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

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Who needs piano lessons anyway?

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


As UK Chair (at time of writing) 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 adult 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 of us truthfully recognise that we are better off letting an expert guide take the lead. We realise, too, that while a one-size-fits-all app or book might set us off in the right direction, without the benefit of a personal guide who understands the terrain, the quicksands may well swallow us whole.

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?

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”…

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Active Repertoire: The 2021 Challenge

ACTIVE REPERTOIRE PROJECT
the music you can play, any time, any place


For piano players, like everyone else, 2020 has been a huge struggle.

We have needed to re-evaluate our goals and quickly change many of our plans. But in the midst of the turmoil, many of us have found a renewed enthusiasm for piano playing, while many more have returned to the piano or taken up playing for the first time.

We enter 2021 with growing numbers of pianists and teachers embracing a fresh direction and revitalised piano goals.

Whether disenchanted with a dull exam-driven formula or eager to disentangle from over-prescriptive methodology, many are now hungry for a more inspired musical approach.

We want to embrace a more motivated, positive version of ourselves at the piano!

Thankfully, there is an answer…

Continue reading Active Repertoire: The 2021 Challenge

Rediscovering the Magic of Piano

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


“If we begin to think about our goals in life as destinations, as points to which we must arrive, this thinking begins to cut out all that makes a point worth having.
It is as if instead of giving you a full banana to eat, I gave you just the two tiny ends of the banana – and that would not be, in any sense, a satisfactory meal”.

Alan Watts: What is Tao?

Over the many years I have been teaching the piano to children, one of the most common enquiries from parents is this:

“What goal can my child be working towards?”

More often than not, it turns out that they would like me to move their child onto an exam-driven footing rather than simply allowing them to wander more freely in the meadows of musical wonderment.

Interestingly enough, far fewer adult learners make this point. We should really consider why this is, and how useful goal setting might really be…

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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 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?

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Enhancing Technique with Mindfulness of the Body

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • Guest Post by DOUG HANVEY
Setting our piano journey in its living context…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Playing like the Winter Sun

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


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

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

Blinding, even.

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

Piano Journey

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

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

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

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

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

As the great writer Albert Camus once wrote,

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

Albert Camus

Continue reading Playing like the Winter Sun

Chetham’s Summer School for Pianists

The International Summer School and Festival for Pianists held each summer at the Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester UK is now in its 19th year, and has established itself as one of the major annual events in the piano calendar.

Incorporating a series of nightly public recitals as well as (this year) the sixth Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists, this extraordinary (if not exhausting!) event benefits from the stunning setting that is Chetham’s School of Music, which includes the new Stoller Hall, several recital and ensemble rooms, a huge fleet of pianos (the school’s impressive collection supplemented by additional pianos on loan from nearby Forsyth’s music store) and the enlarged premises opened in 2012.

The Summer School for Pianists provides the opportunity for players of all ages to have one-to-one lessons with the dozens of internationally respected pianists and pedagogues on site, who comprise a formidable faculty list that reads like a “who’s who” of the international piano scene.

With more than 250 participants in each of the two weeks, the event combines several projects initiated and led by the inspiring and indefatigable husband-and-wife team of Murray McLachlan and Kathryn Page, both of whom are themselves hugely successful pianists, teachers and communicators.

I was delighted to receive an invitation from Murray and Kathryn to visit this uniquely all-encompassing event and see for myself how its strengths combine to add up to more than the sum of its parts, offering a fusion of inspiration, education and creativity for pianists and lovers of the piano of all ages and at all stages of their lives.

In this article I will explain more about how the course works, be a fly on the wall observing some lessons, talk to participants, enjoy the array of concerts, and offer my overall view of the week.

Continue reading Chetham’s Summer School for Pianists