and helps to frame the climactic moments of the new modulation in the second line.

It shouldn’t feel that the speeding train hits the buffers abruptly at the end, so some careful negotiation of the transition into the coda is needed - time to put the metronome back into the cupboard and take plenty of liberties here!

Fast playing can only effectively be achieved once the level of performance gets to the stage of subconscious fluency. Having to be reminded of a particular fingering at a certain point, and so on, only serves to distract the performer and can cause a sense of neurosis. In other words you have to go for it - and that, in itself, needs practice.

Playing at speed can be done in sections. Inevitably problems will occur. You then need to decide whether the error or stumble occurs due to forgetting something under the pressure of speed, being a little anxious or whether some underlying technical issues still need fixing. It should not be the kind of piece to reach the exam room without having had many outings ahead of that time.

The Merry Peasant - Schumann

This is bold and simple music. It doesn’t require a great deal of elegance to be played well but should never approach anything resembling coarseness either. It needs, like all music, to be phrased and have character to it. Anything much slower than crotchet = 96 will tend to lead towards a heavier, less optimistic mood and performance.

Plenty of repetition within this piece makes a learning a simple, four-bar phrase equal the reward of having learnt almost 16 bars in reality!

It’s easy for this piece to sound dull, either due to a lack of phrasing, too much unnecessary accentuation or a bad balance between hands. Insist on lightness of RH chord touch and tone, otherwise it will sound very heavy handed. Avoid, at all costs, regular and heavy accentuation on beats one and three of the bar. It is easy for a pupil to slip into doing this due to the way the piece is written. One way to get around this is to practise playing the opening, two LH notes at mezzo-piano with a crescendo through to somewhere around the top F on beat two of bar 2. That kind of phrasing helps to thrust the music forward.  

Depending on how you view the day’s work, the peasant returning home might well be rather upbeat and happy rather than down-trodden and weary!

Pedal is ideally needed once both hands take over the melody from bar 9. This further necessitates much care over the chugging, quaver accompaniment as it is all too easy for it for to get hammered out. Aim for at least a piano tone in the accompaniment.

There is no indication of a rallentando at the end - it’s to the point and without any airs and graces.  

Waltz in A - Žilinskis

A charming bit of piano writing, this waltz gives the performer an opportunity to show off their poise and musical skill. The music falls neatly into two, eight-bar phrases followed by a similar kind of symmetry in the relative minor middle section.

Flexibility of tempo is the key to getting to grips with the musical nuances here, as is the capacity to bring out the various textures. Whilst the RH line is the main point of musical interest, the sustained, descending LH chromatic line helps to push the phrase forwards as well as providing a delicate piece of counterpoint. The function of the lower second and third beat notes give the waltz its characteristic momentum and should be suitably phrased for a lovely lightness and shortness on the third beat note, with no hint of an accentuated staccato. There should be no hard edges here.

Pedalling is essential, particularly in the middle minor section where the bottom F#, so crucial to the harmonic mood, will otherwise be lost. Clarity in pedalling is often misunderstood as being solely related to how much pedal is used. This is not so. Clarity is partly down to this, but mainly due to the amount of RH projection versus the thinning out of unnecessarily obtrusive LH tone. That can be rather sophisticated, though worth exploring.

Listen to the examples given here. It is about listening and greater awareness if the real musical potential is to be achieved. It may well not be something which every pupil at this level is capable of achieving, but for those who can be pushed that bit further, their sound world will glisten and be a potential source of inspiration to lift their playing from the ordinary towards something rather more special.  Listen to this quality in these two extracts, the first by pianist Alice Sara Ott and the second by Murray Perahia:


If using pedal in the first section (and it will help the mood for sure) be certain to have played the acciaccatura ahead of depressing the pedal to avoid a nasty harmonic blur.

C list

Why not get carried away? Why be grounded when there is so much to excite the developing pianist? Whilst there is nothing boring about this list, and there are some fantastic pieces included here (all six), many are seriously challenging. Moira Hayward’s tremendous arrangement of the traditional Russian folksong Dark Eyes or Black Eyes has to be one to savour, but save it for the most talented at this level, it’s also one which is more likely to stop the pianist in their tracks than give them the necessary wings to fly. Grade 6 pianists should be more equipped to deal with it.

Both Uzbuna by Bjelinski and Bow-Chicka-Wow-Wow by Ben Crossland get the pulse racing and are well written pieces. They both treat the keyboard as a kind of gymnasium, which is no bad thing, and that means getting to know where you are leaping to next and not falling off the high beam either !

These pieces are just so good musically, even if highly challenging too.

Uzbuna - Bjelinski

Essentially this is a kind of toccata on a small scale and in needs to be treated that way if you are to achieve the range of character and excitement possible.  

Most pupils would find a tempo of crotchet = 108 reasonably possible, some will manage it at 128 but few are likely to feel in control of this turbo-charged machine at the exciting and almost reckless pace of 144. This does pose significant questions for the teacher as to whether a pupil will plod around the race track or go for broke. Either way, despite the caveat in the footnote, it will be very difficult for the music and phrasing to come alive without sufficient momentum.

Break the piece down into manageable sections. For example, the semiquaver moto-perpetuo of the middle section is easier than it first looks. From bar 18, its RH configuration is settled and repetitive. Getting into it is via a quick descending octave and a half C major scale. That is preceded by seven beats' worth of the same repetitive idea as that in bars 18 - 22. Looking at it that way, it should be readily achievable to nail the RH here.

The chords which form the backbone of the opening ten and closing ten bars are best studied carefully and in individual bars. It is worth finding them and playing them as complete chords, as illustrated here:


Spend plenty of time getting to know the individual chord shapes, otherwise playing at speed will take longer to achieve and is likely to be less reliable in performance.

Bars 28 - 31 are not difficult though they do require the LH to be placed well above the RH and towards the back of the keyboard with the RH flatter and positioned towards the front edge of the keyboard.

Be certain to achieve the dynamic range indicated in the middle section where it drops to piano and then back to forte.

Bow-Chicka-Wow-Wow - Ben Crossland

A good. showy piece for the right kind of pupil. What a great piece to have in your repertoire to impress friends and give parents a real sense of pride at the next school concert! 

The indicated tempo of minim = 69 is just about perfect to fulfil the musical demands here. Even for those who can play it faster, it soon starts to lose its solid funk feel at tempi much above 76. It also makes the hand crossing more potentially dangerous.

As good keyboard geography and dexterity lie at the heart of preparation, it is worth spending time playing around with these elements. Make up exercises and games to get the RH accurate in suddenly swooping down to the low Cs and Bbs (bars 9 - 11 and 25 - 27) and back to its treble clef position, and the LH adept at getting up and across to its treble clef place in bars 29 - 30 from its bass position either side of it.

When players become frightened at large leaps which require dexterity, it is often because they haven’t analysed and separated out the individual events. The actual amount and speed of arm movement needed to get the hand from one position to another three octaves away is no more (if not less than) that used in a similar arm movement to pass the salt to someone across the table. What often happens is that the player makes a relatively slow movement or a movement which is full of tension, compounded by fear of hitting the wrong note. Take plenty of time to explore the technique before putting things back together in context.

The feel of the groove comes as much from the phrasing and articulation detail as from anything else, so be certain about being fairly strict in adherence to what’s in the score. In general, staccato notes should not be so spiky and short that they fail to resemble a more ambient double bass, pizzicato sound effect.

It is the kind of piece that would benefit from memorisation and, if the learning of it is carefully structured, there is no reason why this should not be a relatively easy task to achieve.

There is a lot of performance detail in the score, and this is best integrated into the learning right from the start rather than by application, like a veneer, at a later stage.

Black Eyes - Trad. Russian

What a wonderful arrangement! It’s hard to see how anyone could fail to be captivated by this lovely traditional romantic Russian song, especially when conveyed in the compelling and dark rich tones of Hvrotovosky’s baritone voice (source:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQ_dMI17GFw):

This shows just how important it is to be utterly committed. It’s not often that it’s a case of all or nothing, but the cavernous gap between the potential for either a wonderful or a limp performance of this piece is astonishingly wide. The swirling fast waltz tempo at bar 21 cannot be a sedentary affair and neither can you sweep your partner off their feet and into your arms with a calculated and cautiously controlled accelerando at the end.  

Even the rubato section which forms most of the first page requires a maturity of emotional passion, with its dark longing and seductiveness, to truly plumb the depths of this teasing waltz line.

The most technical challenging moments include the accuracy of LH playing between bars 21 - 36, at speed especially. This demands a freedom of movement not compromised by stiffness in the arm or undue stretching of the hand. The hand itself needs to move efficiently from its lower notes, especially when the stretch is an octave and the hand is small, otherwise the tempo will be cautiously grounded.

The LH tone should be rich and full of almost overlapping legato in the rubato section on the first page - hark back to that wonderful richness of baritone voice heard in the recording above. There is every opportunity to be playful and teasing with the RH spread chords. These should never be abrupt or spiky, but more like the warm velvet of pizzicato strings in the background. The tune itself relies heavily on the emotional pain generated by the semitone moments, first upwards onto the Db, then downward looking onto the E natural, the upper tetrachord of the F minor harmonic scale being exploited for all it is worth.

Whilst no phrase lengths are indicated in the Allegro section on page 21, there is a natural forward momentum to the end of bar 27 and then a little lingering of the upbeats into bar 29 from where the full unbridled passion of flow can be driven along towards the cadence in bar 35.

The molto appassionato section should not be overwhelmingly harsh. Rather it yearns for a very full and rich tone, supported by a sufficiently strong bass note in bars 38 and 40. Avoid making all the quavers equally loud, otherwise it will be very muddy in its texture.

Judging the rate of accelerando and crescendo is key to getting the end exciting but not out of control. The final fast tempo should be arrived at by the start of bar 48.

Needless to say, with such a number of changing moods in the various sections it is imperative to have had plenty of performance practice ahead of any exam performance and all the added pressure which that is likely to generate.

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