Taking the music apart

My keen adult student, Andy, came for his lesson today, the first in nearly a month (he’s been away filming at various music festivals), and we worked on Petit Mystère, a charming, Debussy-esque piece by French composer (and contemporary of Claude Debussy) Simone Plé. This is one of those deceptively simple pieces which requires great control and balance, and a strong affinity for impressionistic music, to create the right mood. It forms part of the current syllabus for the Trinity Guildhall Grade 2 exam.

I’ve recently switched to Trinity Guildhall, after three years teaching the ABRSM syllabus. My main motivation for trying a new exam board is that I have had a couple of run-ins with ABRSM this year, and have found the syllabus requirements very rigorous and unbending. Many early/young students find the scale and sight-reading requirements onerous and uninteresting – and in a couple of instances, downright scary. In the Trinity Guildhall syllabus, students are required to learn only a handful of very pertinent scales and arpeggios, and instead present three short studies to demonstrate technique such as tone, balance, voicing, touch. And instead of sight-reading, at least up to Grade 5, students may opt instead for the Musical Knowledge test. To me, this is a really useful and relevant component of a music exam, and my recent experiences with a new student, and a couple of non-piano students who came to me for aural training who seemed completely unaware of the different genres and styles of music, nor the context in which it was created, have made me even more fervent about ensuring that all my students (and indeed those of others!) have a good, basic grounding of the history of classical music, musical terms and signs, lives of the great composers etc.

These days, with easy-to-access music programmes such as Spotify and LastFM there really is no excuse for broadening one’s musical tastes and interests. Equally, there is a great variety of music available on the radio: tune in to Breakfast on Radio 3 from 7 to 10 am, and you can hear all sorts of interesting music – and not just pure classical either! I quite often make playlists on Spotify to share with my students to give them some “further listening” to help them with their pieces.

For Andy’s study of Petit Mystère, I’ve suggested Debussy’s Prélude à l’après Midi d’un faune, The Little Shepherd and Hommage à Rameau, plus the first Mazurka from the Opus 50 by Karol Syzmanowski (a piece I am learning myself at the moment). Hopefully, this will give Andy a greater “feel” for the music he is learning, and will also set it in context for him.

Meanwhile, for him and the rest of my students, I’ve prepared a brief overview of basic musical analysis, something I do with all my students whenever we start work on a new piece. This is a crucial exercise, which should be incorporated into a regular practice regime, before you have played a single note. I do it, usually away from the keyboard, with a pencil behind my ear for annotations.  You can view my helpsheet ANATOMY OF A PIECE. Next term, I will be asking all of my students to prepare a similar basic analysis of one of their pieces. I will publish the best/most imaginative/amusing ones here.


  1. Thanks for the upload – great reference sheet! I’ve been trying to remember to do that for my students more often too – even the beginners 🙂

    • No problem! I set my students a simple analysis homework exercise for the summer break – I’ll email it to you. I think it’s so important to get them into the habit of studying the music before they even touch the keys

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