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.

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Fancy Footwear?

My wife Louise and I recently visited my cousin and her husband for a delightful evening meal. At some point in the evening, conversation turned to footwear, and my cousin was appalled to learn that I often wear slippers when teaching in my home studio.

Inevitably, I was quickly ganged up on, the object of much mirth. To be honest, it was a bit harsh. Jibes included:

“How old did you say you are again – 87?”

Followed by,

“Do you wear pyjamas and a dressing gown too?”

And even …

“Are you trying to look like Hugh Heffner?”

Now I ask you, what kind of question is that?

Gamely, I tried to defend myself with:

“…but slippers are really comfortable when playing the piano…”

But of course this quickly led to:

“So do all your pupils bring slippers to wear too?”

Which got me thinking …

Continue reading Fancy Footwear?

The Eight Chord Trick

In this post I am going to share a simple trick that will help prompt you to compose and improvise your own music.

This also provides an excellent strategy for helping more advanced students develop their creativity, and move beyond written music.

When making up our own music it’s useful to have a “trigger” that helps get things started – or perhaps a set of “rules” or self-imposed limitations within which we will work. Far from limiting our imagination, this can stimulate our creativity as we explore the boundaries we have set ourselves.

The Eight Chord Trick can be used in exactly this way.

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The Pianist’s Handshake

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

Do you ever feel a bit uncomfortable about shaking hands with people when you meet them?

Concerned about hygiene, and all those germs you’ll pick up “pressing the flesh”?

Worried about having your piano-playing fingers crushed by the over-enthusiastic clench of Mr. Assertive?

Then read on, and I will go over a few points that might help!

Why Shake Hands?


Shaking hands is an ancient ritual which is reported as long ago as 2800 BCE in Egypt. We have images of hand shaking from ancient Greece, such as the one shown here – Hera and Athena handshaking, late 5th century BCE (now in the Acropolis Museum, Athens).

Some speculate that because the right hand is the “weapon” hand, presenting the empty hand was seen as a sign of peace and acceptance. It is interesting to note that in Asian cultures, where many martial arts moves can start by grabbing the hand, shaking hands was traditionally less popular! This is why for ceremonial occasions and important leader meetings respectful bowing is preferred. It is also why many Chinese in daily life nod the head rather than shaking hands. However, it is important to realise that hand shaking remains one of the most important forms of greeting in most Asian cultures, although usually the hand shake itself is more gentle than it is in Europe and North America.

A study conducted by the Weizmann Institute of Science found that shaking hands can serve as a means of “Social Chemosignalling” between people, perhaps meeting an evolutionary need to learn about the person whose hand is shaken.

Quite how this happens is not fully determined, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear in the future that this links up with the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Qigong, which highlight the importance of the so-called ‘laogong’ point.

The Laogong Point


In Chinese medicine, there is a point in the hand called ‘laogong‘, (Pericardeum-8) which is an important gateway for energy transmission and absorption.

When you shake a person’s hand, your laogong point makes contact with theirs, which is perhaps another of the reasons why – intuitively – shaking hands became such an important and universal practice around the world.

The laogong point isn’t only recognised within TCM. It also has key importance within Japanese Shiatsu and traditional energy healing practises around the world. These traditions independently developed an understanding of the significance of ‘laogong‘.

But what about the risks?

The main concern which it seems many pianists have about shaking hands relates to hand health and hygiene. Hygiene is certainly an issue, especially if finger food is also on the table (or in the unlikely case that the other person actually has scabies – thank goodness for antibacterial gel!)

The more important issue here, however, is general hand health.

Given how important our hands are, it is understandable that we want to protect ourselves from the bone-crushers out there. However, once you know how to regulate the pressure of a hand shake it is possible to avoid social awkwardness and still protect yourself with ease.

For those worried about pain, the advice is sometimes offered that simply allowing your own hand to go limp will quickly end a handshake. While this is true, it comes at the cost of potentially ending a relationship before it even starts. To the insecure party it can communicate rejection, while to the assertive hand shaker it can communicate that you are not their equal, and they will probably move along to somebody else who they perceive is. Neither of these responses are probably what you intend.

Regulating the pressure

If a person’s handshake seems too firm, or even painful, it means they are squeezing harder than you. If you increase your own squeeze it will meet and properly balance theirs – you should no longer feel any discomfort.

You can then regulate their squeeze by gently reducing yours. Having established the connection they will follow your lead, and in effect it puts you in control. I recommend trying this out with a partner or somebody you trust. Explore how altering your own pressure will be reflected by them. You may be very surprised by the results!

For those who prefer to avoid hand shaking altogether, firstly you are missing out on an important element of interpersonal bonding that’s been built into us over a very long time. So it might be a good idea to find a confident, assertive alternative that you are comfortable with. Hugging is a nice one, but obviously not always appropriate! A nod of the head can also work as a good substitute, so long as you smile openly and give good eye contact.

I hope that this short introduction will encourage you to shake hands with people with a new confidence and more understanding, and overcome any reservations you have.

I hope that you found this article helpful.
Pianodao is FREE to all, but funded with the help of reader donations.

Active Repertoire: An Adult Student’s Perspective

Guest Post by Joni Hawkes

The recent articles on Active Repertoire on Pianodao have struck a chord with me … quite literally.

As an adult beginner into my third year of lessons, I have often found myself avoiding situations where I might be asked to play something, because I simply couldn’t play anything spontaneously without my trusty sheet music to hand.

The more pieces that I learned, the more they were becoming just a growing collection of stuff I couldn’t play.

The concept of Active Repertoire (always having 3 pieces that I enjoy playing, without notice, without embarrassment and without notation) has completely changed my approach to playing.

I now start every practice session by playing my 3 favourite pieces, and whilst I still have the book in front of me, I’m finding that with each session I’m increasingly looking away from the music as I play.

Continue reading Active Repertoire: An Adult Student’s Perspective

Three types of Repertoire

Active Repertoire Project

Since writing my article What can you play? readers have shown quite an interest in my concept of Active Repertoire.
Now I am going to explain a little more about how Active Repertoire fits into the wider picture of your piano journey.

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How much musical baggage do you carry?

Guest Post by Roberta Wolff

One of the things I love about teaching is hitting upon that perfect explanation, aural, visual or verbal, which offers immediate clarity. Sometimes the answer comes after much reflection and thought and sometimes it seems to hit, apparently, from nowhere.

This is what happened recently with an adult student. After a strong start to her piece she began scrambling, reacting to the notes on the score rather than working with control. I pointed out that to keep playing at her current speed would be to create musical baggage.

This was the first time I had used the term, but her comprehension was immediate simply because she already understood the common phrase, emotional baggage. The idea of musical baggage resonated with her and so has proven to be a simple but powerful aid to her practice.

Naturally, I developed the idea so it could benefit more than just one student.

Continue reading How much musical baggage do you carry?

Kyung Wha Chung speaks out against competitions

There’s a great quote from the iconic violinist Kyung Wha Chung in the BBC Music Magazine (June 2017) which I think is worth sharing here in passing, as it ties in with a topic that has recurred on Pianodao.

Talking about the young players who seek her advice she says:

“They say they’re going to enter this competition or that.
But this is the wrong route.
How many competitions are there on this planet?
How many winners are there?
Do they all have a career – meaning a career when you become a star, so to speak? No.”

Kyung Wha Chung’s simple words sum up the futility of a competition circuit which crushes the aspirations of too many genuinely talented players. The violin world – just like the piano world – offers dozens of “international” competitions each year (on the piano it ranges between 50-100 depending on the year) – each claiming it can transform a young artist’s career prospects.

The internationally acclaimed cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber recently suggested, in any case, that the majority of music competitions are quite simply corrupt, with judges colluding and using competitions merely to promote their own pupils and careers:

“Everyone knows it, but no one says it, because when you’re in the profession, you don’t…
There are obvious exceptions, such as BBC Young Musician of the Year, which is not corrupt at all, but you have these competitions for violins, cello, piano and it’s all about who you studied with.”

The subject of competitions is one which I have written about here many times, most recently (and fully) in my post The Competitions Controversy.

We can but hope that moving forward the music business and education world will continue to embrace change and look to creative positive alternatives for developing artists.

What Can You Play?

One of the major stumbling blocks for players is that we too often feel that we are struggling, making little progress, and perhaps just haven’t got what it takes to become a “good player” (however we define what that even is!).

To enjoy playing an instrument, we need to move beyond this negative self-talk. And I suggest that one of the most easy and powerful ways we can all achieve this is to adjust the balance between working and playing during our personal piano time.

Continue reading What Can You Play?

Developing Performance Skills

Guest author – Roberta Wolff

Success Criteria to Develop and Enhance Students’ Performing Skills.

The season of exams, festivals and Spring Concerts is approaching so today I am sharing a simple but powerful approach to help students take their piece from practice room to stage.

The tools we will use are success criteria which leave almost no room for ‘failure’, and which develop confidence, and a sense of control and awareness as students practise the art of performance.

Continue reading Developing Performance Skills