Change sometimes takes us by surprise, a bolt from the blue, and in the early months of 2020 we have all experienced a jolt to our way of life as countries around the world quickly followed each other into lockdown.
As the dust settles and we try to adapt to “the new normal”, many are now wondering how these changes will continue to affect us, and what they mean. We are feeling uneasy about the future, and unsure of our footing.
Here in the West, we sometimes assume change is a linear process, an ongoing narrative in which we continually face the unknown, but with no going back. We measure our success in terms of our annual growth targets, believing that unless we progress “onwards and upwards” we will fail.
For the Daoists however, change is cyclical, often understood in the natural context of the turning seasons and the rotation of day and night. There is similarly a natural expansion and contraction of all things, seen for example in the ebbing of the tides, the wax and waning of the moon.
I believe that these metaphors are really helpful; they can give us hope. They encourage us to accept life’s “ups and downs”, pliably and positively adapting to them. In contrast to western materialism, Daoism teaches that there is a rightful time to contract, consolidate, and rest: all of which are necessary for our well-being.
In this context, there really is no “new normal” because we are all on a continuing journey. Nothing in the universe stands still. But at the same time, it certainly seems that history has a peculiar habit of repeating itself. Fixed plans and linear growth targets only succeed when all else is essentially in a state of entropy, but this is historically rare and actually a bit weird.
The upheaval of 2020 presents us with a unique opportunity to reflect on this. How then can we “go with the flow”, “roll with the punches”, and adapt to change?
In this article I will consider this question primarily from the point of view of a pianist and teacher, but beyond my thoughts on how to adapt our playing and teaching, there is much here that equally pertains to our living.
Staying true to who we are
One of the most immediate anxieties we can have when faced with a new or altered situation is the thought that we must ourselves fundamentally change.
But change how? While new skills and understanding are constantly needed, it is important to meet life’s challenges head on as ourselves.
One problem that makes it hard for us to change is that we have often discarded our true nature already. We have hidden our selves in plain sight, conforming to social constructs in our quest for personal power.
Authentic change begins with recognition of who we really are, a thought which is entwined with the Daoist concept of “Li”. Just like the grain in a piece of wood, or the markings of a tortoise shell, so too we have our own unique nature, an organic identity to which we must remain true.
As Jason Gregory explains in his recent (superb) book Effortless Living,
“Following our own Li allows the Tao to enter the canvas of life… Our natural Li is only discovered when we cease our search for power.”
Many of us are afraid to “go against the grain” socially, but deciding to step back from others’ expectations and demands is often essential if we want to avoid going against our own grain.
To summarise, consider this golden rule:
Adapting to change does not require us to relinquish our core values and intentions, but rather to develop new strategies that will enable us to stay true to who we are.
Whether we are performers, teachers, composers or exam boards, this golden rule applies. Will we remain true to who we are, adapting to change while keeping hold of the goals and values which have defined and made us successful thus far?
Adapting piano education
Being a piano teacher has been the joyous focus of my professional life for nearly three decades, so provides the laboratory of experience in which any of my own ideas of philosophical theories must be tested, applied and proven.
For many piano teachers, the change and upheaval of moving our lessons online has been a shock to the system that will not soon be forgotten. We are perhaps still just coming to terms with and reflecting on what has worked well for us and our students, and what has been less successful.
Piano teachers are committed and used to working with our students face-to-face, delivering a truly personalised and multi-sensory learning experience.
In times of change, have we lost sight of our core educational values or have we retained them? In these changed circumstances, is it even possible to provide the quality of education that we previously held dear?
The Three Treasures
I have previously explained how my own teaching philosophy is guided by the equal value I place on developing Musical Essence, Technique and Understanding, the so-called Three Treasures of Musical Learning.
Any reflection on the experiences of the last few weeks must, for me, take account of these essential core values, which are the “Li” of my teaching:
These values are, of course, very widely shared priorities for piano teachers everywhere, regardless how we categorise them. The table above is a map, charting familiar territory!
And because we give personalised tuition, each student is guided and will uniquely chart their route through these areas of musical development, hopefully visiting each general area with regularity and balance.
Even the teacher and student focussing exclusively on “taking the grades” will address musical essence, technique and understanding provided those exams properly assess musical development through a holistic and well-designed range of progressive supporting tests, rather than simply hearing a few pieces reproduced.
But how well can these three treasures be holistically and equally developed while lessons rely on an online video call?
Building on my teaching philosophy, I have been able to identify areas of challenge and reflect on the improvements which can be made to the distance learning of my students. And it’s a process that can work for any teacher…
A particular challenge in cultivating musical essence via video call comes from the poor audio quality offered by services such as Skype and Zoom, and the fact that the participants (teacher and students) do not hear and share the same fundamental musical sound.
The impact of this on nurturing aural acuity, engaging with expressive musical communication and fostering interpretive development should be obvious. Similarly, assessment of musical progress is fraught given the two-way difficulty of hearing tonal control, pedalling, voicing, and sometimes even the basic dynamics and articulation in the other player’s performance.
However, in distance-learning contexts musical essence can still be addressed, albeit using different means.
Increased use of recordings seems to me vital, including teacher and students exchanging their own recordings as well as use of online YouTube demonstrations, accessing the great recordings available on streaming services, and making the most of the audio materials that many tuition publications include.
Composition and improvisation can also be encouraged, even where these haven’t previously been a particular feature of the lessons. This seems an ideal time to foster our students’ creativity.
And for those intent on preparing for examinations, there are numerous online resources and apps available for aural training.
A particular challenge in the development of piano technique via video link comes from the lack of physical proximity, visual flexibility and multi-sensory communication.
Assessment of technical progress is again a special difficulty. Even where students have a well-placed camera, it is unlikely that we will simultaneously see their fingering, pedalling, flexibility and posture, and be able to inquisitively choose and freely switch our view.
Nor can we hear students’ breathing, pick up their energy, or experience any of the more subtle sensory information that occurs in a face-to-face lesson.
Camera placement can, however, mitigate these problems to some extent. While there are good arguments for using a computer or laptop for video lessons, the quality and portability of the iPad camera is, in my experience, worth any trade-off for this reason.
I have been able to demonstrate fingering patterns effectively by holding the iPad and flipping the camera, have placed the iPad on its stand on the floor to show my feet pedalling, and positioned it at a variety of other angles to show different elements of physical technique both at and away from the instrument.
A particular challenge in the development of musical understanding via video link comes from the inability to literally share and work together with the same physical resources.
In a face-to-face lesson it is so easy to simply point to something on the score, to grab a sight reading book or flash cards from the music cupboard, look inside the piano to see how the dampers and hammers work, or listen to and discuss recordings together.
Despite this disadvantage, of the three treasures of musical learning I am finding that musical understanding is the easiest to cultivate during video lessons.
While some have reported that they chat less in lessons, I have generally found the opposite to be true: students and I have enjoyed enthusiastic discussions of the music we love, and it is easy to continue exploring the context and background of the repertoire being studied.
Underpinning this, we can set and mark music theory and other written assignments, and why not even set students off on their own listening and research projects; in my experience they presently seem more willing to do so.
This summer, for example, my students will be exploring the music of Beethoven, whose 250th anniversary celebrations have otherwise been somewhat scuppered during lockdown. They will research the background and facts of his life, listen to a range of his music (including vocal, symphonic and chamber works) and learn pieces that are suitable for their level.
Evolution, not Revolution
Because change is cyclical and involves both expansion and contraction, it is possible to adapt to it without losing our bearings, and without forfeiting a sense of who we are.
As piano teachers and music educators, we can be true to our “Li” and continue delivering quality learning opportunities in ways that “go with our own grain”, reflecting our core values.
The most exciting and perhaps unexpected thing for many has been that, by returning to and reflecting on what our values actually are, some of us are now finding that our teaching has improved through this time, despite the obvious limitations of using a video link.
It is too easy to get stuck in a rut; our experience can even work against us, leading to over-confidence. The dramatic changes of 2020 have in some cases perhaps given some of us the jolt we needed!
Importantly too, we are realising that many of these present changes will not be fixed permanently. Changes will no doubt continue, but also some things will in time revert toward the norms we are more used to. Balance is always restored.
And if, moving forward, we are able to include teaching via video call as a sometime alternative, or feel comfortable using this approach as an ongoing element alongside face-to-face lessons, we will know for sure that during these most challenging of times we have successfully adapted to change.
By embracing our path, even when it is hard to see, rugged, uneven or downright uncomfortable, we can yet scale even greater heights.