Some time ago I looked into the lists for music exams with a view to eventually finishing off the grades. I had done a few few grades when I was a teenager (you can find the books here). I wasn’t in a hurry to go back to the RIAM (I’m never going to get over the Bartok, it seems) but I eventually after some research wound up on the ABRSM website. A couple of things cropped up around this: they had performance grades now (4 pieces instead of 3 and no sight/aural testing, plus they could be recorded and uploaded rather than scheduled).
Additionally, the grade 6 list had one piece that I already owned with a view to learning. However, there is some gamification involved and before you can do Grade 6, you need to do some grade 5 or other. ABRSM focused heavily on Grade 5 Theory although they acknowledged any other Grade 5 (including RIAM as it happens), I have very vague recollections of doing Grade 5 with the RIAM and it being problematic. But I could be discussing Grade 4, I don’t know.
Anyway, I had a look through the ABRSM online exam papers, did all of them and realised I was just shy of Grade 4 so some work was going to be required for Grade 5. Some study. Here’s what I did.
I bought all the material. Right now, that means a bunch of music theory papers, a book and some workbooks. In order of usefulness:
First Steps in Music Theory
Sample Exam papers
A long way back: the workbooks.
If I am honest, the workbooks are not so useful if you are an adult. But the First Steps in Music Theory by Eric Taylor is absolutely essential.
This is a really useful book.
One of the most useful things you can do then is to work through exam papers.
The papers are organised in 7 sections:
Keys and Scales
Music in Context
Each section has 10 points except keys and scales which has 15.
I worked through a lot of exam papers: there are several books of them, with a new one issued most of the recent years, there is a test digital exam on the ABRSM’s website and they also have one sample to download and print.
What I did at the time, was work through a paper, and then note the scores I had to identify which parts were my weaker parts, what I had to learn/work on with more effort.
You can see on one of the tables on the left hand side where I was dropping points on each paper. In theory, I just had to pass the exam so I can move on. But this is an ego thing for me – I didn’t just want to pass, I wanted to get a Distinction. So yeah, I needed to ensure I did not drop any more than 10 points. I did, several times, while going through the papers.
For me, the weaker points were generally, somehow, keys and scales, and intervals. I don’t know why because by ear, they work automatically for me.
In the end, I did the exam in August, and I got the distinction I want. If I was to give advice for anyone else doing this, buy the sample papers + model answers, and buy the First Steps in Music Theory book. And then, work through them. When you’re ready, sign up to to the exam and do it sooner rather than later.
When I was doing some research around the prelude in C major from the first Well Tempered Clavier, I came across a reference to Anna Magdalena’s Notebook. It’s a collection of music which JS Bach put together for his wife and it includes the prelude in C major.
I liked the idea, and also I own some of these things:
There are lots of clips of pieces of music which I like – parts of Tchaikovsky’s 2nd piano concerto, for example, elements of the piano parts of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (I really want to include mention of the piano because it isn’t merely a backdrop to the stringed instrument here) and there is an extraordinary opening for one of the Schuman violin sonatas which I came across in a very old clip of Helene Grimaud:
I like the idea of a notebook full of extracts I like, and might even try to learn if they don’t try to injure me (looking at you, Sergey). But I thought the A6 notebooks were a little too small for that (I fancy being the type of person who has a notebook to sketch out compositional ideas while waiting for dinner to be served which is why I have the A6 notebooks). So I got this.
I’ve been working a piece of music lately – one of Mendelssohn’s Gondellieder – I’ve already written about it here – and in the context of some content I have seen on the question of exam preparation and general repertoire learning, I want to comment some discussions around how long it should take you to learn a piece of music. This piece has taken longer than I would like and there are a couple of reasons for this. I intend to figure out a way to do a youtube video on this later.
I tend to think a lot of questions like this come from adult learners with not a lot of confidence. I seem parallel questions from other people who “played until they had to give up for practical/academic reasons” about 20 years ago and are concerned it is too late to pick it up again. Is it really gone?
I’ve also been looking at online teachers who teach to one or other of the grading system. The teacher in question does excellent supporting youtube videos as does the teacher whose video about how long it should take to be learning pieces so arguably, they are arguing from experience and I am arguing from my reality which might be difficult. The Mendelssohn has taken longer than I expected from the outset and even so I am not in favour of blanket statements that the process of learning the notes and perfecting the delivery of said piece should only take 8 weeks for the most part provided you practice X time per day. Otherwise it is too hard. Alternatively, the idea that you should be able to prepare exam pieces in 4 to 6 weeks is equally ambitious.
Most people will, at some point will try a piece that is beyond them. I did that with Rach II at 15 and I put crazy time into parts of its second movement when I was 17. There are a lot of things which feed into the learning process but above all, it doesn’t matter how hard or how easy the process is (honestly, Bach’s WTC Prelude in C is baby level easy for me at this point and I will write about that some day as well).
In one respect, the most important thing for any pianist is to develop a consistent habit that works for them. It’s 9.50pm here as I write this – most evenings I am playing at this point for a while. We put a lot of weight on people’s shoulders. Do Hanon, do scales, do repertoire “in line with your ability” from whence a load of questions about what grade pieces are I guess as people try to work out what is in line with their ability.
For myself, I have a couple of criteria around the learning of the piece and they are as follows:
do I like the piece. I’m 50. The exam system put me through hell with pieces I hated when I was about 14 or so.
how long is it? The longer the paper, the longer to learn
What key is it in? D flat minor? Eh…we won’t be winning any races here.
Are there any obvious dragons here? Like big chords and polyrhythms?
Then I do the following:
Try to sight read it through, both hands together.
Break it into parts and identify initial targets.
Work through the individual parts, hands together for preference, but hands separately where it’s not an instinctive piece of music. Unless it’s Bach. Bach, really feel you should play hands together if at all possible.
Work through the transitions between parts. I cannot emphasise how important this is.
You cannot estimate how long this is going to take in terms of weeks. You need to put into context what your life is like – as an adult, it’s often stressful in a way around practice (often a lot of people around you don’t see why you would want to do this) and there are interruptions. Let’s take me with the Gondollied above.
Yes I like it, check
Two pages, so short, check. I mean, that Sonatina by Beethoven is longer I think.
Key: G minor, not completely comfortable but generally okay,. Scales ahoy
No obvious dragons
That word “obvious” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.
What was interesting about the next steps is the site read went okay. The parts went okay. They mostly went hands together, slow. And then we got to the transitions between the broken down parts/sections. Specifically, we got to this across page 1 to 2 of the piece. (see sheet music here)
when I see that the movement from the last bar on page one to the first bar on page 2 has accounted for about 60% of the effort attribute to this over the last three months, I am not exaggerating. When I did the initial read through, when I did the dragon hunt, nothing. Not a squeak. Regularly playing it, however, revealed a fingering problem which alone caused issues.
But the point is, of the piece 4 pieces I have on my schedule at the moment, this is otherwise, not difficult. Absent those three bars, we are talking about a piece that I flew through.
Is this a kind of self justification? Well obviously? Does it counter two experienced teachers? To some extent, I think there is a difference between having a go at Ballade No 1 by Chopin (uhem) and running into an unexpected barrier on a much easier piece.
In a way, I think “how long to learn this” “how long should it take” questions miss a point. I love this piece of music, even after playing it 1000 times and regularly getting stuck at the start of page 2. I’m doing grade 6 purely because I was learning this piece anyway (but found 3 other pretty pieces). But there needs to be a question around the objectives. Why do you want to do this? Do you recognise the opportunity cost? What if we meet an unexpected problem, can we work around it? What represents success here? Why is there a deadline – are you not enjoying the process?
For me, in the background, it has taken considerably less time to master the parts, and the transitions are linked with memory issues (perimenopausal woman, and brainfog and I don’t worry about things taking a little longer for that reason) and for the other two pieces, the sight read was okay, there are a couple of dragons in terms of bass chords. The last remaining example is a Bach two part invention.
I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect someone to learn these four pieces in 4-6 weeks. I also don’t think it’s reasonable to state that if pieces cannot be learned in that time frame, you shouldn’t be learning them. What I do think, however, is that we should have honest discussions about what repertoire we are working on, why, where the pitfalls are and when we would like to be ready to do it.
Ultimately, learning something is a process and if you do not enjoy the process, you will never get out the other end either way. Artificial time limits are not going to solve that.
It’s after midnight on a Friday night in Brussels. It hasn’t rained much today, but I napped this afternoon which tends to wreck in terms of sleeping. This is one of the reasons I have a digital piano of course (money being the other primary blocking in point in terms of a big acoustic piano). I played, late.
The focus this evening is Rebikov, the 4th piece for my Grade 6 exams. It’s been on the Grade 6 list in the past (therefore complies with the need for the self choice piece to be of equal difficulty of the other pieces). (in theory). I started it for the second time last night; truth be told the first time I looked at it, I had a LOT of problems with the left hand. Not to read, but to move between the notes with some element of grace. I set it aside. For the exam prep, I have been mostly working on the Mendelssohn, the middle of which has been causing major grief, and the Hillne which I have inexplicably completely forgotten. If you look at my goals page, you’ll see this is likely to be the last jazzy piece I do and in short, some of the styles in it are not instinctive to me. I do like how some of the chords fit together but I cannot commit them to memory and this is causing difficulty with the interpretation. I expected to be finished it and Mendelssohn’s nice Gondollied by end of July which is next Monday and I’m not there. But I also need to start the other two pieces with a little more seriousness, and the Bach is going very slowly at the moment. The Rebikov was stuck without petrol in the engine.
On second sight it does not appear to be as difficult as I imagined the first time I started it. I know that in my memory, what concerned me more than anything was the shapes I couldn’t make with my left hand. So I took the child honoured way of separating out the hands and built some experience with the right hand and that surprised me – it turned out to be surprisingly easy and it appears to have opened some doors to my mind. It has a beautiful melody, and I love the many triplets while recognising they will bring with them some 3:2 polyrhythms. But this is a journey. Then, instead of starting at the beginning with the left hand, I skipped to the last 10 or so bars, the close out. For this piece, it’s particularly beautiful and heart tugging. I get so much pleasure out of how it sounds, it distracts me from actually working on any of the rest of it.
Today, though, I bit that bullet. I’m really pleased with the progress on the opening 12 or so bars. There isn’t any consistency there, and I’m not always sure that I’m playing at my best at 11pm (if you heard my Mendelssohn just afterwards, you’d understand why I say this). Thing is, this was a desperate choice after realising some other choices (Reverie by Debussy) were probably too challenging. For the first time, I actually thought, you know, I like this. I like it enough that once this exam is done, I will keep it. I can’t say that about the Bach two part invention, not yet at least.
Rebikov has a waltz which I think is colloquially known as the Christmas Tree waltz. See here for a link to a video of it. I did actually eventually get that issue of Pianist so I have the sheets for it and anyway, I think he is dead long enough that it is up on IMSLP. It’s randomly on my learning list for when I have time and also can read music more fluently.
There are a few versions of this knocking around YouTube and one of them I will link below to take the blankness off the home page.
I don’t know where I came across this piece of music first; only that I liked it enough to say “I want to play that”. There is a very nice Gondola song around from Charles Gounod that is on my list also and I’ll come to that some other time.
This has turned up on the Grade 6 list for the ABRSM local examinations for the current period. It’s the primary reason I didn’t skip Grade 6 – I was learning this anyway. What is fascinating is how different the various versions of it this are. The Grade 6 prep videos (there are quite a few) are not very pleasant to listen to in the grand scheme of things – there is not a lot of softness to the playing. There’s an interesting tutorial that focuses on the rhythm. It’s one of the interesting things – I haven’t really struggled with the rhythm for this at all – but in general, if you listen to a version like Jan Lisiecki’s version, it is very soft and in the general direction of a lullabye. There’s a glorious softness of most of the track. But I tend to prefer the voicing on other recordings, like this one.
For the opening bars in particular, there is something that makes me so glad to be able to play the piano when the sound I want comes out of the piano. Something like this. There is a glorious voicing on this and the way that bars 3, 4, 5 and 6 progress just sets my heart on fire. You’ll here how I am currently get on with it on that last link. I’ve learned that instagram does not have a block so I’m going to move my piano stuff to YouTube at some stage. Must look into.
You can find the sheet music here (it’s No 6 inside the link). For the record I bought the Henle Urtext because that’s how I roll (can’t get enough of those lovely blue covers).
One of the lovely things about working on Grade 6 pieces is that they feel more or less like adult pieces, even the Bach two part invention which I have not yet conquered too much of. There’s a lot to be said for giving people the opportunity to play music they like (and not the worthy crap that people think they should play like Bartók, I’m not bitter at all).
Today classifies as a not particularly productive day. Missed the 7am slot (frustrating but not unusual lately). I had some time free this evening so I played random stuff by ear.
Mostly, I play piano either very late at night (thanks insomnia) or first thing in the morning, so I’m more often than not, plugged into headphones. At 7pm, I cast them off on the grounds that well, it’s not like anyone should reasonably be trying to sleep at this time. The piano sounds a lot better without the headphones. But I didn’t play especially well; this is why I prefer doing the hard graft in the mornings. My fingers hurt after a day at a computer keyboard, a day sitting down. And truth be told, my planning isn’t going that well at the moment.
I probably should do a little more planning and a little less random entertainment. Today, I played my way through the Irish stuff which is instinctive, if not second nature, Sliabh nBan now that I’ve identified the name of it. The party pieces of Trip to Ireland, Kimiad, Foggy Dew. Stuff I can play with the rhythm on Róisin Dubh. But it was more a trip to play rather than practice. I am not sure how productive it is.
I have decisions to make. There is a Christmas concert coming up which I may or may not volunteer for, and so music will have to be chosen. I will choose from the Irish repertoire because there will be other people to choose from the higher level stuff. I’ve already chosen two pieces which I will need to arrange. I’ve looked at both of them tonight but am not really sure that I have them down the way I want them to sound. So I need to think about that.
After that, one of the jobs I want to do is list all the sheet music I have to hand. There’s quite a lot. I’ve been looking for a decent sheet music manager and I haven’t really found the one I want. I don’t want to spend hours scanning music, and I prefer working with paper (Tommy Doyle talks about ForScore here and I’m really not sure). But I also don’t know how much time I want to spend typing up lists and maintaining databases. I sort of wish there was an Apple Music Match for sheet music. You know, I’d point it at my copy of Ludovico Einaudi’s greatest hits, and magically it would appear in my library. But then there is loads of other music like the stuff I download from Petrucci or Freescores or Piano Street. It’s an admin job rather than a piano job.
So yeah, that needs to be done, and I need to transcribe my own arrangements of stuff, my own occasional compositions.
Today I was looking for Christmas music from Ireland for the piano, or at least Christmas carols and I remembered that Micheal O’Suilleabhain had a piece called Oiche Nollaig which means Christmas Night. There is a very striking arrangement of it on an album called The Dolphin’s Way I think but there’s a very decent youtube video of it played by Sean de Burca.
The sheet music doesn’t seem to be available. I had a look for it.
Anyway, while I was doing that, it occurred to me that really, I know Micheal O Suilleabháin for composing and arranging and I wondered how he approached piano practice. Presumably he’s done a lot of it over the years because certain things are just really second nature to him and you don’t get there without a lot of work. I mean, my instincts to build almost anything in the keys of Am, Em, G, D, Dm, C, A and E are fairly nothing compared to some of his fun things.
I realised I did not really know how to define practice. It was much easier when I was a teenager, of course. Here’s the RIAM grade N book, here’s a bunch of scales you need to be able to reproduce. And there’s some theory you need to know. You do the grade pieces under protest. You do the scales under protest
But I don’t do the grades any more. Oh I’ve thought about it. And is it really practice if it doesn’t hurt a little? What is training really? For someone who is a composer/arranger, what do they do? How do they build their practice routine? I mean, I bet some of these guys have forgotten more music than I have ever known.
Does Micheal O’Suilleabhan spend a few hours practising his own repertoire or is that just playing for pleasure the way I see it for myself? Or does he knock out some Liszt and Chopin etudes when no one is watching?
I don’t know. I don’t even know how to imagine answering that question.
Anyway, in tandem with that, I read a rather inspiring book by Charles Cooke where he deals with restarting the piano as an adult. It was written in a very different era to mine, of course, and the exhortation to buy records (which were almost luxuries at the time) was charming in a world where all you have to do is go to Youtube, iTunes, Google Music, and find pretty much any recording you want to find, of any piece of music. Including my hated Pentatonic thing by Bartok. But Cooke had one message which is as relevant today as it was when you would be lucky if your local record store had the recording of a piece of music you were looking for. Practice.
Practice for at least an hour every day. I pretend I do this, although real life is fighting hard against it. In theory, though I practice between 7am and 8am most workday mornings at least. The question is, how do I get best out of that time?
Cooke suggests time spent between repertoire, sight reading and technique. He suggests the bulk of time should go to repertoire and it should be repertoire you like. Maybe 10 minutes should go to technique. But that you should control the repertoire and the technique you choose to do. And if you practice for an hour daily, you will get better at piano.
I know for the last 40 years that if you practice something, you will get better at it. But I don’t know how to structure the practice really at the moment and this is something I am thinking about. I know you can’t practice in a vacuum and that you need goals and objectives. I know that I will be a year at least at Valse Fantaisie and I also suspect that one of the reasons I often default to the stuff I find easy is because I find it easy and because the rate of progress with Valse Fantaisie is glacial. Also, I am a perfectionist. Those 8 bars are hard
Also, I bought Hanon, and have found it less so much tedious and rather therapeutic.
So, I am thinking more in terms of strategic planning. I have plenty of sheet music. My daily music activities often include time on the tram working through sight reading apps. I know that’s improving, particularly on the top of the staff. Does this count as practice? Well yes, even if it’s away from the piano. I need to take account of the effort there. The bottom of the staff is proving harder and I need to move to the bass clef too
In terms of repertoire, I’d like to start AND finish something. This is probably unrealistic in the short term with Chopin Ballade No 2 and Gryaznov-Glinka Valse Fantaisie. They cast a different glow on things like Nocturne in C Sharp (posth) and the Moonlight Sonata. So I see an argument in favour of working through a challenge piece and a more accessible piece.
So, in short, for my piano practice duties, I see the following being necessary:
Technique/School of Speed (Czerny)
Repertoire Impossible Dream
Sight reading practice
Transcription of own output
After that, I can have self indulgence time. Playing the easy stuff, the stuff I already know, the stuff I want to maintain. I need party pieces and I used to play cliche Fur Elise and cliche Mozart Sonata in C (first movement). I’ll find out soon enough if they have made it to my piano music storage here but meh, cliché.
I should probably write up some goals to be honest and also, set priorities for those days when I don’t get to everything.