A Grade 7 Journey

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…

Mid-September 2018

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.

October 2018

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.

Mid-November 2018

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…)

December 2018

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…

January 2019

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.

February 2019

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.

March 2019

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.

For more information about ABRSM exams, click here.

Becky achieved a Merit in her Grade 7 exam, and is now looking forward to exploring more repertoire before focusing on Grade 8.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Finchcocks Piano Courses 2019

A weekend spent at the splendid Finchcocks manor house is rather like stepping back into the Eighteenth Century. Situated in Goudhurst, in the South East of England, and set in ample grounds, it’s positioned advantageously for panoramic views of the Kent countryside. This elegant Georgian mansion (see photo above), built in 1725, provides the perfect setting for luxury piano courses. Soft furnishings, tastefully muted colour schemes, original flagstone floors, marble and granite fireplaces, elaborate chandeliers, impossibly high ceilings, and wonderfully creaky staircases, allow a glimpse into what life might have been like nearly 300 years ago.

Accommodation on the third floor of the Finchcocks Mansion.

Last weekend marked my second visit to Finchcocks. On this occasion our accommodation was in the main house, whereas previously, we (myself and course participants) had stayed in the Coach House, a separate building to the right of the manor house. Meals are enjoyed altogether in a palatial dining room, with locally sourced food, all prepared and served by a chef. And for those who like a tipple, there is plenty of wine on offer too!

Courses begin on Friday evening at 7.00pm and end at 3.30 – 4.00pm on Sunday with afternoon tea. And they are fairly intensive affairs, so it really is possible to learn a substantial amount in a short space of time. I tutored an intermediate course; approximately Grade 5 – 7 level of the ABRSM examinations. We began on Friday with a duet session – the ideal ice-breaking introduction. I used my own duets and trios (Snapchats Duets & Trios), which are purposefully simple and tuneful, for a stress-free, friendly, and fun opener.

Duets & trios on two pianos in the crypt.

Saturday started at 9.00am with a two-hour technique session, focusing on straight-forward exercises which are helpful for developing flexibility, and alleviating physical tension. The weekend consisted of several class sessions, with participants playing their prepared repertoire, a memorisation session, a sight-reading session, and individual lessons for each course member. On Saturday evening, before dinner, we enjoyed a piano recital given by pianist Alexander Metcalfe, who played a programme of works by Satie, Chopin, Schubert and Liszt.

Built in 1974, with a powerful sonorous bass and a lyrical mid-range, this model 200 Bosendorfer was manufactured in Vienna, with ivory keys and is used for concerts and recitals in the hall.

A particular highlight at Finchcocks is the tantalizing array of pianos on which to practice. There are ten in total, and the majority are housed in the attractive crypt (see photo, above left); here, the pianos are contained in their own segregated area, allowing for private practice. Finchcocks was a musical instrument museum for forty-five years until it was purchased by current owners Neil and Harriet Nichols. The museum housed a variety of keyboard instruments, and therefore it seems fitting that the current collection also showcases an interesting selection of historical instruments.

The ‘flagship’ Steinway Model B, housed in the recital room.

Alexander gave his recital on a Bosendorfer, which is situated in the main hall on the ground floor (photo above, right). Also on the ground floor, there is a new Steinway Model B (photo, left) in the recital room, and a small Broadwood piano in the entrance hall. This instrument (see photo below) was constructed especially for Bertha Broadwood and it was designed to fit into her living room, therefore it is just 5 feet in length (and it’s nicknamed ‘Bertha’!).

Built in 1900 for Bertha Broadwood, chairman of Broadwood at the time, to fit in a space in her front room.

Most of the remaining instruments are in the crypt, and you can click on the gallery images below for more information about each one.

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Course participants brought a variety of prepared repertoire, including works by J.S. Bach (Prelude No 4 from Six Short Preludes), W. A. Mozart (Sonata in G major K. 283), Friedrich Kuhlau (Sonatina in C major Op. 55 No. 1), C.P.E. Bach (Solfeggietto in C minor H. 220), Frédéric Chopin (Prelude in D flat major ‘Raindrop’ Op. 28 No. 15 and Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6), William Gillock (Holiday in Paris), and Richard Rodney Bennett (Rosemary’s Waltz).

Finchcocks hosts piano courses virtually every weekend, and there is certainly something to suit every level with beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses, alongside those for improvisation and even a course for piano teachers. You can choose from a cohort of expert course tutors including Dave Hall, Graham Fitch, Warren Mailley-Smith, Penelope Roskell, and Lucinda Mackworth-Young.

I will be tutoring two further courses this year; an intermediate course from October 4th – 6th and an advanced course from November 15th – 17th. If you are seeking a majestic weekend retreat to hone your piano skills, or you’re returning to the piano after a break, or you simply wish to connect with new piano friends, you will love Finchcocks.

Click here for the list of new courses.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.