Grade 6 exam update

One of the nice things about living in the future is how much better some aspects of it are compared to pass. I submitted my performance exam on Saturday and the results arrived back at 4am this morning. I know for the future that sleeping is better than waiting.

Anyway. The result was a DISTINCTION.

Most of the exams I did as a kid were the practical exams by the RIAM, and the last one I did was 35 years ago. So I had no real idea how rigid the ABRSM would be. They were reasonable I think; the feedback was sensible, it highlighted the issues I knew about (but eventually cut my losses about. The lowest score was 26 marks for Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s one hit wonder. The highest was full marks for Elissa Milne’s introductory jazz piece.

I see a lot of discussion on how the performance grades are easier or dumbing down. I don’t really agree. You have the extra piece. And you have the utter trauma of the recording. It must sound seductive, this idea that you can try as many times as you like to get it right. But it means getting four pieces right every single time. I’ve played in public, and I did the practical exams up to grade 5 when I was a teenager. The experience of creating a valid, acceptable, compliant with the rules film was really tough. I live in an apartment with triple glazed windows. Nevertheless I had films wrecked courtesy of:

  • a helicopter
  • a bunch of extremely irate Belgium drivers stuck in a traffic jam
  • a processing of 10 police cars with their sirens blasting
  • a significant number of motor cyclists who appeared not to have any sort of silencers attached to their wheelmobile.
  • a stag party singing Sweet Caroline at the tops of their voices.

It’s really frustrating when you have got through the 4 pieces reasonably cleanly and the film is destroyed owing to circumstances outside your control.

And then there were my own mess ups, centred mainly on CPE Bach but on occasion, Elissa Milne departed my fingers in a less than elegant manner. As it was the last piece I scheduled, those occasions were both times when I had played each of the other three pieces faultlessly.

In short, this was deeply, deeply stressful in a way that no other music exam ever has been.

And I’m going back for more. I will skip Grade 7 and move straight to Grade 8 as I need it for the ARSM which is to follow that. My target date for this is end of next year and I will work to the 2025 syllabus rather than the 2023 as the repertoire list is okay for that. Before I start preparing those pieces though, there will be a short holiday from exam syllabus music.

Practice plans on ToneBase

I haven’t had a lot of time there later but I see there is a new tutorial on trills (this is good news) and I answered the questions for a practice plan. This resulted in a list of 8 courses to follow:

  • How to sightread with both hands
  • How to play repeated notes
  • How to play arpeggions in inversions
  • How to use the left pedal
  • Playing Short Trills, Mordents and Trills
  • Pavane pour une infante defunte
  • Controlling the 6 Primary Dynamics
  • Illuminating Beethoven.

That last one is with Seymour Bernstein and I really like his delivery.

Anyway, it’s not a bad set of recommendations. I’m not saying I can’t sight read with both hands (I can) but if there are useful tips, this would be good. Repeated notes I need to practice, and the arpeggios in inversions I used to do as a teenager. One thing I have found is what I did as a teenager is often described differently by the American teachers (which is basically ToneBase, from my point of view). For the pedals, yeah, I use the sustain a lot because I love the echoing sound it produces. I typically used the left pedal on my acoustic to shut myself up as a teenager so probably that lecture is going to be illuminating.

The surprising one is the Pavane. I honestly thought that was probably beyond my level. It is on my to be learned list although not on my Learning List playlist on my phone – I must rectify that – but it was for later. I’ll give a listen to that lesson as well later on.

OBJ Bach Two Part Invention in E Major BMV777

If you check under my objectives, you’ll see I’m currently working Grade 6. I wonder sometimes how valid it is that I write a piano blog when I am stuck firmly in the intermediate box as far as classical repertoire is concerned.

I had trouble selecting the List A piece at the time. I was surprised; I thought the List C would be harder but I found recordings of some of them, liked the first one I heard, and off we went.

Out of the four pieces, the Bach is KILLING me. Well, some of it is incredibly easy. The rest of it is killing me. In part, this is a gap in my education. I don’t align so much with Bach as I do with Chopin and Rachmananinininininininoff or indeed Felix. This is not the kind of thing you admit out loud in the piano world. Bach is 42, the answer to life, the universe and everything.

The one piece of Bach that everyone knew (well I never played it but I could pull it out by ear if I really wanted to) turned out to be composed by someone else (Christian Petzold in this case, apparently). The only piece I truly liked was the Toccata and Fugue although Sky might have something to do with that.

It’s worth digging out an organ version too. But that’s not where we are right now.

I want to do the exam performance in February or March in 2024 so I need to get a move on with Bach. I don’t know the Rebikov but I can sight read it without too much difficulty. Learning it by heart is the challenge there and I’m already at a stage where I can deal with thinking about how I want it to sound. But the Bach had been a traincrash and more to the point, Apple’s music search meant I turned up very little when I went looking for a recording of it, at least initially. Once I discovered that looking for Angela Hewitt would be more productive, things got better. I’m now more motivated to learn the Bach because I’ve realised it is a stepping stone to the Rameau that I want to do for Grade 8. So back to Bach we went.

I’m stuck in the middle of the first part. Henle tells me this is easier than the Mendelssohn that while it was a swamp inhabited by dragons from a fingering point of view, it was also readable from day one. I won’t say it was easy to get right but it was easy to motivate myself to pick it apart and start putting it back together.

I don’t believe Henle. Maybe it’s easier if you started playing Petzold instead of a music hall version of the Rose of Tralee, aged 10 (god knows why we had it) but if you’ve somehow got to the age of 50 without doing any counterpoint at all, Bach is a big thick brick wall.

Bach, Two Part Invention in E major

In particular, I’m struggling with the highlighted bars above. Well, the first of them is okay after a great deal of very slow work and repetition. Yes, I have been using a metronome, at length, much to the pity of my neighbours no doubt. But it is very very slow going. I’m operating under the fatal excess optimism that once I manage that, then much of the rest of it being easier than the Mendelssohn might materialise.

On the plus side, it’s a decent enough piece of Bach, and I’ve also spent some time with the C Major Prelude from WTC lately, and I’ve had a look at Aria from the Goldberg Variations. I bought a copy of Anna Maria Bach’s notebook as well (and it has the Petzold in it too which is handy and now I am wondering about getting CPE Bach’s notebook too). And I really, really hope it helps with the Rameau.

In other news, I will see the Goldbergs courtesy of Vikingur Olafsson next week. I am looking forward to it.

Rameau: Les Cyclopes

While I still have a way to go to finish the Grade 6 pieces, I wanted to finalize a selection from List A for Grade 8. It’s not a period of music I instinctively ever want to learn and I wasn’t enthusiastic about more Bach to be honest. So I had a look at the list and attempted to find a good reason to learn the Scarlatti that was on the list. I failed.

I’ve chosen this:

Les Cyclopes, Rameau as interpreted by Vikingur Olafsson

There is a really great version by Grigory Sokolov around too and what fascinates me is how how different the various interpretations are. I suspect in part it’s because it was written in the early half of the 18th century, at a time when the composers did not necessarily leave much on the way of instruction, given they were written for harpsichord and this allows today’s musicians some latitude in how they play the pieces. But there are elements of this that I absolutely love.

Rameau_Les Cyclopes Extract
Extract from IMSLP version of Les Cyclopes by Rameau

You can find the sheet music here. I congratulate myself on finding a particularly antique version of it. I think it’s the first edition. Currently, it looks like the best publisher to get this from is Barenreiter – it’s not on Henle’s digital library and Barenreiter appear to have a couple of options to get it in print. I don’t think it’s on their digital library yet. In theory I am not in a hurry to get this. But I will still try to buy it tomorrow. I’m not sure I want 43E worth of Rameau, on the other hand I am supposed to be upping my sightreading game too. We will see what is supposed to be there.

ABRSM – Grade 5 Theory

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.

First Steps in Music Theory – Eric Taylor

This is a really useful book.

One of the most useful things you can do then is to work through exam papers.

Sample exam papers

The papers are organised in 7 sections:

  • Rhythm
  • Pitch
  • Keys and Scales
  • Intervals
  • Chords
  • Terms
  • 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.

Tracking scores

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:

More baby sketchbookd
They are around A6 sized. Small. Anyway.

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:

A very young Helene Grimaud working on Schumann

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.

Music sketchbook A4
A4 Henle Notes sketchbook for music.

The learning period of a piece

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?

Chris Maene Piano Collection
Here are some nice historic pianos to break the wall of text.

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)

Mendelssoh Venetian Gondola Song 19b

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.

Autumn Leaves – Rebikov

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.

Gondellied, Mendelssohn Op 19, no 6

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).