Am I Really Good Enough?

Guest author Frances Wilson considers a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, sometimes more frequently than we should…

Continue reading Am I Really Good Enough?

The Practising, Playing, Performing Piano Teacher

In this Guest Post, well-known author and regular Pianodao contributor Karen Marshall considers how teachers can continue developing their own journey at the piano …

Continue reading The Practising, Playing, Performing Piano Teacher

21 Amazingly Easy Pieces

Repertoire: Elementary

21 Amazingly Easy Pieces is an original collection of new pieces  by Barbara Arens, published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 2014, which has recently come to my attention – and I am seriously impressed with it.

Composer Barbara Arens is a passionately dedicated piano teacher. She began her studies at the Mozarteum in Salzburg at the age of 13. After a concert career performing primarily as harpsichordist and organist, she now puts her diverse abilities and experiences into composing for her piano
pupils. She presently lives near Würzburg, Germany, after living in Beirut, Dallas, San Francisco, Singapore, Salzburg, London and Munich.

Knowing that Barbara has such extensive experience – of performing, of teaching, and of the world – gave me high hopes for these books, and I was not disappointed.

Continue reading 21 Amazingly Easy Pieces

András Schiff & Natural Breathing

András Schiff – surely one of the most respected concert pianists of our time – made the following extraordinary observation in a recent interview with Pianist Magazine (No.76, Feb-March 2014):

“For me, it is breathing that is vital. You must breathe naturally, like a singer. Pianists and string players often tend to forget the necessity of breathing and they can become very tense; then they get back pains and wrist pains and so on. Usually it can be sorted out through the breathing.”

Breathing is a subject that I have rarely seen discussed in connection with piano technique, and even less so in the context of pianists’ injuries, their causes, cures and corrections. Schiff is hitting on a point that it would seem is indeed too often overlooked.

In this article I will consider the links between natural breathing and Qigong practice, as well as offering a simple breathing exercise that anyone can try…

Continue reading András Schiff & Natural Breathing

Is Mindfulness relevant to piano playing?

Guest post by Doug Hanvey

It is with great pleasure that I welcome Doug Hanvey from Portland Oregon as a guest author on Pianodao. Doug is a highly qualified and experienced educationalist and teacher of both piano pedagogy and mindfulness.

Here he discusses the link between the two…


Continue reading Is Mindfulness relevant to piano playing?

The Art of Piano Pedagogy

The great Russian pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus (who taught such legendary classical pianists as Radu Lupu, Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels) wrote:

“I consider that one of the main tasks of a teacher is to ensure as quickly and as thoroughly as possible that he is no longer necessary to the pupil; to eliminate himself, to leave the stage in time, in other words to inculcate in the pupil that independent thinking, that method of work, that knowledge of self and ability to reach his goal which we term ‘maturity’, the threshold beyond which begins mastery.”

Heinrich Neuhaus
‘The Art of Piano Playing’,
trans. K.A. Leibovitch, London 1973

Continue reading The Art of Piano Pedagogy

The Importance of Music

Guest author and professional visual artist Simon Reich gives his personal perspective…

Being a visual artist myself, I have to reluctantly admit that it’s quite possible that the general populace of the world could live without paintings, sculpture and visual art. But I severely doubt the people on this planet could live without music.

Continue reading The Importance of Music

ABRSM “Piano Mix”

The latest series of new piano music books from ABRSM promises “great arrangements for easy piano”. Does it deliver?
Continue reading ABRSM “Piano Mix”

Overcoming Injury – A Personal Story

Guest Post by Evelina de Lain

Evelina de Lain writes of her background growing up in the former USSR, the serious injury that stopped her piano playing career in its tracks, her discovery of jazz, and how she finally overcame her injury to become a successful professional pianist with a growing international career… 

Continue reading Overcoming Injury – A Personal Story

Paying attention to the small things

“You may be capable of great things,
But life consists of small things.”

Deng Ming Dao is a popular contemporary writer whose meditation books have a Daoist emphasis – I’ve quoted from him before, and no doubt will again as he is a source of tremendous wisdom.

I highly recommend all his books, and the best-selling ‘365 Tao’ is a great place to start, offering a thought a day throughout the year.

Today’s thought is, I think, of particular relevance to musicians. Here’s an extract, which I hope you will enjoy reflecting on:

“Big things seldom come along.
One should know the small as well as the big.

We may all yearn to make lasting achievements and to be heroes, but life seldom affords us the opportunities to do so. Most of our days consist of small things – the uneventful meditations, the ordinary cooking of meals, the banal trips to work, the quiet scratching in the garden – and it is from these small things that the larger events of our lives are composed.

The master musician’s best composition is but one work in a sea of musical tones. If we want to be successful, it is the small things that we should pay attention to.

We must not fall in the trap of waiting so long for the big things that we let numerous small chances slip right by us. People who do this are forever waiting for life to be perfect. They complain that fate is against them, that the world does not recognise their greatness. If they would lower their sights, they would see all the beautiful opportunities waiting at their feet. If they would humble themselves enough to bend down, they could scoop untold treasures up into their hands.”


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Karen Marshall: “Bespoke Teaching”

I am delighted to welcome Karen Marshall, the co-author of the excellent “Get Set! Piano” series and compiler of the ABRSM Encore books, as a regular contributor on the Pianodao site. In this, Karen’s first post here, she explores the importance of personalised teaching…

Continue reading Karen Marshall: “Bespoke Teaching”

Jorge Bolet on competitions

The journalist Jeremy Nicholas interviewed legendary pianist Jorge Bolet back in 1977, and among other things asked him why “The Romantic Pianist” seemed already by then to have vanished.

Bolet’s reply was prescient, and perhaps even more relevant today than it was in the 1970s. Here is his response:

Continue reading Jorge Bolet on competitions

Piano Technique, Weight in Motion, Boxing, Taichichuan and The Cherry Tomato

Guest Author Mark Polishook takes a look at the benefits of weight-based piano technique, with reference to boxing, martial arts and … cherry tomatoes.

Continue reading Piano Technique, Weight in Motion, Boxing, Taichichuan and The Cherry Tomato

“Sound before symbol”: lessons from history

Pathways for Teaching

Musicians and teachers often debate the relative merits of aural-based learning versus a notation-driven approach. Seeing the topic wheeled out for discussion again recently, I was reminded of this brilliant quote by the legendary concert pianist Andor Földes, taken from his book “Keys to the Keyboard” written back in 1950 :

“There is no such thing as a proper age for a child to start playing the piano. I avoid saying ‘to start his musical education’ because I believe that an education in music should start very early, perhaps years before the child ever actually learns how to read notes, or can find his way among the black and white keys.”

Földes’ basic point – made some four decades before “The Sounding Symbol” by George Odam re-popularised the phrase “sound before symbol” – is that music is essentially an aural language, and that playing and reading must build on that foundation.

Continue reading “Sound before symbol”: lessons from history

“Get Set! Piano”: six reasons to get excited!

Sheet Music Review

“Get Set! Piano” comprises two method books, two books of supplementary pieces, and extensive free website materials, all brought to us by Harper Collins. Aimed at younger beginners, the books claim to cover everything that pupils would need to know prior to taking Grade One piano (with any of the main boards).

Continue reading “Get Set! Piano”: six reasons to get excited!

Healing with music

Guest author Simon Reich shares an inspiring personal testimony to the power of music.

With war in Syria, daily muggings, deadlock in the Middle East, domestic violence and escalating racial tensions, we are in desperate need of some good news stories.

Being a creative musician, you may not realize it, but you hold the key to giving the world some peace and inspiration.

Continue reading Healing with music

Piano Lessons: Why 45 minutes?

During a recent forum discussion I mentioned that I prefer to teach my students for 45 minutes weekly or fortnightly, usually even when they are beginners (more advanced students often come for a consultation lesson once a month for 90 minutes).

The question was asked,

“45 minutes for somebody on Grade One is a lot, surely?
Isn’t 30 minutes plenty long enough?”

Continue reading Piano Lessons: Why 45 minutes?

“Grade by Grade”

Sheet Music Review

This innovative new series of books from Boosey & Hawkes makes the bold claim to be “the complete resource for the grade ‘x’ pianist”. But does it live up to its aims?

Continue reading “Grade by Grade”

ABRSM Encore! A game changer?

Sheet Music Review

Over the years ABRSM have produced a steady flow of graded piano repertoire books to supplement their exam resources, with series such as A Keyboard Anthology and Short Romantic Pieces becoming standard items in the teacher’s library.

However, one could have been forgiven for wondering whether some of these selections were made up of the most obscure pieces set in previous syllabi rather than the most widely enjoyed. So when Faber Music brought out their “Best of Grade…” books a few years ago, those looking for a one-stop collection of consistently appealing and varied pieces breathed a collective sigh of relief.

This summer ABRSM have responded with the publication of Encore, a set of four books which, based on their own data, include the most popular pieces featured in graded exams over the last decade or so.

Happily these collections include some great in-house pieces and arrangements now unavailable elsewhere. So, might these books play a central role in students learning over the next few years?

Let’s take a closer look.

Continue reading ABRSM Encore! A game changer?

Arvo Pärt at 80

“I have discovered that it is enough if a single note is played beautifully. This single note, the sense of peace or silence have a calming effect on me.”

So says Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer born 80 years ago on 11th September 1935.

Pärt has become one of the world’s most recorded and best loved composers, his works bringing calm reflection, and touching audiences around the world.

Here is his piece Tabula Rasa, one of the first of his compositions that I encountered as a music student many years ago, which remains a favourite (Part 2 also follows below, and is very special) :

The timeless and inclusive spirituality of Pärt’s music acts as an antidote to the pressures and stress of life in the modern age. The composer explains:

“The more we are thrown into chaos, the more we have to hold onto order. This is the only thing that helps us to restore our sense of balance, even if only a little, and allows us to see things in perspective and to be aware of the value of these things.
The greater the sense of order and the greater our ability to stand back and feel the wing-beat of time, the more powerful will be the impact of the work of art.”

Reflecting on his process as a composer, Pärt says:

“My music was always written after I had been silent in the most literal sense of the word. When I speak of silence, I mean the nothingness out of which God created the world. That is why, ideally, musical silence is sacred. Silence is not simply given to us, but in order that we may draw sustenance from it. This sustenance is no less valuable to me than the air I breathe.

“If you approach silence with love, music may result.”

Pärt’s music brings an eternity that will stay with us. Long may he stay among us too, gracing our lives with his beautiful music.

Happy 80th Birthday to Arvo Pärt.

Lucinda Mackworth-Young: “Piano by Ear”

Sheet Music Review

Lucinda Mackworth-Young’s new book “Piano by Ear” fills a massive gap in the market. Here’s my review :

Quite simply this is the book that I, and no doubt many other thousands of pianists and teachers, have been waiting for. For years!

I even considered writing something like it myself at one point, back at the time my own Keyquest books for electronic keyboard were just out. But thank goodness – Lucinda Mackworth-Young has saved us all the effort, and has certainly done a great job of it!

Continue reading Lucinda Mackworth-Young: “Piano by Ear”

Recovery from Abuse: Interview with Fiona Whelpton

The relationship between music teachers and their students is a particularly important one. At best it can nurture young people’s development both as a person and bring out the best of their talents as a musician. But what happens when boundaries are crossed and rules get broken?

Continue reading Recovery from Abuse: Interview with Fiona Whelpton

Feeling Impatient?

One thing is certain – everything changes. But sometimes things can take longer than we hoped for, in stark contrast to the general pace of our lives today. Is it any wonder that we often feel impatient?

Perhaps there are obstacles that won’t shift from your pathway. Wounds that won’t heal…

… or simply a favourite piece of music that you would love to be able to play on the piano, but which somehow seems far out of your reach.

As qigong master Kam Chuen Lam explains, some things simply take time – and are all the better for it!

“All authentic growth takes time. So does healing and the process of deep strengthening. It is like giving birth.

In the more than thirty years that I have been teaching and treating people in the West, I have always had to tell people that nature takes time to form, nourish and give birth to new life.

I tell my students, ‘You can’t make a plant grow by tugging on it every day. You simply put it in good soil, give it just enough water and light, and let it grow. If you do that it will grow naturally. That is its nature’.”

Master Kam Chuen Lam: The Qigong Workbook for Anxiety


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The Quiet Fields

The writer Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927) gave us these much treasured words:

“Come away from the din.
Come away to the quiet fields,
over which the great sky stretches,
and where, between us and the stars,
there lies but silence;
and there, in the stillness
let us listen to the voice
that is speaking within us.”

Whether speaking of the Divine, or perhaps the voice of our own inner creative inspiration, these words represent a powerful call which we should and surely must heed on a regular basis.

For the school child, the busy professional or the highly active senior, the “Quiet Fields” could mean time spent at the piano.

For those of us whose work involves performing on or teaching the piano, the “Quiet Fields” are necessarily elsewhere.

But for all of us the imperative applies: we need time away from the daily grind to listen and to renew.


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“The Creative Pianist”: Interview with Mark Polishook

Interview by Guest Writer, Simon Reich

I have always thought that to be a well-regarded teacher in a particular area, you need to know the subject inside and out and be a proficient exponent of the subject and Mark Polishook is definitely one of those.

Continue reading “The Creative Pianist”: Interview with Mark Polishook

Enjoy a long, healthy life!

An ancient Daoist text “Principles of Nourishing Life and Cultivating Longevity”  (recently translated by Eva Wong and included in within her book “Being Taoist“)  includes the following simple advice:

“When you are young, don’t spend a lot of energy doing what everyone thinks is appropriate.
When you’ve reached maturity, don’t be too competitive.
When you’ve passed middle age, you should begin to find contentment.
When you are old, you should minimise desires.
Exercise the body gently to prevent it from stiffening, and entertain your mind leisurely to prevent it from deteriorating.
In this way you will enjoy a healthy and long life.”

There is of course no quick fix solution to avoid death, no elixir of life to sustain us indefinitely, and we know that once our energy is gone, the end will come.

But perhaps the above advice is useful when thinking about our own approach and lifestyle. We could all do with questioning what steps we are taking to enjoy a healthier and longer life.


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Finding your own way…

Concert pianist and writer Charles Rosen (1927-2012) offers some interesting advice in his book “Piano Notes

Do you agree with his conclusions?

“…  any dogmatic system of teaching technique is pernicious. Most pianists, in fact, have to work to some extent in late adolescence to undo the effects of their early instruction and find an idiosyncratic method that suits them personally.

Not only the individual shape of the hand counts but even the whole corporal shape. That is why there is no optimum position for sitting at the piano, in spite of what many pedagogues think.”

Charles Rosen: Piano Notes – The Hidden World of the Pianist (2002)


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Why Lucas Debargue should be allowed to develop as an artist.

I am delighted to publish a guest post from Frances Wilson, who blogs as The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Much has been written about the young French pianist Lucas Debargue, a finalist in the 2015 edition of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. The concept of him being “self-taught” (until relatively recently) has been debated across a number of articles, together with his rather unusual technique (“Scales played with only the thumb and index finger and his pinkie sticking up as daintily as Hyacinth Bucket’s” – The Spectator, 18/7/15) and glorious sound. He’s not out of the traditional mold of the international competition winner (commences piano studies at a young age, undertakes rigorous study with a master teacher and progresses to the “Three C’s” of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto) – and he didn’t even wear a tie during the final!

Continue reading Why Lucas Debargue should be allowed to develop as an artist.

Andrei Gavrilov’s concerns

Andrei Gavrilov is one of the world’s finest concert pianists, who has in recent years dedicated himself to giving master-classes to upcoming players around the world. So when he comments on the current state of music education and piano playing, it is certainly worth listening.

Some of his latest comments could prove controversial however. Mr. Gavrilov has provided a lengthy list of the “major mistakes” that he feels are “obstacles to artistic development”.

You can read his comments in full on the Cross-Eyed Pianist page here, but the overall impression he gives is that teachers and young pianists are neglecting artistic development, musical analysis and cultural understanding. He concludes that in four years of giving master-classes, he met:

“…nobody who could even be able to touch a single serious composition without destroying it in all senses.”

It is beyond doubt that Mr. Gavrilov’s robust observations offer genuine insight, but I feel sure that he is overstating his case. I personally know of many leading players and teachers who go out of their way to place music in its proper historical and cultural context. There is surely no shortage of upcoming players able to communicate great art with profound depth, with young artists like Benjamin Grosvenor, Daniil Trifonov, Igor Levitt, Jonathan Biss, Alice Sara Ott, Khatia Buniatishvili, Sunwook Kim, HJ Lim, Beatrice Rana, Conrad Tao, Louis Schwizgebel, Federico Colli and others firmly proving that point.

That said, Mr. Gavrilov is not the first, and nor is he alone, in expressing concerns about current trends in music education and performing.

Speaking to International Piano magazine (Jan/Feb 2014) the internationally revered pianist Maria João Pires suggested that it is the “competitive world” that has destroyed a lot of the transmission of our culture, and she sees a clear connection between piano competitions and marketing. She says:

“To compete always damages your soul. If you compete you are not a musician any more.
We old musicians should perhaps give the new generation alternatives. I think our mission is to transmit what has been transmitted to us. This competitive world, this marketing world, has destroyed a lot of that transmission.
Competitions are not the way, that’s for sure!”

Piano competitions have certainly come to dominate the commerce, marketing and performing culture of our time, especially for aspiring professional players. Given this context, is it really any wonder if teachers encourage competition participation and focus on the aspects of their students development most likely to turn them into “winners”?

According to Maria João Pires, competing “damages the soul”. This is one of the many issues that Pianodao will need to look at in more detail over the coming months. For now it is sufficient to note that for too many players, their experience even at an early age irrevocably equates performing with competition.

Some refuse to play at all in later life, even exhibiting significant anxiety reactions to any request to play in front of others. The field is thus left clear for the “winners” to scale ever greater heights of technical virtuosity, continuing their tour of the competition circuit in the hopes of making a reputation for themselves.

Whether or not Andrei Gavrilov’s concerns and those of Maria João Pires are connected, there is no doubt that Mr. Gavrilov has touched on important issues that pianists and teachers will want to ponder. It will certainly be very interesting to see how his colleagues around the world respond to his critique.

Happiness

“Humanity grows more and more intelligent, yet there is clearly more trouble and less happiness daily.
How can this be so?
It is because intelligence is not the same thing as wisdom.”

Lao Tzu: Hua Hu Ching (translated Brian Walker)

The big question for us all is this: what do we do with our knowledge?

Do we accumulate knowledge simply to “fight back”, to be “better” and more “successful” than the next person?

Or does our own self-improvement and development go hand in hand with generosity towards other people?

There are many possible responses, but it’s important to recognise the priority of wisdom over knowledge, because this leads to happiness and peace.


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