A Streak of Calm

Setting our piano journey in its living context.
Written by Andrew Eales.

A few years back I purchased an app called Calm, which has subsequently become one of the most popular mindfulness apps available on iOS and other digital platforms. With its range of guided meditations, ambient music, soundscapes, breathwork exercises and ‘sleep stories’, Calm has grown to become a superb lifestyle resource, and a deserved success.

Interestingly though, Calm also delivers user stats after each session, with a badge showing one’s ‘streaks’ of consecutive days of practice. I’ve regarded this feature with vague amusement; it seems to owe more to the culture of the gambling arcade than to the ethos of the meditation traditions.

There’s even the opportunity to share your official streaks on social media platforms, something I recently did myself having reached the modest achievement of 100 consecutive days, and curious to see whether it would generate much discussion with friends.

But then an odd, and instructive thing happened: it must have been less than a week later that I ‘missed’ a day…

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A Fresh Perspective

Take a little time to pause before playing on…
Written by Andrew Eales.

Those who know me well enough to have observed some of my personal struggles often urge me to stop caring what others think of my choices, opinions, beliefs and work. Many of us become trapped in the mindset of the “people-pleaser”; manipulated or bullied by others, we can easily lose sight of our own core values if we aren’t careful.

A decision not to care what others think about us can be emancipating, and can empower us to be our more authentic selves. I’m not surprised that this sentiment has become a common theme in self-help manuals.

But wait. If we stop caring about what others think, how long before we stop caring about them at all? Mutual understanding of each other’s ideas, feelings and perspectives is a crucial foundation for building empathetic, honest relationships.

We may not always agree with the opinions of others, but shutting them out ultimately isolates us. Clearly a balance is needed, along with an ability to accept the perspectives of others without feeling belittled.

As in life, so too this applies in our piano playing…

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Illuminating Diwali

Setting our piano journey in its living context.
Written by Andrew Eales.

Wishing you an illuminating, prosperous and joyous Diwali.

My warmest wishes go out to my community of friends both local and online, and to all Pianodao readers, supporters, students and your families.

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The Pianist’s Breathwork

Setting our piano journey in its living context.
Written by Andrew Eales.

Breathwork is a form of meditation that relies on the body, rather than the mind, to do the work of calming. It lowers stress by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and increasing oxygen to the brain.

Breathing is the first and last thing that we do as humans. And yet most of us breathe in unconscious and restricted ways, leading to dire consequences for our bodies, physical health and emotional wellness.

But as Jennifer Patterson advocates in her brilliant The Power of Breathwork (2020, available here),

“Breathing happens unconsciously all the time, but it can also be consciously and intentionally engaged with. How present you are to your breath is how present you are to your life. By bringing consciousness to the breath you can interrupt automatic responses, reactions, thought patterns, and more.”

During breathwork practice we intentionally focus on and systematically adjust our breathing patterns. Such exercises have been a core element of meditation, yoga (pranayama) practice, and qigong for centuries, but have recently been popularised worldwide by the wellness movement and as a mindfulness technique.

Breathwork is now also recommended by the NHS here in the UK as a tool to overcoming stress. Many find that this practice promotes deep relaxation and leaves them feeling energised.

In this article I am going to consider the value of simple breathwork practice for pianists, explaining how and when it can be a helpful tool, and introducing you to some easy and popular breathwork exercises that you will be able to try for yourself, straight away.

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The Pianist’s Limits

Fluency, understanding, expression and confidence.
Written by Andrew Eales

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

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The Pianist’s Behaviour

Setting our piano journey in its living context.
Written by Andrew Eales.

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.

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The Post-Pandemic Piano Player

Fluency, understanding, expression and confidence.
Written by Andrew Eales

“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 might the teaching and learning of the piano have been fundamentally and permanently altered?

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Making Peace with your Inner Musician

Setting our piano journey in its living context.
Written by Andrew Eales.

At time of writing, many around the world are celebrating 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?

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Adapting to Change

Supporting teachers, promoting piano education.
Written by Andrew Eales

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.

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The Pianist’s Self-Care

Setting our piano journey in its living context.
Written by Andrew Eales.

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.

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