Evgeny Kissin at Flagey, June 20, 2023

I discovered quite by chance that Evgeny Kissin was playing in Brussels in June, so I went looking for a ticket. This was…difficult. I believe I got the last one. I want to thank the group of three that booked 3 of the last four seats. Made my life easier.

I have been fangirling over Evgeny Kissin for a very long time. He put out an album called the Chopin Album, sometime around 1994 or 1995 which I found out about on a programme on BBC Radio 4 (198kHz LW back in the day). It sounded interesting, they spoke highly of this [then] young talent, with plenty of assurance and a very promising album of piano music recorded in Carnegie Hall. I bought it as soon as I could find it. To this day, one of the best collections of Chopin music that I have ever heard and a comprehensive collection of the man’s stuff. What particularly stood out for me when I was like, 22 years old, was the 3rd Sonata.

Hearing him live was, for a long time, a dream objective. I caught him touring Hammerklavier pre-Covid, but this time, he presented an altogether more varied programme, including some Bach (never my favourite), some Chopin and some Mozart, before a second half devoted to Rachmaninov. The Chopin was one of the Polonaises, which I remember from the album I mentioned above. That being said, someone in the meet and greet queue tried to persuade me it could not possibly be Chopin.

Well it was. Definitely Chopin. I loved it. I’ve never heard it played with such verve, such imagery. If I had to choose a word to describe it, I would choose the word “cinematic”. Huge epic scenes swirled across the edges of my imagination as he played.

I am not yet very familiar with the Rachmaninoff solo repertoire apart from the preludes (which isn’t very logical to me as I otherwise love Rachmaninoff) but the performance was superlative and the couple of pieces I did recognise (the closing prelude in C sharp minor aside….) were mind altering.

The special thing about this concert is although he is very definitely the best concert pianist in the world, he makes you want to play. He is very, very inspiring to watch/listen to.

For me, this is one of the very best solo piano concerts I have been to. I would have gone again if it had been practically possible for me to do so.


One of my main concerns about coming back to the world of exams is practice. I don’t do enough.
I am not sure what enough is, but I have a full time job and family commitments. For a long while, the piano was below getting anything like mindless rest.
What I am finding now, is that I can get occasional 20 minute sets in and occasional hours. I am struggling to do it consistently and as I am definitely working on 4 pieces and occasionally sniffing at a few others, this isn’t going to get me very far.
Enter 100 Days of Practice for which I have set up an Instagram. What I have learned from that exercise is that kind of accountability is a hassle. But fine. It’s done. I have Andante tracking time, and I signed up for Tonic as well. Objective there is not to get too hung up on other people listening to me.
Today, I crossed a major frontier with Indigo Moon, one of the Grade 6 pieces. I can play it, however badly, all the way through. We are now no longer chipping away at bits of it but we have the rough sandpaper out. Not ready for final polishing, a lot closer there than it was yesterday.
This is basically following two big practice sessions, of about 45 minutes each. It basically confirms my view that 20 minutes practice a day isn’t close to being enough.
So, accountability is the name of my game. You will find my practice account at @wnbplayspiano.

Apps for the piano playing iPad owner

One of the most useful and also, most frustrating, aspects of modern life is the absolute proliferation of tools that don’t quite do what you are looking for. But from day one, one of the truly promising things about tablets or iPads was the potential for digital tools to support music. I didn’t get with it all that quickly but I want to touch on some of the the apps I use and comment on why I made some decisions for now.

For sheet music, I use two apps. I use the Henle Digital Library, and I use forScore. I use Henle because they sell me the music that I want, digitally, and it’s mine. I also have a vast (for me) collection of their blue Urtext editions and the third album of classical music that I bought was a Henle edition of the Chopin etudes. I haven’t learned much from it, but I love it. The application is great, it has all their music and so far, I haven’t any complaints about using it. It’s just, it has Henle music and only Henle music. If you look at my piece on going back to the exam world, you’ll see some music which is not on the Henle library, namely Indigo Moon by Elissa Milne and Autumn Leaves by Vladimir Rebikov. Indigo Moon I downloaded from Stretta Music for a small some of money and my local sheet music shop ordered the Rebikov for me.

In theory I can move any of the Henle purchases to forScore but I don’t see the point. Any other music I have (some by Olafur Arnalds and the odd thing I pulled from the IMSLP) I put into forScore. Already, this is tidier than Apple Books even though in theory, you know, all I need is a pdf reader. Both apps allow annotation, with the Apple pencil and both of them have the hellscape that is a Metronome Nagging Machine integrated.

The other app I use mainly for practice journaling is Andante. I like that this does stuff I cannot get a project app to do in terms of tracking and measuring time, dropping brief notes about the session, a larger practice journal which I don’t tend to use much because in theory, that’s what this blog is about. I find it handier to use my phone for this but I paid for the app (there is a free version) which means it syncs up with the iPad it’s installed on. I’m especially interested in tracking that to see how much work it takes me to get the Bach invention that I am supposed to be working on up to reasonable scratch. I started other pieces before I started using Andante.

Current projects

I decided a couple of months ago that I had not really achieved anything very much for me personally; don’t get me wrong, I did some amazing stuff professionally, but personally, I was not feeling super great about myself. So, I started looking at things I had wanted to achieve when I was about 12 years old (a long time ago now) and whether they were truly gone, or whether there was still a chance. The figure skating gold medal is a non runner.

The children’s book, could yet happen.

And then there were the piano exams.

I stopped at Grade 5 at a time when Grade 8 was the ultimate pinnacle of piano playing. I’d done the exams with the Royal Irish Academy of Music local centre set up and it’s fair to say, I didn’t totally enjoy the experience. I still have some of the repertoire books at home, possibly grades 3, 4 and 5. Fur Elise turned up for one of them which was a relief, and Sonata in C major, K545 Mozart. But I was traumatised by pieces by Bartok and Kabelevsky at times. The Kabelevsky, I have totally blocked out of my mind and I found the Bartok on YouTube once. To be frank, I didn’t find the repertoire engaged me very much although my mother liked a little Sonatina in G written by someone whose name I can’t remember. The point is, the repertoire offered to children needs to keep them engaged with the repertoire. On this, the RIAM’s exam options in the 1980s failed with me. This is a pity.

But now I’m fifty and I want to see if things have changed. Also, I am on r/piano on Reddit and they don’t talk about RIAM much, and anyway googling it failed to give me access to the current grade repertoires. I got to five so I would have been interested in 6. I found something called the RCM which had huge lists as options for each grade, and I got very excited until I realised they are based in Canada. So I looked for the UK based academies and landed on ABRSM, the Associated Boards of the Royal Schools of Music. Interestingly, they had more or less just introduced performance diplomas which you record and upload to their exam site, and they had interesting repertoire. You did three pieces from assigned repertoire and chose a fourth yourself. In this way you could avoid the less attractive sight reading and aural tests. So I got planning.

If I wanted to do the diplomas, I had to pass Grade 8, and if I wanted to do Grade 8, I needed to pass Grade 5 Of Some Description. It’s possible that the Grade 5 I passed about 35 years ago with RIAM might be adequate but that involved some soul searching and archive searching on my part. I decided that it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to do the Grade 5 theory and went about checking how far behind that I was. Around a grade, it turned out. And then I found music on the Grade 6 list that I either had lined up to learn anyway, I figured I was a bit shy of Grade 8 for a while anyway so it would be no bad thing to do Grade 6 and then review whether to go straight to Grade 8 or give Grade 7 a shot. Or, even, abandon the whole shooting gallery. So I’ve been studying Grade 5 theory; I’m confident of passing it now but naturally, my ambitions have increased and now I want an distinction. I also know what my two main weaknesses are. So I’ll write a piece on preparing that separately.

For Grade 6, I’ve chosen the following pieces:

  • Invention no 6 by Bach
  • Venetian Gondola Song no 6 19b by Mendelssohn
  • Indigo Moon by Elissa Milne
  • Feuilles d’automne, no 3 by Vladimir Rebikov.

The first three come from the syllabus lists for Grade 6 which you will find here, and the Rebikov is the self chosen piece because I realised that Reverie by Debussy was probably more suitable for the Grade 8 exam. One of the objectives here is to span a reasonable amount of time in musical history and I think I achieved that.

So at the moment, I’m focusing on the Grade 5 theory for most of my effort with almost daily practice littered across the four performance pieces. The Mendelssohn has cropped in a monthly playing challenge so I will probably prioritise that for the month of June and see if I can finish that at least. I like it a lot, and then I’ve made a lot of progress on the Milne. Less happy, but also, less time devoted to it are the Bach and Rebikov. I hope to record the exam session for that in February 2024. After that, the current plan, pending time and organisation, are

  • Grade 8 (partially planned)
  • ARSM (partially planned)
  • LRSM (repertoire planned)
  • FRSM (repertoire planned)

We will see how it goes, I guess.