Tag Archives: Grade 8

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!