Rediscovering the Magic of Piano

“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 consider why, and how useful goal setting actually is…

Continue reading Rediscovering the Magic of Piano

16 Attributes of a Good Teacher

Pathways for Teaching

With these striking words, contemporary Daoist author Deng Ming-Dao invites us to consider how our personal qualities can help us be the best people, and by extension, the best teachers that we can be:

“Those who follow Dao believe in using sixteen attributes on behalf of others: mercy, gentleness, patience, non attachment, control, skill, joy, spiritual love, humility, reflection, restfulness, seriousness, effort, controlled emotion, magnanimity, and concentration. Whenever you need to help another, draw on these qualities.”

Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao Daily Meditations, 188 (Harper Collins)

So let’s be clear from the start: what is on offer here is the secret of how to be successful in helping others, in any context. A lot of us will devote much of a lifetime to discovering the answers which are presented right here.

But how about applying this directly to our work as piano teachers?

In this post I am going to look at each of these attributes in turn, briefly exploring the powerful links that exist between a teacher’s character and the quality and effectiveness of their teaching…

Continue reading 16 Attributes of a Good Teacher

Discovering MTB Exams (part 2)

In Part One of this major feature I interviewed Music Teachers’ Board Chief Examiner Mark Kesel. The article certainly generated a lot of interest, and as a piano teacher I am myself very excited by the innovation and stimulating vision promised by the MTB.

For one thing, the idea of being able to take a graded exam any day of the year is a real boon for those of us who don’t want to spend months working on and listening to the same three pieces ad infinitum. I feel that this simple innovation could revolutionise teaching and learning, providing scope for students to develop better momentum, engagement, and to progress far more quickly without being held back by the schedule of an exam board

Combine this with the no-fuss ability to take graded exams using a simple app in the lesson, and the fact that the MTB allow candidates to play any three pieces of their own choice so long as they are appropriate for the grade, and here is an exciting opportunity for learners to move away from an exam-driven mentality and embrace their own personalised piano journey, without losing the benefits of independent, fully accredited assessments along the way.

But I’m not one to simply jump on every latest trend or fad; ABRSM have been a friend on my musical journey for more than 40 years and I have used their exams almost exclusively with my students. Were ABRSM continuing to meet the needs of my students, I wouldn’t lightly make a decision to switch board.

When looking for advice and support, the Pianodao Tea Room is the natural place to ask, its members always willing to share their experiences in a friendly way. I knew several members had tried MTB exams with their students in recent months, and several were willing to share their experiences…

Here then are five teacher interviews I arranged, which answered my own questions and will, I hope, help you find answers to yours…

Continue reading Discovering MTB Exams (part 2)

Discovering MTB Exams (part 1)

An Interview with MTB Chief Examiner Mark Kesel

For music teachers and students struggling through the last five months, with the UK in lockdown, there has been a significant preoccupation with the problem that music examining boards have been struggling to adapt to the situation.

On the social media platforms and forums where I am active, I have seen regular and very significant complaints about all three of the traditional boards here in the UK. But throughout these challenges, one fully accredited music exam board has stood out from the crowd by a country mile.

Many teachers hadn’t even heard of the Music Teachers’ Board at the start of the year. But this changed overnight with the appearance of effective targeted advertisements online trumpeting a bold claim:

“MTB’s Grade 1-8 exams are to continue without disruption during this difficult period.”

The progression from intrigue to full commitment has been startling, many teachers who were formally loyal to ABRSM or one of the other boards posting online to praise the MTB Exams having tried them out and had hugely positive experiences.

Determined to get to the bottom of this, I tracked down MTB’s Chief Examiner Mark Kesel for this remote interview. And in a second feature I talk to some of those teachers who have tried out these exams with their students, asking them about their experiences.

So buckle up and enjoy the ride…

Continue reading Discovering MTB Exams (part 1)

ABRSM Piano Scales 2021

Sheet Music Review

With the publication of their 2021-22 Piano Syllabus (reviewed in full here), ABRSM have given their scales requirements a significant overhaul, also publishing new scales books and resources.

In this review I will consider three main areas of this development:

  1. The new syllabus requirements
  2. The new ABRSM Piano Scales & Arpeggios books
  3. Scale Explorer for Piano – a new series of five graded books written for ABRSM by Alan Bullard

Let’s get straight to it…

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Scales 2021

Adapting to Change

Change sometimes takes us by surprise, a bolt from the blue, and in the early months of 2020 we have all experienced a jolt to our way of life as countries around the world quickly followed each other into lockdown.

As the dust settles and we try to adapt to “the new normal”, many are now wondering how these changes will continue to affect us, and what they mean. We are feeling uneasy about the future, and unsure of our footing.

Here in the West, we sometimes assume change is a linear process, an ongoing narrative in which we continually face the unknown, but with no going back. We measure our success in terms of our annual growth targets, believing that unless we progress “onwards and upwards” we will fail.

For the Daoists however, change is cyclical, often understood in the natural context of the turning seasons and the rotation of day and night. There is similarly a natural expansion and contraction of all things, seen for example in the ebbing of the tides, the wax and waning of the moon.

I believe that these metaphors are really helpful; they can give us hope. They encourage us to accept life’s “ups and downs”, pliably and positively adapting to them. In contrast to western materialism, Daoism teaches that there is a rightful time to contract, consolidate, and rest: all of which are necessary for our well-being.

In this context, there really is no “new normal” because we are all on a continuing journey. Nothing in the universe stands still. But at the same time, it certainly seems that history has a peculiar habit of repeating itself. Fixed plans and linear growth targets only succeed when all else is essentially in a state of entropy, but this is historically rare and actually a bit weird.

The upheaval of 2020 presents us with a unique opportunity to reflect on this. How then can we “go with the flow”, “roll with the punches”, and adapt to change?

In this article I will consider this question primarily from the point of view of a pianist and teacher, but beyond my thoughts on how to adapt our playing and teaching, there is much here that equally pertains to our living.

Continue reading Adapting to Change

Switching to Video Lessons

A guide for beginners by an almost-beginner

Guest Post by Garreth Brooke

Switching to video lessons at short notice is stressful!

I live in Frankfurt, Germany, where all the schools are now closed and I made the switch on Thursday afternoon. I’ve taught 6 lessons so far and overall it has gone pretty well. Here are some things I learnt that you might find useful…

Continue reading Switching to Video Lessons

Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism

“Advice is like the snow. The softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon and the deeper it sinks into the mind”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

One of the key roles of a piano teacher is to help their students make direct improvements in their playing. To do this we must identify the priority areas that need attention, hopefully without turning into the scolding teacher in the photo above.

In this article I will share some suggestions on how to offer helpful criticism, encouraging positive progress and enthusiastic learning.

I will cover the following points:

  • Why Accuracy Matters
  • The Piano Teacher as “Critical Friend”
  • Golden Tips for Giving Constructive Feedback

Listening to our students play and offering suggestions for improvement is certainly not the whole of a piano teacher’s work, but in many lessons it will be a central feature…

Continue reading Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism

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

Active Repertoire Challenge 2020

What can you play?

This is a question which for too many pianists leads to such answers as:

  • I’m working on Allegro, but it’s not yet ready to play;
  • I finished learning Andante last month, but I’ve forgotten it now;
  • I don’t have my music books with me, so …

What a pity!

The reality is that too many of us can’t sit down at the piano without notice, without notation, and without embarrassment, and simply play something!

Continue reading Active Repertoire Challenge 2020

Winter Repertoire Challenge

The Winter Repertoire Challenge is ideal for players of all ages, and offers a great opportunity for developing your Active Repertoire at the piano. Are you up for it?

Continue reading Winter Repertoire Challenge

Chetham’s Piano Teaching Course

In addition to the embarrassment of riches already on offer at the Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists (read all about it in my review here), organisers Kathryn Page and Murray McLachlan last year added a Piano Teacher Course to the menu.

Led in its first year by Margaret Murray McLeod, the course attracted some 35 teachers from around the world. This year, EPTA stalwarts Mark Tanner and Karen Marshall took the reins, and the organisers plan to involve different course leaders each year so that returning attendees can learn from a range of perspectives.

In the UK we have a rapidly growing number of well-regarded piano teacher training opportunities and courses (though sadly not a widely supported and accredited qualification), and the choice can be bewildering.

The availability of a credible training course with the benefits of a residential (rather than remote online) setting, held at such an ideal time in the calendar, and with such an impressive roster of world-class concert pianists on tap is certainly very appealing.

Could this be an obvious first choice for teachers looking for further training? As part of my visit to the Summer School, I was able to join the course for several sessions. Here’s what I found out…

Continue reading Chetham’s Piano Teaching Course

Can we really trust educational research?

I recently came across an article by Elizabeth Gilbert of the University of West Virginia and Nina Strohminger of Yale University presenting their findings that only a third of published psychology research is reliable.

Another article confirms that in the field of biomedicine (the basis of so much news coverage of medical advances) less than 50% of research proves reliable when the “reproducibility factor” is applied.

And astonishingly, we read elsewhere that “just 11% of preclinical cancer research studies could be confirmed”.

We might well speculate as to why such a body of inaccurate “research” is being published; certainly there are important questions here. And let’s be clear that it is academics themselves who are drawing attention to the problem, and expressing frustration.

If psychological and medical research are this unreliable, shouldn’t we also be concerned about the “research” that underpins educational theories and methods?

Continue reading Can we really trust educational research?

Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?

Pathways for Teaching

Over the years I’ve repeatedly encountered the suggestion that music should be taught in much the same way as we have tended to assume language is acquired.

Advocates of this theory point out that:

  • Firstly as babies we hear words;
  • Soon we start to mimic them;
  • In time, we learn to speak fluently;
  • Later (perhaps several years later), we are taught to read;
  • And then to write.

I’m not a linguistics expert, but I suspect that this linear sequence is somewhat over-simplistic. In any case, it is adapted by some to propose this music education equivalent:

Hear  →  Sing  →  Play  →  Read  →  Write

It has long seemed to me that finding any direct or useful equivalent between musical learning and theories of language acquisition is more difficult than some suggest. And like many experienced teachers, I have observed that those taught according to this notion don’t always develop into good music readers.

In this short article I will flirt with the complexities here by asking three important questions:

  1. How do music and language seem to behave differently?
  2. How does informal learning prepare us for formal tuition?
  3. Does learning always follow the same one-way sequence?

As with the initial proposition, direct answers to such questions are elusive; perhaps it is sufficient to simply acknowledge their existence. But let’s take a brief trip to this hinterland together…

Continue reading Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?

Breathing with Bach

Lesson Notes

Please note: “Eva” is not this student’s real name.
However, her story is told here with permission, and with my gratitude.

Eva learnt piano as a child, but took a break in early adulthood. A few years ago she returned to playing. Since coming to me for lessons she has completed the higher ABRSM grades and gained a DipABRSM performance diploma.

Eva continues coming for a 90 minute consultation lesson once a month. Her focus is on expanding her repertoire, and at present she is working on Bach’s Partita No.1 in B flat major.

In this lesson, we address the importance of the breath in alleviating shoulder tension, using three dance movements from the Partita as example repertoire.

Continue reading Breathing with Bach

Compassionate Boundaries

“It’s hard for us to understand that we can be compassionate and accepting while we hold people accountable for their behaviours. We can, and, in fact, it’s the best way to do it…
We can confront someone about their behaviour, fire someone, or fail a student, or discipline a child without berating them or putting them down. The key is to separate people from their behaviours – to address what they’re doing, not who they are.”

Brené Brown, Ph.D, LMSW
The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden Publishing, 2010)


Online forums see daily requests for advice and support from teachers who are struggling with tricky pupil and parent relationships.

For piano teachers, the problem often seems to stem from a lack of agreed boundaries around issues such as prompt fee payment, lesson attendance, punctuality, respectful behaviour and effective, regular practice.

How do we balance on the one hand enforcing contractual obligations and appropriate behavioural expectations and, on the other hand, offering compassionate support, putting musical learning needs first, and positively enthusing our pupils?

I would suggest that the only effective balance here is to give 100% to both.

Pupils and parents do not, cannot, and should not need to know every detail of how a teacher organises their personal world. Effective studio policies, clearly communicated, fence off our personal and professional lives, and are especially important for those of us whose studios are based within our homes.

Boundaries help us devote ourselves to our shared objective of pupil progress, giving of ourselves wholeheartedly and without distraction.

Only when our personal and professional boundaries are securely in place, enforced in a firm, fair and friendly way, can we move on from the sense of resentment which develops when we feel others are taking advantage of our compassionate commitment.

In my experience over the years, the vast majority of my students (and their parents) have respected my professionalism when I have offered, explained clearly, and stuck to fair policies.

And in turn, this has created a studio environment where commitment, friendship, respect, compassion and enthusiasm have thrived.

Let me close this short reflection by handing back to Brené Brown:

“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behaviour or a choice…

“For our own sake, we need to understand that it’s dangerous to our relationship and our well-being to get mired in shame and blame, or to be full of self-righteous anger. It’s also impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment. If we’re going to practice acceptance and compassion, we need boundaries and accountability.”

Brené Brown, ibid.


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Piano Teaching: An Isolated Existence?

Pathways for Teaching

It’s become something of a cliché to say that the life of a piano teacher is a terribly isolated one, implying we have little or no meaningful contact with colleagues, operating entirely off our own steam, without support.

In this article I am going to consider from a personal perspective why I don’t personally feel isolated as a piano teacher, and hopefully offer some useful tips for those who do.

Continue reading Piano Teaching: An Isolated Existence?

Steve Luck’s Practice Tips

Steve Luck is a piano teacher from Newcastle Upon Tyne. This guest post originally appeared as a forum post within the Piano Network UK group, the leading Facebook community of piano players, teachers and enthusiasts living in the United Kingdom.

Steve’s post includes such useful information, aimed primarily at piano parents and students, that he has agreed to me giving it a public platform here on the Pianodao site, for which I am grateful, as I am sure many readers will be!

Continue reading Steve Luck’s Practice Tips

Simple fixes for easing piano pain

Lesson Notes

Please note: “Bernice” is not the student’s real name.
However, her story is told here with permission, and with my gratitude.


Bernice is a 76-year-old learner who took up the piano about 5 years ago. She has made steady progress, is now early intermediate level, and particularly enjoys playing traditional classical favourites.

Bernice’s Wrist Problem

Bernice has recently developed some physical problems in her wrist area. On the right wrist, she has a large ganglion close to the base of her thumb, which cases mild discomfort. The surgeon she has consulted is going to remove this soon.

On the left wrist she has a more chronic problem. Here there is a ganglion just below the fifth finger, not noticeable to the eye, and a scan has revealed that it is pressing against a nerve. There is possibly also minor swelling in the tendon. The medical specialist cannot operate, but has suggested that with care and anti-inflammatories the problem may dissipate.

The mention of tendons might be enough to convince some that piano playing should be avoided altogether. It is natural that we teachers don’t want our students to experience pain, and most of us will be aware of the real danger that tendonitis presents to pianists.

However, the medical advice here is that it is fine for Bernice to continue playing the piano, provided she is careful and exercises moderation. The hospital specialist has pointed out that such problems, as well as arthritis, might become an ongoing issue, but that these need not stop her from pursing her love for music (which is real and important to her).

Happily then, we can assume that Bernice’s medical problems are essential “minor” at present. But this doesn’t diminish the discomfort she reported when coming to her lesson, nor her fear that she might not be able to continue playing.

Continue reading Simple fixes for easing piano pain

Do you believe in classical music?

Wonderful news: the latest figures from the BPI reveal that sales and streaming of recorded classical music grew by 10.2% in 2018 compared to the 2017 figures.

This compares to the much lower 5.7% growth in other genres. In fact, classical CD sales grew by 6.9%, while most other genres actually saw a decline in sales.

And online streaming of classical music grew by a whopping 42%, compared to the 33% rise in the overall market. These figures are presented and discussed in this BBC News article.

Some will no doubt quibble over the specific artists and composers featured in the statistics, and we must admit that the categories formulated by salespeople and marketeers rarely tell the whole story. But those of us who really believe in classical music won’t be surprised by its upsurge and enduring popularity. We know that once people encounter good music, it can wield its transformative power.

It is odd, then, that so many piano teaching colleagues seem to largely avoid classical music unless and until it is specifically requested by a student or required for an exam. Why is this?

Continue reading Do you believe in classical music?