Today’s guest blog post has been penned by my student Becky Flisher. Becky is a typical adult piano student who has a full-time job and many other hobbies and interests. She has been learning the piano for a while and attends several piano courses every year, including my course at Jackdaws Music Education Trust, and PIANO WEEK. I asked Becky (pictured below) to write about her recent experiences whilst preparing for her Grade 7 (ABRSM) exam, as I thought her preparation might inspire other adult learners to step up to the challenge of taking an exam as a mature learner.
My name is Becky and I’m an adult-returner to the piano. I’ve studied with Melanie for 4 years now (I have lessons every other week), and during that time I have learnt an incredible amount; I was around ABRSM Grade 3 level when I picked up the piano again 4 years ago. I’m a typical adult learner; time-short, self-conscious, nervous and not used to performing or playing in front of people. However, I am also academic and like being given certificates that celebrate my progress. This is a diary of my journey towards my Grade 7 exam. For my exam, I prepared the following programme:
- Clementi, Allegro assai: 2nd movement from Sonata in G, Op. 1 No. 2
- Backer Grøndahl, Sommervise: No. 3 from Fantasistykker, Op. 45
- Ravel, No. 5 from Valses nobles et sentimentales
Early September 2018
Steady progress. My scales are starting to come together, I’m able to play them through with the right notes! Now I need to focus on evenness and articulation. I can play the Clementi and Grøndahl through, but not up to speed and there’s certainly no subtlety in them yet, lots of refinement needed. The Ravel I have only hands separately at this stage. Time is already ticking…
Misery – I’ve felt clumsy and uncoordinated all week! I haven’t dare attempt anything too complicated, but have kept myself to slow, deep practice to make sure that I wasn’t getting frustrated and ingraining stupid mistakes. I know that sometimes you must go backwards two steps before you can move forward again so I’m reminding myself of that this week. When I feel sluggish, I do some slow, deep scale practice, relaxing between every note. Then I follow that with some staccato scales, I find that really helps ‘wake up’ the fingers and remind them of that articulated feeling. Over the course of my learning with Melanie, I’ve discovered that frequent practice helps keep that ‘articulated’ feeling closer at hand, (if you’ll pardon the pun) and each practice session it takes less time to get back to that feeling.
At last, I’m over the ‘blip’. My fingers feel light and nimble again today after a week of feeling clumsy and un-coordinated. If my lessons with Melanie have taught me one thing, it’s to trust the method. It works. Playing slow and deep when you’re working towards a looming exam deadline might feel scary, but a solid foundation to a piece is key. Today I tried my pieces closer to performance speed and it worked – for a moment. Then I started over-thinking it again and getting stuck on notes. The trick is finding that balance between relaxing and enjoying the music, and not being so relaxed that you lose concentration. For me, I’ve found the best way to do this is to focus on the overall musical line, rather than on individual notes. That way if you slip or stumble on a note, it doesn’t throw off the entire phrase.
Early November 2018
I’ve slowly increased the speed of the Clementi – creeping nearer performance speed – and I’ve lost all ability to play light and nimble again! So frustrating!! Everything is suddenly incredibly uneven at this faster speed and I’m slipping on and off notes. Back to lots of slow deep practice to really get my fingering sure on all these fast passages.
In today’s lesson I tried the Ravel hands together. Lots of scrunched chords with awkward hand positions and I’ve realised I’ve strained my right arm by not fully releasing the tension between notes. Lots of slow practice today dropping and releasing my hand and arm after every chord, and then extending that light, relaxed feeling into my arm and shoulder. Who knew that relaxing could be so difficult? (Perhaps I should get a massage, to help my piano playing…?) After this session I thought I’d have a go at the Clementi and it was super! I was so focused on keeping my arm relaxed I forgot to worry about the notes or how fast it was and inadvertently played it the best ever! From today I’m going to start every practice session with 5 minutes of relaxing and letting my fingers sink down into the notes (while I entertain myself with thinking about the paradox that control comes from letting go…)
I’m finally managing to relax more easily, which is getting me closer to performance speed for the Clementi. I’m also getting much better at not thinking about the notes so much and following the melodic phrase instead. It’s not fully accurate yet but a shape is beginning to emerge…
I attended one of Melanie’s Masterclasses on ‘Performance Technique’ at Jackdaws Music Education Trust this weekend. This was the perfect platform for me to test the Clementi in front of an informal audience. I put all my tricks into practice, tried to focus on staying relaxed and the phrasing. It highlighted lots of areas for improvement and those ‘problem spots’, but it was invaluable in terms of showing how I might perform in exam conditions. I came away hugely motivated to put in even more effort. If you haven’t been to a piano festival or Masterclass before, do consider one – not only can they really improve your performance playing, but they are great introductions to new repertoire, teachers, courses, techniques, methods, resources, and like-minded amateur pianists.
I’m starting to prepare properly for my exam, ramping up my aural practice, practising scales out-of-order (including staccato, hands separately, etc). I’m still doing lots of slow practice in those problem areas, and my fingers are starting to feel stronger. I went around to a friend’s house and played all three pieces for her on her piano. I’m glad to say that they are much improved.
I played at two Music Festivals this month, as practice runs for the exam. The first one I rather muddled through, but I managed to keep going at least. The second was vastly better. I felt I managed to give a performance rather than just play the pieces. This was a much more formal environment than the Jackdaws performance, but I felt I did infinitely better. I managed to shut the audience out and just focus on the music and enjoying it. This is the feeling I need to recreate in the exam room.
Late March 2019
Exam day. I did a slow, deep warm-up and ran some practice scales and sight reading, played through my pieces and then stopped. Important not to overdo it. Exam time.
It was over before I knew it. I focused on staying calm and trusted the preparation I had put in. However, I did make some errors in one of the pieces, and I felt the pedal was particularly difficult to control. It’s incredibly hard to be objective about these things, but I am hopeful I have passed. Regardless, I have learnt some new pieces, improved my technique and learnt to trust in my practice methods. If I feel myself getting frustrated because I’m slipping or uneven, I know it’s time to go back to s l o w p r a c t i c e! When I’ve done that thoroughly, I know that I can lighten my touch and relax, and it will all be there, securely under my fingers. When you learn to trust the practice you’ve put in, then you can let go and enjoy the music.
Becky achieved a Merit in her Grade 7 exam, and is now looking forward to exploring more repertoire before focusing on Grade 8.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.