Teaching Methods: ABRSM Piano 2017-2018 – Grade 1

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ABRSM have a new piano syllabus! It is refreshing to have some lovely new teaching materials, and the new books are filled with great pieces for young players. Each of the pieces requires a different skill set from your students, and I have explored the characteristics of each piece here. There are pointers with regards to context, techniques to focus on, how to get those extra marks, and suggestions for further listening. 

What You Will Need

When working towards Grade 1, I would recommend each student purchases the following three books:

A Look At The Pieces

Aria in F – J.C.Bach

A sweet introduction to baroque music, young students may enjoy the balanced and memorable phrasing. The scalic patterns in the right hand fit nicely under the hand, and may help students to learn and remember F major scale (the slightly trickier of them all).


The youngest son of J.S.Bach, Johann Christian was just a child when he wrote this Aria. This gives it a lovely simplicity, and students could imagine this piece as an accompaniment to their favourite game, to ensure a lightness and innocence. An ‘Aria’ is an expressive melody. It is now taken to mean a piece which is sung, but this wasn’t always the case – many baroque arias are instrumental. It may be useful for the student to sing through the melody anyway, or perhaps play it on another instrument where applicable, to get a natural sense of the rise and fall of the phrasing.

Techniques to focus on 

Ornamentation – This may be a student’s first experience of trills, and it is important for them to understand why they are used, and how we interpret them. Practise trilling and turning on different notes of the scale, and using different fingers, to get them used to the idea. Playing them with a metronome may help to keep them steady, as young players often interpret them as a sign to speed up!

Articulation – The articulation is very clearly laid out in this piece, with wedges used to show staccatos and light accents, and slurs used regularly. Students may find the idea of using different articulations in each hand challenging, and it is worth addressing this while learning. Try playing scales, or more familiar pieces, with one hand staccato and the other legato. When this becomes easier, try calling out when to ‘switch’ mid-piece!

Aiming higher

  • Make sure phrasing is clear and balanced, but resist the temptation to add rests between phrases. Finish with ‘feminine endings’, so we do not hear accents on the last note of phrases
  • Observe the dynamic markings carefully, and ensure an energetic and bold ending

Further listening

  • J.C.Bach – ‘Cara, la dolce fiamma’ from Adriano in Siria
  • J.C.Bach – ‘Seufzer, Tranen, Hummer, Not’, 3rd Movement from Concerto in E-flat for Oboe, Strings and Harpsichord
  • C.P.E.Bach – ‘I. Andantino’ from Keyboard Sonata in F Major

Canaries – Anon.

A lightly dancing piece, with an excellent chance for students to become accustomed to 6/8 time. They will enjoy the buoyancy of this piece, as well as the catchy melody, which is repeated and echoed several times throughout.


Although the composer of Canaries is unknown, it appeared in a French and Scottish lutebook in 1627. Lute music tends to be arpeggiac and free-voiced, as no voice could be articulated any louder than another, and notes did not sustain above others. This needs to be carefully considered when playing a piano transcription, in order to keep the music light, and without too much voice-leading. The canary originated from the Canary Islands. It is a small yellow-green bird, with a fair twittering sound – this can help young students to achieve the lightness required.

Techniques to focus on

6/8 – Counting 6 quavers to a bar may be the simplest way to begin counting this piece, but it should quickly be felt a 2-in-a-bar, to prevent it from sounding laboured. Try playing through some familiar nursery rhymes, to get used to the lilting quality of 6/8 time. Good examples include: Girls and boys come out to play, Pop goes the weasel, Humpty Dumpty. You could even try making up your own words to accompany Canaries if it helps to secure the rhythm in the student’s mind.

Mordants – These 2 little mordants are quite tricky, as they need to be played without any disturbance to the melody. Return to your nursery rhymes, and try adding mordants in at appropriate places. The key here is for students not to overthink them, but to hear them as part of the melody. I would suggest learning them immediately, rather than adding them in after the tune has been secured.

Aiming higher

  • The dynamics are very specific, and change quite frequently – make sure there is a real distinction between them all, and that each dynamic marking is sustained until the next one
  • Be careful not to unnecessarily accent the staccato right hand notes – keep them light and nimble

Further listening

  • John Dowland – Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe
  • William Byrd – La Volta

La donna è mobile – Verdi

This well-known piece is sure to be popular! Even those students not familiar with the opera Rigoletto, will be sure to have heard this in many other contexts. It is deceivingly difficult however, with lots of changing hand positions, and a real independence required in both hands.


Sung at the start of the 3rd Act of Rigoletto, the Duke performs this in Sparafucile’s inn. Following Gilda’s declaration that she loves him so much she would die for him, the Duke (having already betrayed her) sings of how fickle women can be. His melody has a sense of comedy about it, but its consequence is actually quite tragic.

Woman is flighty

Like a feather in the wind,

She changes her voice  and her mind.

Always sweet,

Pretty face,

In tears or in laughter,  she is always lying.

Always miserable

Is he who trusts her,

He who confides in her  his unwary heart!

Yet one never feels

Fully happy

Who on that bosom does not drink love!

Techniques to focus on

Dotted rhythms – it is very common for students to turn dotted quavers into triplet quavers. Try dividing the beat into a very quick 4, so that they hold the dotted quaver for 3, and the semiquaver for 1. Apply this rhythm to scales and, for more advanced students, even practise reversing the rhythm. They will also need to be practised alongside the triplets in this piece, to ensure that the triplet quavers remain even!

Slurs – the opening 8 bars as a very characteristic articulation in the left hand – a slur followed by 2 staccato notes. It can be difficult to manage the slur, especially while the right hand is playing staccato. Practise a drop-roll action, when the hand drops to the piano before lifting off again. This can be practised over a variety of different intervals, not just limited to the ones written, while the right hand lightly repeats its notes over the top.

Aiming higher

  • Ensure that the rests on the last line are carefully observed – don’t cut these short
  • Make the most of the rallentando in b.13-14 – this is an opportunity to really portray the operatic nature of the piece

Further listening

  • Verdi – ‘La donna è mobile’ from Rigoletto (full operatic score)
  • Verdi – ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’  from La Traviata
  • Verdi – ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ from Rigoletto

Bouncing Billy – Joan Last

An energetic and fun piece, which might appeal to students that still struggle with lots of hands-together playing. There are lots of opportunity for expression within this, and can definitely spark some discussion about who Billy is, and where he is bouncing to!


Joan Last was a 20th-century English composer, who taught piano at the Royal Academy of Music. As such, much of her music has an intrinsic educational value. It may be worth exploring other pieces from Take Your Pick to get used to her style, and practise more of the techniques she employs here.

Techniques to focus on

Melody shifting between hands – Students at this level may have played lots of pieces where a melody is in one hand, but may not have come across much music where it is shared! The transitions between hands should always be seamless, with no aural indication that it has shifted. Practise highlighting and playing just the melody, without any accompanying notes, wherever it moves to.

Right hand in bass clef – The right hand plays in bass clef for the last 8 bars. This is a relatively straightforward concept, but one that students may not have seen before. Practise playing the bass part of other pieces they are familiar with, using the right hand to do so. Also, spend lots of time working on the jump between the treble and bass clef at b.25-26. On the stave, the pitch appears to go up, but actually goes down – something that may be confusing at first.

Aiming higher

  • Observe all expression marks really carefully, from dynamics to tempo markings – and be sure not to slow down at the end!
  • This should ideally have a feeling of 1-in-a-bar, so work on speeding this up and not getting too weighed down with feeling 3 to each bar.

Further listening

  • Joan Last – Sailing by Moonlight
  • Joan Last – Champion of Champions
  • Joan Last – March and Run

Gypsy Song – Bryan Kelly

This sad folk song is full of emotion, and will teach students a lot about interpretation. The phrasing will require lots of attention, to create a cantabile sound, as will the balance of the two hands.


Another piece by a contemporary composer, Gypsy Song has a folklike simplicity to it. It conjures images of a sad conversation between two people, which gradually overlap more and more, and borrow sentiments from each other. It is taken from a collection of 13 pieces, A Baker’s Dozen, all with enticing titles, to capture the imagination of young players.

Techniques to focus on

Independent part playing – Each hand needs to project its melody clearly, with each hand occasionally playing at different dynamic levels. It may be useful to do lots of practise with the student playing/singing one voice, while the teacher plays/sings the other. Try playing one hand staccato and the other legato, before swapping over. Finally, try playing one hand forte and the other piano. This is a very difficult skill for young players to master, but the sheer effort of it will help to achieve the desired effect in this piece.

Phrasing – This piece features lots of detailed phrasing marks, which will require some careful attention. In addition, each hand is phrased independently of the other in the latter part of the piece. Exaggerate this phrasing in practise, with deliberate lifts and breaks between them. If possible, singing or playing each phrase through on a wind instrument will help to gain a stronger understanding of the sighing/breathing nature of these short figures.

Aiming higher

  • Be sure to set a really careful pulse at the start of the piece – don’t be tempted to rush the opening quavers. Hear the semiquaver figures before you start, and begin steadily to match it
  • The tenuto marks in bb. 9-12 can be played very effectively by imagining a slight increase in weight, rather than forcing accents. They should not be harsh in sound.

Further listening

  • Bizet – ‘The Gypsy Song’ from Carmen
  • Vittorio Monti – Czardos
  • Bortkiewicz – ‘Russian Peasant Girl’ from Marionettes

Originally posted 2016-12-09 15:20:02. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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