Louise Woodcock Pianist

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Playing Simplified Piano Pieces & Classical Themes

Posted on 29 June, 2015 at 10:00

Once you have mastered enough piano technique to enjoy a wide variety of styles you will want to discover enough music to keep you challenged. When I was learning in the intermediate stage there was very little simple enjoyable music available! I persevered at exam grade pieces from earlier syllabus years, I played hymns, I picked out folk songs by ear and composed simplistic boogie pieces, and I jumped into the deep end of playing shorter sonata movements. Gradually album series including the famous Album Fur Die Jugend by Tchaikovsky and Schumann, along with selections by Burgmuller came to my notice, but much of my practice time was devoted to endless scales & arpeggios and struggling with Chopin pieces, sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven, a few bagatelles, and any piece I could find by Bach (any Bach)!


So as books began to be published containing not only modern short simple works (around grade 2-6 level) but also classical orchestral themes arranged simply (for better or for worse) for piano solo, I tended to disregard this music for its urbanity. I was a musical snob! Over time the classical grade exam syllabus was enlivened with modern jazzy pieces and finally, in 1998, the ABRSM developed their superb Jazz Piano subject for grades 1-5. I bought all the books, listened to the CDs, and pieced the whole new syllabus together. It went down a storm with my younger pupils, especially teens.


Looking back on my early years as a beginner pianist I now realise that my whole focus during practice had been upon note learning and struggling to develop my hand positioning to cope with big chords - almost no time was devoted to playing rhythmically: the timing of the piece had to follow my ability to shape my hands around awkward notes and chords. I began to enjoy playing any piece with sweeping left hand arpeggios which allowed my right hand the freedom to work independently: I kept good time by memorizing the left hand and willing my right hand to keep in time!


When I read the musings of Chopin, Mozart, CPE Bach and other composers who also taught piano pupils, I find they advocate fully the concept of keeping strict time with the left hand (which provides, in classical music, the harmonic and rhythmic structure heard nowadays in the drums and bass guitar of a small band) whilst obtaining a freely flowng rubato with the right hand - artistic licence is freely encouraged, the only limitation being to play in "good taste". This concept of "taste" figures predominantly in these composers' opinion and clearly changes according to the fashion of the musical era. With the advent of the "Jazz Age" popular music became ever freer in its style whilst classical music seemed to pull back in protest: the easy improvisation of cadenzas and ornaments employed by classical pianists lost favour and was monopolized by the new jazz musicians. Why and how this happened is unclear; I believe it will be a great advance to adopt a freer approach to playing classical pieces, always provided that everything is played with "good taste", of course!


But to return to the concept of easier piano pieces. I longed to play in a flowing manner, as a beginner, but my technical struggles often sent my timekeeping wayward! I needed easier pieces to play! Now it is easy to walk into a sheet music shop and purchase a huge variety of books for intermediate players, classical, jazz, and contemporary piano music.


There is a difference between simple pieces and simplified pieces. A simple piece has been written specifically as a short easy piano solo. A simplified piece is an arrangement of a more difficult piano solo, or a classical or modern tune never intended for piano. The world of simplified arrangements opens a wide range of accessible material to developing pianists and makes practice time enjoyable and rewarding! I encourage you to consider playing all kinds of piano solos: perhaps you might group the pieces you play so you are aware of the different contexts the music covers. Pop songs have been favourite playing since publishers created the one piece sheet, certainly since the early 1900's, but whether you learn the accompaniment or attempt to embody the vocal melody into your playing denotes the difference between a piano accompaniment and an arrangement.


Some of my pupils long to explore classical pieces, Debussey being favourite, but struggle with the key signatures and big chord groups - try a simplified arrangement! The best give you the depth of the piece whilst being easier to read by exchanging five flats for none (D flat major written down to C major) and introducing much lighter chords, perhaps omitting doubled octave notes to make the piece possible for small hands. There are plenty of poor arrangements but keep hunting! Later on you will have the confidence to attempt the original piece, but how super to be able to express your love for music through approachable arrangements at any level! Within a few months my beginners are playing recognisable "Summertime"  and "Greensleeves" in my own arrangements!! You will grow into the required technique through your love of music!


I feel that pianism can best be learned and enjoyed through playing pieces that really appeal to you, in an arrangement that does not stretch your technical skill too far. After a carol, the first pieces I learnt were two previous grade one pieces ("miniatures") and then three pieces for my grade 3 exam which I took after just 8 months of beginning! My tutor had no knowledge of teaching at the earliest level and no music to suggest, so she felt it best that I overlook the early stage and quickly move on to sonata movements for my grade 5 piano exam, which I took a year later! My only light relief was Schumann's Album for The Young, which I found in my local library, and a book of songs from Les Miserables!


Fortunately, I was determined! But for years I was left with an attitude which said "if it's not written for the instrument you can't play it" although on finding a complete lack of suitable trombone music to play I mastered all the Les Miserables songs as trombone solos!


And this led to much arrangingand adapting music as solos for my own use and enjoyment, and later, my pupils'.


To increase the amount of early music for my first piano pupils I wrote very simple piano accompaniments and played a melody instrument along with my piano pupil playing the accompaniment! And this quickly taught me how vital it is to learn to play in time (even allowing for some right hand rubato!) and to establish a strong sense of pulse when playing. A waltz quickly expands to four beats in the bar without this keen elementary sense of basic pulse! It is a common error to allow an extra crotchet for the barline in three four time! Three time is an even flow, a lilting feel of continuity that four never gives us.


My early lessons had completely overlooked constant aural training so I was keen for my own pupils to become expert in this area: most lessons include some simple aural tests or listening games. However, perhaps the trickiest task for any teacher is to enable the pupil to develop good sightreading skills and this is a subject I will be paying special attention to in the forthcoming months, beginning with note pattern and key signature recognition and including well known tunes to facilitate the ability to rely on the ear and hand positioning to think ahead.


I am always really keen on pieces with a very clear development of rhythmic pattern such as JSBach's Prelude 1 (from the Forty Eight) because this teaches a thorough hand positioning, confidence in playing through realizing that the pattern played at the start of the bar is repeated and does not need to be read, allowing the player to look ahead effectively, at any tempo the piece unfolds pleasingly, but only if kept even with no hesitations, and therefore this piece encourages musicianship and beautiful playing in the most delightful way! Build the piece bar by bar, regularly going back to bar 1, stopping as your familiarity breaks down: it is no use ploughing through bar after bar searching for notes - a keen even sense of flow is vital here.


Scales should be played every lesson, and daily, to confirm the importance of developing a fluent hand shape and flow of even notes: one octave in each hand then together, and sooner rather than later, two octaves. Play the scale with a good crescendo, and on descending, diminuendo, to really build a sense of control at the keyboard. Consistent sensible fingering is absolutely essential! Try one hand legato with the other staccato. Arpeggios must be played with no jerky movement - allow the fingers to spread in readiness at every tuck, with the momentum of the flow of notes to continue through the hand over the entire length of octaves. I encourage pupils to perfect two octaves before attempting to maintain the vitality of momentum over further octaves. Speed is subordinate to even touch. Play scales as if they are a work of art, not to be rushed through as a pointless chore! If you find piano scales awkward, try learning scales on any other instrument! At least the keyboard is clearly arranged, each octave the same pattern! I love scales! Most of my technique and a good deal of my fortitude has been developed through endless practice!


But I realise most pupils will not share my passion for scale playing so the key is to include a few as a warmup in your practice and then to vary the material you play as widely as possible. Try something new, a little out of your depth but not far. Buy some easy books below your level for daily sightreading practice.


After the completion of a grade exam I encourage my pupil to expand their repetoire sideways, finding a range of different styles within the technical demands of the grade just taken, only slowly approaching more difficult material. No rushing on to the next grade - learning to play is not a race: just as my teachers neglected my early development I prefer to round out each pupil's musicianship.


So yes, play simplified arrangements but don't neglect your classics! Some scales, some pop, some classics, some jazz, some boogie, some daily sightreading and playing tunes by ear. Enjoy your music at every level. Ask your teacher to recommend you a good selection of classical miniatures: waltzes, marches, dances, bagatelles. Play to gain fluency, then add depth of expression. Listen to as much piano music as possible, everywhere!

Louise Woodcock is a Kent based pianist and home piano tutor. Ring for an assessment: 07989 370 624

Categories: Piano music

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