five at five
Updated: Feb 18
For student clarinettists, Grade 5 is where it starts to get really interesting both in terms of technique and the things we get to play, and at this level there's a whole host of brilliant repertoire out there for the developing musician to get their teeth in to. Some pieces are more challenging than others, but as well as being really enjoyable to play, most of them are really good for mastering techniques that you'll go on to use in the higher grades. Here are five of my favourites, with a few notes about what makes them so great.
1. Carl Nielsen: Fantasy Piece
This piece from the 2018-21 ABRSM syllabus sits fairly near the top end of the Grade 5 challenge-o-meter, and it’s brilliant in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start, although I teach it primarily to help students learn how to subdivide the beat and count in quavers to make “working out where all the fast notes go” a lot easier. A mixture of triplets, sextuplets and semiquavers in quite rapid succession looks daunting at first, but once you know how to subdivide the beat, it makes more sense. The tempo in the opening section is a fairly pedestrian 66bpm and the notes sit nicely under the fingers in an accessible key so it's very achievable with practice. However, it does require quite a bit of thought and planning, and the student has to get used to moving in and out of triplets and duplets, so must be able to change direction with the timing really quickly; really slow metronome practice to a quaver beat is the way to do this. The end section is fast but again accessible in A minor (played faster here than would be expected at Grade 5), and very handy for using right-hand-down skills and decision-making on left/right fingering over the break. I usually let the student decide here, but give pointers about which way I personally think is easier. Lots of A minor scale practice over the break with the metronome, gradually increasing the speed, can really help with this section of the piece.
This is one of those pieces where students suddenly realise that at this level, music isn’t just an unmovable set of instructions: as long as it fits the conventions of the time period (in ornamentation/trills, for example) and the composer's intent, they can actually make their own decisions about how to interpret something, and I love it for those lightbulb moments alone. And last but not least - there’s a cadenza, based on a descending chromatic scale so it’s fairly accessible, with some interesting bits of trilling, which again, can be interpreted in a couple of different ways.
Even if it drops off the syllabus when the new one comes out for 2022, I’ll still continue to teach it - it’s one of my favourite Grade 5 pieces in years.
2. Malcolm Arnold: Andantino (Sonatina, Op.29, 2nd Movement)
The other beauty of Grade 5 is that suddenly, students can start to tackle some of the more accessible bits of the “difficult” core clarinet repertoire, which usually means the slower movements of concertos/concertinos and sonatas/sonatinas. Most of the well-known ones have slow middle movement to try; a few off the top of my head - the Poulenc, Horovitz, Mozart, Grovlez, Weber Grand Duo Concertant, although some are more advanced than Grade 5 and the Poulenc 2nd movement is up there on the Grade 7 syllabus. The Malcolm Arnold is no exception, and the relaxed and lyrical 2nd movement of his Sonatina is a complete departure from the aggressiveness of the 1st movement and the frantic 3rd. But don’t be fooled into thinking “slow” means “easy” here; as with most things musical, if the notes aren't challenging, then something else probably will be, and what most of these slow movements require is absolutely rock solid breath control. In this case, additional difficulties to master include dynamically shaping some very long phrases, beautiful and controlled legato playing (including keeping your fingerwork tidy when co-ordinating both hands so as not to accidentally chop this up), correctly voicing intervals while slurring, and of course, the biggest challenge: Not Running Out Of Air.
Here’s London-based pro clarinettist and all round nice chap Peter Cigleris playing it beautifully. Have a listen to the 1st and 3rd movements afterwards if you’re feeling brave!
3. Finzi: Forlana (Five Bagatelles, Op.23)
Apparently Finzi was a bit miffed that pieces he considered "only trifles" became his most popular work, but it's popular for good reason: because it's beautiful, and people genuinely love listening to and playing it. All the movements of his Five Bagetelles have found their way to syllabi past and present: Prelude and Romance at Grade 6, Carol at Grade 3, Forlana at Grade 5, and the more virtuosic finale Fughetta at Grade 8, so as student clarinettists we tend to work our way through all of them at some point (and would do even if we weren't doing exams, such a staple are they of the core repertoire).
Forlana is a fairly relaxed piece mostly in 6/8 with a few bars of 9/8 thrown in here and there, but with some ties across bar lines on dotted notes making the counting a bit of a challenge in the opening section, and some grace notes thrown in to complicate it further; remember they sit before the beat, not on it. There's a bit of difficult left/right fingering to master in the second section, where an unconventional switch from left hand to right hand C half way through a tied note is really the only way to do it. Lots of breath control is required in ppp sections in both the lower and higher register, and the challenge here is maintaining the tone while playing at such a quiet volume. A contrasting forte section nearer the end has some slurred octave leaps from long B to high B, requiring really good air support in advance of that high B and some stellar embouchure control to pull this off.
Don't be fooled by Forlana's relaxed demeanour - it's a tough technical challenge, and we must be able to make it look and sound effortless so it appears as beautiful as it should. It's the classic swan on a pond - gliding calmly on the surface, while paddling frantically underwater, out of sight, to make it happen.
Here's Michael Collins playing it (a tad faster than I'd like, but I'm certainly not going to argue with Michael Collins). Have a listen to the entire thing - all the movements are great.
4. Demnitz: Study in Bb Major
They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I do love a Demnitz study, and you’ll find a few of them dotted around the C-lists of the syllabus at various grades. For those who don’t know, these come from Friedrich Demnitz’s Elementarschule für Klarinette, a 19th century study book which has been on most beginning and intermediate students' stands at some point as it contains both a scale and arpeggio study for every key signature up to four sharps and flats. This particular one is the Bb major scale study, and it's very pretty, as is a lot of clarinet music written in the romantic period as the instrument really started to come into its own.
If you're familiar with the Bb major scale - which you should be by Grade 5 - the patterns will sit under your fingers nicely with just enough accidentals and modulations into other keys to keep it interesting. The phrasing changes slightly after the opening section to include anacruses, so marking up and "practising in" the breaths in the right places to shape those phrases is important. It's also a good exercise in learning how to use rubato (deliberate slowing and stretching of time in places, without affecting the overall pace) to shape the phrases so you can create a bit of space to breathe when there's nowhere obvious to do so.
A lot of the Demnitz studies, certainly in the Peters edition, come with very few performance directions, so they can be a bit dry if you play them "by the book", but learning to interpret them so they're not dry is the order of the day here - again, there's fun to be had with those performance decisions!
5. Baermann: Tarantella
No round-up of Grade 5 pieces would be complete without a look at Baermann's Tarantella, mostly because I'm biased, having done it for my own Grade 5 back in the dark ages. It was sadly bumped from the ABRSM syllabus at the end of 2013, but you can still find it on the B list of the 2017-20 Trinity syllabus, which at the time of writing, has been extended until the end of 2021. You'll also find a transcription for sax near the end of More Graded Studies For Saxophone Book 1, although that version does contain an annoying misprint in bar 11 or thereabouts. All my adult students approaching Grade 5 level get this to look at whether they're taking the exam or not, as do those working towards Grade 5 who haven't quite started work on their pieces proper yet as it's a good introduction to playing at this level.
Mostly, this is great for learning to play even triplets with a really steady pulse. A tarantella is a dance, usually in 6/8 time (although it's written here in 2/4 in triplets), so it moves along at quite a clip and keeping the pace going unaccompanied is a nice challenge - a bit of metronome work to gradually work up the tempo can help with this. The opening section is all legato, so keeping your fingerwork tidy is a must, and it's in B minor, so a few slurred drops down onto the long B at the ends of phrases mean you've got to adjust your airflow accordingly on the fly so that B doesn't grunt. This also happens the other way around, and slurring from a long B up to the high B at piano is a really good test of air support. A middle section using forte staccato arpeggios on B minor and its relative D major (starting on a low B in the sax version!) gives it some nice contrast, there's some mezzo-staccato to get your articulation chops around, and a really big crescendo on an almost-chromatic passage, with a double sharp thrown in for good measure, and this bit is exactly why we learn to use the fork F# fingering (on the sax version, too), so it's nice to put it into practice.
Mostly though, it's just a really fab tune, and great fun to play, and you can't say fairer than that. You can find it in ABRSM's 2008-13 Grade 5 Clarinet Pieces, and also in Pamela Weston's 50 Classical Studies for Clarinet, if you can cope with the bright orange cover.
What are your favourite pieces at Grade 5? Let me know in the comments below.