Today we’re going to start our first grade 4 level tutorial, which is exciting because now we’re really starting to get into some good, solid, standard repertoire. As you advance along your piano journey, more and more great music becomes available to you.
We’re going to kick this off with an album that I really enjoy, but not everyone is familiar with. We’re going to start with a piece from Grechaninov’s Grandfathers’ Album, op. 119. The piece is called “Returning Home”, and has a beautiful late-Romantic flavor (just like the rest of the album). Let’s get started!
Here is the link to the sheet music on imslp.
Grandfathers’ Album backstory
Since Alexander Grechaninov isn’t as well-known as, say, Tchaikovsky, there isn’t a whole lot of backstory to share with this tutorial. What we can talk about is that this album was composed in 1929, when Grechaninov was 65 years old.
So though Grandfather’s Album falls squarely in the 20th Century music era, it still has a Romantic-era feel to it. There are 17 intermediate pieces in this collection.
Grechaninov was a Russian composer, but ultimately emigrated to the United States in 1939, after a few years in France. He lived out the remainder of his years in New York.
Returning Home, op. 119 no. 16: Basics
When learning a piece, we always start with the absolute basics – one of the first places to look is the key signature. There are two flats (Bb and Eb) which means we’re either in the key of Bb major, or G minor (they both have the same key signature).
A brief exploration shows us that we are in G minor, since the piece begins and ends there.
Next, we have a bunch of Italian to contend with. Our tempo marking at the beginning is moderato, ma con moto. The first word is easy – play at a moderate speed. The rest means, “but with motion”. So “moderately, but with motion”. We’ll talk more about what that means in a minute.
Then we have ben cantando. This basically means to play in a singing style – and the “ben” tells us to do so not just a little, but a lot. A rough translation might be, “very singing”.
Another important and basic detail is scouring through the whole piece and finding its form. This will allow us to divide and conquer, and make more sense of the music as a whole.
We’ll label the beginning section “A”. Next, let’s look for a place where the music really changes in rhythm, character, notes, or any combination of those. It’s pretty easy to find in this piece because of the double bar lines – they lead us right to the “B” section.
The right hand pattern remains similar, but our left hand changes pretty dramatically – and if you remember from the play-through, the mood also shifts quite a bit in this part.
Now let’s look and see if we can find a return to the A section – here it is, right at the very end. You can see that it matches the beginning. The difference here is that our return to the A section is much shorter than at the start, so I’m going to label it as A1 (slightly modified A section).
Once you have the piece sectioned off in 3 parts, learning it becomes much less overwhelming!
Stretching 10ths on the piano
One challenge of this piece is pulling off the extended left hand position – there are many, many 10ths in this piece. The vast majority of humans can’t comfortably stretch a 10th, so we need to do two things to make this work:
Swing our wrists and use the damper pedal.
The damper pedal won’t help us play the 10ths, but it’ll help smooth out any rough edges – just make sure you’re not relying on it for your legato playing. It should still sound smooth without the pedal.
Swinging your wrists is one way we can accomplish large, fast leaps on the piano. A lot of people tend to have pretty inflexible wrists when they play, keeping it locked in position (facing forward). But we need a loose wrist that can swing side to side in order to play more comfortably and accurately.
One way to do this is to think of the middle note as a pivot. Each set of 10ths has 3 notes – our first example is G D Bb. D is going to be our pivot note.
What I mean by this is you’re going to use finger 3 on D, and this note is going to be your center point to keep your hand in place. So when you reach with finger 5 to press the first note, G, finger 3 should be hovering nearby on D, ready to go. And when you reach from D to Bb with finger 1, finger 3 remains relatively in place.
Keeping finger 3 anchored in this way will help you “swing’ your wrist from finger 5 to finger 1, and play this 10th more effectively.
Which finger you use for pivoting will change (sometimes it’s finger 2, depending on the notes), but the idea remains the same. Keep your wrists flexible and use the middle note to help you pivot.
One quick note on the pedal, which I mentioned briefly. As with most pieces, you’ll want to use “syncopated pedaling”, which is a pedaling technique we covered on this channel long, long ago. It’s the most common way to approach pedaling. So if you’re not sure how to do that, be sure to check out that video first.
Italian terms in Returning Home
Let’s talk about the Italian from the beginning of the piece: moderato, ma con moto. Moderately, but with motion. What exactly does “with motion” mean?
This usually means you want to play with some rubato. It literally means “stolen time”, and refers to playing that is more rhythmically free. You’d never be able to play with a metronome if you’re playing rubato, because the rhythm is just too flexible.
I like to call rubato “rubber band tempo” in my studio, since it seems to help kids grasp the idea. It means your rhythm is flexible. But there’s no formula for this – it’s something you need to experiment and feel.
Not to get into too much of a rant about rubato, but it can also be really easily overdone. I’m in the “less is more” camp when it comes to rubato – when I play Chopin (or other Romantic composers), I tend to keep the beat fairly steady with just a pinch of flexibility. It depends on the composer and what their intentions probably were.
A starting point with rubato is to think of it in phrases. If we have a 4-bar phrase, we can likely slow down a little toward the end of the phrase, like a mini ritardando. We can also probably find a bit more movement and speed in the middle of that phrase. That isn’t a “rule” – rubato doesn’t really follow rules – but it’s a good starting point.
Oftentimes when notes move higher on the keyboard, it makes sense to play a little faster. And if notes are moving lower on the keyboard, it makes sense to play a little slower. These are just some general guidelines to get you started.
B section: Short, expressive phrases
Just one more point before I send you on your way with this piece. In the B section, our phrases get much shorter and more abrupt. You’ll also see 1-bar crescendos and diminuendos – these are highly expressive little phrases! This is where you’ll want to find the most motion and movement.
It’s really important that you keep these short phrases distinct from each other, instead of blending them together. This means creating clear phrase breaks, which can be done by physically lifting the notes so no sound lingers, and by using rubato – slowing down at the end of each phrase as you get quieter.
I hope you enjoyed this grade 4 tutorial! There will be more where this came from, especially because there’s lots of great repertoire opening up to us at this level.