Our Commitment to Music

Guest Post by PETER NOKE

In this acutely observed and beautifully nuanced guest post, well-known pianist, educator and examiner Peter Noke deftly explores the links between examination concerns and the musician’s timeless commitment to live performance and personal connection.

“We risk recorded playing from the bedroom or the front room becoming mistaken for performance, its sense of occasion, its vital exchange relegated to something only professionals do in large concert halls.”

Banner image: Ateneul Român Romanian Athenaeum, Bucharest.
Photo credit: fusion of horizons

Binary Thinking

Binary thinking is something we tend to discourage when it comes to being creative. But certain aspects of technique can only be either right or wrong.

Take pedaling, for example. There is little point in immersing yourself in the more creative aspects about how much and when to use it if your foot moves up and down at the wrong time! There are ergonomic reasons for sitting at the correct height at the piano and for using your foot, not lifting your entire leg, when pedaling. Training your pupil to do things correctly is distinct from educating them to have musical choices and to exercise musical rationale.

Once we consider the question of what you should teach, it’s all too easy to end up thinking only in terms of either/or. Should you do exams? Should you not do exams? We might hear it said, “if you never do exams, you’ll never progress”. And to mitigate outcomes, you might say “if you fail, then at least you tried”

This kind of thinking can also lead to assumptions that are not necessarily the case. For example, that if you get a distinction then you are very talented, or that because you didn’t get beyond grade 5 you were no good at music.

All or nothing, as an approach, seems to be (at best) a less effective way of going about something as important as education. The myriad of shades in between black and white might give opportunities to pursue better results and, perhaps ultimately, even greater levels of brilliance. Why not? 

Let’s face it, out of the millions of young piano pupils around the globe only a very small percentage will become professional musicians, and an even tinier percentage what we call “concert pianists”. Most do not progress beyond an elementary to intermediate level. So, what are we teaching them to do and why?

Playful Immersion

I observe my little granddaughter, Sophia, wholly immersed in the colouring of a large cardboard box which she has just acquired as a present, and which has swiftly been transformed into her very own imaginary house, into which all her friends are regularly stuffed and thrown out by turns.

The immersion is total and lengthy. The drawings are scribbles. Random gestures and colours that cannot be called pictures and would not start to pass as art.

Over the course of each day she returns regularly and excitedly to her task of decoration, embellishment and ever increasing ownership and pride in her very own home: a place where her tender emotions are budding forth as if the exploding season of spring knew no bounds.

Security, curiosity, discovery, and happiness, quietly underpinned through her own nurturing, go unnoticed as she plays on, her imagination and zest for life having not yet been plundered by formality and assessment. Her targets might be intermittent, but are fiercely compelling nonetheless. Try and distract her from her world of drawing just because it’s tea time, and see what happens!

Look at this. Listen to this. Come and sit with me while I share this unique moment with you. It’s wonderful, it’s sad, it’s beautiful…and I created it!

The Wonder of Performance

Isn’t this the same core process as every great professional performance?

Here, the years of training and wonderment are kept alive, ever more nuanced and finely honed through each performance, then the spontaneity of a chance “conversation” that moves our audience, yet is suddenly gone save in our memory, and through the experience which will stay with us and empower our own future musical appreciation and growth.

What is this magic? Should we be spending our lives chasing the quality of rainbows? That we are asking such a question in the first place seems worrying from an artistic perspective. Our imaginations can be palatial. They can also be empty places, devoid of life. We are its only gate keeper, once our teachers and other sources of inspiration have left.

That’s why it’s so important to consider what kind of human world we want our children to grow into, to aspire to meaningful values, and to value the ownership and sharing of values. It’s easy to acquiesce and to assume that, as mere cogs in the great machine, we are bound to a slavish agenda, which is itself fuelled only through binary choices.

Some might say, “if you only take digital performance exams you’ll never know how to sight read or play scales, but if you take the traditional live face-to-face exams this is the path to good sight-reading skills and scale playing: the all-round musician.”

In truth no exam board is responsible for “dumbing down”. It is us who are not responsive enough in raising the stakes. We do a great disservice to ourselves if we continue to hold others accountable for our own success or failure, as educators.

After all, we have the most prized resource of all in our own front rooms: our pupils. That begs of us a single task, albeit one of the hardest, yet potentially most rewarding: that of building a relationship: something no amount of digital education can achieve.

Our Means of Communication

Whether you are shy, quiet, loud or abundantly confident, inner growth emerges through interaction with others. Belief in ourselves may well be at its strongest when we are creating something for ourself, but once that is shared with others, our means of communication is set alive. Without that exchange, musical process is dead.

Just as little Sophia is busy internalising her own experiences, so that process needs ongoing nurture if we are to create generations of future musicians: those people who will form the audiences, the festival goers and the guardians of our art for the future.

To argue that maths is more important than music or to seek justification for music on account of the effect it has on other areas of study is to miss the point completely. Intrinsic interest and motivation are of equal value, whether that be in maths, music, or any other area of life. 

We become bereft if the reason for providing a music education is underpinned solely by financial considerations through a one-dimensional rationale. As the range of music examinations on offer becomes ever wider, we are, ironically, in danger of losing what has been our traditional core value: that of live music performance and high standard (some may call it gold).

The irony lies in the seeming drive towards populism, not as an integral part of the panoply of musical experience, but to minimise and downplay what has been our tradition of classical music, even if looking on it as niche. We need to be open to all methods of assessment and styles of music, whether someone is smitten with Einaudi or Beethoven. It is not a binary choice.

We also need to vehemently argue the case, not just of continuation but for expansion of live music making, and to find ways to ensure that this aspect of exchange becomes our focal point.

Without it, we risk recorded playing from the bedroom or the front room becoming mistaken for performance, its sense of occasion, its vital exchange relegated to something only professionals do in large concert halls.


Peter’s musical career is rooted in playing the piano and the organ, having trained at the RNCM and subsequently performing internationally in several piano duos, frequently for BBC Radio 3 and a set of Dvořák and Schubert recordings for Hyperion. He refers to the highlights of his teaching career when “working as a mentor with teachers in the UK and across the world during the golden years of ABRSM’s CT training programme.” He has examined for ABRSM since 1990.

Creativity is at the centre of his work, having founded E-MusicMaestro, an online website for aural training, and MaestroMuse, a new site about to launch, and in which there will be new resources for piano teachers.

As a musician and ceramicist he says “colour is at the heart of what I do, whether that is at the piano, or in the glazing of pots. For herein exists the beauty of the world, whether fleeting or more permanent. It is the pulse that never dies.”

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Published by

Andrew Eales

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