I have always regretted not having learned to play the piano. As a child I had lessons for a few years, but never applied myself, and stopped at 13 having got to grade three.
In March 2020, I had time on my hands. My children have grown up, and like most people with an office job I found myself working from home. I needed a project and I had an opportunity to return to the piano.
I could already read the bass clef, as I took up the double bass in my forties, and I hoped that once I started, the treble clef would come back. I decided to begin where I had left off and try the ABRSM grade 3 exam pieces. I know that the ABRSM choses lovely tunes.
To my surprise and delight, after a few days I could read the treble clef and after a few weeks I could find my way around the keyboard without looking at my hands. This increased my already high level of motivation. By summer, I had learned most of the pieces in the book. I probably should have perfected them and taken grade 3, but the grade 4 pieces looked even lovelier, and so I moved on to those.
Learning grade 4 pieces has been much more challenging and at the same time incredibly rewarding. This time, I follow the fingering in the book. This time, I practice the difficult parts repeatedly and slowly. I try to read ahead slightly so that I’m not taken by surprise. The keyboard is in a warm room with a good light. I am a better player now after ten months than I was as a teenager after five years.
I decided to take the ABRSM grade 4 Performance Grade exam because it will force me to properly learn these pieces to performance standard rather than leaving them, almost learned, to get distracted with other beautiful tunes. The idea of being able to surprise my extended family with an impromptu recital is something I have dreamed of. I know from having taken several ABRSM exams on the double bass that nerves have a physical effect; they make my fingers turn to jelly, and so a Performance Grade exam, which you record and upload, will be better for me than a face-to-face exam.
I can play three of my exam pieces pretty accurately, at about half the marked speed, and the fourth – the modern piece, which I started at in January – has a way to go. So long as I am working from home I can continue to practice for two hours a day. I hope to be ready to do my recording at Easter and will be writing a second blog about that and publishing my exam result when I get it.
Polly Manser is Music Administrator at City of London school. Find out more about Performance Grades.