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

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

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

The View from the Pavilion

An original short story.

The following story is written in the manner of an old Chinese folk tale. The meaning, perspective of the characters, and relevance to the world of piano playing, is for the reader to determine…

Continue reading The View from the Pavilion

The Pianist’s Brew

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

I used to be a coffee addict. Seriously. I had several pots of fresh coffee a day, and when I tried to cut back I experienced acute withdrawal symptoms.

Unfortunately though, coffee has some fairly unhelpful side-effects; among other things, it is especially bad for us if we suffer from anxiety (which is so common among pianists).

Having read about the virtues of tea drinking, I decided to try a switch. My previous experience of tea was the warm, milky, teabag variety. I realised that this is not exactly the drink that the great Daoist sages spoke of, so I jumped into the deep end and started to explore the wide variety of Chinese leaf teas that are available without straying too far from the beaten track.

To cut a long story short, switching to tea has proven one of the best choices I’ve made. Aside from tea drinking being better for my health (physical and emotional), my exploration of different Chinese teas has become a fascinating and absorbing journey in its own right.

It may seem odd to encounter an article about tea drinking on a piano site, but I will explain some of the reasons why tea might actually be the perfect brew for all pianists (and, well, people in general).

Also bear in mind that Pianodao addresses my interest in Daoist philosophy and practices; hence the “dao” part of the site name. Tea drinking is so embedded in Daoist culture and practice and that it might as well be described as a core tenet of the Daoist worldview.

As the contemporary Daoist master Zhongxian Wu explains:

Pin Ming Lun Dao is a commonly used Chinese phrase which means ‘to discuss and understand the Dao through the taste of tea‘. This phrase embodies the lifestyle of the most traditional Chinese sages and scholars, whether they be a master of Daoism,, Confucianism, Buddhism, martial arts, music, calligraphy, and/or Traditional Chinese Medicine.”

foreword to Daniel Reid, The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea, Singing Dragon, 2011.

With all this in mind, this article will address the following questions:

  1. Why is tea good for pianists (and people in general)?
  2. How does one get started with drinking Chinese tea?
  3. What different types of tea are there?

Tea is by far the single most popular beverage on earth today, so chances are that many reading this are already tea drinkers.

I hope that for those readers, the article will add to your enjoyment of tea, while for those who haven’t yet considered this fascinating subject my hope is that this article will pique your interest, and give you good reason to try something new!

Let’s start by going back in time….

Continue reading The Pianist’s Brew

Lingering Awhile with Friends

“Morning rain in Wencheng dampens rising dust.
Sprouting willows colour the guest house green.
Sir, let us drain another cup of wine.
Once you’re west of Yang Gate, you’ll have no friends.”

Seeing Yuan Er off on a mission to Anxi, Wang Wei (699-759)
translated Deng Ming-Dao, Each Journey Begins with a Single Step (2018)


This simple, if somewhat oblique verse has been bearing down on my thoughts in recent weeks. Ever since encountering it, it has stuck in my mind as a salient reminder of the importance of cultivating lasting relationships and savouring friendships.

It is also, in context, a poem about journeying. The writer entreats his travelling friend to wait awhile before taking the next step, not simply because it is wise to be circumspect, but because the security of the present moment provides the best launchpad into the uncertainty of the next.

Many will be starting out in new jobs, classes and projects as we enter a new season. We may, or may not, have friends lined up as travelling companions.

Soon there will be change, bringing fresh challenges, adventures and new faces into our daily lives. But for today, it’s important to treasure the friendships we have.

For those enjoying a holiday this month, I hope you will have a refreshing and relaxed time in the company of those close to you. I hope that you will linger in special moments, and craft wonderful memories that will strengthen you for the future and add incredible value to your life.

I have to confess that I too often rush my “goodbyes”, impatient for the next moment. But life does not comprise next moments; it is made up of the present ones. Let’s take time to enjoy them, and treasure our time with friends!

Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to draw attention to the metaphorical link between this verse and our piano playing…

There will always be new repertoire to explore, including the latest compositions we’ve discovered as well as the manifold treasures of the keyboard literature from generations past…

But there’s really no hurry. So before stepping into new territory, remember to spend time with familiar favourites: the Active Repertoire with which you can relax, express and enjoy yourself.

As in life, so too in our piano playing,
let’s take time to linger awhile with our old friends.


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Meanwhile outside…

“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s Party!’”

Robin Williams

The month of May seems to me to be one of the most magnificent of the year, at least here in the UK, where the lingering spring blossom gives way to an explosion of early summer abundance.

The temperature strains upwards towards ideal, but the mornings retain their wonderful freshness. It’s really quite magical!

Continue reading Meanwhile outside…

The Practice Room Sanctuary

The bestselling author, journalist and broadcaster Hannah Beckerman recently wrote an article for Planet Mindful (Spring 2019) in which she shared what music meant to her, and in particular the difference that learning an instrument has made in her life.

In her piece entitled Music made me a happier child, she writes:

“What I didn’t consciously realise until much later was that music was providing another, possibly even more important, role in my life. My parents’ marriage had never been a happy one, and ours was a family that lived against an ambient hum of tension, anxiety and conflict. Music became my escape…
Music enabled me to set my own emotional temperature. When I was 13, my parents separated and subsequently divorced, and music became my sanctuary… throughout it all, music was my means of emotional regulation.”

No doubt like many others, I can profoundly identify with this. I too grew up in what was then known as a “broken home”, my mum divorcing my dad when I was 6, my stepdad when I was 12, her third husband dying of a heart attack when I was 17.

Music became a deepening world to me.

And not only through these troubles and tragedies, but similarly when I was mugged in the street, bullied and beaten up at school; when girlfriends dumped me; when I struggled with identity; when I generally failed at life.

In all these moments of difficulty, music was the place where I hid, the practice room my refuge, the sound of the piano a cavern of acceptance which, for much of my younger life, was the one place where I felt I could truly belong.

But music isn’t just for the dark times; playing an instrument isn’t simply a cop-out from life’s hasher realities. Music is an equally welcome friend during times of calm, of amazement, triumph and bliss.

The piano offered another way to explore and express my joy when I truly fell in love, when I got engaged, married and built a life with my wonderful wife.

Music was a constant friend, too, through the birth of our two children, through their growth to maturity and development as successful adults.

Music has been there in success as in failure, a companion through all the joys and sorrows. And it will ever be there.

In all honesty, I could write an extended, euphoric eulogy to the power of music; I doubt I need to, because most who read this will hopefully already know and have experienced exactly what I mean.

As Beckerman astutely observes, music brings equilibrium to our emotions, to our soul. Playing an instrument, we express our otherwise inexpressible deepest selves.

The piano has, without judgement, allowed me to both celebrate my faith and reflect on my doubts, opening up a pathway through which I have excavated my deepest thoughts, emotions and beliefs.

Importantly, through the discipline and focus needed in order to play well, we can each of us enter a meditative state where our other thoughts are stilled, and our inner emotional landscape is able to find restorative balance and sustenance.

As Beckerman says:

“There’s a single-mindedness involved in learning scales and arpeggios until they’re exam-perfect. There’s little space for external worries when you’re doggedly playing the same 29 notes over and over again.”

I can’t help feeling that, for all our efforts to “sell” music (and indeed, cultural education), we yet need to place greater emphasis on music’s transformative and balancing impact on those who properly engage with it.

Some may disagree, but if you play just for yourself, enjoying the private sanctuary of the practice room and never performing for others, I think that’s absolutely fine. It’s more than fine: it’s a genuine blessing. Make the most of it.

As players, let’s avail ourselves of this special place in our lives.
And those of us who teach: let’s try to lead our students there.

Let’s celebrate music’s scope as a means of authentic expression, and the sanctuary it offers those who run to it.


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A Rising Crescendo of Hope

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.


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“Me Time”: a work in progress

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

A work in progress! That’s how I would describe my work life balance. How’s yours?

Continue reading “Me Time”: a work in progress

The Piano Student’s Humiliation

The other morning, while enjoying my first cup of tea for the day, our puppy Bella Bardóg decided to keep nudging me for attention, distracting me from reading the book in my hands. I rather thoughtlessly responded with,

“If you want the book, how about you read it to me?”

Bella looked somewhat forlorn, and my wife Louise chipped in with,

“Don’t humiliate her! You know she can’t read!”

This slightly daft domestic anecdote illustrates a hugely important truth: when we ask somebody, anybody, to do something we know they are incapable of, we humiliate them.

How often, perhaps inadvertently, do we do this to our students?

As well as an aspiring dog-whisperer, Louise is a clinical specialist in child and adolescent mental health, and it is only fitting to credit her for many of the thoughts which follow, emerging as they did from our discussion that morning…

Continue reading The Piano Student’s Humiliation

Slow Progress

”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

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. 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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Parents, Partners & Supporters

When I started teaching a quarter of a century ago, the bulk of my students were children. They and I depended on their parents for payment and support, which sometimes also meant direction.

And the crucial (if at times complex) triangle relationship between teacher, pupil and parent was a fundamental in almost every private lesson context.

Today the world has changed considerably, and one of the many differences for teachers is that the network of relationships around the private lesson context has become a far more complex and diverse one.

Continue reading Parents, Partners & Supporters

Seeking out Silence

The Autumn months can be so very busy!

•  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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Reflections from Moniaive

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

“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

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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Are You a Fanatic?

“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

“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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Information Overload

“Be like the explorers of old. What they acquired for themselves will always surpass those who merely read about their exploits.”

Deng Ming-Dao: 365 Tao Daily Meditations (199)


Do you often get to the end of a day feeling exhausted from sheer information overload?

It’s a contemporary phenomenon which seems to be part-and-parcel with the internet age. We feel this way whenever we receive more information than we can realistically process and internalise.

We are bombarded daily with information that ranges from the useless – such as Instagram pictures of what a friend eat for breakfast – to the academic (sometimes interesting, but often offering little possibility for application).

And then there’s the depressing 24/7 news cycle, that too often leaves us feeling anxious and bewildered rather than informed.

When the quest for an encyclopaedic knowledge, cutting-edge insight, and a full understanding (however noble these are) leaves us feeling worn out, it’s time to step back, take a break, and learn to be kinder to ourselves.

Simply put, it takes time for us to properly process all this information – or else it will anyway just go to waste!

The trick, it seems to me, is to focus on processing the most useful information:

  • information about people, subjects and music we genuinely care about;
  • information we can put to practical use;
  • information gleaned from our senses and experiences;
  • information which feeds or arises from reflection.

Instead of leading to fatigue, such information can open doorways, bring joy, excitement and a sense of playful adventure! 

And often, as we take care to be more balanced in our consumption, we will find that the information we actually need is more manageable than we previously thought…

In the picture of the overloaded bookshelf above, there’s actually only 14 different books – count them! Not so scary after all!


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Mindfulness in Music

Building a Library

Once upon a time, books were something very special – not mere repositories of bullet-pointed knowledge, but containers of true magic whose words could unfetter the imagination and conjure into being a genuine sense of wonder.

It seems to me that as the internet age comes to maturity there has been a concurrent if unexpected reappraisal and renewed appreciation of the tactile immersion made possible by a traditional, high-quality physical book.

Riding the crest of an exciting wave of publications crafted to the highest standard, and with a deliberate nod towards the publishing values of an earlier generation, comes a small but highly significant volume by Mark Tanner entitled Mindfulness in Music, published by Leaping Hare Press as an imprint within their ongoing series of mindfulness-related books.

The book is an inspirational delight from cover to cover (and including the covers themselves!) and I highly commend it to Pianodao readers as the “must-read” book of the season…

Continue reading Mindfulness in Music

The Pianist’s Motivations

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

  • What is it that motivates us as pianists?
  • Why did we start learning to play the piano? ..
  • And why do we continue to play?
  • What are our piano goals for the future? ..
  • And how do they excite us?
  • How can we motivate and inspire our students?

Ask these questions to a hundred pianists, and there’s a good chance you will hear a hundred different answers – but some common themes will most likely emerge.

In this article I am going to consider the many and complex motivations we all experience in life, focussing in on the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and how each pertains to our piano playing.

Continue reading The Pianist’s Motivations

Stories of Recovery

Guest post by Simon Reich

Unless you lived in a humidified bubble, away from sharp objects and potential harmful items, injuries are part of life.

The response to my invitation for stories and anecdotes regarding incidents that may have curtailed your piano playing or ended your musical career altogether was overwhelming. As I was therefore unable to squeeze the material into one blog, I’ve been compelled to write a second part to You Can’t Stop the Music.

Just to reiterate, the injuries were not necessarily musically acquired, but things as simple as falling off a bike, crushing fingers between two bricks or hurting your back slipping down a flight of stairs.

Amazingly, after writing the first article, I found out my mum has some nerve problems in her fingers.

She told me that as children, her siblings would melt wax on their fingertips and when cooled to dry, play the piano as a fun alternative to the standard method! This was the way she described how playing the piano keyboard now felt. It hasn’t stopped her from performing but it’s certainly put a spanner in the works of eliciting dynamics and feeling to her performances.

Continue reading Stories of Recovery

The Pianist’s Kindness

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

As I write this I am in India on a two-week yoga retreat, in which each day has started with a reflective discourse on the ethics outlined in the Yoga sutras of Patanjali, the classic text from which yoga theory subsequently developed.

The first, foundational ethic presented by Patanjali was ahimsa, which can be literally translated no harm, and intrinsically means be kind. Without kindness, there can be no true yoga. And yet, as our teacher rather decisively noted:

“There are plenty of people in this world who can touch their toes – but who are still basically arseholes!”

As usual, what is true in one field can equally apply in another, and certainly from my own observations of pianists – both in online forums and the ‘real world’ – there are plenty of very fine piano players and teachers who, it would seem, somewhat lack kindness.

So how can we encourage the piano community to be a kinder one? As always, the answer must begin with ourselves …

Continue reading The Pianist’s Kindness

The Pianist’s Generosity

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

As I write it’s December, and in keeping with the season, I’m going to consider generosity

Let me start by sharing this brilliant quote from my good friend Paul Harris, which nicely sets the scene for my thoughts on generosity:

“Performing is an act of giving.
If we perform with artistry and skill – at any level, and with unconditional generosity – then everyone is the better for it.”

Continue reading The Pianist’s Generosity

November Reflection

In this month’s Pianodao reflection, I consider the onset of winter, seasonal illness, and Studio Policies …

Continue reading November Reflection

October Reflection

Autumn is in full swing here in the UK, and the usually green city of Milton Keynes is now presenting itself in astonishing hues of yellow, orange, red and brown.

I’ve just returned from a walk in the woods (the wonderful Linford Wood, shown in my photo above, is just five minutes from my door on foot) with our puppy, Bella Bardóg. The best word I can think of to describe the vivid beauty here today is … invigorating. I’m not much of a photographer, but hopefully the picture captures it.

We sometimes think about Autumn as a season of decay, of decline, in which the weather turns drab, and the nights draw in. And for those of a melancholic disposition, the words seasonal affective disorder loom, an ominous spectre.

But I prefer to see the Autumn as a time of dynamic change and possibility, the old giving way to the new.

Any gardener will tell you that plants sometimes need a good pruning, and the spectacular feast of colour in Linford Wood today serves as a vivid reminder of nature’s inbuilt commitment to change, vitality and new beginnings.

What better time for us – as pianists, as teachers, and simply as people – to reflect on those changes that may be needed in our own lives?

  • Which “leaves” are turning yellow, and will soon need to drop off?
  • And in which areas of our activity do we enjoy evergreen successes?

Here are some questions which I am asking myself at present – you might want to consider them too, and will no doubt also think of others which are more applicable to your current journey…

Continue reading October Reflection

Milton Keynes & Me

To what extent does the place we live, and the community we are a part of, shape the person, musician and teacher that we become?

That’s a question that I have been reflecting on, prompted by the recent BBC documentary ’Milton Keynes and Me, in which documentary filmmaker Richard Macer returned to Milton Keynes to reflect on his childhood growing up here, and celebrate Milton Keynes’ 50th Anniversary.

Macer’s film was at times thought-provoking, informative, personal, historical, and moving. I didn’t agree with his sometimes negative perspective (and nor did many in Milton Keynes, it would seem!), but that hardly mattered. What was so much more important is that the programme inspired me to reflect on my own experiences of living here over the last nearly three decades.

We probably all wonder from time to time what impact we have made for the good. Hopefully piano teachers such as myself can recall students who gained a lifelong love for music, which sometimes defined their future. But this post isn’t about my contribution, but rather the imprint that has been made on me.

Having lived in Milton Keynes for 28 years – more than half of my life, and more than half of the city’s existence – how has this shaped who I am today?

Continue reading Milton Keynes & Me