Slow Progress

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”Often we find ourselves in trouble simply because we are going too fast, disregarding signs of trouble that we would have seen if only we had been going a little slower.
All too often we get caught up in the rush; our whole culture is based on it.  Get ahead!  Do it now!
Sometimes the right thing to do is not to do anything.”

Solala Towler, Cha Dao (Singing Dragon, 2010)

These comments (which are taken from a book about the preparation and consumption of tea) offer golden advice which can be applied to pretty much any aspect of our lives. No wonder so many of us feel completely worn out most of the time!

For our purposes, I want to touch on the value of taking our time in two areas:

•  firstly teaching and learning
•  and then our personal piano practice

Continue reading Slow Progress

Illuminating Diwali

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Wishing you an illuminating, auspicious, prosperous and joyous Diwali.

As we approach the climax of the five-day celebration of Diwali, I would like to send warmest wishes to all readers!

Diwali, the “Festival of Lights”, is a five day celebration observed worldwide by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, this year climaxing around Wednesday 7th November.

Different faiths attach different religious meaning, stories and beliefs to the Festival, but at its heart Diwali is a celebration signifying the victory of

  • light over darkness
  • knowledge over ignorance
  • good over evil.

Regardless of religious affiliation, these are universal values which we can surely all affirm and celebrate as one.

And, beyond the traditional cultural festivities (which include cleansing and then illuminating properties and public spaces with lamps and candles, dressing in the best clothes and eating sweet food) there are simple lessons we can take away from this Festival which will make our lives and our world better.

diwali-festival-2774745_960_720

Let’s ask ourselves this Diwali:

  • How can I shine as a positive example that brightens my world?
  • How can I promote knowledge in a way that is genuinely helpful and accessible to those who lack it?
  • How can I overcome evil I see around me, and make a true difference?

Diwali is, perhaps above all, a time to focus on the positive.

And with the challenges, disharmony and uncertainty of today’s fast-changing world, celebrating the positive is surely good for our mental health, heart and spirit.

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Seeking out Silence

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September and October can be such busy months!

•  For students, there is the return to school, college or university – in many cases starting in a new setting, or beginning new courses.

•  For teachers, many of us are still fine-tuning timetables to adapt to unexpected last-minute changes, while doing our best to tap into the enthusiasm which greets a new academic year.

•  For parents, as the summer holiday disappears into the past, new routines kick in, and the workload can be different at least – if not more daunting,

It can all get to be too much. We can feel overwhelmed.

And we need to make some space for ourselves, so that we don’t implode from the demands and commitments which face us on all sides.

Silence provides that space, that essential moment of calm. And however shortlived, I have found that oasis can be truly transformative.


Here is a beautiful quote:

“As one progresses on the path, one seeks silence more and more. It will be a great comfort, a tremendous source of solace and peace … you will feel adoration of silence. This is the peace that seems to elude so many.”

Deng Ming-Dao
365 Tao Daily Meditations, 261 (Harper Collins, 1992)


There is no true silence while we breathe, while our heart beats, while the wind blows, the waves break, the rain falls, and while the planets continue their orbital arcs.

What we seek, first of all, is to begin to notice and hear those things above the din of our own thoughts. It can be very hard to step into that quietude where our minds are stilled, our anxieties subdued, and our imaginations placed on hold.

And it seems to me that the need to seek out silence is still greater for those of us who are musicians and piano teachers. For so much of our time, we are intently focussed on sound.

Silence – the absence of sound – offers us a very special opportunity to switch off from our working lives and often noisy headspace.


And we can find silence without travelling far!

Whether by stepping outdoors for a few minutes in the middle of a busy day, or by closing the door, unplugging the technology and committing a short time to mindfulness practice, stillness can be found, and is waiting – free for all.

Returning, we can pay closer attention to sounds, whether attending a person with more care as they speak to us, or listening to fresh notes emerging from the piano.


Silence is the antidote to our busy lives…
It fortifies and nourishes our souls. 

We find in the eye of the storm the replenishment that we need, the inner treasure that will allow us to return to our busy lives feeling alert and refreshed.

“Once you find deep solitude and calm, there will be a great gladness in your heart. Here finally is the place where you need neither defence nor offence – the place where you can truly be open. There will be bliss, wonder, the awe of attaining something pure and sacred.”

Deng Ming-Dao

I urge you then, to seek silence for a short time every day throughout this coming week, and to consider the difference it makes to you!

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Musical Focus is Paramount

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Musical focus is paramount.
So many pupils are concerned with technical problems divorced from their musical raison d’être. Their focus is solely on the hurdle and it’s insurmountability.
But the problems virtually disappear and the road opens when they are seen within a musical context. Even the most difficult passages, given musical motivation become not only approachable but achievable.”

Norma Fisher
International Piano, Sept/Oct 2010

So often as a teacher I come across players who “learn the notes” first, only later considering the expressive intentions of the music they are studying.

“For next week, why not try to add the dynamics…”

It’s certainly an easy trap to fall into – reading the notation, working out finger patterns, discovering the music with a systematic, segregated scheme in mind, rather than trying to “run before you can walk”.

And yet I always recommend that players try to pay attention to the dynamics, articulation and other expressive details as early as possible in the learning process. Adding these as an after-thought has always seemed to me a slightly odd way to do things.

More important still, surely we benefit from seeing the “big picture” when starting any musical endeavour or project. Best, where possible, to first discover any piece of music sound before symbol – it is in the hearing of a piece that its content is most powerfully and memorably communicated, and unless we have some aural concept, it can prove difficulty to muster sufficient motivation to commit to learning, absorbing and mastering the detail.

Learning becomes uninspiring.

Looking at the photo at the top of this post, we so could easily, finding ourselves in this scene, study the detail of the plant and insect life, without noticing the golden sun which illuminates it all.

In the same way, I believe that the expressive intention of a piece of music is the very thing which brings light to it, giving it meaning.

As Norma Fisher so eloquently puts it,

“…the problems virtually disappear and the road opens when they are seen within a musical context. Even the most difficult passages, given musical motivation become not only approachable but achievable.”

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Reflections from Moniaive

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My wife Louise and I have just returned from a wonderful, refreshing break in Moniaive, a peaceful and super-friendly village near Dumfries in the Scottish borders.

Travelling can remind us that in every place, people find their own flow, submitting to a silently agreed pace of life, and following an unwritten code of communal mores.

I think it would be more than a little daft – if not rather arrogant – to adopt hard concepts of how life must be lived when faced with the rich but convincingly varied testimony of shared lives and values found throughout humanity’s multiplicity of communities: the deep impact of society and geography, of time and place, is surely as indelible as it is undeniable.

Our own time in Moniaive was spent exploring the simply gorgeous countryside, traversing fields and climbing hills, visiting small arts exhibitions, tea rooms, and local hostelries. There was time to fit in some qigong practice, which surely benefited from the fresh, energetic air and bubbling stream at the back of the cottage.

We were joined for a couple of days by our daughter Ruth, a talented young artist, and her partner Ollie and friend Desiree. Jovial evenings were spent adding logs to the open fire while we chatted about life, the universe, and everything. All lubricated, of course, with tea, fine wine and whiskey!

On the third day we decided to walk from our secluded cottage in the forest to Moniaive, planning to meet an old friend there for tea. The sign at the gate into the field said, “Moniaive, 2 miles”, but should really have included, “Some mountaineering experience would be an advantage”.

Moniaive-2

None of us are getting any younger, and I will confess that I found the trek a mild challenge. But as my family remind me, how important it is that we sometimes break out of our comfort zone and rise to fresh challenges!

It would be easy, returning to Milton Keynes, to revert to the predictable comforts and mundane routines which measure my days as a teacher and writer. Indeed, it is likely that, though every experience changes us, my life will continue with only minimal change.

How sad it would be, however, to pass by this opportunity to reflect on “the what and the why” of my comfort zone.

Indeed, are our comfort zones really any more than our own artifice, a self-imposed prison of our own making?

In many places around the world, others too are returning from summer holidays, looking forward to a new “academic year”, while contemplating the imminent enjoyment of the harvest time, cozy autumn evenings, and the inexorable drift towards Christmas.

Shall we agree that, as pianists and teachers, our own shared ethos in the coming season will be one of adventure, creative rule-breaking and thinking outside of the box?

• The devoted classical player might try playing some jazz arrangements, or boogie…

• The amateur who enjoys playing “for fun” could take on a more serious, meaty challenge…

• The teacher could try a new approach, venturing beyond their established lesson routines.

• The student could try following their teacher’s advice for a change!

The glorious views of Moniaive and it’s surrounding hills, forests and valleys more than justified the steep inclines, uneasy map reading and navigation involved on our country walk. Our journeys of creative exploration at the piano have the potential to be every bit as magnificent.

Moniaive-3

Wouldn’t it be great if, bound together by mutual support and a spirit of enquiry, we could take our piano journeys far beyond the shackles of our previously inhabited comfort zones this season!

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The Way We Believe

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“It is not so much what you believe in that matters, as the way in which you believe it and proceed to translate that belief into action.”

Lin Yutang (1895-1976)
The Importance of Living (1937)

I have long subscribed to the view that, as the old saying goes, “as a man thinks in his heart, so he is”.

It makes absolute sense that our beliefs about ‘life, the universe and everything’ will significantly impact and mould our daily behaviour. Indeed, self-esteem and understanding of our place in the world must surely have a huge impact on our reflexes, responses, and attitudes.

Lin Yutang offers a more nuanced, deeper insight. He points out that it is not so much what we believe as how we believe it: the way we go about acting out our beliefs.

It is easy to see how this idea might apply to our religious, political and social beliefs. Do we use our beliefs to divide, or as a means to bring people closer together? What action, if any, results from our beliefs?

But I think that Lin’s words are still more profound – can they not to be applied to any and all aspects of our lives, including our piano journey?

•  What do we believe about ourselves as piano players?
•  How about our beliefs about our teachers and teaching?

Could it be, for example, that we think our personal approach to piano playing favours certain composes or styles?

If so, does this belief help us to select Active Repertoire,
or does it limit our willingness to try new music?

Or could it be that we believe our talent is limited, and that our playing will never rise above the mediocre?

If so, does this belief help us enjoy playing without competing,
or does it limit our fulfilment and leave us frustrated?

There are perhaps no ‘right or wrong answers’ here, but taking time to consider Lin’s words, and to question the way in which our beliefs are manifest could prove fruitful as the starting point on a fresh journey of reflection and discovery.

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… for all the times you’ve been ignored

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Have you ever felt ignored, passed over, or even scorned? 

Consider these profound words:

“Help others for all the times that you have been ignored;
Be kind to others, for all the times that you have been scorned.”

Deng Ming-Dao
365 Tao Daily Meditations, 206 (Harper Collins, 1992)

These are powerful sentiments, which point towards a wholeness which can be ours if only we respond to life’s disappointments and hurts with wisdom and generosity.

It can seem counterintuitive to be kind when we are scorned, and to help others when we ourselves have been ignored. Shouldn’t we fight back, hold our ground, pursue our own agenda, and put ourselves first?

And yet it is within our nature to have empathy; if we ignore the impulse to do good, we diminish our own humanity. We damage ourselves more than anyone – and more than we can bear.

Having been scorned we know what it is to be scorned;
Having been ignored we know what it is to be ignored;
Unless we have a cruel heart, we will want to spare others such pain.

Notice that Deng isn’t suggesting we be kind to the very people who have slighted us. Rather, the focus here is on our own attitude: foster generosity to ALL who need it.

Such help is not meddling;
nor is it another excuse for self-promotion.
It is simple giving.

Forgive and Forget?

Certainly when we feel hurt we must forgive, if only to protect ourselves from the anger, disappointment and bitterness that do us more harm than anyone else!

When a situation or relationship has been knocked off balance, regardless of the reasons or blame, it can also take patience to wait for more auspicious circumstances so that balance can properly be restored.

Better in my experience to smile, walk away, and forget those who would do us harm; and like the great sage Laozi, to seek anonymity at such times. Not only does this allow us to maintain our own integrity, it negates the influence of those who may seek to diminish us.

And if, in the future, there is a renewed opportunity for friendship, our own commitment to forgive, forget and move on from the past enables us to foster reconciliation.

Giving Back

I am often asked why I devote so many hours every week to writing this site, offering free help to pianists and teachers around the world, rather than simply cashing in on my expertise.

Firstly, I already make a reasonable living as a busy piano teacher, and I am not especially ambitious. But perhaps my desire to give freely here is also in part my own response to those times when I too have been ignored or scorned.

And yet I am equally well aware of the enormous good fortune I have experienced, and the generosity of others towards me.

In short, then, I want to give back in a world where I believe there is so much to celebrate and to share.

But it seems to me that a positive outlook can only be possible if we are willing to let go of the times when we were ignored or scorned, and focus instead on helping others. If I am ambitious at all, it is to become a kinder person.

Whether in our piano journey, or in general life, most of us have experienced times of disappointment, felt wronged, or been told, “you lose”.

But the truth is, at such times we stand on the threshold of personal growth, accelerated opportunity, and the chance to truly triumph in life.

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Developing Fluency

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“I begin every lesson by having the pupil play the whole movement through without any interruption (no going back if you make mistake, as in practising). So we start with the experience of performance – and then turn to the details.”

Fanny Waterman
International Piano, Sept/Oct 2010

I vividly recall how, as a student at the Royal College of Music, my harpsichord teacher would ask me to play a piece, only appearing to listen to the first few bars. Indeed, he often seemed quite distracted, checking the room humidity, rifling through the paperwork on his desk, pacing up and down, and generally appearing to have other things on his mind.

Once I reached the end of the piece, however, he would invariably have the most perceptive comments to make about my performance – before turning back to the first page and looking at the piece in more detail.

My own approach as a teacher is not dissimilar (including my tendency to fidget!). I’ve always felt that if a student has practised a piece, I rather owe it to them to listen to what they’ve achieved and develop an overview of their progress before interrupting and interjecting with comments, criticisms, and suggestions for improvement.

I am perhaps unusual in this though – most often when I have observed other teachers they have seemed ill-at-ease simply enjoying their student’s playing.

I once heard OFSTED’s Chief HMI for Music (at the time) say that one of the biggest problems observed by inspectors visiting music lessons in schools was that pupils rarely played a piece in its entirety, so neither working on structural awareness and pacing of the composition in their lessons, nor fluency in performing.

It is too easy to get so bogged down in the detail that we fail to observe the big picture, and no longer see the wood through the trees. And I’m sure there are still more clichés to describe this common problem!

Whether practising or teaching, let’s be more careful to develop fluency – without sacrificing accuracy in the process.

In doing so we are more likely also to develop fluency in our appreciation of great art – and that’s a tremendous goal!

How often when you are practising do you play pieces all the way through, simply observing the music without criticism? Teachers – do you make it your habit to listen to pieces in full before commenting? Please share your thoughts with a comment below!

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Are You a Fanatic?

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“If you’re invited for tea by a connoisseur of Pu Er (tea) in Yunnan, be prepared to deal with a fanatic, for Pu Er inspires a zealous devotion among its advocates, who, like missionaries of a mysterious cult, will try their best to coax you away from your own acquired taste in Chinese tea, and persuade you instead that Pu Er is the high and mighty lord in the entire pantheon of Chinese tea.”

Daniel Reid
The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea (Singing Dragon, 2011, p78)


I can think of several parallels in the world of the piano, where advocates of a particular approach or style present themselves as zealots for their cause.

It seems to me that there’s nothing wrong with such passion, so long as we each remember to show respect for one another, and present our views and ideas with dignity, generosity and grace towards others.

I have been, and remain, a fanatic for many musical and other causes. If something works for me, there’s a good chance it will equally work for others, and I am happy to share my experiences and insights if they might help.

But what works for one, although it may work for all, need not do so.

We are, each of us, unique. Each must find their path, and few of us like to feel coerced or pressurised into accepting a rigid model stipulated by another.

Experience ultimately always triumphs over dogma. As the saying goes,

“The older I get, the less I know.”

So let’s keep the fires of healthy fanaticism alight, but in our passion we must remember humility, keeping our hearts and minds open. Above all, pursuing kindness.

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Music of our Youth

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“When I was growing up my parents used to take me to the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and I remember hearing a recital by Alfred Brendel there in the late 1970s. He played the Schubert G major Sonata … Brendel’s style was so different from the keyboard giants of the past, but it opened my eyes to Schubert and made me understand the greatness of that kind of serious playing…

Brendel made recordings of the last series of Schubert sonatas, including the G major Sonata released in 2001. Nothing moves me more than those particular Schubert sonatas. I’ve played the B flat Sonata often over the years, and its second movement is so affecting that I find it hard to move onto the third movement. It’s as though everything has been said, and we should all go home.”

Stephen Hough
International Piano, May/June 2010

It fascinates me that our memories of music discovered in our youth can so powerfully impact our ongoing appreciation of music in later life, whether as listeners or performers.

Like Stephen Hough, I can well remember several “light-bulb moments” where music freshly heard in my younger years left a reverberating impact that I can still feel acutely today. When I mentally list the names of the great composers, how often my “favourite” pieces by them are those I first discovered.

Here in the Eales household, we listen to a staggering variety of music, from classical to bluegrass, and from jazz to ambient electronic. But whenever a pop song from the 1970s or 80s comes on the radio, my wife will sing along, and can remember all the words – another reminder that the music of our youth will often be the lasting treasure that vastly overshadows our subsequent musical journey.

As parents, teachers and performers, let’s be especially diligent in choosing the music we introduce to the children in our lives, considering its quality and permanent value, and knowing that this music more than any other will inform and hopefully enrich their whole musical future.

Do you have special memories of music discovered when you were young? Feel free to share by leaving a comment below.

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