ABRSM - New Piano Syllabus 2021 - 2022
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I vividly remember, as a child and teenager, the excitement at the arrival of a new piece of sheet music through the post. The event was always triggered after hearing a particular piece of music (in my case usually organ music) which I quickly grew to love and became desperate to learn to play. Inevitably when the dots arrived the visual landscape was unexpected - it provided a completely different and seemingly unrelated map for what was already partially in my head.
Nonetheless, it was in my hands and I could begin to piece together the visual with the aural alongside the task of getting my fingers around the notes. Today’s learners are no different, in that they often have plenty of music in their heads and often search for a means of learning to play it on the piano.
How is this relevant to the new ABRSM 2021-22 piano syllabus, or indeed any syllabus?
I guess underlying these thoughts is the question about independent learning and choice.
What are the choices we have, as teachers, and how can we best encourage independent learning in an age where so much is led by the need for exam success?
There are often heated debates about the exam boards, what their roles are and how they shape learning. There are assumptions about the syllabus which emerge from the nature of our relationship with that exam board. One of the conundrums we might feel is that we have little choice whereas, in reality, this is not the case.
Those choices, however, come with significant dilemmas and concerns. The pressure from parents for progress, the many demands of other activities on a child’s time can all feed into an often anxious melting pot, along with the inevitable angst and unhappiness that this can cause.
That drive for ever faster, ever better progress does not come from exam boards. Neither does the decision about what repertoire to learn or even whether or not to take a particular exam.
As hard as it can be to accept that viewpoint, it is worth reflecting that we enter dangerous territory if we confer on a syllabus the mantle of the curriculum. A syllabus is, literally and merely, a list. These lists, as far as ABRSM are concerned, have never offered a greater choice at all the grade levels with 10 pieces now in each list.
What does, rightly, concern us is that our choice is curtailed by the fact that to choose a certain piece (not printed in the exam book itself) is an expensive option and the reality is that this seriously limits our tendency to explore further afield.
The Music Publishing industry, as a whole, have a responsibility to make printed music more accessible by changing their approach and having far greater flexibility over the way they do business. Our digital age cries out for it. A collection of 30 pieces priced at £9.50 makes a single piece very reasonable, but you may only require one particular piece from that volume.
It seems out of kilter, in an age where we can listen to and buy individual tracks of music, that we cannot do the same in digital format with so much printed music.
A strong case can be made for the inclusion of an initial grade exam, due to the time it often takes can easily be made on account of the time it often takes to reach a solid grade 1 level. It is important that the material available is well written to take account of beginners needs and much that is offered here fulfils that criteria.
This is certainly true of A Marching Tune (A1) by Dorothy Parke and Dodgems (C1) by Alan Bullard, both of which combine musical imagination with fundamental principles of early level co-ordination. Under the Acacia Tree (B2) by June Armstrong also shows a sympathetic regard for keeping hand positions simple yet at the same time musically interesting.
Kabalevsky has always written well for the aspiring young pupil and A Little Scherzo (A6) is a good choice, since it focuses on hands together staccato in simple but achievable changes of five finger hand positions. It will work musically at a variety of tempi.
Pieces which focus on learning to play rhythmically are always welcome. Pauline Hall and Paul Drayton’s Stegosaurus Stomp is one such piece (C4) designed to appeal musically to the imagination and suitable for the practise of good co-ordination and strong tone in hands together playing.
Some of the more lyrical pieces are challenging from the perspective of co-ordination with more of an emphasis on independent finger movement. When this also includes different articulation between the hands at a quick tempo then it will not be easy. Some of the pieces are quite lengthy at this grade level, although that is not a reason for criticism, since different pupils at different ages will have a variety of concentration spans and learning needs, so there is plenty from which to choose.
Not all the repertoire is aimed solely at the younger pianist. Bartok’s Dialogue (A3), for example, is the kind of musically intellectual piece which may well appeal more to the early stage adult beginner, as might Nikki Iles attractive The Elephant Parade (C2) which requires a more sophisticated musical approach with its subtle second beat syncopations.
Duets are always a great way to learn, not least due to the prerequisite to start listening to another part whilst playing your own. This skill is so vital, and Christopher Norton’s Enchanted Castle (B7) gives ample opportunity to explore such things and become immersed in the tonal world of creating beautiful soundscapes. Jane Sebba’s The Grand Waltz (C10) makes use of easy fingering patterns for quick learning and the opportunity to explore some typical waltz shapes and musical phrasing.
Ease of co-ordination is often a steering factor in the choice of pieces at this level. The difference between Anon A Toy (A1) and Mozart’s Minuet in C (A2) is considerable in this regard. Whilst there are plenty of hand position changes in A Toy, the descending five finger motifs are easy enough and when hands play together they share the same articulation. In contrast the Minuet has greater complexity with aspects such as held notes against staccato notes.
That said, both pieces are charming and musically appropriate. Bach’s Choral (A5), whilst a lovely piece, and one with fairly uniform legato playing, has a number of hand position changes and some considerable challenges between the hands.
Gurlitt’s The Chase (B6) may be a sedate or hair raising affair (sometimes within the same performance!), depending on what happens in the exam room although, of course, that never happened during the lesson! One solution is to encourage greater performance awareness - videoing can help - although unexpected outcomes can often happen at this early stage.
A-B-A forms are important structurally but also helpful in lessening the work load. The middle section in Handel’s Gavotte in C (A7) is easy enough and the outer sections are musically rewarding.
Repetition helps the pupil to nail the notes (as the saying goes), especially when there is plenty of sequential passages around, as there are in Helyer’s Haymaking (A8). Turk’s Arioso in F (A9) is a more complex affair which suggests a slightly more sophisticated musical approach if one is going to achieve all its expressive potential.
The rugged nature of the late Renaissance/early Baroque dance often comes with a quick tempo. David Blackwell’s arrangement of Parson’s Farewell (A3) is potentially such a piece. Whilst written here in 4/4, the harmonic momentum is clearly in two and a mm of 72 - 80 to the minim would not be out of place. That also makes sense in taking notice of the instruction to play the repeat indicated for the final eight bars.
Both duets - Dennis Alexander’s Sonatina (A4) and Elsie Wells’ Courante (A10) - give opportunities for ensemble performances, the Sonatina being a little more straightforward perhaps, although the Courante has potential for interesting textures between the players. Both represent an excellent means by which to encourage greater aural awareness, and heightened musical sensitivity.
Miniature delights may be a good way to describe many of the choices in the B list. Alwyn’s The Trees are Heavy with Snow (B5) paints such a beautifully delicate picture and invites so much exploration of tone colour, something at the heart of really expressive playing. It can make all the difference between a performance which is, frankly, rather jarring and one which is so much more endearing.
Take Jessie Blake’s The Little White Cloud (B7), for example. Even with expressive shaping overall, It can still sound opaque and grey if the balance between the hands is less well managed. That sort of detail can make all the difference between a good merit mark and a significantly higher one.
No-one intentionally means to bang out the second beat of the accompaniment in a waltz surely? More likely they may be playing that note with their thumb, or simply have no idea that it sounds like that. Borislava Taneva’s Small Valse (B10) may be more prone to that kind of oversight than other pieces, given the repetitive aspect of the musical ideas and the writing. With good control and sensitivity the performance will be a winner.
Novel effects are always fun to encounter. Down by the sally gardens (B3), arranged by David Blackwell, is such a piece, even if its effects are short lived. The strange echo, obtained by silently holding the left hand chord for the first four bars, soon disappears in favour of a more standard treatment. It’s a lovely arrangement if possibly not the first choice for the younger pupil.
Chee-Hwa Tan’s The Swing (B2) is cleverly written, encouraging the player to feel comfortable with its consistent co-ordination between the hands. No surprises here. The simple hand position shifts take place together and should not prove problematic. The pedal is definitely required at the end, but in terms of tempo the composer encourages you to decide what kind of swing you wish to have.
Schumann’s Melodie (B1) is an old favourite although at grade 1 level it has its musical challenges with its busy left hand constant quaver bass which needs to be the subtle accompanist in terms of tone and dynamics.
Gretchaninov’s Fairy Tale (B8) is also a piece which could so easily sound accented and more plodding than flowing if the player is unaware of their own playing. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score, Friday (B6), is full of expressive detail which will hopefully give rise to sympathetic and musical results.
Duet playing encourages the pupil to know the difference between taking the lead and playing more as accompanist, in the background. Dennis Alexander’s Reflections (B4) is a good choice for that, since the primo part has both roles here. It’s a shame if the teacher ends up playing too loudly in order to encourage a pupil who is a little afraid to really take the lead. So, practice in projection will help a lot here.
Helen Madden’s The Forgotten Forest (B9) is also well written and musically evocative.
Playing fast (rhythmically) often poses problems at the early levels of learning. The same is true when playing in swing, and results can be disappointing. Lajos Papp’s Szöcske (Grasshopper C2) may not appear too fast at mm = 69 until you encounter the parallel 5ths and later the parallel chords. At a higher grade level, when hands sizes have grown and the muscles of the hand become stronger, that kind of technique is easier. Perhaps this is more ideal for older pupils. It is fun.
So is Jazzy Dragon (C8) by Barbara Snow. It is a delightful piece, but few typical grade 1 pianists will be able to make light work of the swing feel here. The kind of rhythmic independence required to play on the and-of-one followed by the and-of-three in the following bar is asking for trouble unless the pupil has a well developed rhythmic co-ordination already. Be prepared to spend plenty of time on rhythmic games ahead of starting to learn the notes.
Straight 8s syncopation is a lot easier, and with the added solid rhythmic support of the teacher playing in the background Jane, Sebba’s Latin Laughter (C7) should certainly bring a smile to both players.
The swing feel in Elissa Milne’s Cockatoo (C1) is relatively straight forward. Nonetheless it is still a good idea to do plenty of rhythmic work through games prior to learning the notes themselves. The notes are not difficult and should slot into place with reassurance if the underpinning groove is internalised. Bar 11 may well be rather less straight forward, compared to bar 7, where both hands play the swing quavers together.
The recurring rhythmic motif in Mike Cornick’s arrangement of Mango Walk (C10) makes it relatively easy to assimilate. It’s a simple, short fun piece which lies readily under the hands.
Ghanaian Tu tu Gbovi (C9), another traditional song, is fairly straight forward in its duet form with no challenging rhythms.
Wrong sounding notes are features of The Frog (C5) by Elias Davidson and help, along with its rhythmic charm, to give a slightly squeamish quality to the character. This will be a winner for some!
Back with nature, Alison Matthew’s Woodland Folk Song duet (C6) is evocative, with its modal harmonies and resident woodpecker.
Creeping around in the dark, so it seems, we come across Pam Wedgewood’s Detective (C3). Presumably he has found something of what he was looking for in the brief louder sequential moment midway. A few momentary references later, to what could be motifs from Piazolla’s Libertango, the detective disappears back into the shadows.
There are clear advantages of playing duets in an exam. In fact you could, if you like, do all three pieces as duets. The added support aside, what better way to encourage the development of listening and ensemble skills - something we pianists experience more rarely than other players?
Carse’s Rustic Dance (A5) is fun and fairly straight forward. Haydn’s Rondino (A7) is more sophisticated and a good introduction to understanding the poise of Classical style.
From the other lists the attractive Raindrop Reflection of Heather hammond (B6) will appeal to many. Ravel’s Pavane de la belle au bois dormant (B7) is a wonderful piece. It gives a much needed opportunity to play the secondo instead of the primo part and is an entrancing introduction into this fairytale world:
The attraction of Brigand’s Dance (C7) is its length and differing musical moods. It gives chance to really get into the piece - something which shorter pieces do not allow. Its quirky harmonies add spice to the imagery here.
The catchy themes in Nikki Iles Sweet Pea (C8) are perfectly proportioned and effectively express the innocence of this piece.
Although we tend to think of the term Alberti bass as a Classical invention, it was in use as early as the 1740s. Domenico Alberti was not the first composer to use it, although he is attributed with its more widespread use. Its importance as a vehicle for creating both movement and a more sustained sound on the early fortepianos (with their distinct lack of resonance) is understandable.
Attwood’s Allegro (A1) gives a good opportunity to learn this kind of left hand technique early on. In the hands of a typical grade 2 player, it is easy for the constant quaver momentum to intrude upon the right hand lyrical lines. One of the challenges is to balance the tone, as well as to achieve an even movement of fingers. Having said that, at this level such things may be the icing on the cake.
Nonetheless this is what adds to the finesse of a performance. Take the charming Bourlesq (A10), attributed to Leopold Mozart, for example. The constant left hand detached crotchet feel is stylish, but even more so when it is lightly played, allowing room for the right hand ideas to dance unencumbered.
His Minuet in D (A9), composed for Wolfgang’s sister Nannerl, makes use of an Alberti bass. Limited harmonies and simple structures help to define the innocence of a piece written as part of a collection of pedagogical materials.
Minuets can also be more sophisticated affairs. As part of a pedagogical publication (for harpsichord), Elisabetta de Gambarini’s Minuet in A (A2) shows frequent use of suspensions and graceful ornamentation in this truly delightful piece.
In contrast, the more robust dance types, such as the Ecossaise in G (A3) by Hässler and the Galop (A8) by Kabalevsky both have playful rhythmic qualities.
The world of the late Renaissance isn’t likely to feature in much shape or form for anyone taking their grade 2 piano. The Corranto - Anon (A4) gives an opportunity to check out recordings of harpsichords on YouTube and gain insight into a world where the modern piano did not exist.
Good finger control and fluency lie at the heart of Goedicke’s short Étude in A minor (A6) - a perfect choice for pupils to improve their playing with evenness of tone.
Imaginative titles are so important and there are plenty of examples of that here. Some live up more to their promise than others. The harmonic ingenuity of Bartok’s Sorrow (B4), could easily go unnoticed unless fully explored through the learning process. Gretchaninov’s tearful Farewell (B5) may take some analysis and creative work for the average pupil to feel they might be able to expressive some of its pathos effectively.
Helen Madden’s The First Flakes are Falling (B1) is a sensitively crafted piece, albeit with plenty to work on in terms of balance between the melodic line and its accompaniment. It requires pedal to bring out its sustained nature fully and would not be a choice for everyone.
Simon Plé’s Le Chant du pâtré (B2) makes the challenge of balance between the hands a much more attainable goal. It’s a great little piece because it has so much in it, not least a chance for the left hand to have its own turn at being centre stage, as the singer.
Living in an age where so much is taken at face value, the art of discrimination is of immense importance. Examination results are based on the degree to which the published criteria are met. With so much on YouTube there is ample opportunity to encourage young players to evaluate their own performance objectively for themselves, and to understand that there are different, not necessarily simply right or wrong ways to play the pieces they are learning.
We can learn from these performances the importance of taking good account of the composer’s tempo indications and also that a performance does not have to be professional to be well communicated and expressive:
Getting away from it all can sometimes feel more lonely that exciting. Postcard from Paris (B10), Sarah Watts’ expressive take on this holiday, is one such viewpoint. Steibelt’s Adagio (B9) gives an opportunity to practice cantabile tone and exercise judicious rubato. Spindler’s Waltz in A minor (A8) is amongst the most attractive pieces here with its simple I-V-I progressions and contrasted middle section. A really lovely piece.
Hywel Davies’ poignant arrangement of O Waly Waly (B3) reminds us of what can be done in quite a minimalist way to capture the essence of a particular tune. Its deceptive simplicity belies a considerable pianistic skill needed to render its character as evocative as that you hear from Anthony Williams (ABRSM Grade 2 playlist). Not only is the balance between hands essential, but the subtle balance of right hand chord tone needs attention if the harmonic shifts and dissonances from such close voicing are to be really magical. Pedal is also vital for the sustained atmosphere.
You know when you've got the real thing. That is true of Nikki Iles playing (ABRSM Gd2 playlist) of Christopher Norton’s Inter-City Stomp (C3) with its taut rhythmic feel. The title may show its age, but the piece is still fresh and inviting in this performance.
Ben Crossland’s brief In My Spot (C4) is all the more compelling for its performance here. It demonstrates how, even at this level, the approach to the playing of jazz influenced pieces benefits from a solid internalised groove, from which the accented kicks add spice and characteristic pleasure to the feel.
Peter Sculthorpe’s ability to capture a certain sense of mystery through his own particular harmonic palette works so well in this simply constructed, expressive piece Singing Sun (C9). Here are opportunities to learn about structure in music as well as to immerse yourself in the art of creating beautiful resonant piano tone.
There is a quirky charm to Giles Swayne’s Whistling Tune (C10) which will appeal to the player interested in something a little different and well written.
Some musicians will tell you that to play Mozart well is quite difficult. It’s the apparent simplicity, the evenness, the poise which comes from seemingly doing nothing, yet clearly doing something. The same is true for Gaudet’s Angelfish (C2), where the idea could not be simpler: a constant uninterrupted carpet of sound bathed in copious amounts of pedal. Like the perfect sauce, it pertains to a velvety smoothness, unctuous and glistening with perfect cohesion.
Nothing could be further from that image than the scatterings of spring hares twitching in the March sunlight. Brian Chapple’s March Hare (C1) captures that image well with its one-in-a-bar alternating 5/8 and 6/8 metre, all gone in a flash.
Statistically the number of children working at this level will be significant. It represents a milestone on the learning journey. Many pupils will have greater confidence and fluency although, of course and in contrast, it could well become more of a watershed moment for others.
As the repertoire makes more challenges of the player this could be the time to take stock of teaching ideas, to consider the means by which we can encourage the desired progression to become more solid, the practice more effective and the learning to still be enjoyable and have sufficient musical interest.
Memorisation can help with learning. Some claim its pursuit decreases the learning capacity for sight reading, although there is no evidence this is the case when related to learning to read the English language as a child.
Repetition and pattern recognition are at the heart of the way we learn. Take Beethoven’s Ecossaise (A1), for example: a series of I-II-V-I progressions form the structure here. We could have a field day with numerous creative forays into learning harmony and theory. Happy Birthday doesn’t have a lot in common with Beethoven’s Ecossaise, but almost all children at this level will know it by memory and should be encouraged to play it on the piano. Why not? It's a great way to connect what is in your head, as an internalised sound, with the keyboard and helps to promote kinaesthetic pathways to learning.
An exploration of Burgmüller’s Innocence (A2) reveals similar fertile ground for getting to grips with simple harmonic progressions and modulation. Fingering patterns, of course, are essential for promoting fluency. Tiny bytes of musical language can become second nature through the games we devise for off-piste exploration and the development of a better finger technique.
Understanding something about harmony will also help the student to know why, for example, Neugasimov’s Moody Gigue (A6) sounds so intriguing with its alternating minor/major tonalities glued together with the upward rising figure of the melodic minor scales. This is what underpins sensitive playing, such as that by Anthony Williams (ABRSM Grade 3 playlist) and distinguishes these meaningful performances from quicker non-descript iterations, many of which can be heard on YouTube.
Sophistication is often at the heart of a composition or a particular performance. Williams’ playing of the Handel Gavotte (A3) is a clear illustration of Baroque elegance. Whilst such beautiful fine bone china is the hallmark of a professional, there is plenty to take away concerning the principles of Baroque touch and phrasing which, when applied, can result in more stylish playing and higher marks in the hands of many capable grade 3 candidates.
Those who like their fayre simple can readily tuck into Weber’s Scherzo (A10) or enlist the services of their teacher to play Hedges Hornpipe (A4) or the arrangement of Prokofiev’s Gavotte (A7) instead.
The tablecloth is laid and the table set, yet the version of what you thought was your favourite dish lacks a little something. Knowing the tune so well can bring disappointment, as well as reward. The lush string tone in certain versions of Elgar’s Salut d’amour (B1), for example, is our musical bubble bath in which to luxuriate:
Achieving anything close to this through the necessarily sparser piano arrangement is somewhat challenging.
She Moved Through the Fair (B10) is essentially a simple reflective modal folk tune. The quirky harmonies in Pauline Hall’s arrangement make for an interesting listen, albeit one which may well appeal to the more sophisticated musician. For anyone who is less familiar with the tune, what better arrangement to quietly dine to than the King’s Singers breathtakingly beautiful version from their 1985 disc of British Folksongs, Watching the White Wheat?
Sara Watt’s Scary Stuff (C3) is a great place to go if you really want to nail that swing groove! Its repetitive nature allows for plenty of additional lesson material to be created, from which the student can gradually become locked into the rhythmic feel, without which the result can be disappointing. Whilst the feel in Alan Bullard’s Disco Baroque (C1) is heavy straight 8s, the same is true. Never mind the neighbours, get stuck in!
It is unlikely that anyone choosing the arrangement of Elton John’s Can You Feel the Love Tonight? (C8) will be other than wrapt in the memory of the original animation, soaking in its emotional atmosphere. Translating that into a successful performance on the piano requires considerable skill and is more likely to appeal to a player who already has a good rhythmic sense and can get around chord playing fairly easily.
Animals of one sort or another seem to be a feature here, what with Disney, Mike Cornick’s Waltz of the Elephants (C6), and Grechaninov’s Hobby-Horse (C2). The latter is a great piece in which to practice neat, rhythmic chord playing and it sounds quite impressive for the relative accessibility of the music.
There are choices of a more esoteric nature, such as Tanaka’s impressionist piece Northern Lights (C10) which may appeal to the colourist and more musically intellectual among students. Equally appealing, and perhaps with a younger audience in mind, is Bober & Goranson’s Rushing River (C5).
That you “cannot see the wood for the trees” might suggest being overwhelmed by the sheer number of notes on the page - something which can lead the pupil to choose what might look or sound like an easier option. One of the great skills of a good teacher is to be able to present the music being learnt in an enticing manner; one which invites the pupil to go home and beaver away because it is exciting to be able to play this piece and not just on account of having to be disciplined.
There is a lot of black print at grade 4! In fact the first relief comes on turning the page to Moonbeams where the more spacious layout gives an immediate sense of greater ease, less rush and perhaps more potential for getting to grips with this particular piece.
That is not a criticism of ABRSM or music publishers. Notation is always a compromise. Having to learn primarily by reading is also a compromise, just as having to learn primarily by listening and copying is a compromise. Learning holistically gives us a better chance of getting to know the piece from many angles and not simply one or two.
As we glance at page 3 and instantly recall “ah yes…that piece…” it is easy to forget that most grade 4 level pupils will not have anything like that response. So where do we start? How do we teach in order to facilitate the most eager and efficient learning?
Bach’s Prelude in C minor (A1) is a great piece to learn. There is a regularity in the patterning which makes for easy memorisation and helps the player to anticipate the co-ordination. Understanding the chordal progressions also helps. Musically, it is fascinating to understand why there are so many left hand Ds - for a total of 16 bars successively at one point. Did he run out of ideas? He does the same then from bars 33 right up to the end. So, what does it do and what is its function? How does it increase tension - this thing called dominant and tonic pedal notes?
Theory will only be dry if it sits in a book on the shelf and never emerges from what we are playing. So, why is the feeling of A minor so strong in Kabelevsky’s Etude (A2)? This is not quite the same effect as a tonic pedal…I-V-I-V-I-V-I-V-I-V….seemingly ad infinitum. Why the “wrong note” (G natural instead of G#) in the right hand? What is the explanation for the use of both G natural and G# in the ascending scale?
How might we teach this piece? How can we encourage questions and greater curiosity?
Are the ascending and descending scale patterns in Madeline Dring’s Scherzando (A7) random? What are the underlying harmonic progressions? Is there anything tangible, or was it written on a whim? Hopefully the more our pupils understand the more they’ll want to learn.
Scherzando appears three times here, albeit also in Allegretto and Allegro forms. We probably feel in safe musical territory with Gurlitt - the well known German exam composer! I wonder if it is just in my imagination that he belongs alongside Gade, Stephen Heller and others in a bound book of ABRSM romantic pieces? To the vast majority of 8 - 14 yr olds who might choose to learn his charming Allegretto scherzando (A8) the name, Gurlitt, will have little significance. Like others, he was a minor composer, but it would be worth time spent getting to know more about his style, what his music has in comparison to other contemporary composers and why it differs so much from composers such as Haydn.
The music is in C major, so how come we end up in D major so soon and where does this lead next? How do you recognise a scherzando when you hear one?
Is it because there is often a lot of staccato in a scherzando? There is in Haydn’s Allegro scherzando in F (A9), especially when played by Yulia Chaplina (ABRSM gd 4 playlist). She’d get a distinction for playing like that surely?! “How is my playing different from hers?” the pupil could helpfully ask. Pitch, time, tone, shape, performance are used as categories for criterion referencing in an exam for good reason. Unless pupils get to know how their own playing sounds then the rate of progress is limited. Wouldn’t it be helpful if they could predict with some accuracy what kind of mark their playing might attract?
If you have only ever heard one particular performance of a piece (that could be your own!) comparison (such a helpful learning tool) cannot exist. Set aside good and bad, and instead focus upon what qualities give a particular performance its life and character. Then break it down further into such components as texture, phrasing, musical direction and so on. Use Youtube for the excellent potential it has:
Different types of Allegro exist too. There’s the assai sort that Beethoven used in the first movement of his Sonatina in F (A5). So why assai? Does it mean very fast, fast enough or what?
Stewart Deas (Beethoven’s Allegro Assai - Music and Letters, Volume 31, Issue 4, October 1950) suggests “the best way to find out what Beethoven meant by allegro assai is to consider the cases in which he used it” - i.e. blow the dust from the crinkled copy of October 1950 and get studying Beethoven’s many scores!
Is this really relevant to Sharon whose exam will hopefully take place just before Easter? Of course not, but what does the music say to Sharon? What is her picture or mental image of this piece? That, surely, is highly relevant?
Why shouldn’t a band that Sara wears on her wrist be called a saraband? That’s not what it meant to Buxtehude (Sarabande A6) but why should Sara necessarily understand the Baroque context just like that. Meaning emanates from experience and unless Baroque Dance is an after school activity there will have to be other ways to interest a typical grade 4 student to aspects of music outside their zone of knowledge.
Heller’s Study in A minor (A10) is a popular, showy piece. Alcock’s Gavot (A4) may put students off due to the amount of ornamentation. However, as it says in the footnote, only the cadential trills in bars 7, 23 & 31 are obligatory. The rest are optional.
Somehow descriptive titles such as moonbeams, sunrise, even La cloche sonne (the bell tolls) seem to resonate more readily than Andante or Valse lente. Having some connection to the music you are playing helps give the practice meaning. There is nothing to stop us delving into the music to find its intrinsic qualities and shape it meaningfully, even if the title is less forthcoming.
You’ll quickly realise when learning Barbara Arens' Moonbeams (B1) that it is the capacity to evoke a dreamy atmosphere which matters most. It has to be pedalled and therefore an understanding of balance between the hands and pedal changes will be essential here.
Walter Caroll’s Sunrise (B5), in contrast, is a bright primary colour affair with plenty of bold chordal rays announcing its burning presence.
Song abounds in many guises, be it the melancholy of Khachaturian’s Little Song (B7) or the unfolding lyricism of Granados’ Dedicatoria (B6) bathed in pools of gentle semiquavers. Mendelssohn’s song was originally crafted for the violin (Concerto in E minor - 2nd movement) and it is a tribute to the skills of arranger, Nicholas Scott-Burt, that it works so well in this rendition - Andante (B9) - even if its appeal may be more prevalent to certain age groups.
Similarly, Schumann’s poignant feelings of first loss (Erster Verlust B3) may not resonate literally with many younger performers, although that is no reason why it could not become a highly expressive and tender interpretation in such pianistic hands.
Exploring the more distant world of Liszt’s La cloche sonne (B8) may well require considerable imagination to achieve the colours and express the particular depth of feeling here.
The innocent Valse lent (B10), by Vaughan Williams, with its slight folk feel and carefree attitude contrasts considerably with its partner, Frank Bridge’s rather more purposeful chromatic Miniature Pastoral (B2) in the guise of a waltz.
Sam Wedgewood’s Shark Soup (C3) is essentially a 12 bar blues with a middle 8, and is a piece well worth playing. It’s worth noting that the groove needs to sound cool not fast. 112 to the crotchet is more laid back than perhaps one might think.
It’s a pity about the inappropriateness of its title and its seemingly blythe association - the cool laid back jazz groove with the brutal practice of shark-finning. Up to 73 million sharks annually are brutally maimed in order to satisfy an ancient tradition which requires just their fins to make soup. Whilst still alive, they are then thrown back into the sea where they are left to suffocate and die, unable any longer to swim.
What are we going to say to the pupil who asks about shark soup?
I hear what you say! Ben Crosland’s gently ambling interpretation of that phrase (C2) is sufficiently appealing to invite the listener. There is always something soothing about a generous amount of subdominant harmonies drifting up to the dominant and back to chord IV again. It's not that such compositional devices lack purpose, but rather that the mood created has a kind of open endless feel, in contrast to a more purposeful harmonic framework such as Prokofiev’s Marche (A8) - something which is more key and cadence oriented.
Titles are interesting because they can tell us a lot, shape the direction of our listening, or can be somewhat random. Labels sometimes tell us about the importance of a dedicatee, as in Arvo Pärt’s Für Anna Maria (C7). In this instance it tells us something about the character of the little girl about to celebrate her 10th birthday. It can be cheerful or contemplative depending, one imagines, of her mood at the time. And how nice to be reminded that there is never only one way to perform a piece.
Bartok, on the other hand, was often so insistent on performance indications, that in some instances exact timings were scribed at the end of pieces in Microcosmos. Teasing Song (C1) from For Children makes sense as a title. One can all too easily imagine a teasing child running around. “Catch me if you can!” - stopping abruptly every now and then, climbing atop walls, getting dangerously too close before flying off again at a different angle. There is much in the score to define how to characterise this piece.
Smithies were once essential to travel, just as garages are today. The Blacksmith’s hammering of red hot metal is so obviously a feature of Maikapar’s At the Smithy (C4) and a fun piece for musical effect.
It would be interesting to invite a young child to draw, colour or paint a picture from the inspiration of listening to Alison Mathews’ Buried Rubies (C5). It’s certainly an evocative piece and gives opportunity for much coloristic treatment, whatever its title means to each individual player.
Martha Meir has written some very appealing blues style pieces and this is certainly one of them - Worrisome Blues (C6). ‘Arm chair blues’ would also be a fair description for the type of piece this genre now elicits, so distantly has it become removed from its more raw origins. That is not to criticise, rather to flag up the importance of historical significance, especially in today’s delicate political climate. Change is inevitable, but knowing the difference between types of music such as blues, pastorals, marches and waltzes etc is what defines our musical history and informs our interpretation.
If you’ve never played in 5 time, give it a go with Stoyanov’s lively Peasant Dance (C9).
With its subtle references to jazz harmonies Bennett’s arrangement of Shenandoah (C10) is a must for those who love this great tune. As often, it is the understatement which becomes so musically enticing: the cool, the nonchalance has its place with abundance here.
I guess it would be fairly true to say that successful piano playing is certainly about learning to understand and convey texture. Without that commitment to improving one's playing musical life can be fairly dull and laborious at this level.
Granted that in some repertoire realisation of texture is more critical to the beauty of performance than in others. Try playing Tchaikovsky’s lovely Reverie (B3) without delineation of melody and accompaniment as the tune shifts between right and left hands. or the careful balance of tone within chords which makes Starry Dome (B2) - such an evocative piece - and you’ll know just how boring and mechanical a piano can sound. These are very much the musical challenges facing much of the repertoire at this, and indeed at all levels.
Burgmüller’s La chevaleresque (A1) relies less on the realisation of texture for its success. The projection of a solid rhythmic feel to the playing with clean, crisp and consistent chord articulation form the headlines here. Changing rhythmic values from quavers, through triplets to semiquavers on the final page present an appropriate challenge at this level.
The oft heard question about how to play this or that ornament can sometimes develop into an impenetrable barrier to learning Baroque pieces. That could be true for Arnes’ Presto (A2) as well as Handel’s Toccata (A3), as well as many others on the list.
However, the key to integrating ornamentation into the playing is to firstly understand and be able to play the piece with a good sense of rhythmic fluency and timing, and, in the case of slower pieces, to have a confident grasp of the lyrical flow without any ornamentation. Its function is to add decoration and expressive subtly to an already confident and musically shaped line.
By learning the Presto in a strong rhythmic fashion you will see that there is very little time for the ‘trill’ to take place and that there are two types of ornamentation - one taking place over a crotchet length and the other over a quaver length. The acciaccatura on quaver beats is best played as two notes together (on the beat) and then separated at a later stage. If inclusion of the suggested figuration over the crotchet beat starts to cause issues with the rhythmic flow, then simply omit them.
Take a similarly judicious view in the Handel. Work out the most important places of ornamentation. These are likely to be the first note, and then the upbeats to the cadence points - all of which can be similarly interpreted. Move from there to add more if you wish (NB - ornamentation is a choice, not a prescription).
Contrapuntal playing has great musical worth, especially when you find an engaging piece, such as Bach’s F major Invention (A4). There are so many creative ways to engage with and learn this piece, that it should never become a chore - rather a challenge to invent yet another way to practice the music and play with the interlocking patterns.
Krebs is not necessarily a well known composer for many students. As a performer he gained a huge reputation, but his works were largely unpublished until much later. His style of writing is engaging and virtuosic for the grade. Listen to this poised performance of his Toccata in Eb (A9) by a young student:
The charming galant style of Hummel’s Allegro (A8) is beautifully expressed in the performance here:
Whilst a little lengthy, it has plenty of appropriate challenges for the aspiring student.
The breadth of choice in the B list is substantial. For the more sophisticated musician, and possibly the curious adult student, the chromatic twists and turns in Mompou’s La barca (B8) provide a musically challenging journey of discovery, exquisite and perhaps musically remote as it is. As with so much Spanish piano music Alicia de Larrocha was a supreme interpreter:
Such music demands the acquisition of that solemn depth of feeling and a willingness to steep oneself in the sheer emotion which the soul of Iberia evokes - something which remains also a challenge for Granados’ La huérfana (B5), albeit somewhat less musical complex than the Mompou.
Pachulski’s Prelude in C minor Op 8 No 1 (B9) and Massenet’s Melodie (B7) are opportunities to explore the piano’s singing tone, although care needs to be taken to avoid too slow a tempo in both these pieces, since over-indulgence can easily lead to playing which the performer believes is rather special whereas, in reality, the momentum has become too self-indulgent to sustain the line in a meaningful way.
Further melancholy comes in Richard Rodney Bennett’s Little Elegy (B4) and Heller’s Study in E minor (B6), but perhaps the jewel in the crown comes in the form of Schumann’s No 1 from Kinderscenen (B10). As often with Schumann, it can easily sound ordinary - accurate, shaped and with expression. However, the musical quest here is to transcend the various technical hurdles of texture and enter that extraordinary imagination going on in an innocent child’s world:
Grade 5 maybe, but let’s never forget the world of musical imagination and its transformational power:
“I love how he leaves the last chord unresolved. Because this struggle is unfinished and its future is uncertain...” So says a commentator to Einaudi’s own YouTube performance of his Elegy for the Arctic (C8).
That he speaks to millions of young pianists who love to play his music and who can more readily identify with this than, say, Bartok’s Winter Solstice Song (C6) (a wonderful piece in its own way) says something about Einaudi’s music and the spirit it evokes.
Whether or not you find the video filming corny or the piece simple is not the point. We all find something that touches us (call it a sense of spirituality if you wish) in our own way. It is unhelpful to compare Einaudi's style of writing with others, just as it is unwelcome to cast doubt on a student’s choice of music. This may well draw plenty of children onto a path of musical joy, and why not?
On the subject of nature, Alwyn’s The Sea is Angry (C5) sounds impressive yet lies under the hands easily and is likely to beckon the young aspiring virtuoso:
“What would you like to do next?”
Perhaps if, as a fourteen year old, the answer to that question was known, it would not need asking. Swept along by the unremitting momentum of school terms and what can seem like endless tasks queuing up for homework, how do we expect that they will find fresh time and space to freely give up an hour for piano practice?
The chasm between schooling at a specialist music school and ordinary day or boarding school is so very wide. Having reached a level of relative proficiency many young pianists do find a special musical place for themselves by immersing themselves in piano renditions of their favourite songs. Music often means a lot to them, even if it is not through immersion in the music of Giovanni Battista Pescetti or Handel.
Black and white thinking here is not helpful. There are plenty of attractive pieces that may entice students to a balanced musical diet which also include one or two (as they may see it) really good classical pieces to learn. Pieces such as C.P.E.Bach’s Solfeggietto in C minor (A4) with its toccata like cascade of notes; Chopin’s Mazurka in G minor (B1); Martha Mier’s Opening Night Jazz (C1) or Nikki Iles East Coast Blues (C8).
What better way to retain motivation and momentum than a mix of activities and musical experiences, perhaps combining what they want to do with pieces they would really like to learn, without necessarily having to take the exam (what with everything else and the whole commitment of supporting tests etc).
Is it always necessary to learn a piece to its final polished state, ready for performance? Might a lot not be gained by dabbling in several pieces at once, learning as much as you fancy, discarding what you find hard, then moving on? Myopia and tunnel vision can so easily arise from too much adherence and unquestioning reverence for what is deemed to be the only path.
Counterpoint can appear drab and it can be fascinating too. It comes down to what we understand it to be. Bachs’ Invention No. 6 in E (A5) reminds me of Escher’s graphic artwork with its play on perspective.
Bach’s play on ascending and descending scale patterns with their syncopated rhythms, sequential patterning and inversions is similarly fascinating from a structural perspective. This is a wonderful example of creative two part counterpoint, a very useful introduction if this is a first time, and rather necessary if a full blown three or four part fugue is to come at a later stage.
Handel’s counterpoint (Fantasia in A - A8) is of a different kind, in a more lively framework and is not too challenging either.
Decorative counterpoint in both hands can be challenging on account of the complexities of co-ordination which it requires. Scarlatti’s Sonata in A (A10) gives the perfect stepping stone to more complex counterpoint at a later grade level. The left hand steady crotchet beat forms the foundation for beautiful lyrical right hand lines which embellish the structure with sometimes surprising harmonic twists and turns.
If blatant virtuosity is your thing then go for Burgmüller’s dashing piece: Velocity (A6). It’s not that easy a piece, but compared to Carl Nielsens’ Snurretoppen (A3), which is in similar vein, it is perhaps musically more appealing, and easier to pronounce!
Well controlled, fluent finger work is the hallmark of successful playing in all the repertoire here. Depending on the needs of the student there is a choice between the more grounded virtuosity of Haydn’s Finale (A9), the eloquence of Mozart’s Allegro (A2) and the more facile, though musically buoyant lines of Pescetti’s Allegro (A1).
Although a capable keyboard player, Cimarosa was better know as an opera composer. His Allegro (A7) is charming and graceful, full of character, wit and delicacy, as if calling up the many varied characters in his operatic cast.
Both Debussy and York Bowen were of a similar age when they wrote their respective pieces - Page d’Album (B2) and A Pastel (A4), although the compositions themselves are separated by over 30 years. Whilst Debussy’s miniature has references to those wounded in the first world war, the composition itself, along with Bowen’s, gives little hint of anything other than a sense of pastoral bliss, albeit rather more chromatic and tinged with interesting harmonic nuance in Page d’Album than A Pastel. Both are very worthwhile pieces to get to know.
Whilst in countryside mood There was a Most Beautiful Lady (B9) by Herbert Howells shows little nostalgia, yet a gentle acknowledgement of the youthful energy and freedom of spirit which characterised this particular person: someone remembered with quiet affection as the modal wanderings of the music come to their conclusion with a reflective inner smile on the final tonic major chord.
More straight forward diatonic landscapes can be found in Hartmann’s lyrical Nocturne (B7) - a perfectly pleasing fire side piece.
Stephen Hough’s Little Lullaby (B8) has some similarities with Schumann’s Child Falling Asleep (Kinderscenen). The flow is held together through the repetition of a two note sighing figure, through its diatonic opening and subsequent chromatic iterations, climbing slowly into the higher reaches of the treble as drowsiness finally succumbs to the moment of falling into that other world, half way through a modulation and suitably unresolved.
Colours often spring to mind. That is true of Gliere’s Prelude in Db (B6) with its gently flowing rainbows, each one slightly different from the last as the music travels through various keys and alights on some magical chords along the way. It simply wouldn’t be the same in D major!
Gliere’s Prelude could not be more different from Dello Joio’s Prayer of the Matador (B5) with its melancholy and hesitant habanera rhythms underpinning the flow:
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, Tertullian once wrote. Without blood there is no faith, no resurrection, no salvation….What I did not expect to discover during my two hours at the bullring is the deeply Catholic nature of bullfighting, the way the ritual echoes the sacrifice of the Mass.” (Angela Alaimo O’Donnell)
And, in turn, its ritual could be no further from the pleasantries of the 19th century salon where sentimentality was no bad thing. Chopin’s Mazurka in G minor (B1) will undoubtedly be a far more popular piece, although it shares, on some level, the agility of the matador - not for reasons of escape but for deftness of a different kind: that of gentility and buoyancy - characteristic of the dance itself. There is no better reason for redundancy of the metronome once having satisfied yourself that you can play the left hand accurately and in time with it!
Johanna Senfter’s Erster Schmerz (B3) may not be everyone’s go to piece when identifying their loss (of first love). Hers is steeped in chromaticism and complication too, the intermingled inner melodic lines struggling for prominence in bars 17 - 24. It harkens back to earlier 19th century Romanticism and certainly shows her teacher’s (Reger) influence.
If you are of the mind that “we’d rather just choose all C list pieces,” then why not? Just don’t do the exam! There’s a great selection here, and with sufficient stylistic variety to learn a lot and enjoy the process very much too.
If you are the sensitive type, then what better than to learn Karen Tanaka’s Lavender Field (C3)? It makes a welcome re-appearance as an exam piece. The musical challenge is to create a shape within the relative stillness of textures, whilst not allowing the leaps in the left hand to distract or perturb the wonderful tableaux created.
At the opposite end of the spectrum (pardon the pun!) is the tonal mess deliberately created in Stephen Montague’s Tsunami (C9). It’s a disturbing piece, and so it should be. It’s noisy yet there are darker more distant corners of this storm. It’s not nice, and the upheaval in such a brief time span shows us just how powerful music can be.
A more genteel View from a Window (C6) comes in Ben Crossland’s piece with its catchy theme and pleasant harmonies. Leonard Bernstein’s affection For Stephen Sondheim (C4) shows a maturity of composition. It’s a piece which makes all the more sense if you can pick out some of the tunes to which he alludes.
Off the wall is Malcolm Arnold’s swash buckling The Buccaneer (C2). This also makes its reappearance and reminds us perhaps of that somewhat benign, rather silly, though fetching cartoon character of the 1970s, Captain Pugwash! Arnold’s character was not far removed from that either, with a certain cantankerous element to some of his writing, not to mention his life. As with the Pugwash cartoons, the key is not to take things too seriously. This is not a masterpiece, but perhaps its caricature is!
There is a different kind of more innocent fun to be had in Casella’s Galop Final (C5). Emboldened themes adorn the pathway with splashes of chordal colour as the finishing line is reached.
Popularity seems to be a theme in this syllabus as another re-appearance is seen in Paul Harvey’s Rumba Toccata (C7). A study in rhythmic clarity and repeated note technique, it is nonetheless a dazzling piece at this grade level, worthy of its title.
Line and phrasing are everything in music. There could be no better illustration of that here than in Nikki Iles (ABRSM Gd 6 playlist) characteristic playing of Martha Meir’s Opening Night Jazz (C1). Of course it swings - she’s a pro! - but listen to the way the phrasing flows along with tits many subtleties. Her own East Coast Blues (C8) is pure joy with its inimitable class and demonstration in how to play with real jazz flair.
If your interest is more in the taut rhythmic classical grooves of composers such a Prokofiev, then Cortège de sauterelles (C10) has much to offer with rhythmic discipline to be gained through its march of clockwork grasshoppers with their taut dotted rhythms.
Where better to begin than with a piece few are ever likely to learn to play and one which was not written for the piano anyway! Rameau’s Les sauvages (A9) may well go unnoticed for the majority of young pianists, but take a moment to listen to this gem of a piece, and to ponder on its success on a modern piano.
In comparison that makes Paradies’ Allegro (A8) feel like a grade 4 or 5 piece! The Allegro makes a re-appearance, is a fun piece to learn and lies easily enough beneath the fingers.
Amongst the other pieces written primarily for the harpsichord comes Telemann’s Vivace (A3). As we’ve seen with Sokolov’s virtuosic performance, the key to characterising music of this period is to have a healthy feel for the harmonic structure and a varied range of suitable articulation with which to define the motifs:
Some common questions often asked are “how should this or that be played?” “Will my candidate get penalised if they omit the ornamentation?” “Surely you shouldn’t use pedal in Bach?” There can be no single definitive answer. You could say that all music tells a story. How you tell the story will be an individual thing, but a story must be told. Otherwise it is just a sequence of notes.
Unlike Norton’s Pop Bossa (C10) or Hongjin’s Cradle Song (B3), Scarlatti’s Sonata in E Kp 380 (A10) has no such defined mood - the interpretation can be quite varied.
Here are two rather different versions:
Both tell their own stories. Use of pedal is a subjective decision - whereas the marking criteria concerns itself with objective aspects of the performance. So what works and what doesn’t work in music (as an art, not a science, or something requiring binary choices)?
Take Bach’s Sinfonia in B minor (A1): the rate of harmonic change is one in a bar, and would be partly responsible tor explaining why Andras Schiff’s interpretation, albeit at the very top end of tempo, sounds buoyant and why Charles Owen’s performance (ABRSM grade 7 playlist), at the bottom end of tempo, sounds very much more earth bound. Demi-semiquaver notation in such a context suggests virtuosity rather than decoration. It’s helpful to bear in mind the editorial nature of metronome marks in music from this period. These are advisory (as well as being subjective), rather than prescriptive.
The marking in Mozart’s first edition of his Gigue in G K.574 (A6) is Allegro. However, this is the kind of dance which already defines certain parameters of acceptable tempo.
C.P.E.Bach’s Allegro di molto (A4) with its frequent dialogue of semiquavers and changes of mood makes for interesting listening and is a robust and engaging piece. It needs energy in order to satisfy the di molto indication.
After its dotted introduction, Kuhlau’s Allegro con spirito (A6) alternates an appealing lyricism with broken chord virtuosity and makes for a satisfying and fairly lengthy learn.
In contrast, Haydn’s Moderato (A5) is a more poised, gentler affair. There is some detailed ornamentation to negotiate and it may be in the more lyrically eloquent moments that most challenge is found. The scalic patterns lie easily enough under the fingers and is a reminder of how quickly learning can happen when such fundamentals are established and the challenges on the page simply there for the picking.
The same is true for parts of Beethoven’s Bagatelle in Eb (A2), which is essentially a feast of embellishment over mainly tonic and dominant harmonies.
Both Mendelssohn siblings, Fanny and Felix, top the bill here. There are some delightful harmonic twists and turns in Hensel’s (Fanny’s married name) Melodie (B5) compared to the perhaps more diatonic landscape of Felix’s Song without words (B8). Nonetheless the E major is perhaps one of the favourites of the collection.
Two textures predominate in Alan Bullard’s lovely Prelude No. 9 (B4), a rippling lyrical theme interspersed with a chordal prayer-like theme. More introspective in mood are Liszt’s Consolation No 5 in E (B6) with its enquiring lines and poetic inflections, and Schumann’s Kind in Einschlummern (B10) where the tired and perhaps slightly fractious young child’s mood becomes more calm as the music changes from minor to major, before the child falls asleep half way through the final phrase which never reaches its intended cadence.
A rather more exotic cradle song is heard in Ni Hongjin’s Cradle Song (B3). The lush F# major harmonies, tinged with occasional chromatic nuances, paint a peaceful scene. There are no indications for changes of tempo whatsoever, not even a hint of rit at the very end. One could argue that the reason for this is that its stillness arises from the constant hypnotic quaver momentum of the left hand, and that to indulge in lots of rubato significantly changes the idea of the piece into a more overtly romantic image.
The composer’s intention is not known and therefore there is room for either interpretation. Whether or not the final bar of the right hand, where the lower C double sharp (D natural) is not cancelled out in favour of a resolution to the tonic major chord, is a misprint or not is open to question, given the musical context. Without clarification either ending seems perfectly plausible.
There is little lee way for any musical misunderstanding in Grieg’s Sarabande (B2), where the score contains liberal amounts of expressive markings and tempo changes. Sensible suggestions for taking inner part notes with the right hand abound. Be certain to play the mordents on the beat, so that they sound less harsh and clipped than if played ahead of the beat. Where chords are deliberately spread plenty of time can be taken. The F natural which appears in bar 29, for example, is a lovely moment and there is no need to rush through such passages. Think of the sustained orchestral sounds which might help to create the right kind of lengthy, stretched-out feel with expressive power and rubato to match.
The idea of story telling and improvising can help to free up the mind after hours of practice where each expressive manoeuvre can become rather more predictable than spontaneous. This is true in Faure’s Andante moderato (B1) where the music moves in waves of sound. Sometimes the waves can be short lived, but if the rubato becomes formulaic and repetitive then longer lines are not realised and the musical structure can feel somewhat compromised. The dolce, at the end, gives permission for lingering so that the effect of the transition from C# minor into the tonic major is a welcome moment of sunlight and repose.
Questions about line are very much present in all repertoire and in Lyadov’s Mazurka in F minor (B7) are just as relevant. A constant excessive bar by bar rubato can be distractive whereas there is a need to feel the 3 in a bar Mazurka character with sufficient length to the line. This is something which Russian pianist, Vladimir Sofronitsky, does with style in this old recording:
A gentle uncomplicated expressive flow is ideal in pieces like Richardson’s Lento moderato (B9). Dinara Klinton’s interpretation (ABRSM gd 7 playlist) makes this particularly effective, and renders both the playing and the piece all the more memorable for it.
Madeline Dring features several times over the entire syllabus and her Pink Minor (C1) is an attractive piece in jazz style. It could be that her dotted notation is meant to equate to swing feel…or not. Whichever way it is played, consistency of groove and timing is important.
The cocktail hour arrives in style with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (C8). The loose ballade feel breaks into a swing section later and the jazz harmonies breathe an evening warmth amid the exchange of laughter and intimate conversations.
Bright lights all the way for Christopher Norton’s Pop Bossa (C10)! Bright and cool - if that’s not a contradiction. The forte tone should never be hard. The mood is light and dancy. Care is needed to ensure a taut rhythmic grasp. There are plenty of opportunities in the buzzing momentum of this piece for slipping the beat and losing the accuracy of its constant groove through a slight misplacement of offbeat rhythms. Time to work with the metronome, using it not just in crotchet tempo, but in minim tempo on 1st and 3rd beats, and also 2nd and 4th beats.
Although she did not study with Messiaen, Florentine Mulsant’s Prélude No 14 (C9) seems to bear his influence as well as others of the 20th century French school. It is a striking and evocative piece which is well worth learning for the musically curious.
Although with a very different type of harmonic language, whatever reasons lay behind Ginastera’s dedication in Tribute to Roberta Garcia Morillo (C6), this is no picnic, as we say! It's almost like constant gunfire as it ricochets off the concrete walls of a violent inner cityscape. The pounding bass octaves, the smoke and the debris shocks, just as the immediacy of horror is come and gone in a flash. Utterly brutal.
Technically it is not a difficult piece, is easy to co-ordinate and sounds impressive.
Whilst it would have been good to hear more of the pounding left hand octaves here this young performer otherwise really captures the spirit of the music in her determined playing:
...and how lovely to witness that sense of pride at the end of her performance!
Grovlez’ hunting scene (Chanson du chasseur C7) is much more of a social affair with its horn calls to action and nostalgic mood. The harmonic language is a more restrained kind of excitement at play here.
Harmonic language is certainly one element which defines a composer’s style. In Bartok’s Bagpipers (C4) it is a gritty mix of what is known in contemporary jazz parlance as the lydian dominant - https://www.learnjazzstandards.com/blog/learning-jazz/jazz-theory/play-modes-melodic-minor-scale/. This occurs as an ascending melodic minor scale of A but played from D. The drone of the bagpipes are heard in the left hand.
Elements of pentatonic and atonal harmony combine to form a contemporary Asian feel to Chen Yi’s Bamboo Dance (C5).
Rhian Samuel’s The Therapy of Moonlight (C3) etches cold icicles and emptiness. This lunar frost is at the very distant edge of the galaxy, expunging any sense of wonder and entrancement. A real antidote to Debussy’s Clair du Lune.
Our love for animals has seen so many iterations through music. Apart from its intrinsic appeal, Ibert’s Le petit âne blanc C2) is a great piece for working on independence of hands and control of touch between the constant left hand trotting semiquavers and the more prominent motifs of the right hand.
“The little white donkey, I met for the first time in Southern Tunisia, near the oasis of Nefta. It was ridden by a scruffy kid, but handsome like a young god, carefree, a pomegranate flower in his teeth, at a steady, nonchalant trot of his mount. You will find the monotonous step of the little donkey in question, his capricious stopping, his untimely braying and slow under the atmosphere of a hot morning on the borders of the desert.”
(Laederich, Alexandra. Catalogue de l’oeuvre de Jaques Ibert (1890-1962). Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1998.)
Depending on your perspective, Grade 8 is the goal after which you will retire from piano exams, or a truly celebratory juncture, or the beginning of an exciting, further trajectory. It is understandable why many may reach this point on the mountain slope and wonder whether the summit is achievable. It might be a little disingenuous to coax people on to do grade 8 if there are clear reasons why attainment will likely not be achieved, yet the possibility of success at Grade 8 remains tempting as a validation for all those years of diligent practice.
Motivation comes in many guises. Way behind, in the foothills of earlier grades, we may be well placed, as teachers, to entrench ourselves in every possible means of selling the music, the invention, the fun, the emotion and the creative aspects to our pupils. Intrinsic motivation is the gold dust we hope for when teaching Grade 8, even if not every student will find it.
We can, as teachers, make the Grade 8 journey easier for our students by ensuring that they have the necessary rigour of a reasonable technique and sufficient breadth of musical understanding already in place. Without this, much of the upward trudge is through an arid landscape of notes with increasing exhaustion and lack of understanding, sapping away the last vestiges of motivation. Such dogged climbers can and do arrive at the summit, but find that there is no view. Relief replaces struggle, that chapter in life is closed.
Having a keen aural awareness is responsible for students' speed and accuracy of learning new pieces. It informs their perception of expressivity, style and phrasing. Discrimination lies at the root of successful learning because it enables musical decisions to be taken early on during the learning process, making learning more efficient and ultimately promoting success.
Take a glance at pages 3 and 4 of Bach’s C minor Fantasia (A1). Unless you are already familiar with this piece or have excellent reading ability this collection of dots on the page is meaningless. Knowing our destination - what the piece sounds like - gives us the opportunity to read the map (in this case the score) and thus take on board the necessary detail.
Listening to the wonderful set of recordings in the ABRSM Grade 8 playlist will both inspire and frighten. Frighten, perhaps, on account of some of the sheer audacity of tempi. Igor Pogorelich’s Haydn (A2), for example, bounces off the walls with the nimbleness of a youthful genius whose playground normality is the kind of place few of us will ever visit. Víkingur Ólafsson’s virtuosic whirlwind performance of Rameau’s Les Cyclopes (A9) reveals a similar penchant for dazzling musical excitement. If, like me, you have an aversion to daring theme park riding, then instead simply get your kicks by staying at home and listening to this kind of spectacular, high class entertainment!
Around the corner is the more genteel set of Variations from Mozart’s Sonata K331 (A8). In Classical vein, it is easy to discern Haydn’s influence on Maria Anna Martinez's sonata movement (A7) with its elegant, lyrical quality of keyboard writing. What a shame that it sounds as if they hadn't bothered to tune the piano before recording! It is sad that fortepianos have that reputation since they are often well in tune, but not necessarily up to modern A = 440 pitch. The quality of tone lacks anything like the resonance of contemporary instruments to which we are accustomed, hence our misplaced perception of a clapped out old thing in the corner, gathering dust.
Composers like Scarlatti, on the other hand, were luckier in that the instrument they mainly used had become well established for music of the day. The harpsichord, with its brittle yet clear tone, made for exciting virtuosity in its toccata-like moments, yet lacked the sustaining power and lyricism at our disposal on today’s finest pianos. Marry this up with the wonderful Mikhail Pletnev and you are in for a rare treat. His playing of Sonata in D Kp 443 (A10) shows us the importance of understanding Scarlatti’s almost operatic musical gestures, in order to inject true character and meaning into the music. A feast of great delicacy and infinite poise.
In comparison, Clara Schumann offers us warmth by the winter fire in her Prelude & Fugue in Bb (A3) with its pleasingly chromatic, lyrical amble across just two pages of print. Gentle and unassuming, but lovely music nonetheless.
When we talk about accessibility, the cynic in us says, bluntly, “you mean easier!” It’s a pity that our perception might be so slanted. Whether you are a competition-winning youngster who can play with virtuosic ease or an ordinary kid who enjoys playing a different kind of grade 8 repertoire, there is the choice to accommodate you both in this syllabus.
The virtuosity in Bach’s Prelude (from Prelude & Fugue) (A4) is of the easier kind. It lies comfortably beneath the fingers, and asks of the player a freedom for some rotary technique; they are then well off the starting blocks and almost into the home strait. The fugue, like all fugues, has its challenges, but is within the grasp of anyone aspiring to be a grade 8 pianist.
Handel’s keyboard style is akin to the richness and strength which you get from a sturdy piece of mahogany furniture fashioned into an antique heirloom. A thing of beauty, solid, unquestionably well structured and often exquisitely turned. His Prelude and Fuga (A6), from his keyboard suite no 8, fits that bill perfectly. Density of texture is a feature in the prelude, as is the somewhat angular chromaticism. This is substantial music which requires attention to detail and a bold musical outlook.
Beethoven’s Op 14 No 1 1st movt (A5) has often been a favourite at this level, combining a lyrical, quasi-Romantic approach with more exciting keyboard virtuosity.
The Golden Era
Given the sheer quantity and breadth of music written for the piano (or keyboard) is there any point in suggesting such a thing? Romantically - yes!
The great Romantics, as composers and pianists (in the concert sense), flourished for almost a century from Chopin and Liszt, through Brahms and many others to Rachmaninov, well into the 20th century. Whilst no Liszt is included, fifty percent of this section contains choices from mainstay composers.
The choice of pieces is weighted towards the intimate and tender side of the Romantics, the more bravura elements veiled in the perfumed poetry of Poulenc’s sublime, yet musically elusive Novelette (B3), and momentarily in the chromatic climaxes of John Ireland’s equally niche, though rich, pianism (Columbine B6).
This is very much a grown-ups list, requiring young performers to imagine themselves so much older, immensely the wiser, to bear the weight of life’s grief and solitude and to bring such experienced insights to fruition. Late Brahms (B1), wonderfully nuanced as it is (and must be in performance if it is to mean anything), may well be the preserve of only the more mature candidate.
The world of inner pain, personal tragedy, mingled with moments of sweet nostalgia, may not be the ideal choice for many students here, beautiful as In the Mists (B7) may be. Janacek was an organist primarily, not a pianist. So what is he striving to achieve emotionally and musically through the medium of the piano? There are plenty of insights here (between 17.00 - 33.00)
Chopin was the pianist’s pianist and composer! His haunting A minor Mazurka (B5) extends its welcome to all who might be stirred by its Romantic spirit, melancholy mixed with warmth, optimism and always a graceful sense of musical poetry.
If copious decoration is your thing, then Arensky’s Nocturne (B4) has plenty of it. The repetitive theme benefits from the filigree finger work which colours each iteration. A challenging, though charming, piece.
The capacity for independence of hands and the propensity to create textures of different tonal and dynamic levels is the key to success in Rachmaninov’s Moment Musicaux in Db (B8) here. The warmth of this music, with its lyrical right hand lines and velvety left hand accompaniment, needs releasing through such technique, just as the perfect loaf will be airy and light, not dense and unappetising!
The same is true for Schubert’s Impromptu in Ab (B9) and Schumann’s Romanze in F# (B10). The Schubert, in particular, provides an excellent musical environment within which to practice the importance of balancing chords with a cantabile top note line. Careful pedalling is a must in the middle section to provide sufficient warmth but without blurred overlapping of harmonies.
The much vaunted thumb technique (whereby the right hand thumb produces an inner melodic line) was the news of the day in Liszt and Thalberg’s time, both using it to what was then new musical effect. Much of the technique in the Schumann Romanze requires this. The composer’s indications semplice and einfach suggest a simplicity and stillness to the interpretation, something achieved with beautifully understated eloquence in Konstantin Semilakov's performance:
The lightweights are Hopekirk’s Air (B2) and Poulenc’s Novelette in E minor (B3) in comparison to the drawn curtains, angst and inner solitude of so much of the other repertoire here. With the window thrown wide open it allows us to breathe in freshly the innocent expressive mood in Hopekirk’s lyrical style. Poulenc’s offering is on an altogether different level with its inimitable Gallic charm, the harmonic twists and turns, so typical of his style, at once opulent and inviting, suave and nuanced. Who can resist the temptation to enter his world and bathe (literally - baigné de pedales) in the rich and ambivalent landscape of his harmonic world. Olof Hansen gives us insights into that indefinable quality that makes Poulenc’s music so typically French:
The C list certainly feels as if it has something for everyone:
from the elegant sophistication of Chaminade’s Pierette (C4) where Bas Verheijden captures, with ease, the capricious mood of the salon, its fun, its chattering ambience;
to a different kind of vigour which infects Bartok’s Rondo (C1). Perhaps more stomping than flying, though nonetheless it is important to observe the quick metronome markings where possible, to achieve that exciting effect, such as the dash towards the end at Allegro molto (160 to the crotchet). A suitable effect can be obtained at slower tempi if the phrasing and rhythmic co-ordination is really taut.
If you have a big piano then why not make the most of it? Open the windows, let rip and thoroughly enjoy yourself…although you never read that advice here! Christopher Norton’s Jingo (A2) is a no-nonsense romp, but it is not all fortissimo. The one critical element here (apart from not taking it too fast) is the solid, pounding rock feel and unshakeable co-ordination.
Thunder storms in China are elegant affairs, according to Chen Peixun’s Thunder in Drought Season (A5) - although perhaps this is more of a prayer for the rains to come. The level of detail and dynamic observations are the make or break elements here.
Both Debussy’s Rêverie (C6) and Sculthorpe’s Snow, Moon and Flowers (C3) look inward, a little nostalgically in the Debussy, yet more like a beautifully-proportioned porcelain ornament in Sculthorpe’s music. It’s worth remembering the cusp of change which defines the period when Debussy was writing this in 1890. It harkens backwards to Romanticism, but looks forward, too. Dinara Klinton’s performance (C6 - ABRSM Grade 8 playlist) perfectly captures that understated yet expressive mood through her pianistic skill in a vividly-coloured performance which invites many replays.
In a different, though equally skilful way, Mei Yi Foo (C3 - ABRSM Grade 8 playlist C3), invites us to gaze on this object of beauty as something rather special, untouchable, frozen in time as it were. If we are simply still, then listen, we hear the quiet textures unfold with an almost Taoist mesmerisation, something achieved through such detailed observation of the many subtle indications one needs to be attentive to in the score.
Further afield, in the West, the imaginary evening prayers have taken on an almost cubist feel with their angular harmonies, distant bells and melee of what could possibly be birdsong in some distant deserted ruin. Cécile McDowell’s Vespers in Venice (C9) is certainly an interesting piece which could fascinate the more curious, advanced student.
By contrast, Khachaturian’s Toccata(C7) is an old favourite. What aspiring pianist doesn’t like to impress their friends? The outer sections lie very comfortably under the hands, and the bold and relentless forging of momentum creates plenty of excitement, especially if the tempo is controlled and the beast harnessed, rather than wild. The filmic interlude in the middle calls for oodles of smoochy passion. Certainly a piece to woo your supporters!
It grows on you is the kind of comment composers might understandably shun but, like that initial moment when you look at a 20th century canvas in the gallery and are struck by something, but do not yet know how to put it into words, our senses are lit and we are attracted to spend more time with this creation. So it feels with Uwe Korn’s Caballos Españoles (C8).
The sparkling kaleidoscopic colours in Villa-Lobos’ O polichinelo (C10) are within many a pianist’s grasp at this level. As with Khachaturian’s Toccata, the notes lie comfortably under the hands and, provided the technique is free from unnecessary tension, all is set to enjoy a breathtaking and exciting ride of seemingly impressive, high-wire virtuosity. It doesn’t have to go this fast, but needs its excitement and energy. Notice the very free and unhindered way in which Rubinstein plays this piece: