I stupidly left some of my precious scores at the venue where I attended a photoshoot last week. I put the scores on the windowsill of the theatre while my photographer friend and I moved the piano into position: I remember thinking, “I mustn’t forget to take those scores with me”….. I only discovered I was missing the scores when I went to practice on Saturday morning, and for a moment I suffered that awful heart-in-the-mouth feeling as I tried to recall where I might have left them. Unless I am reading a score away from the piano (usually in bed, when others might be reading a novel!), my scores live on or close to the piano. Having searched briefcase, bedroom and car to no avail, I realised I had left the music at the theatre.

I felt curiously bereft without them: the Dover edition of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage with a rather fine portrait of Liszt on the front cover, the pale mauve ABRSM edition of Chopin’s Nocturnes, which I had when I took my Grade 8 exam over thirty years ago (still with my then teacher’s annotations), the dusky blue Henle edition of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux which accompanied me to my Diploma exam…… “You must have something else you can practice,” my husband said, seeing my miserable face. “You can go back to the theatre on Monday and collect them.”

He was right, of course – and I did retrieve the scores – but without them nearby all weekend, I did feel rather unhinged. It’s not so much the books themselves, which of course can be replaced, if necessary, but all the annotations and personal scribblings on the pieces I’m working on which I missed.

A pianist friend of mine, on seeing my richly annotated score of Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (heavy with my fingerings, comments to myself, and excerpts of the libretto from the song version), suggested that I rub out all but the most essential markings and “clean up that score!”. “Oh no! I can’t possibly do that!” I exclaimed in horror. For to me those markings are as familiar as old friends, and without them it’s just NOT MY SCORE!

I expect we all have our own set of personal markings and annotations: I favour rings around notes to remind me of a place where I regularly make a mistake, exclamation marks (rather like the road signs) to alert me to ‘hazards’, a cartoon pair of spectacles to remind me to look out or ‘watch it’. Then there are general notes about context, the composer, facts about the work. (In the case of the Liszt Sonetto, it was incredibly helpful in my interpretation and shaping of that work to have a translation of the libretto at crucial points in the score, as well as a copy of Petrarch’s original sonnet pinned to the inside cover.) It’s always interesting, almost voyeuristic, to see someone else’s score, for the marks within in are highly personal: someone else’s fingering and comments, which, if analysed, might reveal someone’s deepest insecurities and frustrations, their unspoken hopes and most secret desires.  Someone else’s annotations, their wisdom, the score they have lived in, and worked over many times.

My scores are now safely stowed on the lid of the piano, ready for this week’s practising. Meanwhile, over the weekend, I worked on Mozart’s Rondo in A minor (K.511), and made some useful inroads into Messiaen’s Prelude ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ and Rachmaninov’s wonderful transcription of the Prelude from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3.

Tenor John Aler sings ‘I’ vidi in terra’ – Sonetto 156 di Petrarca (S.158/3)

Revisiting a work one learnt last month, last year, or 20 years ago can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making a new friendship. Picking up a piece again after a long absence, as I have been with Mozart’s melancholy late work, his Rondo in A minor, K 511, often offers new insights into that work, and reveals layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round.

My experience with my studies for my Performance Diploma taught me how to practice deeply, to the extent that I was on intimate terms with every note, every phrase, every nuance, every shading in all of my exam pieces. After I had performed the pieces for the exam, I might have considered them “finished”: certainly, on the morning of the exam, my thought was “I have done all I can. There is nothing more I can do”. But that was then, on 14th December 2011, and now, mid-February, picking up the Liszt Sonetto 123 del Petrarca again ready for Richmond Music Festival, the piece feels very familiar, yet certainly not “finished”. Of course, it needs some finessing for its next performance in just over two weeks’ time, and some reviewing in the light of the examiner’s comments, and, yes,  it is “all there”, in the fingers. But it has changed since I last played it: it’s more spacious and relaxed, gentler and more songful. It won’t be quite the same piece as before, when I play it in the festival.

The Mozart Rondo K 511 is multi-faceted: it prefigures Chopin in its rondo figure, a weary yet songful and at times highly ornamented melody, and harks back to Bach in its textural and chromatic B and C sections (a more detailed analysis of this work here). This is actually my second revisit of this work: I first learnt it before I started having lessons with my current teacher (about 5 years ago), and then revived it about two years ago. So, third time around, I am finding more subtleties in it, while also being struck at how cleverly Mozart manages to express his entire oeuvre in the microcosm of a piano miniature: there are arias, grand operatic gestures, Baroque arabesques and chromaticism, Chopinesque fiorituras, extremes of light and shade, sometimes within the space of a single bar. All the time when I am working on it, I find aspects which remind me why I picked it up in the first place, while also discovering new things about it.

A work can never truly be considered ‘finished’. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. The same is true of a recording: rather than a be-all-and-end-all record, maybe a recording is better regarded as a snapshot of one’s musical and creative life at that moment. As a pianist friend of mine once said “it’s always the way: you commit a work to a CD then discover all sorts of new things about it….”. American Pianist Bruce Brubaker, in his sensitive and thoughtful blog Piano Morphosis, describes this as a process of “continuing”. Thus, one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.

Here is Mitsuko Uchida in Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K 511. For me, this is a peerless interpretation of this work.

Mitsuko Uchida – Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K.511

Friends and regular followers of this blog will know that I took my piano performance diploma in December. I am pleased to announced that I passed – with Distinction! Without wishing to blow my own trumpet too much, this is a significant achievement for me: to have studied for and taken a high-level music exam in my mid-forties, some thirty years after I took my Grade 8 is no slouch, and I’m very glad I did it. I owe a debt of gratitude to my teacher, who gave me the confidence and self-belief to do it. Also to those friends and colleagues who have been so supportive – hearing me play, offering advice, putting up with me cancelling dinner dates etc. And not forgetting my loyal page-turner, Andy, a good friend of mine, and one of my students, who accompanied me to practice rooms in Edgware Road ahead of the exam, and who carried my briefcase containing my scores to the exam centre in Greenwich on the day.

Anyone who thinks a diploma is a step up from Grade 8, think again. While it is a logical next step for a competent musician who has achieved Grade 8, a diploma, even at the lowest, Associate level, is significantly more involved, requiring a high degree of attainment, combined with a professional attitude to preparation, communication, musicality, presentation and stagecraft. The diploma itself is a professional qualification, recognised by other musicians and music professionals around the world. (One of my students, Eli (10), described my Diploma as “Grade 14”!)

Diploma candidates are expected to create a recital programme that demonstrates a range of musical styles, moods and tempi, as well as artistic coherence, and to provide programme notes for each piece. Marks are awarded, or deducted for the artistic balance, planning and timing of the programme as a whole. One of the nicest things a friend said to me about my programme was “When I read it, I really wanted to hear it”.

Candidates are also assessed on ‘stagecraft’, which is more than just ‘presentation skills’ in the manner of, say, a job interview. The exam should be treated as a professional public recital, and one’s clothing, attitude and communication should reflect this. For me this was one of the harder aspects of the exam, as I have, until recently, always been a reluctant performer.

Here’s my advice on preparing for a diploma, based on my recent experience:

Repertoire: Select pieces you know you want to spend time with: you may be working on them for a year or more, and you need to love every piece to hold your interest and excitement. Don’t be tempted to select repertoire because you think it will “impress the examiner”, such as a Chopin Ballade or a big Beethoven Sonata, but choose pieces which you feel will highlight your skills and demonstrate your ability to tackle a range of music. If you have time, consider learning one or two extra pieces than you need to for your recital to give yourself some flexibility when organising your programme. You can plan a programme entirely from the published repertoire list, or a mixture of own-choice and set list pieces, or entirely own-choice (if including own-choice repertoire, you must seek approval in advance – allow plenty of time for this as it can take up to 20 weeks). As your exam date grows near, try to recall what excited you about the pieces in the first place – you want to convey that excitement and passion in your performance.

Stagecraft: Get as much performing practice in as possible ahead of the exam – play for friends, do competitions and festivals, masterclasses, courses. Have a proper dress rehearsal in your exam clothes in advance and practice walking to the piano, bowing, pauses between pieces etc. I also regularly recorded myself playing – but don’t listen to your recordings immediately afterwards. Leave it a day or so, and then listen. It is an incredible useful exercise and can highlight areas which need refining.

Check the regulations: Go through the exam regulations and syllabus very carefully. Some Diplomas have pre-requisites (such as proof of a pass at Grade 8) for entry. Make sure you qualify and ensure you fulfill all the exam entry criteria. An oversight here could lead to disqualification. Check the closing dates for entries and the exam seasons.

Practice on a variety of instruments: Play as many different pianos as you can, especially if, like me, you do not have a grand piano yourself. Rehearsal rooms can be hired from as little as £10/hour: Jaques Samuels in central London has a Steinway D and a dinky little Kawai baby grand, both very good instruments (I actually preferred the Kawai to the Steinway, which spooked me). Don’t expect the set up on the day to be perfect: I was fortunate to warm up and perform on Steinways but the piano stool in the exam room was wobbly!

Ahead of the exam: Make sure you know where to go. Do a practice run, if necessary, to check out transport links, parking, practice facilities etc. Sometimes exam centres will even allow you to try the piano in advance – it’s worth asking. Write your programme notes and have them proof-read/checked by someone else. Print your notes on good-quality paper or lightweight card. Make sure you include timings for each piece as well as the duration of the whole programme.

Don’t over-practice: In the final days before my exam, I cut back on my practice time, and what practice I did was mostly spent on openings and endings. Some pieces needed to segue into one another (Bach ‘Toccata’ to Debussy ‘Sarabande’, for example), while I wanted a longer pause after the Schubert (Impromptu in E Flat, Op 90/2) and the Liszt Sonetto. All these details count: don’t stint on them.

The day before the exam: Don’t over do it! I did a light run through of the entire programme and spent the rest of the day doing very little. It is important to keep body and mind rested ahead of a performance. Play your pieces quietly and slowly, or play music which you enjoy, just for relaxation. Avoid alcohol and make sure you get a good night’s sleep.

On the day of the exam: Do very light practice. Try and rest as much as possible. On the day of my exam, I got up late, did light practice, got changed and packed my briefcase. I did everything slowly and quietly.

I think the most important factor I drew from the whole diploma experience is that if you are well-prepared you should have nothing to fear. I had been working on my repertoire for over a year, in the case of some pieces, and I knew everything really well. (You are not required to play from memory and no extra marks are awarded for pianists who play from memory.) I loved every single piece in my programme and was excited about presenting the programme to the examiner on the day. I wore a dress that was comfortable – I was very careful to choose something that had no tickly labels or other distractions. All these things are very important.

All in all, I found the whole experience of studying for, and taking a music Diploma extremely positive. To immerse oneself in a set of pieces for such a long time, to know them intimately, and to grow to love them, was deeply satisfying. I also learnt how to practice deeply, thoughtfully and productively, useful skills which I can pass on to my students. And the end result, not just a pass, but a pass with Distinction, endorses everything I do at the piano, day in day out.

There are many different music diplomas to choose from, and plenty of support for those studying for a diploma. Summer schools and courses are also a great way of sharing repertoire and gaining useful insights from the professionals, as well as offering an opportunity to have your playing critiqued by peers. The current issue of Pianist magazine contains comprehensive details of summer schools.

So, what next? No sooner had I read the exam report and chatted to a friend who took her Diploma on the same day as me (and who also gained a Distinction) than I started looking at the LTCL repertoire….

Further resources:

Trinity College of Music Diplomas Overview of different types of diplomas, repertoire lists, regulations, entry forms and entry information

ABRSM Diplomas Overview of different types of diplomas, regulations, repertoire lists, supporting material for viva voce requirement, and writing programme notes.

London College of Music (Thames Valley University) Diplomas

Writing programme notes

Rehearsal rooms for hire in central London

As some of my readers already know, I write regular music reviews for international concert and opera listings site, Bachtrack.com. A new sister site, OneStopArts, has just gone live, specialising in listings for theatre, music, exhibitions, comedy and lectures in London. Do visit the site to find out more.

My latest reviews for OneStopArts are here

Franz Schubert's eyeglasses on the manuscript of the song "Gretchen am Spinnrad", Schubert Museum, Vienna

 

Music journalist and author Jessica Duchen makes a passionate case for the music of Franz Schubert in a recent article on her blog.

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Schubert’s music, from an LP of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony in my parents’ record collection to hearing my father playing ‘The Shepherd on the Rock’ on his clarinet, and my own early explorations with the Impromptus as a teenage piano student, explorations which continue to fascinate me today. I think Jessica says it all – read her article here.

Michael Collins (clarinet) – Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsen (The Shepherd On The Rock)