DipABRSM Practice Quick Studies to Get Your Brain Ticking.
By Mark Tanner
Quick Studies can be the bête noir of DipABRSM examination candidates. This need not be the case, but confidence in this area will not come overnight. Nor should the Quick Study be seen as merely a longer version of the sight-reading tests encountered in the graded exam syllabus. One key difference is that a Quick Study needs to sound reasonably robust – more like a 'learned' piece and less like a sketch or outline. Too many hesitations or passages bogged down by note-searching will cost you dearly, while uncertain tonality coupled with woolly rhythms will undoubtedly nosedive your attempt. Misjudged tempi, inobservance of critical expression markings, or significant shortcomings in musical or stylistic awareness are also more than likely to jeopardise success. If it doesn't resemble a performance to you, it won't to the examiners!
Bearing in mind that a typical Quick Study will approximate to Grade 6 in the musical and technical demands it makes of you, it should hardly be an undue cause for concern, irrespective of whether you are taking a diploma in performing or teaching. After all, by this point in your musical life you will have doubtless come across a sizeable number of pieces at this relatively modest level, and being able to get to grips with such a piece in a short time frame is surely a reasonable expectation for a prospective diploma candidate living in the 'real world'. Diplomas are, after all, the first rungs on the professional ladder for a Classical musician, emphatically not a grade 9, and as such they demand a significant gearing-up in mental attitude. You'll need to think more analytically, not just instinctively.
This new series of books targets the Quick Study head-on: all freshly composed pieces with the exam kept firmly in mind. It is not a solution in itself, nor a means of short-circuiting the skills you will need to develop, but a practice tool to steer you in the right direction. The initial pieces are prefaced by a guide page to help you sift out the nitty-gritty in the music. Come the big day, you should feel confident, alert and more able to respond to the challenge in a measured, systematic way. It's all about making the most of the five minutes you'll be given, focussing on what is indispensible in the musical text and, just as importantly, gauging which surface details you can afford to leave out; essentially, the skill is seeing the wood for the trees and keeping up the concentration.
If you consider yourself to be a fair sight-reader, then it's more than likely you'll have experienced a reasonably smooth course through the grades. However, sight-reading skills, though a significant boost to your chances of success in a Quick Study, are not what is being assessed: think studying, not sight-reading. If you can follow a simple and sensible regime for your precious five minutes preparation, you'll be more likely to get the gist of the thing and less likely to overlook something critical. The guides that precede the pieces will use the following headings:
If you ignore the title of a Quick Study, which will often be quite descriptive, you will undoubtedly be missing out on a vital clue to the orientation and character of the music. If a piece is called The Lonely Spaceman, it's a fair bet it will be quite static, moody and perhaps harmonically a little elusive. If the piece bears the title Flight on a Witch's Broomstick, you can expect to find other clues scattered about which suggest a rhythmically interesting or even frivolous characterisation, but perhaps containing some darker moments here and there. A piece entitled The Old Grandfather Clock is bound to imply a pretty dependable, steady pulse for much of the way, even if the rhythmic detail turns out to be a little less obvious as it progresses. All titles mean something...
When people first lay eyes on a new piece they tend to home in intuitively on a speed – however, don't trust your first instinct. There are so many factors to keep in mind initially that you need to pause for thought before committing yourself. If you don't weigh up these factors and try out a few different options, you could find yourself rather knotted up later in the piece as the moving parts get more hairy, or else moving so slowly that you scupper all hope of a rhythmic feel to the performance. Impose a speed, don't relax into one! You won't be asked to work from a metronome mark in the exam, but do bear in mind the title of the piece and do notice the tempo/mood indication – which might be in English, but in all probability will conform to the common Italian terms – and then turn your attention to the time signature.
What is the difference between 2/4 and 4/4? Answer: tempo and 'feel'. Is that a 'C', indicating common time, i.e. 4/4, or is it split common time, i.e. alla breve? Again, the difference is definitely going to affect your choice of tempo, for a piece in alla breve played too slowly will tend to draw attention to each passing crotchet, not the minim pulse the composer intended. Look for rhythmic clues in the phrase structure of the opening line or two – play it over slowly a couple of times and tap your foot for a few bars to make really sure you can feel a pulse, as this is going to have to work throughout this particular section of the piece. Now look for places in the music where the time signature changes. A shift from, say 2/4 to 6/8, is in all probability going to indicate a change to the rhythmic life of the piece – in this particular case the subdivisions of the pulse will change from duplets to triplets, implying an equal relationship between the two pulses: crotchet = dotted-crotchet. If the marking is L'istesso tempo at this junction of time signatures, then you can retain the pulse – but beware, notice any other clues, particularly if these are suggestive of a new, slower or faster speed (e.g. doppio movimento – double the speed) with a corresponding rit, rall. accel. etc. Weigh up the risk/benefit scenario when deciding on how daring you can be! The dynamics will usually reinforce any notion of the music's shifting character, but more on that later.
To put this into context so far: let's say that our piece is currently in 2/4, the speed is Allegro non troppo, the fastest moving time-values are semiquavers and the dynamic marking is forte. We spot a junction ahead, ushered in by a molto rall., a diminuendo marking and a number of tenutos marked on the notes that are longer in duration – maybe even a pause or two at the cadence itself. At the crossroads we meet a new set of directions: più meno mosso, molto piano e espressivo, a change into 6/8 with compound rhythms. Strategy: initially we should be playing with a reasonably sprightly two-in-a-bar pulse, just buoyantly enough to allow the semiquavers to trot along evenly, with a bold dynamic and a fairly matter-of-fact style. We glance ahead and spot an instruction to put the brakes on a fair bit, while getting steadily softer and ensuring sustained, full-length notes followed by pauses in the lead up to our new section, which we'll be playing a little slower and softer than before, more expressively now and with a lilting sway to the rhythm.
A piece without rhythm is about as meaningful as chips without vinegar and newspaper – in fact it's rather worse than that – it's chips without potato. Even though I am suggesting there are score markings you should notice even before we get into the rhythmic detail, really it is the rhythmic dimension of the piece that will ultimately govern whether you sink or swim in your performance. Human beings thrive on patterns, and composers of Quick Studies are, in the main, humans too. If you get the completely wrong end of the stick rhythmically, so to speak, the whole performance is irretrievably condemned – it's a bit like hitting the curb in your driving test. If the piece is supposed to have, say, five beats in the bar, then make sure your bars add up to five, not four-and-a-bit, and if that means spending thirty seconds tapping your foot as you sing/clap the rhythm, do it – it's your five minutes to do with as you wish, so if you feel like standing on your head and reciting the fifty States of America in Urdu, go ahead and do that too! Search high and low for cross-rhythms, duplets in compound time or triplets in duple time – in other words, look for what's obvious, then start noticing what's not. Think about triplet crotchets within duple time, and think about the difference between a dotted-quaver + semiquaver pattern and crotchet + quaver pattern – for some or all of these rhythmic devices will likely have a part to play in the piece you will be given on the day, regardless of whether you are a pianist, flautist or singer. One final point here: think of tempo and rhythm as interdependent elements, for nothing is more important in music than rhythm, and nothing affects rhythm more than tempo.
Besides looking at the key signature, when working out the key of a piece, remember: if in doubt, start with the ending. If you can confidently ascertain whether the piece starts and finishes in a major or minor key, you're off to a flying start. Bear in mind the title once again, which may in itself point to the tonality: after all, how likely is it that a piece entitled The Jolly Sailor is in a minor key? Further clues will be in the chordal and/or melodic patterns that will appear from quite early on in the piece, and if you suspect it is in a minor key, then look for further evidence of this in the accidentals that will have to be there. For example, a piece in A minor is very likely to have a fair sprinkling of G sharps (the leading note of the scale). Were the piece in C major instead, it could conceivably exist for some time without needing accidentals at all, but assuming some level of chromaticism is at work, these would more likely be F sharp and C sharp, i.e. the sharps needed to help describe the chords of G major and D major, which are of course fundamental to C major. Perhaps play an arpeggio or scale, just to get your brain ticking along the right lines, and pianists should ram the point home by reminding themselves of what a perfect cadence is going to sound like in this key.
Now that you've ascertained which key you are in, survey the score and look for any places where the key signature changes. Maybe you can detect a correlation between the new key and the old one – for example, the piece moves from two sharps to five sharps: it is more than likely that this will indicate a shift from B minor to B major, in other words, a significant moment in the music, where the mood is in all probability becoming more optimistic, more cheerful or assertive. Here's another example – the key changes from three flats to four sharps: this one's a bit trickier, but could well indicate an upward shift of one semitone from the home key of E flat major to E major. In this case, start looking for a place later in the piece where the home key is brought back – the composer won't necessarily have felt obliged to do so however, especially if the style of the music is a little more dreamy or atmospheric, rather than, say, a piece which is more obviously Classical or Baroque in idiom. Now sort out the main cadences in the piece, wearing both your theorist's hat and your performer's hat. Of all the places in a piece not to be faffing around looking for the notes, it's at cadence points, and I'm not just referring to the final cadence, but the ones that take the music from one key to another along its musical journey, however temporarily. I really can't emphasise this enough, whether you are a pianist who is actually required to play the harmonies as block or broken chords, or a flautist who is required to imply the harmonic progressions by melodic means alone. The 'key map' of the piece, as I like to think of it, is very much the lifeblood of the piece, and is nearly as important as the 'rhythmic map' in terms of how the dots on the page become meaningful music.
& FINAL POLISH
Have you ever stopped to consider the dynamics of dynamics? What I mean by this is that it is quite often possible to get the gist of the music's ebb and flow just by looking at what happens with the crescendos, diminuendos, subito pianos and sfortzandi, especially if you have half an eye for any corresponding accents, tenutos, staccatos, fermati and so on. Take a piano piece by, say, Brahms – even if you were to airbrush out all of the notes, leaving behind just a scattering of articulation and dynamic markings, you'd more than likely retain a feel for the trajectory of the piece, and the same is also likely to be true in, say, clarinet music. Contrastingly, a chain of p, f, p, f etc. may tie in with your initial thought that this is a piece in a Baroque style, where terraced dynamic markings are more the norm. Just as we can easily spot patterns with chord progressions and melodic intervals, we can hit upon patterns with so-called expression markings. Understanding how scores 'tick' can be described in terms of a SatNav: satellites contribute a range of clues to plot coordinates that ultimately lead you in a single direction – yes, there may be times when these lead you astray for a while, but SatNavs are, on the whole, to be trusted. In a piece that has all the hallmarks of a Romantic style – chromatic harmonies, with bold dynamic shifts, copious markings such as espressivo or con molto rubato, and (for keyboard players) a thickening of texture with molto pedale as it moves towards musical high-points – the dynamics and articulation markings are very likely to correspond with these. Composers usually aim to make their music as intelligible as possible, because they want you to stand a fighting chance of putting together a decent performance – it's the exact opposite of trying to 'catch you out' actually. One tends, as an anxious examination candidate, to place so much emphasis on sieving out the notes and rhythms that one overlooks the many other clues on the page that are there to help turn it all into meaningful music.
GENERAL THOUGHTS ON A SUCCESSFUL QUICK STUDY
Imagine you are sitting in the audience of a school concert, listening to a performance of a piece given by someone who has just taken their grade six exam. You don't have a copy of the score in front of you and you've never even heard of the composer. Do you think you could still tell whether the performance has commitment and a sense of momentum? Could you catch a sense of the musical 'plot', or at least its general atmosphere, character and overall style? Could you tell if there are hesitant patches, an odd wrong note, dodgy sounding rhythms or perhaps places where the performance seems to have temporarily run aground? If you've answered yes to these questions, consider for a moment how much more rigorous your estimation of the performance might be if you were to have a copy of the score before you, you knew the piece well and you'd heard it played countless times. It may be that the piece is supposed to sound fast and elegant, with a brightly optimistic dynamic and incisive articulation, but was actually played rather dreamily, softly and with lashings of pedal. With the benefit of the composer's markings the shortcomings would quickly crystallise, and you'd see the performance for what it is: rather wide of the mark, but strangely enjoyable in places! This is what examiners face, day in and day out. They have to make an on-the-spot judgement about whether to pass or fail the candidate based partly on what the score indicates and what is actually performed. It's often not entirely clear-cut of course, because human beings have a habit – especially under examination conditions – of being on top of their game in some quarters and perilously close to the precipice in others. The upshot of all this is that your destiny lies in your own hands, and if you want to maximise the chances of success in a Quick Study you will need to improve a) your sight-reading ability, and b) your ability to 'compute' all the important factors. During your five minutes preparation, stand back from the page now and then, rather as an artist might as they grow near to finishing a detailed painting – for the artist will likely be more concerned with the overall impression the painting gives than whether a casual observer notices how many seagulls there are dotted along the horizon. 'The devil is in the detail', so the adage goes, but don't get bogged down by it.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
Take your watch off and place it close by so that you know how time is passing – you might be used to estimating half a minute, but five minutes is rather harder to pace, especially when you're engrossed in what you are doing. For the first few practice pieces, you might want to cut yourself a little extra slack – say, a total of seven minutes – read the guides slowly and carefully, checking each point against the score to ensure you've grasped the gist. Now, with your instrument at your fingertips, begin playing – or perhaps at first, 'ghosting'. At this stage, don't get too distracted by that nasty looking high note in bar twelve or that awkward looking chord sequence mid way, just calmly survey the terrain. Establish in your mind the tempo it'll actually go – do this as soon as you dare – and then stick to it. Ensure the rhythms 'sit' comfortably within the speed, and then get your thinking cap on to establish the tonality, as outlined above.
Now that the thing is starting to come into focus, rehearse the links between sections – aim to turn those corners confidently and elegantly – and practise 'papering over the cracks' until all of the links and cadences begin to feel really solid. Take all the time you need to allow these to settle, and if a section repeats, don't waste inordinate time on it – but do make sure you've spotted any subtle variants. Hopefully, the idiom/mood of the piece will be fairly clear to you by this stage. Aim to exaggerate it a little, at least initially, so that you can be seen to have 'parked' your performance neatly between two white lines! As with any performance, a Quick Study really must start well and end well. When working on passages arising mid way or later in the music, occasionally check the speed and tonality with the opening/ending to make sure you've not doubled or halved speed, or lost track of what key you are in – these are a common problems in Quick Studies. Finally, do as you would in a written exam and set aside time – I'd suggest a full minute – to top 'n tail, since this is where you can really pick up marks. It's your last chance to attach the pink ribbons, gold braid and other bits of 'bling' to your performance. Had you spotted that crescendo hovering underneath the long semiquaver run? How about that abrupt change of gear in bar 31? Perhaps the dynamics and articulation details aren't quite the same the second time the melody comes around? And have you thought about where you are going to breathe in that final rising sequence, or whether to omit those mordents?
With a gun to your head, you could probably make an excellent job of such a piece if you'd been allowed half an hour to unpick all the details – but then, it wouldn't be a Quick Study, would it? The trick is to manage all of this in 300 seconds, not 30 minutes, so that it sounds well on the way to being learned – and not, as I am fond of saying, a performance from behind frosted glass. Much of my advice thus far has been concerned with identifying key structural 'events', but you'll know when things are moving in the right direction when you find you've still time to 'smell the flowers' during the five minutes preparation. Now apply that final veneer of polish, so that the examiners simply can't fail to notice your 'shining' performance. Needless to say, as your confidence rises, you won't need the guides, but you will need your wits about you. If you can bear to hear yourself playing, record your performance and check it against the score the next day – then go through the whole process again with the same piece a month later – it won't be quite the blind reading you first experienced, but on this occasion aim to include even more nuances than you'd noticed the first time around.
A final word or three of advice: don't work silently, worrying that your preparatory fumbles are being totted up and will be used against you. Examiners are far too busy to be paying any attention to how you are spending your time. For eighty percent of your five minutes you need to be actively playing (or singing) out loud, not merely thinking – besides, you won't get extra marks for doing it all in your head, and in the performance you'll more than likely take yourself by surprise and end up all in a pickle. Continuity in the performance is not an option, it is an absolute prerequisite. Don't go back to 'correct' errors – a corrected error in fact becomes a second, worse error that merely draws attention to the first! Good sight-readers are good because they do lots of sight-reading, and it follows that the candidates who do best in Quick Studies have taken this skill a significant step further. It is surprising and distressing that from time to time candidates gain distinctions in their recitals, and then fall down ruinously on the Quick Study, sometimes needing to re-sit it several times. It does make one wonder how long each of the recital pieces must have taken the candidate to learn. So, if for no reason other than the fact that it'll help you become a stronger, more efficient musician, get to grips with the pieces in this book and your diligence will repay you.
I wish you (and your examiners!) a pleasantly memorable experience in the exam room.