Pieces to Play – ABRSM Highlights

Are you looking for a few ideas for some new pieces to learn? Or are you a teacher searching for interesting pieces for a student? In our new Pieces to Play series we will be featuring a selection of works to provide you with some ideas and inspiration. These will include links to resources with tips and suggestions for each work.

Instalments in this series will be published on our blog, and you can get updates from our mailing list. We hope that this series will give you some interesting ideas for what to learn next and perhaps introduce you to some exciting new discoveries!

Highlights from the ABRSM Syllabus

We’ve recently embarked upon an ambitious project to create a detailed collection of guides to the pieces in the new ABRSM syllabus. The first instalment in this series kicks off with some highlights from the syllabus at the late elementary (grades 3 and 4) and intermediate levels (grades 4 to 6).

Even if you’re not preparing for an examination, the new syllabus contains a curated selection of graded pieces, many of which are open domain and therefore freely available online. Exploring this rich and varied collection of works is highly recommended as you are bound to find some delightful additions to your repertoire!

JS Bach – Prelude in C minor (BWV 999)

Grade 4

bach pieces to play
Caravaggio: The Lute Player

Originally written for the lute, this piece is based on a harmonic progression that Bach opens out into figuration (we find one texture throughout). It makes an ideal preparatory piece for the C major and C minor Preludes (from Book 1), constructed in similar ways.

Click here for links to the full video walk-through, open domain score and a Spotify recording of this work.

Ecossaise in E-Flat (No. 4 from Six Ecossaises, WoO 83)

Grade 3

beethoven eccosaise in e-flat

This lively Scottish dance by Beethoven looks rather square on the page, but in fact it requires rhythmic flexibility (as well as elegance and grace) to bring it to life.

Click here for links to the full video walk-through, open domain score and a Spotify recording of this work.

Burgmüller – Innocence (No. 5 from 25 études faciles et progressives, Op.100)

Grade 3

A study in delicacy of touch and articulation, tonal balance between the hands and scale patterns in the upper register, Innocence gives plenty of scope for understanding harmony and developing musical as well as technical skills.

Click here for links to the full video walk-through, open domain score and a Spotify recording of this work.

Chopin – Mazurka in G minor (Op. 67 No. 2)

Grade 6

This delightful entry-level mazurka in G minor, written in the last year of Chopin’s life (1849) is a great choice for the intermediate player who loves Chopin but who isn’t quite ready for the bigger works.

Click here for links to the full video walk-through, open domain score and a Spotify recording of this work.

Sergei Prokofiev – Tarantella (No. 4 from Musiques d’enfants, Op. 65)

Grade 5

play prokofievs tarantella

Prokoviev’s Tarantella is one of the best examples of this type of dance piece, featuring spinning patterns in both hands and plenty of quirky harmonic and rhythmic features that make the composer’s style so engaging. If you’re looking for an accessible modern Russian piece that sounds harder than it is, here it is!

Click here for links to the full video walk-through, open domain score and a Spotify recording of this work.


Further Resources

The Online Academy and our store have numerous resources to support you in learning a wide range of popular pieces, including:

  • Video walk-throughs of popular works such as Burgmuller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor (Op. 3 No. 2)
  • A growing collection of video walkthroughs for selected pieces in the new ABRSM 2021 & 2022 examination syllabus
  • From the Ground Up – a series that uses reduced scores and outlines to help you learn new pieces faster, featuring works by Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann and Beethoven
  • Annotated study editions and walk-throughs for works by Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Schubert and Ravel

Click here to find out more about the Online Academy or click here to subscribe from as little as £13.99 per month or £119.99 per year.


Pieces to Play – Birthday Offers

The next instalment in our “Pieces to play” series features a selection of popular works at a more advanced level for which we have published annotated study editions and other resources.

JS Bach – Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from WTC Book I

The prelude for the work is built on a continually repeated pattern of broken chords with sharp, often dissonant accents on main beats and constant movement in-between them. This makes the score conducive to simplification using blocking to discover the underlying harmonic progression. Click here to find out more about simplification methods or click here to hear a recording of this work on Spotify.

piece to play - JS Bach Prelude No. 2 in C Minor from WTC Book I

Fugues are one of the most complicated musical structures and as a result, many pianists shy away from them. However, there are ways to approach learning a Fugue that make the challenge less daunting. One of these is to use the “practice stepladder” which is based on learning voices separately (or in various combinations) rather than hands. Click here to find out more about the practice stepladder.

Click here to purchase our study edition for this work.

Beethoven – Sonata in C# Minor (Moonlight), First Movement

Cover of first edition of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

Beethoven’s Sonata in C# Minor (Sonata quasi una fantasia), Op. 27 No. 2, is surely one of the most famous pieces of music of all time. Completed in 1801, it was dedicated to his student, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The title “Moonlight” was given not by Beethoven, but by poet Ludwig Rellstab; even though Rellstab dreamed this up five years after Beethoven’s death, his nickname stuck.

One of the particular challenges of the piece is voicing. In this video, Graham Fitch demonstrates exercises to help projecting the melody in the right-hand while playing the accompaniment figuration softly, evenly and comfortably:

Another interesting factor to consider is that the functioning of the pedal in Beethoven’s time was different to that of today. This blog post provides some background and further suggestions on pedalling for the work.

Click here to purchase our study edition for this work.

Schubert – Impromptu No. 2 in E-Flat Major, D899

The second of Schubert’s first set of Impromptus opens with a scale-based melody comprising fast triplets, almost in the style of an etude. The A section is charming, delicate and pretty but is contrasted with a darker, more ominous B section.

Developing speed while retaining evenness is one of the challenges in this work. This video demonstrates  various method for developing speed in this work.

Click here to purchase our study edition for this work.

Chopin – Fantaisie Impromptu in C-sharp Minor (Op. Posth. 66)

This is undoubtedly one of Chopin’s most popular works for the piano and as a result, many pianists attempt to play it before they are ready to tackle the various challenges entailed.

The biggest challenge when attempting to put the hands together is managing the 4:3 polyrhythms found throughout. This video provides a simple, but effective exercise to develop the coordination for the polyrhythm:

NEW STUDY EDITION! Our new study edition for this work featuring six walk-through videos, numerous annotations, additional video demonstrations and practice worksheets. Click here to find out more or click here to purchase it.

Brahms’s Intermezzo in A Major (Op. 118 No. 2)

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms

Written for Clara Schumann towards the ends of their lives, this piece by Brahms is full of nostalgia, tenderness and yearning. Click here to find out more about the touching back story to this work

Our collection of resources for this work include a downloadable study edition, a video walkthrough series on how to learn it and a set of “fantasy analysis” videos which offer  a personal narrative on interpretation. Click here to purchase from our store.

More Pieces to Play?

Sign-up to our mailing list here if you’d like future instalments in our Pieces to Play series or click here to see other instalments.

These editions can also be purchased as a combined bundle for £19.99 from our store and are included with an annual subscription to the Online Academy. Click here to find out more about the Online Academy or click here to subscribe.


A Better Way to Play Faster

One of the most common questions asked by readers of this blog is how to play faster. We’re probably all familiar with a scenario in which we’ve laid careful foundations with slow practice only to find that everything falls apart when increasing the tempo beyond a certain point.

Slow practice is excellent for the initial note-learning stages and can also help us as we build up speed. How can we get a piece up to the full speed while retaining the feeling of coordination and control that is possible at slower tempos?

using a metronome to play faster

Using a Metronome to Play Faster

A common way to build speed is the incremental metronome method. This works by taking a section of a piece and setting your metronome to a pulse that you can already comfortably manage (this might be very slow). When you can play the passage comfortably, increase the speed of the metronome by an increment of your choice (perhaps 5 bpm, or even less). When you can control your playing at this speed, make another incremental increase on your metronome.

This is a favoured method of many great pianists and clearly has its merits. However, it can also be somewhat time-consuming and tedious, running the risk of becoming mechanical and mindless after a while.

A Better Way to Build Speed

An alternative method, which I find far more efficient in going from a slow note learning tempo to the desired tempo is playing little bits fast, often called “chaining”. This method enables us to build the reflexes for fast playing, and because we limit the length of the chain in each iteration to what is manageable or just outside our grasp, we are able to finesse the sound we are after at full performance speed.

Here’s how it works:

  • Without the metronome, play just a few notes at speed, then stop. Think of a sound bite from a full performance, with dynamics, good sound, shaping, etc.
  • Evaluate your result as precisely as possible – for example: “The LH was uneven”, or “The hands weren’t together”, or “It felt tight” using the Feedback Loop.
  • Mentally rehearse the snippet you played before you repeat it, imagining how it sounds and feels to play evenly, with the hands precisely together, freely, etc. See, hear and feel in your imagination. It is most important to go through this stage before diving into the keyboard again.
  • Repeat the previous 2 steps until you are happy.
  • Add another note, or group of notes and repeat the process, now with this longer chain.
  • Start a new chain from the note(s) you ended on, and work in the same way.
  • Now you have two short chains. Join them together until you have one longer one.
  • RESIST the temptation to go over things slowly and comfortably – we’re building new reflexes and this will be challenging!

In this clip from a recent online workshop, I show how to apply chaining techniques to the Allegro of the first movement of the Pathétique Sonata of Beethoven:

Further Reading

  • For a more indepth I explore this subject in depth in Part One of my eBook series, Practising the Piano – The Practice Tools
  • The following blog posts contain more detailed information on the concepts covered in this article:

How to Play Fast – Free Workshop!

If you’d like a hands-on demonstration of how to apply these and other practice methods for building speed then you may be interested in joining our free workshop on 2nd November 2022. In this shortened version of one of our most popular online workshops, Graham Fitch will use a selection of pieces of various levels to demonstrate ways to move them from an initial, slow learning speed up to full performance tempo. Click here for more information and to sign-up!


Preparing to Play Octaves – Practising the Piano

Having great octave technique is an essential hallmark of virtuosity – how fast, how loud and for how long can you play that octave passage while wowing your audience and getting them to their feet as they applaud, rapturously? So what’s the secret of octave technique, and how do we develop it? 

Voicing and fingering

Composers write in octaves when they want to reinforce either a melodic line or a bass line, or both. The musical texture becomes richer, fuller or brighter as a result. Therefore we need to start by thinking of octaves as two voices (or a line that is doubled) and consider the tonal balance between the lower and upper notes.

For example, in the opening of Schumann’s Papillons, Op. 2, we voice the upper RH line more firmly and play the thumb as lightly as possible (the thumb creates a shadow of the upper line):

Octaves in Schumann's Papillions

Octaves can present challenges for players with smaller hands who will likely need to use thumb and 5th finger whenever playing them. Where a legato effect is desired, much can be achieved with the pedal. Those with larger hands might be able to use combinations of 5th (white keys), 4th fingers (black keys) and possibly 3rd fingers in legato contexts. However, where a fixed hand position from octave to octave is required, using thumb and 5th in certain types of octaves (e.g. forearm, whole-arm) might feel stronger.

Types of octaves

There are several different types (or species) of octaves and the choice of which to use is dependent on the musical context. The following are some of the main examples:

  • Legato
  • Wrist
  • Forearm
  • Whole arm

Other types of octaves such as broken octaves and repeated octaves also exist with a particularly challenging example of the latter being Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Erlkönig. These can be approached by repeating  from inside the keys at the sounding point (escapement) and using small up and back motions along the surface of the keys. This tends to feel like a vibration in the wrist, using tiny motions to avoid tension and fatigue:

Repeated octaves in Schubert#s Erlkonig

Preparatory exercises

Octaves should only be introduced when the hand is large enough or sufficiently developed, the knuckles strong enough to support the octave span. A good starting point before embarking upon octave work is to play scales in sixths and a few studies in sixths using a mixture of wrist staccato (when soft) and forearm staccato (when mf or above). The following are some exercise to develop essential components for octave technique:

The thumb

This preparatory exercise for the thumb should be played with a firm 5th finger (holding onto the key with a firm contact but without pressing) and a loose, mobile thumb that plays pp. Aim for flexibility in the tip of the thumb – more curved when playing white keys, slightly less so when playing white keys:

Preparatory exercise for playing octaves

Fifth finger

Next, a similar exercise for the 5th finger. Do this slowly with a firm tenuto, which should feel like a gentle squeeze. It is most important that all the joints of the finger remain supported, with no buckling in any of the three knuckle joints, and that there is no twisting of the hand outwards. In order to avoid twisting, use a sliding movement along the length of the key. You can slide the thumb in and out while holding the key down with zero pressure:

Freedom in the Wrist

Wrist flexibility is essential for avoiding fatigue, accuracy and good tone quality. The following exercise is very useful for avoiding tension in the wrist. Do this very slowly on any scale, ascending and descending over one octave. While holding the octave position with the thumb and fifth finger, gently raise the wrist up and down. As you move from one octave to the next, keep the fingers extremely close to the keyboard and allow the wrist to put the keys down:

More on octaves!

A detailed, step-by-step guide to building octave technique is available in Graham Fitch’s new module on the Online Academy. Getting to Grips with Octaves covers everything from the start through to mastering the different types of octaves found in the repertoire with numerous musical examples, exercises and video demonstrations.

This module is available for once-off purchase from our store as a stand-alone product or as part of our Ultimate Technique Bundle. It is also included with an Online Academy subscription and can be viewed here.

More Advanced Technique!

If you’d like to get a live demonstration on developing octaves and other aspects of advanced technique, join Graham Fitch online on Saturday 28th October @ 11:00am – 12:15 BST for a presentation on octaves, double notes and chord playing at the advanced level.

Tickets cost £40 (£24 for Online Academy subscribers) and can be purchased here. Alternatively you can also purchase a ticket which includes access to the recordings of all five sessions from the Technique Day for £100 (£60 for subscribers) here.