“Stand back from the edge please!”

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

As the words boomed along the station platform, I realised straight away that they were directed at me. I turned, looked up the platform towards a burly man in an official-looking hi-vis jacket and sheepishly gave him the thumbs up.

I had been momentarily transfixed in a meditation on the nature of fear. Looking down at the rails I realised how easy it would be (having of course first checked there were no trains on the horizon) to step down from the platform, hop across the tracks and explore the beautiful verge that beckoned me from the other side. The grass is always greener…

And yet I would never, ever actually do so.

A self-preservatory terror of the rails had been instilled into me decades ago by my mother. My guess is that most of the passengers waiting on the platform would feel something of the same fear.

When movie heroes leap onto the tracks, we regard it as derring-do, suitably convinced of the huge risks involved. Meanwhile we ignore the thought that ordinary Network Rail employees routinely mosey around the rail infrastructure on a daily basis without being vaporised on the spot.

Most of us rarely question the fears or values that were instilled in us at a young age. But perhaps we should do.

The Perils of Pianism

When it comes to piano playing, the dangers are not as grave as being electrocuted or instantaneously squished. But some players tell me with such certainty that they will never play in front of another person that I am similarly left wondering about the true source of their fear.

Does it really make sense to believe that we mustn’t ever play the piano for supportive listeners, or that such a move would inevitably lead to judgment and despair? I think not.

At the adult piano club I run, most of the players will experience some level of performance anxiety. They seem to find it helpful to discuss the process with each other, and it’s interesting to hear their various stories, reflections and solutions.

Often the root problem is located in a single thought, carelessly expressed to them as children, but which later came to dominate their thinking to a point where the alternatives, however obvious, seemed ridiculous…

Raindrops Keep Falling…

I remember as a teenager playing the Raindrop Prelude one year in a local Music Festival. Afterwards the mother of the “winner” hit me with the devious take-down:

“You’re a promising pianist, young man”…

… she said, sweetly.

Why, thank you!

“…but you haven’t got the right touch for Chopin”.

The following year I played Liszt (and won). Over subsequent decades I’ve very rarely performed Chopin again, even though he is unquestionably one of my favourite composers. And only more recently have I realised the folly of succumbing to the barriers that others erect in our path with their negativity.

Words have astonishing power. Whether malicious or simply thoughtless they ooze power as they drip from our mouths, and wield their most subtle weapons as they bury themselves as seedlings in our souls, germinating and forming the tangled weeds that bind us and inhibit our growth.

Words can keep us from falling off platforms, but they can also keep us from falling in love. Some of the words we hear as children are realistic, compassionate and hugely important; others are more arbitrary. We take to heart those which make the biggest emotional impact at the time.

Is it rational to believe that there is a mysterious, inaccessible “right touch” without which Chopin’s music sounds offensive? Again, I think not. But it is perhaps only with mature reflection that we can untangle the knots of our most misconceived fears, and allow the truth to set us free.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.

3 thoughts on ““Stand back from the edge please!””

  1. As an adult advanced student, I was once told by my teacher, a lady of considerable renown in my city because of all the fine pianists she had turned out, that I couldn’t work on certain pieces because they were “only for those who had something to say”! I’ve never been able to forget that statement, although at age 73, I no longer remember exactly what pieces were off limits to me.

    1. I hope that you continue to play music where you feel the composer has something to say, and which you want to explore, as well as music that makes no pretension to be profound but is simply fun and enjoyable to you. This idea that any music is off limits is just hubris, plain and simple!

  2. Thank you for your entry, is really helpful to read others players’ experiences!!

    In this fase of my life I am trying to reconect and reconcile myself with the piano. I’ve spent so much time despicing my progress and my knowledge because I used to compare me with others students. Now, I just enjoy with the music and my study, and try to accept my virtues and defects. I also try to encourage my students to develop their concious and self concept. I think we are better pianist when we realize our own personality and we accept ourselves. And of course, we play better in public because the anxiety is reduced.

    Sorry for my English… is not my native language.

    I can’t wait to keep reading your blog!!
    Best wishes.

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