A Fresh Perspective

Taking the time to pause and reflect

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.

It seems growing numbers of players are so assertively independent that, at best, they regard the views of teachers and other players as an optional “take-it-or-leave-it” commodity. It is a viewpoint which I countered in some detail in my article Who Needs Piano Lessons Anyway?

The simple truth is that all of us, however good we believe we are, and however much personal satisfaction we presently gain from our playing, can benefit from the advice of other experienced players and teachers.

As the Chinese saying goes,

“However good your eye-sight, you still can’t see the back of your own head.”

There is always value in getting another, fresh perspective on our playing.

But not all opinions carry equal weight, despite the best efforts of social media to present them thus. The commenting of Facebook peers and strangers may be useful, but won’t always convey special insight; and how does one sift through so many contradictory opinions?

It seems obvious that when we consider (and if necessary, research) the expertise of the person who is giving us feedback, and reflect on the quality of our relationship with them, then we will be better placed to find the healthy balance we need.

Ask yourself:

  • Does the person offering advice just want to show off their own knowledge, are they touting for business, or do they genuinely want to help me?
  • Do they have the experience of playing this music well, or at least a good knowledge of the repertoire?
  • Are they listening carefully and engaging positively with me?
  • Am I looking for the support of a friend or the constructive advice and insight of an expert?

How we answer these questions might give us a clue as to whether we should care about a person’s opinions or not. There remains the possibility to take charge of our personal and pianistic development while also nurturing respectful, honest relationships.

But we might notice that sometimes the feedback we are given, invited or otherwise, can be useful even when we don’t feel a particular connection to the individual offering it. The observations of somebody we might not generally agree with, or even particularly like, can present the fresh perspective we were previously missing.

Beyond personality issues then, when receiving feedback on your piano playing ask yourself:

  • Does the feedback increase my understanding of the music in a way which will help me to play it better?
  • Does the feedback include practical, physical or technical advice which I might benefit from trying out?
  • Does the feedback inspire me musically, get my creative juices flowing, or offer an alternative interpretation of the music which could be interesting to explore?

Maya Angelou once said,

“We do the best we can with what we know,
and when we know better, we do better.”

Are you ready for a fresh perspective on your playing?

Andrew’s essential handbook of practising tips:

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which are free for everyone, everywhere to access and read.
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“The Thinking Pianist” Summer Course

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Summer schools and courses for (especially) adult piano enthusiasts have become an embedded feature of the music education landscape in recent years, and last year saw the launch of the latest.

The Thinking Pianist is the brainchild of David Jones, an established pianist, educator, and presently Head of Keyboard Studies at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

I am delighted to announce that for this, the course’s second year, I will be joining the faculty. Here in advance, I talk to Jones about what it is that makes this particular course special, and distinct from other successful summer schools…

Continue reading “The Thinking Pianist” Summer Course

Introducing Pianodao MASTERCLASS

Since introducing a video feedback service to support players looking for advice online, pianists from three continents have sent films of their playing and found my detailed written comments helpful.

Now I am happy to be launching Pianodao MASTERCLASS, a revised and updated video feedback service with a fair pricing structure that better reflects the depth and quality of feedback given, and the time that goes into writing it (never less than half an hour).

Continue reading Introducing Pianodao MASTERCLASS

The Pianist’s Procrastination

Taking the time to pause and reflect

Verse 64 of Lao Tau’s Tao te ching contains perhaps the most famous line in all Daoist philosophy (quoting here from Solala Towler’s rendition):

“The largest tree grows from a tiny shoot.
The highest tower is built brick by brick.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

Preceding this great quote, and shedding further light on the philosophy of Daoism, we read in verse 63:

“Deal with the difficult while it is easy.
Create the large from the small.”

These words offer an important blueprint for how we might approach any task, including learning a new piece of piano music.

They also provide us with the ammunition we need in order to stop putting off our practice, and overcome procrastination.

Let’s consider each of these points in turn…

Dealing with the difficult

In order to “deal with the difficult while it is easy, we need to break a piece down into manageable sections (or “chunks”, as they are sometimes called), realistically identifying the easily manageable and creating measurable goals.

I frequently find when teaching a player that they are unable to pick up a piece mid-section, and want to play from the beginning. An obvious deduction is that they always tackle the whole movement from start to finish, “practising” without correcting mistakes or addressing problems as they go. But this merely “bakes in” persistent errors.

Patient work on short sections is almost always more effective, but requires the player to recognise the chunks which make up the whole. These can then be practised in isolation, in order, or using a more random or creative design. Once carefully learnt, they can be sewn back together to create the complete piece.

It may be easy to manage learning a piece with one hand at a time, or even breaking down the individual voices. Sometimes, starting with both hands but at a super-slow tempo proves more rewarding. An alert teacher can advise on the best approach for a particular piece and player, and one size certainly does not fit all.

You can also discover a lot of useful practice strategies in my little book, How to Practise Music (find out more here).

The universal truth here is that we must identify the easy as our starting point, rather than trying to deal with the difficult.

If the highest tower is built brick by brick, it’s important to understand that until one brick is aligned correctly, we should not attempt to lay the next.

Overcoming Procrastination

Faced with the task of learning a new piece, our initial enthusiasm might be laced with a sense that the task ahead is a daunting one. Overawed by the thousand-mile journey, we find ourselves paralysed to take the first step. Confidence dissolves, procrastination sets in.

Using Lao Tzu’s blueprint of looking at the difficult task and breaking it down into smaller components, however, we can begin to see those more manageable steps. It can be helpful to pursue this process until we find steps which are so easily approachable that we can achieve them in next to no time at all.

Completing a practice step which requires almost no effort is a “quick win” that brings encouragement, a positive feeling which generates its own energy and ongoing momentum. As we tick off the smallest tasks, confidence returns and we can see that progress is being made.

What music are you learning on the piano at the moment? Do you feel overwhelmed? Let today be the day to say “Goodbye” to procrastination. The first step can be taken, the initial brick laid; visible progress can be achieved.

Why not today?

Andrew’s essential handbook of practising tips:

PIANODAO includes more than 600 articles and reviews,
which are free for everyone, everywhere to access and read.
Please support the site by making a small donation.

Competition & Conflict

Taking the time to pause and reflect

“To compete always damages your soul.”

Maria João Pires (International Piano, January 2014)

With auditions for the finals of this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition underway, we are yet again presented with the spectacle of competing pianists pitted against one another by an industry that would have us all believe that there is no other way to launch a career (despite so many high-profile examples to the contrary).

A lot of people seem to love this stuff, and certainly we can look forward to some fabulous performances. But personally, while perhaps not as outspoken on the subject as the marvellous Maria João Pires, I have long felt uneasy with the whole idea of piano competitions.

The climax of any competition is the victory of the “winner”. And of course, everyone knows what the opposite of a winner is. Mitigating this, multiple medals and accolades might be awarded, but when players are divided into good, better and best, they have still fundamentally been divided.

We don’t need to beat others to have value.

I sometimes hear it suggested that competition is natural, an evolutionary imperative. Whether the sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel set the tone for our species, or the ‘survival of the fittest’ determined who we have corporately become, the point is made that we are hard-wired to compete.

If we want to follow the Natural Way, should we compete?

Competition in Nature

I have read several scientific definitions of competition as it exists in nature, all of which go something like this:

“Competition is most typically considered the interaction of individuals that vie for a common resource that is in limited supply.”

In the case of the Van Cliburn, that “common resource” is a coveted prize and a significant promotional boost. But these can hardly be considered life-or-death resources; clearly, there has been a shift towards an artificial construct of competition not found in nature. To put it bluntly, the human ego has taken over where evolution left off.

While examples of individuated competition exist in nature, they can usually be understood in the context of the wider needs of the herd. Not only so, but we see plenty of species whose survival depends on cooperation, teamwork and socialisation. Human beings would seem to be among their number: conflict ultimately presents an existential threat.

Can we be sure where competition ends and conflict begins? Most of us deplore the endless battles that develop between individuals and social groupings as opportunities dwindle or egos inflate. We shake our heads sadly, and wonder how such conflict was ever allowed to develop.

Beyond Competition

Overcoming the competitive spirit can seem to be an uphill struggle.

If we find it difficult to stop comparing ourselves and others, or to resist drafting a mental tally of winners and losers, we might conclude that trying to avoid competition is unrealistic, an idealistic delusion, or even a smokescreen for weakness. We join our peers in agreement that competition is the normal state, and we redouble our efforts to prevail.

But if we make space in our lives for meditative silence and stillness, our own deeper insecurities and swirling thoughts will start to settle and clear. We begin by making peace with ourselves. Finally it dawns on us:

We don’t need to beat others to have value.

Not only so, but the anxiety caused by the competitiveness of others, their ceaseless self-promotion and petty conflicts, start to exercise less of a pull on us. The empathy which we are all born with can reawaken, along with our ability to more sincerely support others; even those that we perhaps formerly considered ‘rivals’. Because:

We don’t need to beat others to have value.

As pianists, a commitment to regularly playing our active repertoire for our own personal enjoyment, without the need to impress or compare, can in some cases unlock years of imprisonment to negative self-talk.

Surely, isn’t this how making music should be? As pianists:

We don’t need to beat others to have value.

As caring parents, humane teachers and musicians, we have an important role to play in helping the next generation of piano players to have a more healthy, less competitive attitude.

If we truly want to promote a happier, more peaceful world, we need to stop promoting unnecessary, unnatural, unhealthy competition.

I believe that we can all be winners together by being the best that we can collectively be, through cooperation, teamwork, collaboration and mutual respect. Between us, we surely have the creative imagination to develop far more positive opportunities and pathways into a lifetime of music-making.

Let’s keep our eyes on the real prize: a world less driven by conflict, and more in love with the transformative power of shared music.

Andrew’s essential handbook of practising tips:

PIANODAO includes more than 600 articles and reviews,
which are free for everyone, everywhere to access and read.
Please support the site by making a small donation.

Discover Timeless Classics

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To what extent does your voice today harmonise with the chorus that went before you?

A ‘deep’ question perhaps, and one which we can use to ground ourselves, a reminder of that which is more permanent in our lives, as well as more broadly indelible in our communities, history and culture.

The Music We Play

When it comes to the music we play, bombarded with the new we can lose sight of those established favourites and foundations which have nurtured and nourished us before, and which in many cases have been treasured by previous generations.

As a piano teacher, I am thrilled that such a wealth and variety of new piano music comes my way. Overwhelmed, even. Through my reviews I try to promote a rich and varied selection of the very best new music suitable for all levels of player. Sometimes readers mention that it is too much, and certainly we all need to cherry-pick the fresh discoveries that excite us most.

It would be possible for a pianist or teacher to use these latest publications as the core of their performing or teaching repertoire, ignoring all that went before. Those newer to the piano may well choose to do so. But what of our peerless heritage?

As pianists we have an astonishing range, depth and wealth of repertoire upon which we can fix our gaze and focus our practice…

Continue reading Discover Timeless Classics

How to Practise Music: The Handbook

Books For Musicians, Educators & Enthusiasts

I am thrilled to announce my first publication with Hal Leonard, described by the publishers as:

“The essential, pocket-sized companion for every musician. Accessible and authoritative, How to Practise Music is an ideal guide for anyone learning to play music. Suitable for instrumentalists and vocalists of any genre, this comprehensive handbook will give you a better idea of how to practise music, good reasons for doing so, and the confidence to succeed. “

The book is now available in both UK and US versions (Practice/Practise!):

In this post I will give you an exclusive first look…

Continue reading How to Practise Music: The Handbook

The Active Repertoire Challenge 2022

The Music You Enjoy Playing, Any Time, Any Place.

For 2022, many piano players are ready to embrace a fresh musical focus and revitalised piano goals. Whether frustrated by lack of playing in the last year or pleased with progress made, we all want to embrace the most motivated, positive version of ourselves at the piano.

Thankfully, there is an answer…

Continue reading The Active Repertoire Challenge 2022

Andor Földes on being a ‘Child Prodigy’

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The pianist Andor Földes (1913-1992) was one of the great child ‘prodigies’ of the early twentieth century, making his public debut performing a Mozart concerto with the Budapest Philharmonic in 1921 when he was just 8 years old, and entering the Liszt Academy (where he studied with the great Ernst von Dohnányi and Béla Bartók) before he was even a teenager.

Földes went on to enjoy a hugely successful concert and recording career, as well as writing several books, including the seminal Keys to the Keyboard (1950, sadly no longer in print, but an exceptionally wise and notably humane book).

Continue reading Andor Földes on being a ‘Child Prodigy’

Musical Achievement, Assessment and Motivation

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With a single Tweet, the exam board ABRSM have in the last week provoked what they have themselves described as a “passionate debate”.

Defending their stance, ABRSM have subsequently confirmed that these are the words of their Chief Examiner, John Holmes, quoted from his presentation at this year’s Music Education EXPO event in London:

In the context of his talk, Holmes will no doubt have made many other points, adding balance and nuance to his position. That said, his view of a “virtuous circle of motivation” was surely not made up on the spot. We must accept this as his well-rehearsed position on the nature of and relationship between musical achievement, assessment and intrinsic motivation.

Discussion of these important concepts must be welcomed. As teachers it is our basic responsibility to question ideas, absorb good material, develop subject knowledge and promote better understanding. I should add that we also have a duty to confront that which might genuinely harm our students.

These issues are of course also of interest and importance to the parents of any child learning to sing or play a musical instrument. In contributing this response, I hope my thoughts might be considered both by teachers and by parents who are rightly keen to understand their childrens’ progress.

Together, let’s begin to unpack some of the many positive ways that we can all celebrate our childrens’ and our own adult achievements.

Continue reading Musical Achievement, Assessment and Motivation

The Future of ABRSM Grades?

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In the last couple of weeks I have come across two well argued letters in the music press, the first by Alex Aitken and published in the September 2021 issue of Music Teacher magazine, the second by Pauline Carter and appearing in the October issue of the BBC Music Magazine.

Both letter writers lament a perceived decline in music education, singling out ABRSM as being uniquely responsible for this malaise. Their charge is probably unavoidable, and not without merit bearing in mind that ABRSM are in their own words,

“…the UK’s largest music education body, and the world’s leading provider of music exams.”

The diametrically different solutions each of the two propose points to the serious challenge ABRSM now face in charting a path that reconnects with all of their stakeholders, wins wide support, and restores confidence in their ability to (as they put it) “inspire musical achievement”.

It is certainly beyond doubt that many in music education are reflecting anew on the role, relevance and value of music exams:

What is the future of ABRSM grades?

I am coming to the view that it’s time to focus on a live performance assessment and scrap divisive “support tests” and other prerequisites from grade exams. Done well, this could raise a bar which does seem to have been steadily slipping in recent years, while better matching the real-world priorities of the 21st century.

When ABRSM announced their “Performance Grades” a few months back, I admit that I was skeptical. But having listened carefully to a range of opinion, I now believe that making the performance of music the whole focus of graded assessments could prove unifying, and makes a lot of sense for a variety of reasons. Let’s consider three of particular significance…

Continue reading The Future of ABRSM Grades?

Which Piano Exam Board 2021?

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Taking grade exams on the piano has for many been a rite of passage, and many teachers and parents convey an expectation that they are an important landmark in any pianist’s journey. Whatever one’s view of this, it is no surprise that so many of the questions, comments and requests made on internet forums concern the different exam boards available.

Five equally accredited boards operate internationally from a UK base, giving rise to endless comparisons and discussions, often generating more heat than light. This article is a sincere attempt to offer the latter, providing a level playing field for each of the five boards to present themselves in their own words, outline what they offer and their recent developments.

The following pages, one for each board, will supplement this information with links to Pianodao’s independent syllabus reviews, and a representative sampling of the customer feedback users of each board have generously provided in response to the recent Pianodao reader survey.

Continue reading Which Piano Exam Board 2021?

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Andrew’s piano teaching and mentoring are available in person at his studio, via video submission, and online worldwide.

The Pianist’s Limits

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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

Who needs piano lessons anyway?

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As Chair of the European Piano Teachers’ Association, Mark Tanner seems an unlikely cheerleader for shunning expert tuition in favour of “teaching” oneself to play the piano. And yet in his new teach-yourself-book for older beginners, The Piano in Black and White (Faber Music, 2021), this is the path he advocates, enthusing:

“Learning to teach ourselves gives us the advantage of becoming masters of our own universe.”

Tanner ignores the obvious point that our own universe, without the guidance and insights of those more experienced and knowledgeable than us, might well prove to be a rather limited, small universe.

Tanner’s teach-yourself book is just the latest in a plethora of new apps, YouTube channels, books and videos claiming that beginners can learn to play the piano without the help (and expense) of a teacher. Popular though these DIY attempts seem to be, and welcome though a diversity of educational resources are, most truthfully recognise that it is beneficial to have personalised guidance from an expert.

Certainly we can cite examples of those rare geniuses who succeeded as pianists without being able to access tuition due to geography, generation, genes or genre. But within most musical traditions, historically and globally, instruction from a teacher has been and remains the norm. There are many compelling reasons for this.

The idea of “going it alone” in preference to learning from an experienced practitioner is neither heroic nor wise. This is true in any field, whether basket-weaving, developing a good golf swing, or learning to play the violin. Piano playing is no lesser a skill, no mere “button pressing”, and must not be portrayed as such.

Those of us who have learnt from good teachers will appreciate and be grateful for that privilege. We naturally support the teaching profession, having ourselves experienced the elevating qualities of a good music education, and are eager for others to enjoy the same benefits as we have.

In this post, I will explore those benefits.

Continue reading Who needs piano lessons anyway?