Cognitive benefits of being a musician

As guest author Kevin Pearson explains, learning to play an instrument is believed to make a significant difference to the player’s brain.

Musicians are truly special in the sense that they need skills that few others do. Because musicians need acute hearing, well-developed senses of pitch, rhythm, dynamics and timing as well as great control of small and large muscles that non-musicians rarely use (“small-muscle athletes” as Frank Wilson described it in his book Tone Deaf and All Thumbs) musicians develop neurological and morphological changes that can be beneficial not only when playing their instrument or listening to music, but also in other aspects of everyday life.

Continue reading Cognitive benefits of being a musician

The Quiet Fields

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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 our 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!

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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…

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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

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“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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“The Black Dog”

Guest writer Simon Reich addresses an issue that affects so many of us …

Being a creative musician is a dangerous profession. No, I don’t mean getting your fingers slammed by the piano lid, or a Steinway falling on your head. I mean the proportion of suicides compared to statistics in the general population. Every time I hear a story informing me of another person who has taken their life, be it a celebrity or “man on the street”, I am deeply touched and realise how close I have come to being another statistic.

I knew from early childhood that certain things affected me profoundly. When I heard certain songs or chord progressions, I felt butterflies inside me and sometimes it made me cry. When I would see injustices to class mates or in movies, I would feel deep empathy. Obviously I was quite a sensitive person and music gave me a chance to enter a creative world of my own making.

As positive as these traits were and still are in me, they also have a dark side. Having only recently gained some wisdom on how these thought patterns have affected me, I stumbled on unknowingly through my life, eventually culminating in a breakdown which really forced me to learn more about the subject and about myself.

Here are some of the key points I have learnt about how I tick.

“People Pleaser”

I realised I tried to “please all of the people, all of the time”. This is an impossible task, and ended up causing a massive gap between my expectations & reality.

“Setting Boundaries”

I had a tendency to place clients higher in the pecking order than my own family, so partook in some pretty crazy overtime hours. I would take bookings for gigs, even though I’d promised to do things with the family. This caused massive frustration on my part as I danced around trying to please everyone. Inevitably I pleased no one and hurt myself in the bargain.

“Learn to love yourself”

I have only just started to hear my negative self talk, and have realised how destructive it has been all my life. I remember listening to a relaxation tape that was meant to be part of your nightly regime. One of the first things the speaker asked you to do, at the end of each day, was reach up behind you and give yourself a pat on the back! He would then go onto say “You did the best you could today with the information you had.”

“Surround yourself with supportive people”

At times I thought I was the only one who felt these thoughts. When I discovered others were in the same boat as me and were willing to help each other out, I rejoiced! Friends who understand your condition and are willing to talk with you are a gift from heaven.

Living with anxiety or depression is not an easy thing, but I have to wonder, “what if I didn’t have this condition? Would I be as productive as a creative artist?” The fact that I have felt the lowest of lows, means I rejoice all the more when I feel the highs.

If you are experiencing these types of feelings, then take solace in the fact that you are not alone and that a helping hand is just a phone call or key stroke away.

“Developing Gradually”

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Have you noticed that the pace of life isn’t slowing?

That social change and technological innovation are often adding to the stress of your daily life rather than alleviating it?

Sometimes we simply need to slow down.

To find calm and purpose.

This is true for all of life – including our piano playing.

The image of a tree growing gradually on a mountainside sums up the natural wisdom of making secure progress, and reaching purposefully towards all the points one must in one’s individual journey.

This image of “Developing Gradually” (derived from I Ching 53) is likely to recur here on the Pianodao site as core wisdom. It also underpins the development of this site.

There is so much I would like to share here – but it will take time. The planning is done, and roots are growing into the ground. Over the next few months and years I hope that many branches will grow.

And I hope that as you join me on this journey, you will be nourished by the fruits of the site.

Welcome to Pianodao.

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