My first connection with the Cambridge Grade-one-athon was when Thanea Hodges was looking for an exam venue. It had to be in central Cambridge, and as she wanted eight exam sessions to be running concurrently (each with their own warm-up room); that meant sixteen rooms each with its own piano. A tall order, but as Director of Music at King’s Choir School, I knew that we had just built a new music block with individual practice rooms for the sixteen choristers. A perfect fit! The school was delighted to help, and the sessions ran without a hitch.
Since then I have composed various pieces for successive Grade-one-athons, both for individual instrumental sections (strings, wind and brass) and for full orchestra. Writing for full Grade 1 orchestra brings with it many interesting problems! Rhythms can be as adventurous as you please, but woe betide the composer if he writes any note not in the Grade 1 scale selection. Flutes at this level tend not to play above mf, whereas oboes and saxophones seem to have a range which starts at forte and grows exponentially! Then there is the key that the piece should be in (though, with the best will in the world, the music often sounds as if it’s in three keys at once…) – strings prefer sharp keys, brass prefer flats, and saxes won’t get out of bed unless there are a least two flats in the key signature! All in all, a very challenging brief – but always lots of fun.