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A violin treat

9 years ago

  The ABRSM Violin syllabus, valid from 2012 to 2015, is available, together with a range of supporting materials. Here, Robert Sargant, ABRSM’s Syllabus Manager, takes a look at the repertoire on offer, whilst four violinists involved with the syllabus choose some of their favourite pieces. In putting together the Violin syllabus, our selecting team has been busy exploring familiar as well as lesser known pieces, and many have never been set on the syllabus before. The syllabus stretches across a wide period, from the 13th century (a catchy dance tune, ‘Estampie royal’, from medieval France in Grade 4) right up to the present day (‘Joshi’s Dance’ by Michael Zev Gordon in Grade 3, written in 2009). Unsurprisingly, the great classical composers for violin are well represented, from Bach, Corelli, Vivaldi, Mozart and Beethoven to Brahms, Dvorák, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Sibelius. However, there are also some interesting rarities. The sonata movements by two Baroque Scottish composers – William McGibbon and David Foulis – are well worth exploring (Grades 4 and 6). There’s also a highly intriguing ‘battle’ piece from the 1600s – Tobias Hume’s ‘A Soldier’s Resolution’ (Grade 7). On the lighter side, the syllabus features for the first time a composition by the legendary French jazz violinist, Stéphane Grappelli (Grade 6). There are plenty of other pieces in jazz style, as well as arrangements from musical theatre (Irving Berlin’s foot-tapping ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ in Grade 3) and a dose of Caribbean sunshine (the cheery ‘Mango Walk’ in Grade 2). Candidates are also sure to be attracted by several catchy pieces from the Klezmer tradition (‘Sher’ in Grade 2 and ‘Congratulations to the Bridegroom and Bride’ in Grade 4). We hope that you enjoy exploring the wealth of appealing and engaging repertoire to be found in the syllabus and that it provides plenty of inspiration for you and your students.

Grade 1 A1

Arbeau: Mattachins

This is fun and engaging for an early learner. It has a predictable mixture of crotchets and quavers and firm bowing is required. I’d start by teaching the second part, as it is mostly on the A string and lies easily under the hand. Once that is comfortable, then add the opening, which has identical finger patterns, but is mostly on the G string. This piece will give an excellent left-hand position to a beginner and some fourth fingers can be included too. Aim to keep fingers curled while swinging both arms round for the lower strings. Firm détaché bowing will help project clear dynamics and the quick tempo adds to the boisterous feel. Jessica O’Leary

Grade 2 C2

Szelényi: School Break, from 24 Easy Little Concert Pieces

These lovely pieces are a wonderful resource for teachers wanting enjoyable 20th century repertoire for beginners, and have featured regularly in the syllabus. ‘School Break’ offers opportunities for energetic full bow playing, with some exciting (easy) chords in the final few bars. F natural on the E string may be a new note for players at this stage. The difference between mf, f and ff should be strongly projected, as should the exciting crescendo in bars 23-24. The final sff open string chord will need well controlled bowing to sustain the sound. Rachel Meredith

Grade 3 B3

Schumann: Träumerei (Reverie)

This is a charming piece and would create a good foil to some of the bold pieces in the other two lists. Although he originally wrote this piece for piano, I can’t help thinking that the melody could easily have appeared in one of Schumann’s songs. Therefore when approaching it I would suggest you try to put words to the notes and imagine you are telling a simple story. In the second bar of each phrase the composer uses a different sized leap, sometimes a fourth, sometimes a sixth and once even a minor third, and these can be the clue as to how much crescendo to make, and the character/colour of sound to try and create at that moment: is it simple and open, does it blossom or is it dark and sad? Gina McCormack

Grade 4 B1

C.-A. de Bériot: Mélodie

This will be known to many as a great showpiece and competition winner. Full of rhythmic variety, it opens with a majestic and strong theme in third position, with a harmonic at the end for a sense of drama. Initially prepare this piece by extracting all the rhythmic bowing patterns and working on them separately on the D major scale and arpeggio. Then when you hand over the music, the students will be thrilled at how easily they can play the whole piece – this will create a positive feeling around their performance and smuggles in the technical demands for their grade too. Once learnt, this is very robust under pressure and is definitely one for the more extrovert student. Jessica O’Leary

Grade 5 B3

C. Dancla: Petit air varié

This is a super introduction to the great tradition of virtuoso violin variations – by Paganini, Wieniawski etc. Variations are an excellent way to learn how to practise methodically and efficiently, as each section can be studied and perfected separately. This helps to avoid the default practice method of starting at the beginning and playing through to the end. This charming little piece offers the chance to explore different techniques and characters – from the lyrical main theme to the issues of left and right hand agility and co-ordination in the exciting last section. Once the player has mastered each segment individually, they can then practise sticking the chunks together and giving a dramatic performance worthy of a budding mini virtuoso. Alexandra Wood

Grade 6 B1

Brahms: Hungarian Dance

I'm sure this will be a popular choice, offering opportunities for a vigorous gypsy style with spiccato bowing and double stops. The spiccato works well if it's not quite off the string at this speed. The dynamic contrasts and gradation are a strong feature of the piece and should be energetically projected, not forgetting the ‘sea sick’ crescendo in bars 65-66 and similar. This piece has been a favourite with my pupils over the years, and is a chance to practise several bowing techniques and to achieve an enjoyable virtuoso style. Rachel Meredith

Grade 7 C3

Angela Morley: Reverie

This was a new discovery for me - thank you ABRSM! - and I have since heard some of Morley’s wonderful film scores recorded by the John Wilson Orchestra on Dutton Vocalion. I adore beautiful slow pieces, so this has already become a favourite encore of mine at my recitals and the audience always seems to react with an ’aah’ when we finish. Film music can be lush and romantic and this is no exception, so I would encourage lots of expressive, but tasteful, portamenti (slides, to you and me) and a rich, wide vibrato in the louder sections. Enjoy! Gina McCormack.

Grade 8 B5

Janácek: Dumka

This was a happy discovery and is my favourite piece on the new Grade 8 syllabus. I will certainly include it in recital programmes and give it to my students. It is a beautiful Slavic folk song, which exploits all the rich lyrical possibilities of the violin, over a hypnotic rocking piano figure. This piece requires a solid foundation of good intonation and tone production. It is also true chamber music: the piano and violin lines often intertwine, and the harmonies mould and direct the phrasing, so you must approach the music as a whole, rather than learning the violin line separately. I would encourage violinists to be adventurous and imaginative with fingerings and tone colours and to practise the octave section at the end. Alexandra Wood

Rachel Meredith is a strings teacher and player. She is an ABRSM examiner and one of the Violin syllabus selectors.

Gina McCormack spent many years leading the Sorrel Quartet. She is now enjoying recital work and teaches at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London. Gina performs on the new ABRSM Violin syllabus recordings.

Jessica O’Leary is a violinist, professor at Junior Guildhall, London, and an ABRSM examiner. Jessica can be heard on ABRSM’s Bowed Strings podcast and is presenting at our UK conferences.

Alexandra Wood is a solo and chamber violinist, who leads ensembles such as Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, London Sinfonietta and Aurora. She compiled and recorded ABRSM’s Spectrum for Violin and teaches at Birmingham Conservatoire. Alexandra also performs on the new ABRSM Violin syllabus recordings.

This article was originally featured in the September 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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