The Pianist’s Limits

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
for support playing • BOOK A CONSULTATION


Some years ago, a highly successful man from the world of finance approached me for lessons. Essentially a beginner, he had previously tried a few lessons with another teacher locally, and I asked him why it hadn’t worked out.

His explanation amounted to a cautionary tale:

“I told her that I was only interested in learning Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, but she insisted on trying to teach me dull Grade 1 pieces. I had no interest in learning them, felt unmotivated and annoyed, and made no progress.”

Naturally I tried to explain (as undoubtedly the previous teacher had) that the Tempest is an incredibly difficult work, requiring a range of highly advanced musical and technical skills. It is possible to admire and be inspired by the achievements of the world’s greatest players while enjoying working at our own level.

Alas, he was not for turning, and within a short time the lessons stopped, my name presumably added to the list of stubborn failures who had been unable to teleport him directly into the Tempest without his needing to follow in the footsteps of those pianists who have previously made the journey with success.

Teaching with a sense of structured progression and an underlying curriculum is not a matter of professional hubris or a money-spinning scam; it is the means by which learners can progress towards their goals, realising their potential. It is an act of generosity.

Nor is it negative, lacking in faith or discouraging to recognise that as players we all have our limitations. On the contrary: it is foolish, arrogant and self-defeating to think otherwise. For a start, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Deng Ming-Dao reminds us,

“Every river has its banks,
Every ocean has its shores.”

Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao Daily Meditations, Harper Collins

Continue reading The Pianist’s Limits

The Pianist’s Behaviour

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • by ANDREW EALES
setting our piano journey in its living context.


With the majority of our interactions and interpersonal relationships evolving exclusively online over the last year or so, it’s no surprise that some are now expressing some anxiety about resuming our lives in the “real world” again.

I’m surely not the only one who has watched with a mixture of bemusement, concern, and at times mounting horror as friends, colleagues and forum folk have, over the lockdown months, become increasingly cranky.

Won’t it be a bit awkward bumping into that piano teacher who has spent the last year pedalling bizarre conspiracy theories?

How about those friends and colleagues who have been so rude to, or about each other, seemingly oblivious that their acquaintances were collectively grabbing the popcorn and reading along in stunned disbelief?

Whether we’ve been drawn into the fray, stood back in judgment, or remained completely aloof, none of us can honestly claim to have been entirely blameless through this period of adaptation. Sometimes, this pandemic has brought out the best in us. Sometimes not.

It is time for us all to take stock. When it comes to behaviour and relationships, there may be situations where we need to hit the “reset” button.

Each tentative step towards the “new normal” brings growing recognition that both in-person and online engagement are very much here to stay, and will contribute to a more complex reality in which the quality of our personal and relational behaviour will be as crucial, and more visible than ever.

Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Age

During my recent readings of the Daoist Classics, this passage from Laozi’s Daojeding leapt from the pages, and is I believe pertinent to this time:

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying too.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Dao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
Everybody will respect you.

Daodejing, chapter 8, Laozi.
translated by Stephen Mitchell.
“Tao Te Ching, An Illustrated Journey”.

It is hardly for me to instruct others in how to behave. Nevertheless, I believe that Laozi’s words present a fairly comprehensive and beautifully succinct manual covering the most important bits.

The sage’s insights on cultivating healthy priorities, resolving conflict, avoiding comparisons and turning away from competition speak incisively, and are as relevant and powerful today as they were two and a half millennia ago.

And perhaps it really is this simple, if only we take time to reflect upon and apply these teachings.

To save you scrolling back, here are Laozi’s words again, together with the suggestion that we all take time to read them slowly:

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying too.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Dao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
Everybody will respect you.


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The Post-Pandemic Piano Player

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
for support playing • BOOK A CONSULTATION


“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over.
But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” 

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

As I write this, we are starting to consider and look forward to the relaxation of lockdown rules in the coming weeks, with a hope that schools will resume in March and most other activities by Easter. Being cautious, I had anticipated the probability of a return of face-to-face lessons by mid-summer, but it now seems possible that life will begin returning to some-kind-of-normal sooner. Hooray!

But what will we all have learnt in the last year?
How will we have changed in general, and as piano players?
And in what ways will the teaching and learning of the piano have been fundamentally and permanently altered?

Let’s consider the “Post-Pandemic Piano Player”…

Continue reading The Post-Pandemic Piano Player

Making Peace with your Inner Musician

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • by ANDREW EALES
setting our piano journey in its living context.


At time of writing, many around the world recently celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights which signifies victory over darkness, and a beacon of hope that speaks to the heart of our present condition.

Digging out and dipping into my copy of the Bhagavad Gita, one of India’s most important sacred texts, the following verse jumped off the page:

“Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.”

Bhagavad Gita (2.48)

This set me wondering:
to what extent do ‘results’ cause anxiety in my own life?

Continue reading Making Peace with your Inner Musician

Adapting to Change

PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING • by ANDREW EALES
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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

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • by ANDREW EALES
setting our piano journey in its living context.


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

The Pianist’s Imperfection

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • by ANDREW EALES
setting our piano journey in its living context.


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

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • by ANDREW EALES
setting our piano journey in its living context.


“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

The Pianist’s Resolution

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • by ANDREW EALES
setting our piano journey in its living context.


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

Paul Harris: Cancer and Positivity

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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