I spent some time yesterday and the day before considering whether to restart piano grades or not. If you spend any time around some of the piano forums on the internet, you find this is a question which quite a lot of adults who have gaps in their piano playing life address at some point, and a question that beginners want to deal with. Since most people doing grades tend to be children or teenagers, it is a question which causes a certain amount of nerves. A bit like someone going back to school after 30 years away because they never did do a school leaving exam. In many respects, on account of being completely out of whack with the rest of your cohort, it can be very nervewracking to be different, older and behind. Plus, children and especially teenagers, can be quite cruel sometimes.

On balance there’s a part of me that would like to finish things out. I made it to grade five with the Royal Irish Academy of Music before school got in the way and then I started on a journey through life where access to a piano was erratic at best. It is the same part of me that tries to tempt me into signing up for a PhD. I don’t have time to do all the things I want to do because unfortunately I also have to work. And I like my job. I like the meeting of other people. Anyway it is in that context that I was considering this. I had a look at repertoire for the Royal Irish Academy and against, that, for ABRCM and Trinity in the UK. I could not find a local centre that made sense to me, but ABRCM have an exam centre here in Luxembourg

From what I can see, the RIAM offers the grade structure, but also a couple of recital options. ABRCM seems to be double grade – performance and musicology. I can’t remember too many details about Trinity. Anyway, I had a look down through the assigned pieces for each of the examining authorities and one of the things that struck me was this: There are pieces I want to play. And there are pieces on the assigned lists. The overlap was sadly, rather limited. On the basis of this years sets of lists, I will not be starting back at grades.

One of the many things which cratered my attachment to music as a child was an assigned piece for grade 3 or 4 – so not exactly beginner but not very high up the scaleĀ  – by Bela Bartok called Pentatonic Tune. I continued on because I knew enough to know that in general, this awful, awful piece of music which I hated but which some examiner had thought valid for a young person was not representative of all music. You will have teachers who consider this stuff required to have a well rounded musical education. I am not sure I agree – Bartok existed way after the piano repertoire – Liszt seemed to survive okay without him, as did JS Bach who didn’t per se write for the piano. What came into consideration for me as I reviewed these lists was this question: do I want to play these pieces, do I want to put the very minimal time I have free to do this into pieces I wasn’t really inspired to play in the first place? Where Bartok is concerned, the answer is a straight no, and I’m not too enamoured of Prokofiev either. They could both be avoided

I’m not afraid of hard work with the piano. When I have the freedom to do so – and I am having increasingly more of it – I am well capable of sitting at the piano for 2 to 3 hours at a time, breaking the hearts of my neighbours upstairs in constant repetition of parts to master fingering. I’m also not afraid of the piece I am learning taking a long time to learn. I’m aware that I have a massive gap in my practice, and I have some weaknesses with sight reading. But I also have some pieces I am motivated to learn, some easier than others. I spent a good chunk of yesterday with a piece of Handel which, if fortune smiles on the spare time front this week may well be finished by Easter. It’s a short piece. It’s an easy piece. And it is something to play for when people say “Play something there”. People tend to want the well known.

But I have a couple of serious stretch targets, here on my desk beside me is a book of the Chopin ballades of which I started work on the second the last time I had reasonably dependable access to a piano (thanks to the nice people at the music department in UCD). There is a choice to be made between hours into a Chopin Ballade which really interests me – challenging and a bit beyond me yes – and hours into a few pieces, most of which I am not yet familiar with and of those, not on my radar. It may be that I would be better off sitting down with a teacher and considering the recital exams with the RIAM instead and selecting three pieces which appeal to me, or possibly 2 plus one obnoxious piece of modern stuff which I don’t much like to round off completeness. It is a hard call.

In the meantime, if it comes to me to spend around 4 hours with the piano transcript of Sarabande by Handel, I’m not sure I’ve lost anything because I’m not doing the grades. I suspect it is a decision I will be revisiting on a year to year basis.