A Composer in Conversation

Rami Bar-Niv will be known to some readers as an acclaimed concert pianist, recording artist, renowned pedagogue and author of the outstanding book, The Art of Piano Fingering (which I have reviewed here).

Before discovering any of this, I first encountered the genial musician when running an online group for composers; Rami became an active contributor, and I was immediately struck by the quality of his original music in an engaging contemporary classical style.

It is a privilege to have this opportunity to chat with Rami about his composing career, and there are many insights here which Pianodao readers will undoubtedly find interesting and helpful…

Continue reading A Composer in Conversation

Practice in Perspective

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
For lessons and advice • BOOK A CONSULTATION


“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful.
And then it’s amazing again.
And in between the amazing and the awful,
it’s ordinary and mundane and routine.
Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful,
and relax and exhale during the ordinary.
That’s just living: heartbreaking, soul-healing,
amazing, awful, ordinary life.”

L.R. Knost

Hands up if your first thought, reading this quote, is that Knost’s observations about life equally apply to piano practice? That was certainly my first thought when, having posted this quote three years ago on social media it reappeared as a “memory” this week.

And one of my friends similarly wasted no time before commenting, “this is an excellent description of my average practise session”.

So let’s revisit the quote, substituting practice for life:

“Practice is amazing. And then it’s awful.
And then it’s amazing again.
And in between the amazing and the awful,
it’s ordinary and mundane and routine.
Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful,
and relax and exhale during the ordinary.
That’s just practising: heartbreaking, soul-healing,
amazing, awful, ordinary practice.”

Is it a surprise that some days everything goes well at the piano, while other days nothing seems to work at all? Sometimes we clearly see where we are going, other times we can barely make out the shapes through the mist.

With this in mind, we perhaps need to question our perspective on practice each time we sit down at the piano, understanding that there will be unpredictable ups and downs, beyond our control, to which we need not attach special blame or emotion.

When I launched Pianodao some four years ago, I wrote:

I continue to observe that many of the problems and issues that I and my students grapple with have very little to do with our pianism and musical understanding, and far more to do with our physical limitations, tension, mental state and internal beliefs… The work of a piano teacher can sometimes have as much to do with helping our students to address these issues as it does with conventional pedagogical content.

There are plenty of great places to find tips on how to practise, but I believe we first need to understand that, regardless of technique or strategy, our practice experience is likely to vary considerably from one day to the next.

It’s crucial that we don’t jump from self-evaluation to self-condemnation.

Recognising this basic point helps us to approach practice with a more healthy perspective, alleviating the stresses and frustrations that can blight our daily satisfaction at the piano.


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Joachim Raff’s Piano Sonatas

The PIANODAO MUSIC LIBRARY
Selected & Reviewed by ANDREW EALES
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At the peak of his success in the 1870’s, Joachim Raff (1822-1882) was one of the most celebrated composers in the world, his eleven symphonies popular in concert halls across Europe and beyond, his marvellous body of solo and four-hand piano music a staple of the repertoire.

And yet, but the time of his death a few years later, his star was already in decline, his fall from fashion remarkably rapid. His music languished largely unperformed through the twentieth century, and is only now being properly reappraised, enjoying something of a revival.

Of Raff’s 216 works with opus numbers, 117 are works for piano solo, 54 for four-handed piano, and 23 piano arrangements of works by other composers. Concert pianist Tra Nguyen has led the charge to rediscover some of this extraordinary music, her stunning recordings revealing the quality of Raff’s writing and once again elevating him to a position alongside Brahms and his contemporaries.

Nguyen’s recordings for Naxos’s Grand Piano label are available to stream via the major platforms, and can be bought as a budget 6CD set from Amazon UK here. They are well worth exploring!

Introducing his new scholarly urtext edition of Raff’s three Piano Sonatas, recently published by Edition Breitkopf, Ulrich Mahlert suggests:

“It was precisely the enormous scope of Raff’s creativity that was one of the reasons why his works were not paid so much attention, because a differentiated engagement with so many compositions is time-consuming. The disregard of abundance went along with generalised, stereotypically repeated negative judgments, obscuring the view or even preventing dealing with Raff’s music at all. Thus, an unfortunate cycle of ignorance emerged which we hope that the present edition can help overcome.”

With that goal in mind, let’s consider Mahlert’s new edition of the Piano Sonatas.

Continue reading Joachim Raff’s Piano Sonatas

Play it Again: Piano

The PIANODAO MUSIC LIBRARY
Selected & Reviewed by ANDREW EALES
Learn More • BOOK A LESSONVIDEO FEEDBACK


Melanie Spanswick’s Play it Again: Piano series launched with two books published by Schott Music back in 2017. At the time, I heaped praise on those books, and I have subsequently used them with adult “returners” who have also loved them.

Now, with a third book joining the series, it’s time for another look. This new review covers all three books in the series, so let’s dig in…

Continue reading Play it Again: Piano

Alison Mathews: Landscapes

The PIANODAO MUSIC LIBRARY
Selected & Reviewed by ANDREW EALES
Learn More • BOOK A LESSONVIDEO FEEDBACK


Alison Mathews is a contemporary British composer whose delightful piano music has established itself as one of the highlights within the growing Editions Musica Ferrum catalogue.

I have previously given glowing reviews to her excellent Treasure Trove (for intermediate pianists, read the review) and Doodles (for elementary players, reviewed here).

Alison’s latest collection is aimed at the early advanced player. Landscapes: Poetic Piano Solos consists of 14 original compositions that would suit late intermediate players between around UK Grade 4-6 level.

Let’s take a look (and a listen!) …

Continue reading Alison Mathews: Landscapes

Martin James Bartlett: Love and Death

RECORDING OF THE MONTH • by ANDREW EALES
Showcasing an inspiring recent piano recording.


Since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2014, Martin James Bartlett has become a welcome and friendly presence in concert halls as in the media, while also pursuing his further studies as a Foundation Scholar at London’s Royal College of Music.

Having recently signed to major label Warner Classics, Martin’s debut album was released at the start of May. Entitled “Love and Death”, the recording must I believe be regarded as marking a very significant arrival in the classical music world, Bartlett casting his spell with an imaginative programme of music by J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt, Enrique Granados and Sergei Prokofiev…

Continue reading Martin James Bartlett: Love and Death

Meanwhile outside…

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • by ANDREW EALES
Setting our piano journey in its living context.


“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s Party!’”

Robin Williams

The month of May seems to me to be one of the most magnificent of the year, at least here in the UK, where the lingering spring blossom gives way to an explosion of early summer abundance.

The temperature strains upwards towards ideal, but the mornings retain their wonderful freshness. It’s really quite magical!

Continue reading Meanwhile outside…

The Practice Room Sanctuary

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • by ANDREW EALES
Setting our piano journey in its living context.


The bestselling author, journalist and broadcaster Hannah Beckerman recently wrote an article for Planet Mindful (Spring 2019) in which she shared what music meant to her, and in particular the difference that learning an instrument has made in her life.

In her piece entitled Music made me a happier child, she writes:

“What I didn’t consciously realise until much later was that music was providing another, possibly even more important, role in my life. My parents’ marriage had never been a happy one, and ours was a family that lived against an ambient hum of tension, anxiety and conflict. Music became my escape…
Music enabled me to set my own emotional temperature. When I was 13, my parents separated and subsequently divorced, and music became my sanctuary… throughout it all, music was my means of emotional regulation.”

No doubt like many others, I can profoundly identify with this. I too grew up in what was then known as a “broken home”, my mum divorcing my dad when I was 6, my stepdad when I was 12, her third husband dying of a heart attack when I was 17.

Music became a deepening world to me.

And not only through these troubles and tragedies, but similarly when I was mugged in the street, bullied and beaten up at school; when girlfriends dumped me; when I struggled with identity; when I generally failed at life.

In all these moments of difficulty, music was the place where I hid, the practice room my refuge, the sound of the piano a cavern of acceptance which, for much of my younger life, was the one place where I felt I could truly belong.

But music isn’t just for the dark times; playing an instrument isn’t simply a cop-out from life’s hasher realities. Music is an equally welcome friend during times of calm, of amazement, triumph and bliss.

The piano offered another way to explore and express my joy when I truly fell in love, when I got engaged, married and built a life with my wonderful wife. Music was a constant friend, too, through the birth of our two children, through their growth to maturity and development as successful adults.

Music has been there in success as in failure, a companion through all the joys and sorrows. And it will ever be there.

In all honesty, I could write an extended, euphoric eulogy to the power of music; I doubt I need to, because most who read this will hopefully already know and have experienced exactly what I mean.

As Beckerman astutely observes, music brings equilibrium to our emotions, to our soul. Playing an instrument, we express our otherwise inexpressible deepest selves.

The piano has, without judgement, allowed me to both celebrate my faith and reflect on my doubts, opening up a pathway through which I have excavated my deepest thoughts, emotions and beliefs.

Importantly, through the discipline and focus needed in order to play well, we can each of us enter a meditative state where our other thoughts are stilled, and our inner emotional landscape is able to find restorative balance and sustenance.

As Beckerman says:

“There’s a single-mindedness involved in learning scales and arpeggios until they’re exam-perfect. There’s little space for external worries when you’re doggedly playing the same 29 notes over and over again.”

I can’t help feeling that, for all our efforts to “sell” music (and indeed, cultural education), we yet need to place greater emphasis on music’s transformative and balancing impact on those who properly engage with it.

Some may disagree, but if you play just for yourself, enjoying the private sanctuary of the practice room and never performing for others, I think that’s absolutely fine.

It’s more than fine: it’s a genuine blessing. Make the most of it. As players, let’s avail ourselves of this special place in our lives. And those of us who teach: let’s try to lead our students there.

Let’s celebrate music’s scope as a means of authentic expression, and the sanctuary it offers those who run to it.


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Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?

PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING • by ANDREW EALES
For lessons and advice • BOOK A CONSULTATION


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?

Henle’s revised Chopin Scherzi

The PIANODAO MUSIC LIBRARY
Selected & Reviewed by ANDREW EALES
Learn More • BOOK A LESSONVIDEO FEEDBACK


Ask a group of pianists which edition of Chopin’s piano works is the best, and you will probably get little consensus.

Some cling to our old copies of the much-revered Paderewski Editions which have been widely used since their appearance in the mid-twentieth century, while of the more recent urtext editions, the Jan Ekier Polish National Edition comes highly recommended.

Alongside these, the ever-reliable Henle Urtext editions have been popular for many years, and enthusiasts will be pleased to hear that they have just added a new revised edition of the 4 Scherzi, edited by Norbert Müllemann and with fingerings by Hans-Martin Theopold.

Continue reading Henle’s revised Chopin Scherzi