A Rising Crescendo of Hope

The Fermata Series

Walking in Linford Wood this morning, it was such a joy to hear the blazing chorus of birdsong, and among it all the unmistakable sound of a determined woodpecker tapping in the trees.

Birdsong seems to me the sound of life continuing as usual, the forces of nature and energetic cycles of the universe triumphing over turmoil. And at this time of year, as spring arrives in the forest, there is daily new life, fresh growth and ever-present hope.

Yes, Hope.

And how precious is that, as we find ourselves embroiled in incessant change and entangled in our transient insecurities?

Just as birdsong can convey hope, connection and continuity in an uncertain world, so too can our music.

As we sit to play at the piano, we tap into the song of generations, and there is a sense of connectedness which can be palpable.

Continuity: because whether alone or playing for others, we can explore and keep alive the music of former generations. Their music is a bridge across time and space, allowing communication, empathy and a sense of connection to endure and to thrive.

All music belongs indelibly to the great human narrative, but we are required as players and listeners to step onto that bridge in our imagination, discerning and joining with the voices of the musicians of old, sharing in and recreating their thoughts, experiences and emotions.

New music, whether our own improvisation or the compositions of others, joins humanity’s own Dawn Chorus, fanning the flames of mankind’s song until they grow into a deafening crescendo of hope and lasting connection.

I appeal to readers and all my musician friends: let’s each of us embrace positive intentions as we play the piano, eschewing doubt and keeping vanity at bay, ensuring that our music is empowered by a sense of connection and continuity.

Let’s be the creators and sustainers of hope.


Fermata Series

More from the Fermata Series:

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Compassionate Boundaries

The Fermata Series

“It’s hard for us to understand that we can be compassionate and accepting while we hold people accountable for their behaviours. We can, and, in fact, it’s the best way to do it…

“We can confront someone about their behaviour, fire someone, or fail a student, or discipline a child without berating them or putting them down. The key is to separate people from their behaviours – to address what they’re doing, not who they are.”

Brené Brown, Ph.D, LMSW
The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden Publishing, 2010)

Online forums see daily requests for advice and support from teachers who are struggling with tricky pupil and parent relationships. For piano teachers, the problem often seems to stem from a lack of agreed boundaries around issues such as prompt fee payment, lesson attendance, punctuality, respectful behaviour and effective, regular practice.

How do we balance on the one hand enforcing contractual obligations and appropriate behavioural expectations and, on the other hand, offering compassionate support, putting musical learning needs first, and positively enthusing our pupils?

I would suggest that the only effective balance here is to give 100% to both.

Pupils and parents do not, cannot, and should not need to know every detail of how a teacher organises their personal world. Effective studio policies, clearly communicated, fence off our personal and professional lives, and are especially important for those of us whose studios are based within our homes.

Boundaries help us devote ourselves to our shared objective of pupil progress, giving of ourselves wholeheartedly and without distraction.

Only when our personal and professional boundaries are securely in place, enforced in a firm, fair and friendly way, can we move on from the sense of resentment which develops when we feel others are taking advantage of our compassionate commitment.

In my experience over the years, the vast majority of my students (and their parents) have respected my professionalism when I have offered, explained clearly, and stuck to fair policies.

And in turn, this has created a studio environment where commitment, friendship, respect, compassion and enthusiasm have thrived.

Let me close this Fermata pause for thought by handing back to Brené Brown:

“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behaviour or a choice…

“For our own sake, we need to understand that it’s dangerous to our relationship and our well-being to get mired in shame and blame, or to be full of self-righteous anger. It’s also impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment. If we’re going to practice acceptance and compassion, we need boundaries and accountability.”

Brené Brown, ibid.

Fermata Series

Accomplishment

The Fermata Series

”In the beginning of training, it may seem as if you are doing very little. You compare yourself to your teachers and to more accomplished people, and you may despair at ever reaching their levels.

“But if you are diligent, then it is inevitable that you will make something of yourself. Once you reach such a plateau, you will be able to relax a bit and contemplate where you are on your journey.”

Deng Ming-Dao,  365 Tao Daily Mediations (204).

Piano students, and adults in particular, often underestimate the time it will take to become proficient players, to play the music they aspire to, and to sound as good as they hoped.

When newcomers ask me, “how long until I can play really well?” I typically answer, “How does ten years sound?

It’s an easy (if entirely random) guess, but can be qualified by pointing out that if “really well” equates to ABRSM Grade 8 (the highest amateur qualification), then in real terms it means progressing by around one Grade per year, with a bit of slack thrown in for good measure!

But the more important truth, which I quickly bring up, is that EVERY STEP of the journey is actually a real ACCOMPLISHMENT in which the player should take satisfaction.

We may wish our skills could be multiplied, but often moving a single step at a time counts for more. Two PLUS One is actually more than Two TIMES One.

And ultimately, as piano playing is a journey with no fixed destination, it’s important that we really take time to enjoy the scenery.

If patience is really a virtue, perhaps it is because learning to appreciate each moment leads to a rewarding lifetime of happiness and health.

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Prelude to a Better Year

2018 has been another pretty crazy year for many around the world… but how was it for you?

If you’ve had a good year, let’s hope for an even better one in 2019.

And if 2018 wasn’t such a good vintage, well again I hope that the coming year will bring renewed hope, enthusiasm, energy and happiness to your life.

Here’s a recording of a short composition of mine which I made a few years back, and which has become one of the most popular pieces I have shared online, as well as a popular encore at my concerts.

I hope you enjoy it, and that it can be the soundtrack for your hopes as we enter the New Year together!

Andrew Eales:  “Prelude to a Better Year”

Wishing all readers and friends around the world a peaceful and prosperous year in 2019 – HAPPY NEW YEAR!


lf you would like to show your appreciation and support Pianodao, please raise a glass with me at the outset of this exciting new year …

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Slow Progress

The Fermata Series

”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

The Fermata Series

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.

Fermata Series

Seeking out Silence

The Fermata Series

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!

Fermata Series

Musical Focus is Paramount

The Fermata Series

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.”

Fermata Series

Reflections from Moniaive

The Fermata Series

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!

Fermata Series

The Way We Believe

The Fermata Series

“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.

Fermata Series