I took my Grade 5 piano exam today. Grade 5 is something of a personal milestone because that's what my best friend Kathryn got up to, and she's a brilliant player. A year ago we looked at some of the exam pieces in a music shop together and we both felt as if the pieces had got easier since the 1980s when she got to Grade 5 (and I got to Grade 2). Another friend, who's a music teacher has sort of confirmed this but says the criteria to pass has gotten more difficult. Anyway, Grade 5 is the last exam you can take without having done any of the others. To even sit Grade 6, you have to have passed Grade 5, and apparently it gets more difficult after that. Even the examiner said to me: "Grade 5 is the end of the beginning" while I was packing up.
For some reason my hands were extremely cold, but I think I did OK, only making a couple of small slips on my pieces. I don't hate them now as much as the Grade 3 and 4 pieces, but they've been more challenging and thus fun to play. I did most of my scales OK, apart from the arpeggios which are just horrible. And I think I got the sight reading which was relatively easy with only 1 B flat. Then I had the dreaded aural tests which I always flounder at. This time I'd downloaded an Iphone app to help me with them. Somehow the app has managed to convey the severe personality of an unimpressed Madam Sousatzka type tutor. She has an indeterminate "foreign" accent and always sounds both bored and unimpressed, and even on the rare occasions when you get all the answers right she utters a semi-sarcastic "wow" as if to imply "I wasn't expecting that, you must have been guessing". I don't have a real piano tutor, so she is all I have. I suspect that the next time they update the app, the makers will incorporate an electric shock which she will administer with glee when you get an answer wrong (ie it will be the default).
All of the aural tests are difficult to me, and I know I will lose marks on the singing because I can't do it. But I thought I might stand a chance with one part of the test where the examiner plays a piece of music and you have to say whether it's from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic or 20th Century. You'd think this would be easy as it covers about 400 years and I'm fine at spotting the difference between 1960s, 1970s and 1980s music for example which is a much shorter time-span, but trends were slower in those days and I kept getting it wrong, to the obvious delight of my spiteful Piano Tutor App who took considerable pleasure in pointing this out. I finally figured out that Baroque music sounds like the sort of thing you'd see people in big white wigs dancing to in front of a King. I wrote down and memorised saying "detached notes, few dynamic changes, limited keyboard range, sounds like dancing" because you have to explain the reasoning behind your answer.
Romantic sounds like the pianist is all emotional - there's lots of drama ("rubato, virtuosic, use of dampening pedal, wide range"), while 20th century is either a bluesy piece or totally bonkers ("unclear tonality, irregular structure, strong rhythms"). Unfortunately, Classical gets me confused because it's kind of in transition from Baroque to Romantic - and apart from using lots of scales and arpeggios, I can never get it. (Unless, as I suspect, the evil app has been lying to me).
Not only do you have to identify the period, but you sometimes have to describe the "character" of the piece. So I devised a couple of vague all-encompassing things, in case I couldn't think of anything. I practiced looking very thoughtful, cupping my chin and saying "It's very interesting and also very musical." These weren't options that the app gave, funnily enough. Fortunately, I didn't get asked about character, so I never got to say that.
I've tentatively bought the Grade 6 music, just to see. It's impossibly difficult. My detached virtual piano tutor is going to love it.