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.

Music of my childhood

RIAM Books of the mid1980s
Music books of my childhood

I was looking for a piece of music I learned to play when I was about 11 or 12 and I knew some of the exam books I used at the time were still at home. I even knew when where they were. The piece of music was a Sonatina and some research around exam organisations didn’t turn up anything when I searched IMSLP. So the piece was in the grade 2 book. It was a Sonatina in G by Thomas Attwood. You can find the music here (youtube sorry). I’m also interested in a Sonatine piece that was on the Grade III book.

Here’s what was in those books

  • Sonatina in G – Attwood
  • A Little Song – Kabelevsky
  • Mazurka – Berkovich
  • Sonatine (2nd movement) Haslinger
  • Dolly’s Complaint – Franck
  • Serenade Andalouse – Poot
  • Sonatine (2nd movement) – Pleyel
  • Pentatonic Tune – Bartók
  • First Loss = Schumann
  • Sonatina – Hook
  • A Little Song – Khachaturian
  • Gay Story – Shostakovich
  • Sonatine – Dussek
  • Bagatelle – Beethoven (A flat)
  • Knight Errant – Furze
  • Sonata in C – Mozart
  • Novelette – Khabalevsky
  • Tuesday’s Child – Bennett

Looking at the list, what strikes me is that Khabalevsky turned up a couple of times.

I’m reasonably sure that I did Grade 5 as well but the book was nowhere to be found, I don’t remember what colour the cover was but I am reasonably sure that Fur Elise was on the list. If anyone from the RIAM from nearly 40 years is still knocking around, I’d be interested to know.

All the questions I don’t understand

Every once in a while, someone pops into r/piano on reddit and asks, often plaintively, where can they find music to play. Where can they find songs.

I struggle with this. There is Google. There are sheet music shops. There are such easy answers to this question that I can’t quite get why people are able to operate Facebook, or, even r/piano itself, but cannot find sources of music. There will be some answers here.

Mostly, though, people are looking for low effort, free. This is my sole understanding. They don’t just want the music from the movie Amelie. They also want it to be free. Bully for that – Yann Tiersen is not dead, and it’s not going to be free until 70 years after he is dead. The average redditor will be a long time waiting. However, helpfully, it’s all in this book here, and also, I’m pretty sure that people have put transcriptions up on musenote.

I own two books by Tiersen, this one (which I love because it has a chunk of stuff off other albums which I want to learn to play as well) and Eusa which has some stunning stuff on it. For modern composers, you can’t really go wrong with him or with Olafur Arnalds. Olafur occasionally makes some of his sheet music available via his social channels, he was selling one book (one beautiful book) while touring last year. He has a couple of other books on his online shop currently out of print which I covet. Also, go see him in concert.

I am very lucky to have a good sheet music shop near to where I live, linked to the fact that there is a music conservatory very near it. They clearly cover a giant chunk of the classical repertoire – and I will come to that in more detail in a moment – but they also have a significant amount of film music, games soundtrack music and especially music by Japanese composers (Howls Moving Castle has a bit to answer for). They will order anything you want. I will be honest – there is nothing more pleasant (or expensive) as browsing a sheet music shop. It’s worth supporting them.

For classical music, there are several routes to heaven. There is your local music shop.

However, if you are tied for cash or not prioritising the spending of your cash on sheet music, and you are into classical music and you have either an iPad or a printer, you are quids in. There is the IMSLP library (which you can also support with cold hard cash because they are not Facebook or even remotely trendy to techbros). This has a vast array of scans of sheet music for out of copyright and often, out of print classical music. This, by some distance, is the country mile cheapest way to get music. It is an incredibly precious project and also, if you subscribe to them, you have access to a library of streaming music. This is kind of handy.

On the online front, there are a couple of options. Several publishing houses have their own apps or shopfronts for online sheet sales – Henle is one and I use their app and like it. Schott I think also do online sales. Some of the online shops like Stretta (I live in Europe) and probably SheetMusicPlus will sell downloadable PDFs. NKODA has a subscription model. I can’t comment on it too much other than yes, it has a lot of music, especially music that is out of copyright, but I’m not totally onboard with the financial model and most of the music they have that I might want is either available in physical copy in my local music shop, can be ordered or can be ordered as a pdf from elsewhere. If you’re into modern pop and other more recent compositions it’s probably a better option.

For jazz, I can’t help you. I do know again that there are transcriptions of Keith Jarrett’s Cologne concert knocking around (great piece of music. You should give it a listen).

Most other stuff, I arrange for myself. Then people ask me for the sheet music which is challenging since I pretty much play it by ear, and it changes all the time.

Some much for that one. Moving onwards

I have been learning music for 3 months, and I can play Fantaisie Impromptu. What should I play next?

I have very real problems with this. I have particular problems with someone claiming that they started playing in January and here’s them playing Rachmaninoff prelude in C sharp minor and to put my cards on the table, I don’t believe them. It’s not possible to learn to read sheets adequately to play Rachmaninoff in that time, and when you scratch a little between the lines, very often, they didn’t learn to read sheets, they followed a key tutorial on Youtube.

I feel stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea here. Basically, I feel if you can play Fantaisie Impromptu competently, you have enough knowledge to know what you want to play next, or have enough interest in the piano to have some idea of the repertoire. There is, if you are interested, plenty of ways to find similarly scaled difficulty (go look the piece up on Henle’s catalogue, find out what they graded it as and look at other pieces of the same level) (if they have truly learned to read music, this will be a piece of case).

If you can’t, I kind of wish you wouldn’t post it on r/piano that you can. There are adults going through hell preparing Grade I exam pieces after 2 years of work and lying about what you have achieved, or how long it took you to achieve it, is completely demoralising, and also, it’s a bit amoral. But you do you on that front.

In the meantime, I am tempted to answer Islamey by Balakirev (it’s less painful than Rachmaninoff at first appearance) or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Refer to the answer on sheet music above after that.

What piano should I buy?

Questions of this nature come with completely unreasonable budgets, usually. My personal view is this. There are several input questions:

  • How much money do I have, really?
  • How much space do I have, really?
  • No, go back and answer those two questions HONESTLY
  • What kind of music can I play now?
  • What kind of music do I want to play in the future?
  • Do you want to play daily?
  • Do you have neighbours who work nights?
  • Do you live in an apartment?

I could also ask, do you collect pianos? And Have you gone to the Piano World Forum.

Typically, if you have 200K and the space, I would say by a Steinway D. Try to play more than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on it unless you’re going to do a set of variations that exceed Mozart’s efforts. For the rest of us in a different reality, I would suggest, you want to spend enough to make it a decent piano (so free looking for a good home is a risk) but not so much that you have anxiety attacks the next time the electricity bill comes in.

I bought a brand new Kawaii CA59 as I a) knew I wanted to buy a Kawai if I bought a digital from many tests, b) had a little bit of space for it in my office (by the time it arrived, I didn’t any more but I had space in my living room instead) c) some classical, lots of folk and pop d) more classical, lots of folk and pop e) yes but life innit f) no idea and would prefer not to find out the hard way by being yelled out and g) yes so headphones will be handy.

I will do a post on my life in pianos later.

What grade is this?

There is an ongoing debate about the value of ranked piano teaching systems. Places that don’t have them think they are batshit crazy. Places that grew up with them are like “meh, that’s just how we roll”. Mostly they are ex-British colonies and the UK itself. I did piano grades as a teenager and as you’ll see here, I’m planning to do them again but more interesting than what I did age 15.

That being said, people really do want a way to objectively place themselves in a world where there are people claiming that they can play Fantaisie Impromptu having played the piano for the very first time in St Pancras Station (the not-Yamaha) yesterday and I can understand that. There are a few sources, and to be fair to the r/piano community they tend to provide them. Henle rank the pieces they publish on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is relatively easy, I haven’t found 10 yet but most of Chopin and Rachmaninoff are 7 and above. If it is on an ABRSM syllabus, they will generally mention that too. There is also some other site which I haven’t bookmarked that has a lot of things too although curiously not always the Mendelssohn pieces I am looking for. And after that, there are the repertoire syllabus for ABRSM, TCM, RIAM and RCM and worth looking through them to see if the piece is there.

After that, not sure we can help. But think about what you next want to learn.

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).