Tag Archives: Royal Irish Academy of Music

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.)

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!