Rediscovering the Magic of Piano

Fluency, understanding, expression and confidence.
Written by Andrew Eales

“If we begin to think about our goals in life as destinations, as points to which we must arrive, this thinking begins to cut out all that makes a point worth having.
It is as if instead of giving you a full banana to eat, I gave you just the two tiny ends of the banana – and that would not be, in any sense, a satisfactory meal”.

Alan Watts: What is Tao?

Over the many years I have been teaching the piano to children, one of the most common enquiries from parents is this:

“What goal can my child be working towards?”

More often than not, it turns out that they would like me to move their child onto an exam-driven footing rather than simply allowing them to wander more freely in the meadows of musical wonderment.

Interestingly enough, far fewer adult learners make this point. We should really consider why this is, and how useful goal setting might really be…


Motivations vs. Measurements

Among other things, graded exams allow us to quantify musical progress on a crude linear numeric scale. Many professionals have sincere doubts that they deliver an especially accurate or useful measurement of a player’s overall musical development, but they are at least something.

And in this hyper-rational, scientific and marketing age, if a thing can’t be measured, it might as well not exist…

There’s nothing wrong with exams of course. They are just a something among the ten thousand things, and as such it’s really up to us whether we use them for good or for ill. The sad thing is that so many inadvertently take that latter path.

I have written before about The Pianist’s Motivations, highlighting the dangers of relying too heavily on extrinisic motivators.

In a nutshell, setting goals on the basis of external rewards (such as an exam certificate, competition cup or prize money) can actually lead to a decrease in intrinsic inner motivation, a corrosive phenomena known, scientifically, as the Overjustification Effect.

I don’t doubt that in the short term, putting a child in for an exam can add urgency to their practice routine. But it isn’t simply my opinion that relying on such extrinsic motivations can, in the longer run, be deleterious to motivation: you guessed it, the overjustification effect has been measured!

Perhaps this is why so many adults returning to piano lessons tell me in their initial consultation that one of the main reasons they quit learning when they were younger is that they hated having to take the grades. They lost all motivation to continue playing piano, only regaining it years later having found the courage to reject the exam experience.

Teachers Adrift

We live, of course, in strange times. During the great lockdown of 2020 the traditional music exam boards in the UK were initially paralysed by the sudden change in their fortunes, understandably so, and subsequently struggled to adapt to online digital alternatives.

While feeling sympathy for the boards, I found it particularly odd and a little disturbing that in the midst of such global turmoil, many teachers were asking,

  • what should I teach students now they can’t take their next grade?
  • and how can I possibly motivate them now?

Teachers should hardly need reminding that it is our job to uniquely tailor a bespoke curriculum for each of our students, building on their strengths, interests and prior learning, fostering their enthusiasm, and tackling their areas of need. Nor should we need to consult an exam syllabus to be able and ready to fulfil such a basic teaching function.

In 2020, I couldn’t help wondering if some teachers were experiencing something somewhat akin to Stockholm Syndrome. Held hostage in a basement full of manuscripts by George Dyson, Lionel Salter, Terence Greaves and Felix Swinstead, perhaps they had learnt over many years to love their captors. Emerging, blinking in the daylight, what dangers might await in the world beyond?

And yet the world of music is not a world of danger, but one of captivating delight, wonder, fascination, astonishing variety, creative freedom, intimate personality and unique expression.

It is fundamentally a world in which, to borrow Watts’s metaphor, we should be encouraged to experience the colour, texture, taste and nourishment of the banana itself, rather than simply preserving it uneaten as a ruler to measure other people’s bananas with.

Lest any take umbrage, I do not believe for one moment that music examiners or the boards they represent consciously want todays’ students to experience a paucity of engagement in their music-making. And yet, perhaps in part due to commercial imperative, this has become for far too many the disappointing outcome: the moment the magic died.

Ultimately, the piano grades change the context of music, and for the worse. When we hear Prokofiev’s quirky Historiette do we think, “Ah yes, Grade 3!” or do we wistfully marvel at the magnificence of Musiques d’Enfants? What does music really mean to us?

Pandemic Year has given us what will perhaps be a unique one-off opportunity to reevaluate, reassess, reconnect and reposition ourselves for a future which will hopefully be even more rewarding than our past. And as the pandemic recedes, that future now calls to us, loud and clear.

There have been many signs of real hope: teachers remembering what it is they loved about music in the first place, and looking for new ways to infect their students with that same musical enthusiasm.

As we embrace a different future, there’s never been a better time to rediscover the magic, to ditch competitive striving in music education and instead embrace a deep, transformative love for music.


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.

4 thoughts on “Rediscovering the Magic of Piano”

  1. Don’t you love it, how many ways Alan Watts’s words go on inspiring people in new and surprising ways? A perfect essay, Andrew, and beautiful writing. “Held hostage in a basement with manuscripts….”!!! Learning to love our captors. Sounds like so much of my education.

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