Like scaling Everest


Working on the principle that a good parent should occasionally try doing what their kids are up to, I committed myself to taking the Grade 5 piano exam. If the six-year-old, the nine-year-old and the 11-year-old are all doing grades on a variety of instruments, surely I should do, too. And as most parents committed to state education will know, music is now a tool for educational proficiency. Push your children through various orchestral hoops and they will end up at a decent state secondary. Unpalatable, but true.

The problem is that the last exam I took was Grade 1. In 1977. “Don’t you remember doing it, Mummy?” chirps one of the offspring. Of course I don’t. Still, it can’t be that difficult to muster the requirements for Grade 5: namely three pieces, a bit of sight reading and a few scales (including The Monster – C sharp minor, contrary motion).

So, a fortnight after my children take their exams, I, too, walk the walk down the corridor at the Associated Board headquarters, into a room containing a man and a Steinway. It has taken me two years to reach this point.

I remember what my teacher told me – try out a few bars on the piano. I put my hands on the keys and try to ignore their reflection on the polished surface of the Steinway. At home I mess about on a honky-tonk upright, so it is crucial I am not alarmed by this Rolls-Royce of an instrument.

Then the exam begins with scales, easy ones first: E major, fine; F major, good; then F minor. I have forgotten F minor. Horror. I played it five minutes ago on the practice piano. I have now forgotten it.

I resort to picking out the notes. Damn. I bet this never happened to Alfred Brendel. Then, “C sharp minor, contrary motion,” says the examiner with relish. The Monster. But I have practised this scale every single day for the past month. Ha!

Now, on to the pieces. At which point my head starts to play tricks. As I begin a Mozart morsel (written when the composer was ten), my brain starts to chant: “This is my exam, this is my exam.” I arrive at the seventh bar. “You are on the seventh bar IN YOUR EXAM,” yells the voice. Shut up, shut up. I play a romance by Reinecke. The voice starts up again. “This is the second piece and YOU ARE IN YOUR EXAM!”

By the time I play a faux-Jazz Age blues, I am so wearied by the voice that I wreck it. I’ve failed.

Two years’ work undone by an exam lasting 12 adrenalin-soaked minutes. I leave the room drained, and filled with serious regard for any child who goes through this. Three weeks later, a text from my teacher. I passed: 108 points. Not glorious, but enough.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.