Grouch: some teaching notes from the composer

This post is woefully overdue: Grouch has been on the Trinity Guildhall Grade 3 piano syllabus since 2009 (the syllabus expires at the end of this year, 2011), and YouTube has its share of student performances from around the world!

Grouch is an unusual composition in the Little Peppers series in that so much of the piece is built of a single unaccompanied line (albeit shared between the hands). This means that clarity is especially important, as is tone. With the melodic material cascading from one hand to the other students will need to give particular attention to matching the sound from one hand to the next, and be warned: this is far more challenging than matching tone from one finger to the next!

An additional challenge is that the melody-sharing does not always happen in the same way: the right hand plays a D at the start of bars 1 and 2, but at bar 3 the left hand plays this very same D, which allows (and sets up) the syncopated two-note slur immediately afterward (first in the right, then the left, and then the right hand again).

And then add one more challenge: the groove of this piece is not straight, but swung, so students are aiming to creating a smooth dynamic contour while performing (what is in this case) an angular swing!

Finally, the hands move quickly down an octave, up two octaves, later crossing hands to reach the required extremes; this is a piece that can easily come undone unless it is truly well-learned.

To this end I would recommend that students create a ‘map’ of the music, showing when the hands move, how far, and how quickly! Working with students to visually conceptualise these positional changes away from the keyboard adds another layer of certainty to the student’s grasp of these moves. And note: the student must be the one to make the map! The learning is in the making of the map, not in the reading of it!

The middle section of the piece has new challenges, mostly to do with syncopation. My absolute best suggestion to teachers and students is that students should hear the music before they play it. The music makes complete sense to the ear; the eye will struggle to connect the information on the page to the physical movements and sensations required to produce a performance.

I’ll repeat this advice: listen before you learn. And if you’ve already started learning, then start listening as well!

There is a CD with a recording of me playing Grouch in the Faber-published Guided Tour of the Little Peppers, and Trinity London also have a CD available with recordings of all the pieces in the Grade 3 syllabus.

And students should use the recordings to check that they do have the rhythm right – swing rhythms have been in common usage for the past hundred years, but piano teachers have been rather late to the party. Most piano teachers these days are comfortable teaching swing rhythms, and are completely familiar with the print protocols, but ten years ago this was not the case! So using the recordings can help everyone be certain about what the music really should sound like.

Some words of warning: bar 24 (near the end) has the hands playing an arpeggio in contrary motion! This is actually quite hard to do, as it is not a symmetrical physical experience. Extra practice will be needed to really achieve a spectacular crescendo while executing this slightly tricky passage. And the final bar (bar 26) requires the right hand to cross over the left and to play the very bottom D on the piano (having just been playing two octaves above middle C!). Practice this cross-over many times to ensure the impression the audience is left with is one of complete mastery.

I hope these notes help students preparing for their Grade 3 piano exams, or for any performance of Grouch at recitals, school assemblies, or for family gatherings!

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