Rediscovering the Magic of Piano

“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 consider why, and how useful goal setting actually is…

Continue reading Rediscovering the Magic of Piano

16 Attributes of a Good Teacher

Pathways for Teaching

With these striking words, contemporary Daoist author Deng Ming-Dao invites us to consider how our personal qualities can help us be the best people, and by extension, the best teachers that we can be:

“Those who follow Dao believe in using sixteen attributes on behalf of others: mercy, gentleness, patience, non attachment, control, skill, joy, spiritual love, humility, reflection, restfulness, seriousness, effort, controlled emotion, magnanimity, and concentration. Whenever you need to help another, draw on these qualities.”

Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao Daily Meditations, 188 (Harper Collins)

So let’s be clear from the start: what is on offer here is the secret of how to be successful in helping others, in any context. A lot of us will devote much of a lifetime to discovering the answers which are presented right here.

But how about applying this directly to our work as piano teachers?

In this post I am going to look at each of these attributes in turn, briefly exploring the powerful links that exist between a teacher’s character and the quality and effectiveness of their teaching…

Continue reading 16 Attributes of a Good Teacher

Piano Reflections with Lao Tzu

A couple of weeks ago I introduced readers to a feature I have added within the Pianodao Tea Room community: The Daily Dao.

If you haven’t yet joined the Pianodao Tea Room you are of course welcome to do so, but for this one time, I’m going to reproduce below the Daily Dao posts from the first week.

Each week, I select a “source” from which quotes are drawn, one per day with reflective and discussion questions. I have reproduced the first week below, and hope that you find these reflections helpful and thought-provoking.

The selected source for that first week was the Daoist classic Tao Te Ching by the great sage Lao Tzu. In the questions for reflection and discussion, these texts were applied directly to our lives as piano players and teachers.

In the second week, the selected source was Charles Rosen’s classic book Piano Notes. Those quotes and reflections will remain accessible on the Pianodao Tea Room community page.

And next week, the selected source is Mindfulness in Music by Mark Tanner, which I have previously reviewed here.

In the Tea Room, many of the questions and reflections led to interesting and supportive discussions between members; those comments are of course exclusive to that community, so once again, do come and join us if you are interested. From the reflections below, you will realise the Tea Room is not simply another Facebook group!

In the meantime, here verbatim are the six posts which made up the Daily Dao in the week beginning Monday August 10th 2020.

Continue reading Piano Reflections with Lao Tzu

NEW: The Daily Dao

Regular readers will know how I enjoy sharing favourite quotes from pianists, teachers, philosophers and writers here.

Now, starting from Monday 10th August 2020, a new series is coming exclusively to the Pianodao Tea Room community over on Facebook.

The Daily Dao will offer a fresh quote each morning from Monday to Friday, each accompanied by a few additional comments or questions for reflection and to stimulate discussion.

Though seemingly a small innovation, The Daily Dao will add to the overall content offered by Pianodao by providing an ongoing reflective extension to the major themes of philosophy and practice covered in articles here on the main site.

My hope is that The Daily Dao will also bring together Pianodao readers and supporters with a closer spirit of sharing a common journey.

Rather than a random selection, each week’s quote will come from a single source: a book, anthology or interview. The book of the week will be introduced in advance each Sunday.

The sources I draw on will touch on all three of major strands covered here on Pianodao:

Pathways for Playing
Pathways for Teaching
Pathways for Living

Each month I will select sources pertinent to each of these, giving a balanced and varied focus to our thoughts and conversations.

Lastly, Tea Room members can if they wish volunteer a week’s quotes as a guest host, and I hope that within each month one week will be led by another community member in this way.

If you are interested in joining the Pianodao Tea Room, full details are here. It would be great to welcome more members to the Pianodao community; do come and join us!


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The site grows thanks to the generous support of readers.
For extra content and special discounts, join the Tea Room community.


Discovering MTB Exams (part 2)

In Part One of this major feature I interviewed Music Teachers’ Board Chief Examiner Mark Kesel. The article certainly generated a lot of interest, and as a piano teacher I am myself very excited by the innovation and stimulating vision promised by the MTB.

For one thing, the idea of being able to take a graded exam any day of the year is a real boon for those of us who don’t want to spend months working on and listening to the same three pieces ad infinitum. I feel that this simple innovation could revolutionise teaching and learning, providing scope for students to develop better momentum, engagement, and to progress far more quickly without being held back by the schedule of an exam board

Combine this with the no-fuss ability to take graded exams using a simple app in the lesson, and the fact that the MTB allow candidates to play any three pieces of their own choice so long as they are appropriate for the grade, and here is an exciting opportunity for learners to move away from an exam-driven mentality and embrace their own personalised piano journey, without losing the benefits of independent, fully accredited assessments along the way.

But I’m not one to simply jump on every latest trend or fad; ABRSM have been a friend on my musical journey for more than 40 years and I have used their exams almost exclusively with my students. Were ABRSM continuing to meet the needs of my students, I wouldn’t lightly make a decision to switch board.

When looking for advice and support, the Pianodao Tea Room is the natural place to ask, its members always willing to share their experiences in a friendly way. I knew several members had tried MTB exams with their students in recent months, and several were willing to share their experiences…

Here then are five teacher interviews I arranged, which answered my own questions and will, I hope, help you find answers to yours…

Continue reading Discovering MTB Exams (part 2)

Discovering MTB Exams (part 1)

An Interview with MTB Chief Examiner Mark Kesel

For music teachers and students struggling through the last five months, with the UK in lockdown, there has been a significant preoccupation with the problem that music examining boards have been struggling to adapt to the situation.

On the social media platforms and forums where I am active, I have seen regular and very significant complaints about all three of the traditional boards here in the UK. But throughout these challenges, one fully accredited music exam board has stood out from the crowd by a country mile.

Many teachers hadn’t even heard of the Music Teachers’ Board at the start of the year. But this changed overnight with the appearance of effective targeted advertisements online trumpeting a bold claim:

“MTB’s Grade 1-8 exams are to continue without disruption during this difficult period.”

The progression from intrigue to full commitment has been startling, many teachers who were formally loyal to ABRSM or one of the other boards posting online to praise the MTB Exams having tried them out and had hugely positive experiences.

Determined to get to the bottom of this, I tracked down MTB’s Chief Examiner Mark Kesel for this remote interview. And in a second feature I talk to some of those teachers who have tried out these exams with their students, asking them about their experiences.

So buckle up and enjoy the ride…

Continue reading Discovering MTB Exams (part 1)

ABRSM Piano Scales 2021

Sheet Music Review

With the publication of their 2021-22 Piano Syllabus (reviewed in full here), ABRSM have given their scales requirements a significant overhaul, also publishing new scales books and resources.

In this review I will consider three main areas of this development:

  1. The new syllabus requirements
  2. The new ABRSM Piano Scales & Arpeggios books
  3. Scale Explorer for Piano – a new series of five graded books written for ABRSM by Alan Bullard

Let’s get straight to it…

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Scales 2021

Adapting to Change

Change sometimes takes us by surprise, a bolt from the blue, and in the early months of 2020 we have all experienced a jolt to our way of life as countries around the world quickly followed each other into lockdown.

As the dust settles and we try to adapt to “the new normal”, many are now wondering how these changes will continue to affect us, and what they mean. We are feeling uneasy about the future, and unsure of our footing.

Here in the West, we sometimes assume change is a linear process, an ongoing narrative in which we continually face the unknown, but with no going back. We measure our success in terms of our annual growth targets, believing that unless we progress “onwards and upwards” we will fail.

For the Daoists however, change is cyclical, often understood in the natural context of the turning seasons and the rotation of day and night. There is similarly a natural expansion and contraction of all things, seen for example in the ebbing of the tides, the wax and waning of the moon.

I believe that these metaphors are really helpful; they can give us hope. They encourage us to accept life’s “ups and downs”, pliably and positively adapting to them. In contrast to western materialism, Daoism teaches that there is a rightful time to contract, consolidate, and rest: all of which are necessary for our well-being.

In this context, there really is no “new normal” because we are all on a continuing journey. Nothing in the universe stands still. But at the same time, it certainly seems that history has a peculiar habit of repeating itself. Fixed plans and linear growth targets only succeed when all else is essentially in a state of entropy, but this is historically rare and actually a bit weird.

The upheaval of 2020 presents us with a unique opportunity to reflect on this. How then can we “go with the flow”, “roll with the punches”, and adapt to change?

In this article I will consider this question primarily from the point of view of a pianist and teacher, but beyond my thoughts on how to adapt our playing and teaching, there is much here that equally pertains to our living.

Continue reading Adapting to Change

The Pianist’s Self-Care

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

At the time of writing, most of us are feeling uneasy. We are, after all, in the midst of a global pandemic, concerned for ourselves, our loved ones, our finances, and fearful of what our world might be like in a few months time.

But as we spend more time away from our usual routines, we might also discover a deeper unease. A rock has plunged into the pool of our lives. The ripples are still clearing, and a lot of mud has been churned up. As the waters settle again, we are coming to see things that were perhaps unclear to us before.

As pianists we might hope to see glimpses of answers to life’s most profound questions sat before our piano, absorbed in our playing. And certainly, as I’ve written here before, piano playing can provide a sanctuary from all else that is unfolding around us.

But while some presently find they can use their piano playing as an escape from grim news, many others are experiencing frustration at their lack of motivation, focus and inspiration.

In this entry to The Pianist’s Reflections Series I will consider some basic elements of self-care from a Daoist (Taoist) perspective in the hope that readers will find some helpful suggestions, and that each of us can enjoy a piano journey that reflects an easier, more connected and settled experience of life.

Continue reading The Pianist’s Self-Care

Switching to Video Lessons

A guide for beginners by an almost-beginner

Guest Post by Garreth Brooke

Switching to video lessons at short notice is stressful!

I live in Frankfurt, Germany, where all the schools are now closed and I made the switch on Thursday afternoon. I’ve taught 6 lessons so far and overall it has gone pretty well. Here are some things I learnt that you might find useful…

Continue reading Switching to Video Lessons

Spring Repertoire Challenge

The Spring Repertoire Challenge is ideal for players of all ages, and offers a great starting point for developing and building an Active Repertoire at the piano. Are you up for it?

Continue reading Spring Repertoire Challenge

The Pianist’s Imperfection

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

Recently, my wife Louise had a minor kitchen accident which resulted in her breaking my favourite tea cup.

As she tells the story (on her social media):

“So I broke Andrew’s favourite teacup.
I felt I should make him a new one in pottery.
It lists a little bit but it works!
Andrew said that it’s the best thing that anyone has given him. He then went on to say that most people would’ve given up and started again once they noticed the listing.
Clearly I’m not most people!”

As you can see from the photo above, my new cup is a thing of great beauty! But as Louise admits, it’s hardly perfect from a functional point of view. The “listing” perhaps doesn’t look serious, but when pouring tea into the cup it’s quite obvious that when one side is full to the brim, the other side is only two-thirds full.

There’s another problem too. Inside the cup, there are quirky recesses that somehow trap the tea, making it impossible to empty the cup when drinking from it in a genteel, civilised manner. Only tipping it upside down really does the trick!


Here, for comparison, is a cup that has none of these issues:


A bit boring, right?

The beauty of my new mug is in its imperfection: its quirkiness, vibrant personality, its energy. And central to all that, the fact that it was borne of relationship, made with love.

Continue reading The Pianist’s Imperfection

The Pianist’s Air

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

“Installing air filters in classrooms can raise children’s scores in tests by the same amount as cutting class sizes by a third, research has found…
Mike Gilraine, author of the paper and assistant professor of economics at New York University, said the improved scores were equivalent to ‘roughly two-and-a-half months of extra learning’.”

So blazes a news story published in The Times on January 10th 2020. The article quotes from research suggesting,

“The results indicate that air filter installation is a highly cost-effective policy to raise student achievement “

And it goes on to point out that several London schools, having installed air filters in classrooms. have reported reductions in absence because of sickness, which teachers attributed to cleaner air.

Given my previous writing about the centrality of breathing in piano playing, regular readers will no doubt anticipate that none of this comes as a surprise to me; indeed, I believe that quality of air in my teaching studio is a paramount concern, and have encouraged players and teachers to take the issue seriously long prior to these new findings.

In this article I will offer some simple advice about air quality and the need to create a suitable environment for piano learning. But rather than focusing on the educational benefits in isolation, we need to consider the health benefits first and foremost…

Continue reading The Pianist’s Air

Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism

“Advice is like the snow. The softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon and the deeper it sinks into the mind”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

One of the key roles of a piano teacher is to help their students make direct improvements in their playing. To do this we must identify the priority areas that need attention, hopefully without turning into the scolding teacher in the photo above.

In this article I will share some suggestions on how to offer helpful criticism, encouraging positive progress and enthusiastic learning.

I will cover the following points:

  • Why Accuracy Matters
  • The Piano Teacher as “Critical Friend”
  • Golden Tips for Giving Constructive Feedback

Listening to our students play and offering suggestions for improvement is certainly not the whole of a piano teacher’s work, but in many lessons it will be a central feature…

Continue reading Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism

The Pianist’s Resolution

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

The start of any new year or season is for many a time for making resolutions: a time for ambition, grit and determination.

Whether it’s a fresh commitment to healthy eating and exercise, or a renewed self-discipline in setting aside time to practise the piano, this is a month where many make a decision to turn a new leaf.

But how can we foster perseverance and ultimately success?

Continue reading The Pianist’s Resolution

Active Repertoire Challenge 2020

What can you play?

This is a question which for too many pianists leads to such answers as:

  • I’m working on Allegro, but it’s not yet ready to play;
  • I finished learning Andante last month, but I’ve forgotten it now;
  • I don’t have my music books with me, so …

What a pity!

The reality is that too many of us can’t sit down at the piano without notice, without notation, and without embarrassment, and simply play something!

Continue reading Active Repertoire Challenge 2020

Paul Harris: Cancer and Positivity

Building a Library

One Saturday morning in March 2018, I learnt that my good friend the composer, author and educator Paul Harris had been rushed to our local hospital emergency department overnight…

Paul had for several months been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a virulent cancer that had already seemed to take so much from him.

He was receiving excellent treatment at The Churchill Hospital in Oxford, but having taken a turn for the worse the previous night, Paul had been instructed to come straight to Milton Keynes, his nearest A&E.

Continue reading Paul Harris: Cancer and Positivity

Enhancing Technique with Mindfulness of the Body

Guest post by Doug Hanvey

Have you ever had (or been) a piano student who struggles to learn good technique, or to retrain poor technique previously learned?

I certainly have! As a piano teacher specializing in adult learners, many of whom have studied in the past, it’s not uncommon that I must help a student improve or even completely overhaul their technique…

For example, there’s Monique, my 60-year-old student who last studied as a child. Try as she might, Monique has continued to struggle with flying pinkies and collapsing wrists.

Even students with relatively good technique may need improvements. For example, I’ve studied and teach the fundamentals of the Taubman technique. Bringing awareness to the many subtle movements involved such as forearm rotation, in-and-out movements and “shaping” can be challenging for any student.

How might teachers and self-learning students facilitate the learning or retraining of technique?

Perhaps it’s first worth asking: are there any prerequisites for learning or retraining technique?

Continue reading Enhancing Technique with Mindfulness of the Body

Winter Repertoire Challenge

The Winter Repertoire Challenge is ideal for players of all ages, and offers a great opportunity for developing your Active Repertoire at the piano.

Are you up for it?

Continue reading Winter Repertoire Challenge

Playing like the Winter Sun

Those looking to “catch some rays” may head for an exotic tropical beach, but as I drove an early morning errand a few days ago I was struck by the purity of the winter sun blazing brightly, but low, on the horizon.

The fact that in winter months the sun is lower in the sky doesn’t change its essential nature or dim its brightness, even though cloud cover might. On a clear morning, the low angle of the sun only makes it seem brighter.

Blinding, even.

The low winter sun is just as virtuosic as the blazing beast of the equator. The difference of course, is the angle of view, the more modest apex, the changed attitude towards altitude.

Piano Journey

Observing this puts me in mind of how our attitude similarly determines our view of the piano repertoire.

Some devote their piano journey to the pursuit of altitude, learning ever-harder pieces in their ascent to virtuoso prowess.

Others are more content to play “for pleasure”, perhaps neither striving for the same heights, nor ignoring them. They simply enjoy a different viewpoint.

Those who devote their lives to playing the most difficult repertoire may end up doing so with great difficulty.

Better, I believe, to devote ourselves to playing the most beautiful music, and playing it with great beauty.

As the great writer Albert Camus once wrote,

“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”

Albert Camus

Continue reading Playing like the Winter Sun