When piano grades just aren’t your forte | Letters

Some supportive advice from readers for the Guardian’s Hugh Muir, who wrote recently about failing his grade two piano exam

Hugh Muir (Maybe I’m no piano man, 23 May) should continue to take his late mother’s advice that there is no such thing as can’t. As I am quite a bit older than him, his article on learning to play a musical instrument in later years resonated. I had never touched a cello or a music score until two years ago. Hugh’s anxiety about practical exams recreated my own terrifying dry-mouth, panic experience.

Even the feedback from my grade two examiner rang true to his. About one part of my performance, he reported: “This sadly proved very uncertain in both key and rhythm”. But I passed, and have rarely been so thrilled.  Don’t give up, you can!
Charlie Fleischmann
Manchester

• My heart went out to Hugh Muir on hearing of his musical travails. I too recall the trauma of piano exam brain fade, and also the total paralysis of my Für Elise during a school concert.

But stick at the practice like I did, Hugh, and a couple of thousand hours down the line I guarantee you will have raised your game, and be able to reap giddy pleasures from comprehensively mangling Rachmaninov.
Julian Fuller
Cockwood, Devon

• It’s a shame that both Hugh Muir and Lindsay Rough, the author of the letter in response to the article (Letters, 23 May) have been put off the piano because of the graded exam system.

Grade exams are not the be all and end all of piano study. They can provide a useful benchmark of progress, especially for children (or their parents!), and some adults like the focus or personal  challenge that exams offer. But learning to play the piano should not be about notching up grades, especially if the experience causes so much anxiety and stress. Learning to play any musical instrument, particularly as an adult amateur, should be about exploring the instrument and its wonderful literature and gaining pleasure from doing so. A sensitive teacher will be able to guide the student in selecting repertoire which will suit their ability and taste.
Frances Wilson
Teddington, Middlesex

• How sad to read Hugh Muir’s sense of failure as a late-starter of piano-playing taking grade exams. It is never too late to take up a musical instrument – the problem is setting attainable goals.

Grade exams are primarily designed for young children who enjoy climbing ladders. There is an alternative, rigorously pursued at our music school with amazing results, where we encourage a healthy appreciation of music, with exams an add-on, not a primary focus.
Stephen Baron
North London Conservatoire

• Your piano-playing correspondents have been studying the wrong instrument. Learn to play the recorder and you will be playing with your grandchildren in a matter of weeks and will eventually discover the social pleasure of music via a recorder ensemble. My adult pupils range in age  from 60 to 95 years .
Joanna Bazley
London

• Dear Hugh, don’t give up learning the piano, but drop the exams. My daughter gave me a keyboard and six lessons for my 70th birthday last year and I made it clear to my teacher right from the start that I didn’t want to take exams, I just wanted to be able to play tunes of all sorts. He tells me that the exams are heavily slanted towards playing classical pieces. He has a student who has taken a number of grade exams, but can’t “swing” a piece, jazz-style.

I can now sight-read, if only at present for the right hand, play scales contra-motion and was able to play Happy Birthday to You to my grandson, much to his delight. Stuff the exams – just play. And good luck!
Val Harrison
Birmingham

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