Whither piano exams

During the week I found out that there was an ABRSM group of some description on FaceBook so I took a look in. It was a weird experience, but I wanted to touch briefly on some of the discussions I saw in there. Somewhat surprisingly, there are people who do not like the performance grades.

They think they are too easy and exams are a waste of time.

The discussion I read during the week was sad. One primary push from certain of the contributors was that in the old days it was harder, and the exams were more of an achievement. And that ABRSM only does things for the money. And the exams are meaningless. And if you don’t have to do sight reading or aural or rhythm tests they were just too easy and no one was doing exams any more.

I’m going to be honest. ABRSM should roll back the decision to only issue digital certificates by default. The exams are not exactly cheap but I doubt the diplomas are the biggest problem. That aside, what do I think of it?

Well, these graded systems are really a feature of the British world, and mostly pervade countries that were under British rule when these things were getting off the ground. This explains, for example, why the US is clueless about this sort of stuff but Canada, Ireland and Australia all have parallel systems and because no other countries really do it, if people want them, they tend to ABRSM and TCL. ABRSM is, I understand, especially popular in South East Asia.

What I found infuriating about the discussion is that one of the loudest voices against the performance grades and doing exams in general now Argued From Authority and the authority they argued from was having done all the ABRSM and TCL diplomas. I mean, have they no idea how utterly privileged they are? Most people haven’t time to do all the grades, never mind the grades and the diplomas of two examining bodies? Why would you do ABRSM’s top diplomas if you already had the TCL ones? And vice versa?

In practical terms, I’ve already written about how annoying it was to be forced to do pieces I hated (side eye to RIAM in the 1980s). Once you get to grade 6 onwards, I’m not sure you can actually progress without being reasonably competent in side reading, aural understanding, rhythm tests and some basic theory. That extra piece is a good chunk of work. Being told it’s worthless by someone who implies the whole thing was harder in the past (but easy.cheap and accessible enough for them to do both strands) is utterly insulting. It also doesn’t really deal with the key points here. What are people’s motivations?

What was this person’s motivation to do both FRSM and FTCL? What on earth does their business card look like?

Why does it matter more than mine? I got up in April and said “I regret not completing to Grade 8 when I was a teenager. The only other thing still possible is book writing, the dream of an Olympic figure skating gold was always out the window).

What was their motivation when it all comes down to it, if all they do is belittle the motivations of other people, run down their achievements and then boast they did it all and more anyway?

It must be very sad.

Contemporary Music – why?

Last night, to get to a wonderful rendition of Bruch’s first violin concerto, I had to sit through a work called Feast During a Plague by Sofia Gubaldulina. I’ve never heard of her but with Bruch and Prokofiev on the menu, I had filed the piece under “how bad can it possibly be” and bought the ticket anyway. The other two pieces were worth the ticket price. This was not. In answer to “how bad can it possibly be”, the answer is truly, unequivocably awful.

Apparently some people – I don’t know who, whether they really exist or how high they were – have called her the world’s greatest living female composer. I have no idea why. I really have no idea why. I don’t know how the orchestra suffered through it and I believe they have to again tonight in Charleroi. For the first time in my life in a concert hall, with a high quality orchestra on the bill, I heard an audience boo a performance. This is highly rare. If they got applause, it was for suffering through this piece.

I loathed it. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of much atonal output anyway – I think it’s self indulgent trash for the most part, and this was utterly devoid of a melody. It had some structure yes, but who cares when ten minutes in you’re wondering when the torture is going to be over. When you see her name being mentioned in sentences with Shostakovich, it’s the sort of stuff that makes me vomit. Shostakovich – whether you like him or not – wrote singable melodies. The second movement of his second piano concerto is a truly beautiful thing (if not the rest of it) and in one of his Jazz Waltzes he has given us a truly amazing short work whether you hear it played by an orchestra or a piano or two (there are a fair few transcriptions around), it is wonderful to listen to.

There is a recording of this Gubaldulina work somewhere on YouTube where at least one of the ten commenters described it as “lovely”. It is anything but. It is unmelodic, harsh discordant mulch with too much running around by the percussion crew. We use the world “lovely” to describe Rachmaninoff’s 18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. We use the world “lovely” to describe Puccini’s arias. We do not use the world lovely to describe self indulgent atonal compositions that should not ever have the indulgence of being performed and imposed on a paying audience who would not pay money for it if it were the only work on the bill. I cannot imagine that this is the Gewandhaus’s best selling album by any stretch.

From what I can see, the audience hated it. They were fidgety from about 10 minutes in, and shortly afterwards, they started chatting. There was a large group of bored teenagers in who loathed it. We have one of the top violinists playing Bruch like an angel afterwards but this nonsense lost a bunch of young people. Orchestras need young people. It’s why the hell we have concerts of computer game music all of which is better than this. It’s why we have concerts of Hans Zimmer’s music.

I understand the need to schedule new music. But for the love of god, if that new music is atonal please don’t schedule it with Bruch, or Prokofiev. She might have been a contemporary of him and Shostakovich but it’s no wonder they are known and she is not so much.

I love the BNO. I love the Henri Leboeuf hall in Brussels. I’ve been to some stunning concerts there. But whoever programmed that needs to explain why they programmed that with the Bruch and Prokofiev. It was an awful, awful choice, completely counter to the beauty of the other two. It didn’t complement them. People left that concert hall at the interval (as they do for Bartok symphonies).

Contemporary music doesn’t have to be like this. At the end of the day, if you want to play atonal crap, you have to accept that not a lot of people want to listen to it and without an audience, what is music anyway? Meanwhile, people like Ludovico Einaudi are selling out major arenas as did Ennio Morricone.

You might judge people for liking that simplistic crapola and not being sophisticated to recognise the true genius of Feast During a Plague. But there is a reason that when people are asked who their favourite composer is, it isn’t this that they are answering. Nothing from the atonal world comes close to matching a Bach or Mozart.

This was not music. I never again want to hear it.

Talking about the journey

One of my bucket list items has been to go to Verbier, and I am thinking of trying to make it happen this year. There are two or three concerts I’d like to go to – Alexandre Kantorow’s solo recital is one because that I would like to see.

By the way:

Alexandre Kantorow and friends celebrate their teacher’s time in France

I start off with Verbier because well, another bucket list item but which felt unattainable was grade 8 piano. And somehow, this is now realistic.

I love pianos. I’ve played piano in one shape or form since I was 8 years old. The world is full of people who are much better than I will ever be at this stage. The world is full of people who started learning at the age of 64. I’m better now than they are ever going to be.

But I wouldn’t be here without some hard thinking about a year ago and it boiled down to this: the work schedule I had would not allow me to do another university degree. It simply wasn’t possible and to be frank, I didn’t see the point any more if the outcome was to be more intense and constant exhaustion. In 2022 and 2023, I was constantly stressed and exhausted. So things were going to have to change.

So I started wondering about going back to music lessons and to see what I might yet be able to manage on that at this stage of my life. I looked on line and found Canada’s RCM and its extensive list of pieces. I have to confess, I didn’t realise it was in Canada until after I had selected some pieces for Grade 6 that looked doable. As far as I could remember, I had done up to Grade 5 in Ireland.

When I figured out it was Canadian and not UK system, I went looking again for a British one as I assumed there would be exam centres here in Belgium. This is how I discovered ABRSM had these performance grades that you recorded and uploaded. Also, they allowed me to prepare 4 pieces and avoid some of the other skills that I didn’t really want to try and structure according to their syllabus. I play by ear, and I play a rhythm instrument as well. I wasn’t totally worried about that.

But I had to do Grade 5 theory or prove I had done it in Ireland before. I figured it was easier to just do the Grade 5 theory rather than search remotely for proof I had done RIAM. In any case, I don’t think I did Grade 5 with the RIAM in Dublin, but with the Leinster School of Music which isn’t on the list of accepted alternatives for ABRSM. Doing the exam was a good idea.

It was really interesting. I learned a lot. I learned that I could still remember most of the theory covered up to Grade 4. What I didn’t know was really interesting and helpful. It covers a lot of how I think about music. From my point of view, obligation or no, being aware of Grade 5 theory is a good thing and I haven’t excluded doing further theory grades. For now I’ve been working on the performance grades.

I play the piano almost every day – if I miss a day it’s usually because I am travelling. To that end, I can now play pieces by Mendelssohn (dream come true), CPE Bach (love the piece), and two other composers that I didn’t really know before I fished them out of the syllabus. It’s really great.

The benefits though have not really just been musically inclined. I think the simple decision in April last year to start working towards something that a person I used to be has pushed me back into being some of the person I used to be, someone a bit more comfortable in myself. It took a long time and I’m really only starting to see the benefits now. My self esteem was still rock bottom in January; but these days, I think about those moments when I fly through CPE Bach – and I learned that incredibly quickly. I learned it in 6 weeks to be honest and now it is in polishing mode. I can’t quite believe it to be honest.

In the journey, it helped me to move around changing other parts of my life so that I could manage stress more effectively. That I could realistically think about learning some of the lots of sheet music I own. I go to more concerts. I’m thinking about going to a master class in the local conservatory. My resting heart rate is down. I’m sleeping better and some other health indicators around stress are also better.

I still have a lot of things to fix both musically and personally. But genuinely, making room for the exam one of my colleagues thought was crazy has changed my life.

Love of my life

I bought this when I was about 15 years old.

Love of my life
1980s edition of Rach 2, reduced for 2 pianos.

That wasn’t today or yesterday. In fact, it was about 35 years ago and I bought it in a music book shop in London. I would give anything to find it again but I suspect it doesn’t exist. In my memory, it was a branch of Oxford University Press but it was, above all other things, a dream world. It had floor to ceiling drawers with mysterious labels. Ladders to get to the higher drawers. Middle aged men having heart attacks as I searched for Rachmaninoff’s name on the drawers.

I wanted two things. This and something else called Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Both of them together were too expensive, so after some no doubt annoying humming and hahing in the shop, I chose Rach. I’m not going to say Rach 2 has always been my favourite piano concerto but I hadn’t heard Saint-Saens 5 by then and Rach 2 is currently my favourite piano concerto.

You can tell this is an old edition. It doesn’t have the standard pic of Rach on the front of which most of the Boosey and Hawkes editions of his concertos do. Also, it is extremely grubby.

I didn’t really realise how grubby it had got until I looked at it today. I took it a lot of places with me. I sat in cars, on rugs, at picnic tables, analysing it, listening to Julius Katchen’s iconic recording and picking out bits of it. We got that from the Great Composers back in the day, on cassette and I recommend it. It’s a tragedy he died so young. The tape lived in my Walkman for most of my teenage years except when I was listening to Jean-Michel Jarre.

One of the girls I knew at choir said the coda was very hard and I would never learn it. She didn’t know it was a coda but the notes were small and there were lots of them. My music teacher did not want to know about it. It’s not like there was an orchestra handy where I grew up. I’m not going to say I was actively discouraged but I definitely was not encouraged.

Looking back, I think this was a pity. Claire Huangci says she learned it at 14. I bet she was encouraged. It’s standard repertoire. There are any number of renditions of it on YouTube. God I would have loved YouTube as a teenager. I just had The Great Composers partworks in cassettes. I learned the opening chords, before I bought the sheet music, from the accompanying magazine. I think my mother donated those magazines. I may regret that now.

I started learning it the summer I was 17. I was doing exams; I had worked my tiny little heart out on chemistry French and maths for two years; I had 2 weeks off before my exams would start and at that point, I didn’t think there was much I could do to improve further my chances in the Leaving Certificate in 1990. I scored two As, 4 Bs and a C back in the day when that meant something (old woman shakes fist at sky about the simplification of the maths syllabus amongst other things) so I probably wasn’t far wrong on that. I knew my theorems and I was the first person in years to do the chemical equilibrium question at my school and I got it 100% correct. I’m not bragging here. I’m about to explain that what I engaged in for the study break was the greatest torture known to a family in Ireland whose piano was in the same room as the TV.

I started learning the second movement of Rach 2. It was in E, a key I preferred to C minor in general (this is still the case). I used to get up, have breakfast, fill a pint glass with Ribena, the sugar filled version, put it on top of the piano, open Rach 2 somewhere in the middle and repeat a few bars endlessly. I must have spent 5 or 6 hours on it on occasion. I have a very fuzzy memory now but I’m certain I had had afternoon practice sessions which lasted 4 hours or more. I cannot imagine the focus I had that allowed me to decipher the notes (sight reading is not my strongest point although it has improved lately), and get myself to a point where I could play around the first – well this is the question. If I look at where I think I stopped, I got about 4 minutes in before I hit the polyrhythms for which I had no help at all and never navigated. But I really didn’t realise it was that far. I almost definitely got about a minute and a half in. There are some notes in the script – not many because mostly I tend to put in things to help to get the rhythm right and after a few years of RIAM and the Leinster School of Music, I have a horror of notes on my script (so I’m totally out of sync with most musicians, it seems) and everything is carefully in by pencil.

Why are we talking about this today? Because I have heard people learning Rach 3 on Reddit and Rach 2 on Tonic and I realised, if they are doing it, why can’t I? I am sure I wrote a bit about some of the people learning Rach 3 and yet I cannot find it quickly. So squirrelled away at the back of my head is that I would pick up the piano concerto again. The same movement – I love it – and start seeing if I could reawaken the memory of what I was able to do when I was 17 years old, drinking Ribena by the pint class. Today, I took it out and looked at how godawful grubby it is. I have the Henle Urtext on my iPad as well but there is some sort of emotional connection between me now (better sight reader and with some tools to deal with polyrhythms) and a girl with a crazy unrealistic dream in a house in the middle of rural Ireland.

I cry tears for that girl sometimes. She had a lot of life before her; I know now what that life included and a lot of it didn’t include a piano which is perhaps a shame.

I can’t still play the first 4 minutes. But I can – almost at will – play the opening page without fault and I can make it sound heart breaking. There is something about I play that which is absent in how I play Mendelssohn, for example. You can pick up senses of it in the Rebikov that I play with affliction when the mood takes me. But the heartbreak in these notes by Rachmaninoff is on a different scale.

I should be learning other exam stuff. I can’t even say how far I will get with this piano concerto this time. It’s mostly way above my skill level when you look at the piece as a whole. But I am now 50, and I can do what I like and what I like at the moment involves pieces of the greatest piece of piano music ever written.

Chat ideas

I have blocked my right ear lately – I know this is too much information and yes I have drops and yes I enjoy the absolutely awful sensation of them. Nevertheless, the last time this happened I wasn’t playing the piano.

So practice today has been pretty challenging as only one of my ears is working.

I had some empathy for Beethoven and I am terrified about losing my hearing.

On the practice front, it has been mixed these last two days. I dropped out of Platinum back to Gold on Saturday night in the Tonic Community. Not a disaster but currently I am second which means I will be probably on my way back up on Saturday. The issue here is that I won’t have a piano on Sunday, Monday and most of Tuesday. So I don’t even have to guess but I’ll be staying exactly one week in Platinum again. Last week was the lowest amount of time I spent playing in quite a while.

Mostly today was marked, in addition to half deafness, to having the craziest memory issues that I’ve had. They kind of started on Sunday at some stage, so that the two main pieces that I know more or less by heart were just into roadblocks on occasion. Milne is almost ready though so out of the 4 exam pieces, 3 of them are usually under reasonable control so only the CPE Bach remains to control. That has been challenging with a memory that is just laughing at me.

I will see Alice Sara Ott in concert on Thursday this week (so yeah, I may run out of practice time and not make Platinum after all).

On Reddit there is someone learning Rach 3. He’s 6 years younger than me and he has always wanted to play this. I get the motivation; I want to do it with Rach 2. It’s likely to be a 10 year project if I do it. There are bits I want to have a go at in both it and Rach 4. But I need to do effective planning skills and decision making and I give a pretty decent chunk of that to work. That pays for all the music I buy. And will pay for my grand piano when I buy it. I should blog about those dreams again. I don’t regret letting that last one go but at some point I will want to buy one.

And there are some opening themes in Brahms I that are talking to me at the moment.

It’s 1040 on a Monday night. Really, I should be in bed. But I worked from home today and that disrupted my view of myself and my little world. I did get to practice at lunch time though which was nice.

20240224 Practice Diary

Last week was busy and yet, I some how managed daily practice until yesterday. They were just short practices which is a pity.

Last week I got myself into the Platinum League on tonicapp, which was great while it lasted. I immediately ran into a week that was several late evenings at work, one choral concert, one day hiking in the countryside. Most days I barely made 20 minutes at the piano. The plus point is that I made it at all.

In short, I only did the four exam pieces I was working on and I looked at two Clara Schumann pieces for reasons outlined below as well. For the exam pieces, the CPE Bach is coming on, faster than I expected but I doubt it will be ready by end of April. The other three pieces are close to done. I still make mistakes with the Mendelssohn, and with the Rebikov. But both of them are memorised and the Milne piece is almost memorised although I still haven’t decided if I would use it with or without the sheet music when playing the exam.

I really like the CPE Bach even as my fingers trip over themselves. I am way short on speed of it, but half of it is more or less memorised to support dealing with the speed that it should be played at. If I get a reasonable run at it today, maybe during laundry, then I might have it all memorised by the end of the week when I will blow my practice schedule again by not having enough access to a piano for a few days.

On no isolation

I signed up for Ray Chen’s Tonic App sometime last year but I didn’t get it working for myself, possibly because I got nothing much working for myself and I focused on music theory last year to deal with the gateway Grade 5 for the ABRSM plans I have.

But I started using it to track practice before Christmas and it is handy enough for accountability there (a bit like the exercise things are on Apple Fitness). I worked myself up to the gold league a few weeks ago and it’s marginal but I might make a step up this week as well.

The part that has surprised me this is not the fact that it tracks my practice streaks (currently on 9 days in a row and the fact is, travel has tended to seriously disrupt that for me so this is really good going for me) and keeps me mostly on board there. The unexpected plus point is listening into other people. There are names I am starting to recognise, sometimes because I know that they are working on something or other. I know that we are all in different timezones.

I grew up more or less isolated doing music when I was a child. The teacher had other pupils, of course she had but we never really built much of a community. It didn’t bother me at the time and I also grew up enough in an era where I just wasn’t aware of certain things. Fame was on the TV, I didn’t know that Juillard really existed. There was no IMSLP. There was no instant access to pieces of music that you wanted to learn. I got to learn what the RIAM reckoned I should be learning. All due respect to them but not a lot of it appealed to me, especially not the Bartók.

I never really got to hear other people practising. I’m 51 years old now and I am listening to people of all ages practising pieces in various levels of difficulty and knowledge. What I have learned is that I’m not any worse than the vast majority of people. It might not make sense but I assumed that because I felt certain key skills were weak for me, the effort I had to put in to learn pieces was probably disproportionate. I no longer think this. I hear dozens of other people repeating bars, crashing their fingers on the keyboard when things go wrong, other people talking to themselves. And because they are part of a community, they are sharing information, advice and encouragement.

I sometimes wonder if this is what it would have been like somewhere like Juilliard or Curtis. I wonder what it might have been like to have the dream to go one of these places, and be part of a mutually supportive community.

There are a lot of things that I wish had existed for me when I was 15 years old. Tonic is one. IMSLP is one. YouTube is one. Instead, I had the Great Composers on cassette which my mother collected when I was about 10 years old. It was my only access to a wide variety of classical music. Even now I am thankful for it.

But mostly, I wish I’d been inspired by people like Daniil Trifonov when I was about 11. The nearest I came was Evgeny Kissin when I was 21 years old at which time I had no piano.

The two pieces of music I bankrupted myself to buy as a teenager were Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto and the Grieg in A minor.

On Sightreading

One of the gaps I identified for myself at the start of this more recent piano journey was sightreading. I suppose in part, it was because I wanted to read music as fluently as I read English. This might be unrealistic; I’ve been reading English since I was three years old and that is now a frighteningly long time ago. But arguably, my sightreading is weaker than I would like. I imagine a world where I can read anything I want up to and including Chopin’s third Sonata which is the apex of my ambitions, apart from buying a Steinway B, that is. But I struggle with sightreading, especially lefthand because I learned treble clef a couple of years before I learned bass clef. I struggle with ledger line notes too.

So I did what any sane person does when they want to get better at something. I searched sightreading on YouTube and disappeared down an increasingly disappointing black hole. There is a huge amount of advice out there from people telling you how you can sight read better. What most of them have in common is that they are targeted at people who know absolutely no music theory at all, have no basis in reading at all. I suppose it’s the easiest place to start with pedagogical stuff on sight reading. I’m not the target audience. I realised I was not the target audience because once you got past the names of the lines on treble and bass, there was an emphasis on understanding the length of notes. I know this. Understanding intervals: I know this. Understanding key signatures. Come on!. I know most of these too. I know that five sharps tells me it’s B major or G sharp minor. I’ll possibly draw them in the wrong order but interpreting them, I get there.

So what I’ve come to understand is that I’m a better sight reader than I gave myself credit for. Still not good enough but the hints around knowing how to read are unrealistic for someone who actually knows how to read; the point is to read more and more and get faster. When you see discussions about this on Reddit, the advice is that it is a numbers game. I read a piece by Elissa Milne a few weeks ago where she noted that in general, the higher some of her students went in the graded music education system, the worse their sight reading got for the simple reason that they weren’t doing enough of it. I’m not a fan of the Numbers Game but in general, she came up with a plan to increase engagement of students and to get them to sight read a whole lot more. That’s the 40 piece project that I have going in the background (see here). I’m not really on top of it because I don’t always have the music to hand and practice time has been thin on the ground these last couple of weeks. But I have done some things outside the scope of the exam pieces I’m working on. There has been some Beethoven, some Shostakovich, some Haydn, all composers that I don’t regularly touch. I have worked on a couple of pieces by Beethoven – the infamous Bagatelle that everyone knows, and I intend to learn the second movement of Shostakovich’s piano concerto no 2 and one of his waltzes. I have sheet music for both. Haydn I tend to bypass.

Of the pieces that are being worked on for repertoire, there is Handel’s Sarabande and Variations, and Prelude in C Major from Bach’s WTC. I’m not a fan of Bach senior but there are some glorious things knocking around. I also have Siloti’s transcriptions of some of Bach’s stuff. So I may adjust the list currently here to take account of other things I want to learn.

I started learning CPE Bach’s Solfeggio during the week to replace the List A Bach that I wanted to abandon. It’s astonished me how much easier it was to sight read than I expected. I’m assuming that part of it is linked to the short pieces I work on now and again and that this has helped a lot. So yes, in short, it’s a numbers game.

Exchanging Bachs

I’m tired of Bach’s two part invention in E major. It’s not coming right for me; it’s lagging far beyond the other three pieces that I am doing for the Grade 6 ABRSM and the more I work on it, the more dispirited I feel.

The other pieces were relatively quick to learn under finger so I wondered if I might do better with a different piece. I didn’t remember wanting to do much of List A for the Grade 6 when I looked so I wasn’t totally enthusiastic. But that was almost one year ago and I’ve happened across more music in the meantime. So at some point since then, I had bought CPE Bach’s Solfeggio and added it to the to be learned list.

Is it a good idea to skip on the two part invention? Do I really want to admit to a piece of music besting me? It’s Bach – it’s supposed to be a challenge.

But there’s the question of keeping focused on the objective and the objective was not actually Bach; that was just a contribution. Something else could contribute – it wasn’t the only piece on the syllabus.

So I went and looked to see what else was on the syllabus and I idly considered some Schubert before I noticed the CPE Bach and thought, wait, don’t have I have that piece now in the the sheet music collection? I’m sure I bought it in Trier….

The effort on the JS Bach is almost certainly not wasted. It feeds through into improvements in other piano skills. The read through of the CPE Bach was joyfully straightforward. My sight reading. It’s not necessarily a difficult piece to read although it’s a bit finicky to play with the hand switching, and also, the fact that it is played at Prestissimo. But it feeds into the Rameau that I want to do next year so there is that.

This decision will probably cost me a month (not superb but still) but I’m also a lot happier to move away from a piece that was making me unhappy. And this variety of syllabus was why I chose the ABRSM rather than the RIAM when I picked back up the piano exams.

New listening

Lucas Debargue has an upcoming album of Fauré’s complete piano music. Apple has been dropping tasters and it really is rather attractive. This arrived during the week.

I already have some Fauré on my TBL list, one of the romances from Opus 17. It’s been on my list for a while (that’s Alexandre Tharaud’s responsibility) and I even have the sheet music. I think it is also on the 40 pieces list but I am working (sort of) through the easy ones, Anyway, the music for this appears to be available via Barenreiter too. I’m not sure I want to buy any more music just yet though (this does not mean I won’t).