Grade 8


I have set myself a new goal — to do the Grade 8 piano exam in May. Grade 8 is traditionally the highest level of performance attainment. (It actually just occurred to me that this is probably because there are eight notes in an octave. Huh.) There are a number of examination boards, the best known of which are the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), London College of Music, Trinity Guildhall, and the RIAM (Royal Irish Academy of Music) here in Ireland. I’ve decided to go with the RIAM for this exam (although I did my other grades many years ago with the Trinity College of Music, now part of the Guildhall). I like the idea of being associated with an institution that I can visit and feel a part of. I’ve lived in Dublin for over a decade now, and I want my music qualification to reflect my subsequently altered sense of identity.

For music exams, the common format is to prepare three pieces from the syllabus. There are also scales and arpeggios to learn, a sight-reading test, and aural musicianship tests. It’s expected, too, that candidates will be able to talk about the pieces they’re playing with the examiner. At the higher grades, the three pieces are chosen from three lists that broadly reflect the main periods of musical history. I’m going to prepare Bach’s Fugue in Bb (from book 1 of “The 48”), Schubert’s Scherzo in Bb, and then something from Group C. I’m torn between a brilliant Shostakovich prelude in D and one of the most famous Chopin Nocturnes (in Eb).

I had a really enjoyable practice session yesterday working on the Bach and the Shostakovich. One of the first tasks when learning a new piece is working out the best fingering. Often a piece will have the editors suggestions marked in, but this is only ever a guide and a deeply personal part of piano playing. I made a quite a few changes to the Bach fugue edition I have. It’s a fairly knotty piece, especially the last line, which is notoriously tricky and involves lots of swapping of the hands to cover the notes smoothly. Emerging at the other end of all that work with a fingering that suits me was really satisfying, though. Now to practice, practice, practice!

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