Category Archives: composers

Piano exam

Photo by Jenny Wilson

My piano exam was yesterday and I think it went pretty well. Two of my students were doing their Grade 4 exams right before me, so that was a bit of a distraction from my own nerves. There were a couple of little girls doing their Grade 1 exam and also a lady in her sixties who was doing a recital exam (candidates have to prepare a twenty minute programme). She was in good form when she came back into the waiting room afterwards (with the massive pile of music — the examiner needs a copy of each piece, since they don’t know what’s to be played), giving encouragement to my two students, “if *I* can do it, then so can you!”, which I thought was great. There was no chat out of the Grade 1 girl’s dad. He sat reading a Christian self-help book (I glanced at the chapter heading and saw something about Satanic Something-or-other), only making his presence felt by leaving little tracts on the seats when he left — one of them jauntily perched on the pocket of my bag!! Anyway.

I started with scales, which is apparently good to get one used to the piano. I was surprised at how nervous I was when it came to it. Should’ve done more playing of my pieces in front of other people, I think. Another thing I noticed was the height of the stool. It’s unusual that you get to adjust the height of piano stools — most are at a fixed height. As a result, I don’t really give much thought to it and, even though the examiner gave me an opportunity to do so, I didn’t make any changes to the seat. (Glenn Gould used to bring a chair with him wherever he played that he had sawn the legs down on. Apparently he sat very low at the piano — more suitable to the type of music he excelled at, as opposed to ‘big’ Romantic repertoire, which he didn’t specialise in.) When I think about it, of course, piano playing is all about minute distances and it makes perfect sense to try and replicate the conditions in which one has practiced those precise movements. Duly noted.

Perhaps as a result of the unfamiliarity of the position and definitely due to some of my body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ instinct under stress, I made a couple of little slips in the Bach fugue that I hadn’t been making in practice. That was frustrating, because I’d worked hard on it and it is a beautiful, pristine thing when it’s all there. I ended up taking it — in my best renditions of it in practice — at a fairly gentle speed and at quite a quiet dynamic. Bach would’ve most probably played it on a clavichord or a harpsichord, neither of which can approach the power of the modern grand piano. It’s tempting, at the end of this particular fugue (in Bb, from the first book of ‘The Well-Tempered Keyboard‘), to get louder as the last couple of entries appear. The last one, just before the gnarly last four bars, is a real joy when it comes good after practice. It’s a bit like I remember running the 800m in school — a feeling, in the final stretch, of the legs just going by themselves. The subject is woven between the left and right hands and seems to appear in relief against the top and bottom parts that are very definitely in the right and left hands. So satisfying to play and, in my opinion, best handled with care, like a fine cloth.

To be continued…

(I’m off to get ready to go out to The Mornington Singers’ concert.)

Oh WOW! (James Rhodes)

Excerpt of Étincelles Op. 36 No. 6 by Moritz M...
Excerpt of Étincelles Op. 36 No. 6 by Moritz Moszkowski (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love how we can now finally *see* how incredible performers play. Video can get right up close and record jaw-dropping things like James Rhodes playing Moszkowski’s luminescent ‘Etincelles’. (I like Mr Rhodes because he sent me a signed copy of his debut CD a few years ago when I correctly identified a piece of music he tweeted a picture of!)


First solo gig in a long time (and a bit about playing Bach on piano)

Emma O’Reilly asked me to play at a songwriter evening she curated the other night in The Mercantile bar. It’s a long while since I played my own stuff, so I jumped at the chance. I took out the guitar earlier that day at home to practice and ended up writing a new song — something I haven’t done in a long, long while!

I’ve been meeting up with a friend of mine, Peter Ryan, to hang out and talk about writing and give each other encouragement with stuff we’re working on. My lack of any new material prompted me to go back over the voice memo recordings of song ideas that I’ve made on my phone. It was two of these that I worked up into the song, which I’ve called ‘Panic’. I *do* have a demo recording of just me and the guitar, but I won’t post it up yet. I didn’t do a brilliant job of playing it the other night at the gig, so I feel like it needs to stay on the drawing board for a bit longer. I’m hoping to maybe work it up into a bigger arrangement, so you can hear it then…!

Buoyed by the experience of playing Emma’s gig, I got in touch with Lisa McLaughlin and got a slot on a forthcoming ‘Saucy Sundays’ gig (the regular showcase that she hosts in The Grand Social). Sunday 13 May — I’ll be on first 🙂

Another date of note (for my diary, anyway) is Friday the 18th of May. I just got word yesterday that that’s when my Grade 8 piano exam is scheduled for. Eek! The pieces are coming along nicely and I’m chipping away at the scales day by day — there are so many! I just read Charles Rosen’s book ‘Piano Notes’, which had some really interesting thoughts about playing Bach. One of the pieces I’m playing for the exam is Bach’s Fugue in B flat from the first book of ‘The Well-Tempered Keyboard’. He wrote a Prelude and a Fugue in each of the twelve major keys…and also each of the twelve minor keys…and then he did that all again. The interesting thing that Rosen points out is that these were never meant to be performed in public (and certainly not on a modern piano, more likely on a harpsichord or a clavichord). Bach would’ve used them as teaching material and so the modern practice of accentuating each appearance of the main theme of the fugue (the ‘subject’) is not how he would’ve expected the pieces to be played. For a start, the keyboard instruments of his day couldn’t do gradations of dynamics in the subtle way a piano can (a piano-forte, to give it its full name, is so called because of its ability to do both soft and loud). Secondly, since it wasn’t for an audience, the people hearing the fugue would’ve been the player or a pupil following the score — both of whom would have no need to have the appearances of the subject spelled out to them, since it was in front of them. Thirdly, the subject is the least interesting bit of the piece if you’re Bach. It’s just the bones to which the artistic flesh of the composer’s counterpoint is attached. All that having been said, if the pieces *are* to be performed for an audience who neither know the score nor have the aesthetic sensibilities of an eighteenth century harpsichord pupil, the pianist would do well to bring alive the music (to ‘publish’ it, as Rosen puts it), and some underlining of the structure of these remarkable pieces is the way to go.

All great food for thought. I’d recommend the book to anyone who plays piano or has an interest in classical piano music — it’s an easy read, with loads of anecdotes and insight into the repertoire and life of a pianist.

Piano practice

Practice continues for the Grade 8 exam. The three pieces I have to perform are coming along: Bach’s Fugue in Bb from the first book of ‘The 48’, Schubert’s Scherzo in Bb, and Shostakovich’s Prelude in D (from the Op. 34 set). Today I got a good bit of work done on all three.

This morning I listened to Murray Perahia’s 2000 recording of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, a piece I fell in love with when I was at university. The beautiful Aria that bookends the variations was featured in the film ‘The English Patient’ and my flatmate George had the soundtrack on CD. It also has a lovely version of ‘Cheek to Cheek’, as I recall… I encountered the piece again while staying on the Scottish island of Arran in my second year at university. A few of us went and stayed in a cottage there — I remember it raining a lot. We were armed with a box set of Bruckner symphonies, but it was a brief snippet in a TV documentary of Glenn Gould playing the fifth Goldberg variation that made the greater impression. It’s really a stunning performance (he recorded them twice, in 1955 and in 1981 — take your pick!) and a real piece of virtuosity. I memorised the first few bars of the right hand part when we got back to Edinburgh as a small act of worship…someday I’ll learn the whole movement!

I have a notion that Shostakovich gives that variation a nod in the Prelude I’m learning. It starts very similarly (although it quickly spirals off into Shostakovich’s sound world): the right hand has a stream of semiquavers which the left hand punctuates sparsely. Both pieces are number five in the set to which they belong…I don’t know…just a thought!

(Jeepers! I just searched for videos of the Shostakovich piece on YouTube and it’s mostly kids playing it at light speed…gulp…

Okay, okay, here’s one…

So, I’ll keep practicing!)

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!


'Called' - Bruce Herman (click for article about the artist)

Last night was the performance of Bach’s Magnificat and it was such fun. We met at the concert hall at 4.15 and went through the programme with the organist and the orchestra. We stood on the stage (five rows, I think it was, of about twenty-four singers each). In front of us were the orchestra — it’s quite a small band: double bass, cello, bassoon, chamber organ continuo, oboe/cor anglais, two flutes, triple strings (as far as I can recall) and timpani. Also not forgetting the trumpets that play such a great part in the outer movements. The choir is in five parts and there are five soloists, too, each of whom gets a solo aria.

The instruments are all given a moment to shine, too. I love the ‘Esurientes implevit bonis’ (the text of which translates as “he has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty”) — it features a flute duet obbligato (music-speak for the fact that they play all the way through, as importantly as the vocalist) that at times trips along in thirds or sixths, and at times has the two lines tumbling over each other. Bach plays a little joke with the words at the end: the flutes stop short of the final note, leaving it to the bass instruments. Sending us away empty.

Bach dissects the text of the Magnificat (the song that the writer of Luke’s gospel ascribes to the awestruck teenage mother of God), making twelve separate movements. I was at a talk during the week by theologian Terry Eagleton and he mentioned that the lines I quoted above sound like a political chant — the sort of thing that crowds would’ve shouted in protest against a corrupt and oppressive ruling class, say.

Another musical joke (a traditional one — Durrante does the same thing in his setting of the Magnificat, which we also sang in the concert) is the use of the same music at the end of the piece as the start. The last line of the doxology (Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.) lends itself nicely to the musical task of recapitulation (music-speak for having the first tune come back at the end). And what an ending it is! All trumpets (one of them a wee piccolo trumpet, playing gloriously high, piercing through the bustling music with a high, descending chromatic line. It’s as if, for a moment, we catch sight of something amazing before getting on with the business of jubilation.

Notes tremendous thundered out

Today is St Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music. It’s also the day Benjamin Britten was born. One of his compositions, the ‘Ode To Saint Cecilia’ (from whence comes the title of this blog post), is a setting for unaccompanied choir of a poem that his friend WH Auden dedicated to him. We sang it in New Dublin Voices a couple of years ago and it is included on our CD, ‘Something Beginning With B’.

(The album is available to buy from the website,, or on iTunes…)

Tonight I’m going to attend the rehearsal of the Goethe-Institut Choir. Hopefully they’ll let me sing with them in their forthcoming concert on 5 December in The National Concert Hall. They’ll be singing Bach’s setting of the Magnificat, which I fell in love with as a student in university. In the first term we (the fifty or so students in the first and second years of the BMus course) did the piece in a scratch performance just for ourselves. Our tutors told us about the various little compositional signals that Bach uses in his setting of the words of Mary’s song, and I’ll blog more about it another time. Right now I have to go and get ready. Have to make a good impression if I’m to convince them I’m up to the task!

Oh yes, and I found this charming video by the Anderson & Roe piano duo (whom I’ve written about before on this blog). Vivaldi was a near contemporary of Bach and would have probably *loved* to play a grand piano, had it been invented. Anderson & Roe achieve a delicate sound, more akin to the Baroque keyboard instrument sound, by dampening the strings of Ms Roe’s piano. Mr Anderson’s uneffected (but wonderfully affected) playing allows the piano to sing the melody as only a grand piano can. A beautiful effect from a continually interesting musical partnership.

Scorn Not His Simplicity

My Dad was a big fan of Phil Coulter. He was at Queen’s at the same time as Phil and liked to tell us about the time Phil locked him and a bunch of other students in a room on the campus to rehearse them! As a boy, I went to hear Phil Coulter and his orchestra a number of times—in Craigavon Leisure Centre, in the Grand Opera House at least once—and his albums were staples of family car journeys. I enjoyed his arrangements of Irish folk songs and I still remember going to Matchett’s Music in Belfast one Saturday morning to get a copy of his piano book (which I still have, complete with pencilled-in letters on ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ under the ledger line bass notes that Anna and I hadn’t learned yet). Actually, it’s through Phil Coulter that I got to know most of the tunes in the first place. Definitely a big inspiration to me. I still have a couple of signed photos somewhere with him posing at the piano in a billowy white shirt 🙂

His songs were what particularly made an impression on me. He started his songwriting career at a run, penning a Eurovision winner and a one-point-off-the-top runner-up at a time when doing so meant that, (a) it was a good song, and (b) they were destined to be massive hits. Check out his website for more of his story—it’s very readable, clearly written by him, and filled with loads of stories about the amazing career he’s enjoyed.

I was prompted to write this today by one song in particular, though, ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’. Written from Phil’s personal experience, this song was first introduced to the world by the wonderful Luke Kelly. Here’s a lovely, intimate recording from a Tallaght pub in 1974:

Today parents, teachers, pupils, Special Needs Assistants and others are taking to the street outside the Dáil here in Dublin to protest the cutting of funding for SNAs. Listen to this song and let your heart go out to them.


John Adams gave the commencement speech at Juilliard this week, where he was being presented with an honorary doctorate (along with the amazing Herbie Hancock—if you love music, get his album ‘The Imagine Project’). It’s a great speech about being an artist.

Twyla Tharp, Herbie Hancock, Derek Jacobi, John Adams

It calls to mind a post I did a few months ago that highlighted inspiration from Sam West and Austin Kleon.

Cuban Landscape with Rain

A beautiful performance of Leo Brouwer’s ‘Cuban Landscape with Rain’ by Dublin Guitar Quartet. I came across Leo Brouwer’s work while helping catalogue guitar music at The Victorian Music Library in Melbourne in November. One afternoon I popped out for lunch to a lovely charcoal chicken place and, as I ate, the heavens opened and spewed forth rain such as I’ve never seen before. Then, as swiftly as it had begun, it was over. Listen out for the portrayal of rain in this beautiful piece.