The Practice Room Sanctuary

The Fermata Series

The bestselling author, journalist and broadcaster Hannah Beckerman recently wrote an article for Planet Mindful (Spring 2019) in which she shared what music meant to her, and in particular the difference that learning an instrument has made in her life.

In her piece entitled Music made me a happier child, she writes:

“What I didn’t consciously realise until much later was that music was providing another, possibly even more important, role in my life. My parents’ marriage had never been a happy one, and ours was a family that lived against an ambient hum of tension, anxiety and conflict. Music became my escape…
Music enabled me to set my own emotional temperature. When I was 13, my parents separated and subsequently divorced, and music became my sanctuary… throughout it all, music was my means of emotional regulation.”

No doubt like many others, I can profoundly identify with this. I too grew up in what was then known as a “broken home”, my mum divorcing my dad when I was 6, my stepdad when I was 12, her third husband dying of a heart attack when I was 17.

Music became a deepening world to me.

And not only through these troubles and tragedies, but similarly when I was mugged in the street, bullied and beaten up at school; when girlfriends dumped me; when I struggled with identity; when I generally failed at life.

In all these moments of difficulty, music was the place where I hid, the practice room my refuge, the sound of the piano a cavern of acceptance which, for much of my younger life, was the one place where I felt I could truly belong.

But music isn’t just for the dark times; playing an instrument isn’t simply a cop-out from life’s hasher realities. Music is an equally welcome friend during times of calm, of amazement, triumph and bliss.

The piano offered another way to explore and express my joy when I truly fell in love, when I got engaged, married and built a life with my wonderful wife.

Music was a constant friend, too, through the birth of our two children, through their growth to maturity and development as successful adults.

Music has been there in success as in failure, a companion through all the joys and sorrows. And it will ever be there.

In all honesty, I could write an extended, euphoric eulogy to the power of music; I doubt I need to, because most who read this will hopefully already know and have experienced exactly what I mean.

As Beckerman astutely observes, music brings equilibrium to our emotions, to our soul. Playing an instrument, we express our otherwise inexpressible deepest selves.

The piano has, without judgement, allowed me to both celebrate my faith and reflect on my doubts, opening up a pathway through which I have excavated my deepest thoughts, emotions and beliefs.

Importantly, through the discipline and focus needed in order to play well, we can each of us enter a meditative state where our other thoughts are stilled, and our inner emotional landscape is able to find restorative balance and sustenance.

As Beckerman says:

“There’s a single-mindedness involved in learning scales and arpeggios until they’re exam-perfect. There’s little space for external worries when you’re doggedly playing the same 29 notes over and over again.”

I can’t help feeling that, for all our efforts to “sell” music (and indeed, cultural education), we yet need to place greater emphasis on music’s transformative and balancing impact on those who properly engage with it.

Some may disagree, but if you play just for yourself, enjoying the private sanctuary of the practice room and never performing for others, I think that’s absolutely fine. It’s more than fine: it’s a genuine blessing. Make the most of it.

As players, let’s avail ourselves of this special place in our lives.
And those of us who teach: let’s try to lead our students there.

Let’s celebrate music’s scope as a means of authentic expression, and the sanctuary it offers those who run to it.

Fermata Series

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Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?

Pathways for Teaching

Over the years I’ve repeatedly encountered the suggestion that music should be taught in much the same way as we have tended to assume language is acquired.

Advocates of this theory point out that:

  • Firstly as babies we hear words;
  • Soon we start to mimic them;
  • In time, we learn to speak fluently;
  • Later (perhaps several years later), we are taught to read;
  • And then to write.

I’m not a linguistics expert, but I suspect that this linear sequence is somewhat over-simplistic. In any case, it is adapted by some to propose this music education equivalent:

Hear  →  Sing  →  Play  →  Read  →  Write

It has long seemed to me that finding any direct or useful equivalent between musical learning and theories of language acquisition is more difficult than some suggest. And like many experienced teachers, I have observed that those taught according to this notion don’t always develop into good music readers.

In this short article I will flirt with the complexities here by asking three important questions:

  1. How do music and language seem to behave differently?
  2. How does informal learning prepare us for formal tuition?
  3. Does learning always follow the same one-way sequence?

As with the initial proposition, direct answers to such questions are elusive; perhaps it is sufficient to simply acknowledge their existence. But let’s take a brief trip to this hinterland together…

Continue reading Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?

Henle’s revised Chopin Scherzi

Sheet Music Review

Ask a group of pianists which edition of Chopin’s piano works is the best, and you will probably get little consensus.

Some cling to our old copies of the much-revered Paderewski Editions which have been widely used since their appearance in the mid-twentieth century, while of the more recent urtext editions, the Jan Ekier Polish National Edition comes highly recommended.

Alongside these, the ever-reliable Henle Urtext editions have been popular for many years, and enthusiasts will be pleased to hear that they have just added a new revised edition of the 4 Scherzi, edited by Norbert Müllemann and with fingerings by Hans-Martin Theopold.

Continue reading Henle’s revised Chopin Scherzi

Johanna Doderer: “Everything Flows”

Sheet Music Review

“Alles fließt” – “Everything Flows” – is a virtuoso piano piece which was commissioned for the International Beethoven Piano Competition 2017, and first performed during its opening by Christoph Traxler.

When reviewing new music, it always helps to have a recording; and if it happens to be accompanied by an arty film of a man wearing just his underpants having an existential meltdown in a remote forest (see below) … well, so be it.

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me tell you more about this rather wonderful new concert work, just published by Doblinger…

Continue reading Johanna Doderer: “Everything Flows”

Your Story: Ian Ruhfass

Your Stories

Ian Ruhfass a pianist living in Los Angeles, CA. He is also a piano tutor, and the owner/editor of a popular website for pianists all around the world.

Here’s Ian’s story…

Continue reading Your Story: Ian Ruhfass

Rockschool Piano 2019

Sheet Music Review

“From a small office in West London in 1991, RSL (Rockschool Ltd) had a dream to change the landscape of formal music education, and sought to become the first viable alternative to the traditional offerings available in Britain at the time.”

So says Rockschool founder Norton York. And from these small beginnings, Rockschool has grown into a major international examining board, offering grade exams, teaching and performing diploma qualifications, vocational qualifications and performing arts awards in 9 different disciplines, and in more than 40 countries.

Rockschool recently launched their new 2019 Piano syllabus, which you can download in full from their website here, as well as publishing nine music books, one for each of the usual 8 Grades as well as “Debut”, their pre-Grade 1 offering. The music books are brought to us by industry leading Hal Leonard publishing, ensuring worldwide availability.

Note that the syllabus document does not actually list the pieces. For that reason, I will list them below as I believe readers will be particularly interested in this information.

Looking at the books, I think there are two potential markets here:

  1. Firstly, some will be interested in following this syllabus for the core learning structure it provides those specifically wanting to play rock and pop piano styles.
  2. Secondly, I suspect many players will be interested in dipping into these resources alongside more traditional music and methods for the breadth and perspective they bring.

For this review, my main focus will be on the published resources. I will include a concise syllabus overview, but a more in-depth consideration of the pedagogic pathway it offers and its benchmarking against traditional alternatives is beyond the scope of this article.

To be clear, too, I have never entered a student for the Rockschool exams; the assessments are fully accredited, but pianists and colleagues who have commented on them on the Piano Network UK forum have given mixed feedback.

And I should also preface the review by pointing out that the Rockschool exams should not be confused with Trinity College London’s Rock and Pop syllabus, which you might want to explore here for comparison.

But now let’s take a closer look at the Rockschool 2019 Piano syllabus…

Continue reading Rockschool Piano 2019

Making Time for Regular Practice

Tea Room Tips

The Pianodao Tea Room is an online group for supporters of this site. In addition to our private discussions we now run a monthly “event” in which members can share their tips on a subject of interest, with highlights collated here for Pianodao readers.

This month, I asked members,

“How do you find / make time in your schedule for piano practice on a regular basis? What has worked for you?”

Here’s some of the answers members gave…

Continue reading Making Time for Regular Practice

Bertini’s Piano Études

Sheet Music Review

Henri Bertini (1798-1876) may be less well-known than his ridiculously prolific contemporary Carl Czerny (1791-1857), but his piano studies should not be overlooked, and were hugely influential in their day.

Now, thanks to Schott Music’s sumptuous Essential Exercises series, 48 Studies have been newly republished, offering the perfect opportunity to rediscover and explore this neglected composer’s marvellous work. Let’s dig in…

Continue reading Bertini’s Piano Études