Meanwhile outside…

The Fermata Series

“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!

Meanwhile, back indoors…

What cruel irony, then, that this is the very time of year where many young people are cooped up revising, huddled over computer screens, readying to be herded into drab school gymnasiums where rows of identical desks await.

One of my teenage students even tells me she has been explicitly instructed not to revise outside, as there are “too many distractions”!

It’s not that I’m against assessment; I am really not. But here in the UK we endure plenty of overcast, wet and windy days when studying indoors perhaps makes more sense!

In music education the same forces are equally at work, even though we instrumental teachers, perhaps more than anyone, have reason to challenge these assumptions.

Have teachers, pupils and parents become so convinced of an exam-led narrative of education that we are losing our ability to discern the deeper and richer benefits music can bring?

“The Grades” imagine a fixed, artificial destination (or at least, a series of stop-offs) which can too easily distract us from that all-important scenery that actually makes our musical journey truly rewarding.

So many adults returning to the piano tell me that they quit lessons as teenagers because they hated taking exams so much. I would suggest that we need to very seriously reflect on this.

Meanwhile outside…

a picture says more than a thousand words…

For the Daoist philosophers, one of the highest imperatives is for humanity to reawaken to the natural world around us and discover our place within it.

Recognising and following the seasons, both in the natural world and our inner journey, is fundamental to our success.

Throughout history, the Daoists were keen musicians and artists who demonstrated that far from adding to our sense of separation from the natural world, artistic expression can provide an avenue by which we come closer to it.

As one of the ancient sages explained:

“As a general principle, music is the harmony between Heaven and Earth, and the perfect blend of Yin and Yang. Great music brings delight, enjoyment and pleasure to ruler and subject, parent and child, and old and young alike.”

The Annals of Lu Buwei, 3rd century BCE, quoted in Brindley, EF: Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China, State University of New York Press, 2012.

As in all things, it is authenticity and balance that we need, and there are many ways we can promote this. For example:

  • Try to learn pieces and techniques at a natural, unforced pace.
  • Learn to be mindful as you practise, and non-judgmental as you critique your own (and others’) playing.
  • Aim to match the repertoire you tackle to your broader life goals, choosing pieces which inspire and enlarge who you are.
  • Always listen to your playing, immersing yourself and connecting with the source of the sounds.
  • Balance time spent working at the piano with time spent playing it; remember Active Repertoire so that your piano playing has a “success foundation”.
  • Listen to your body when practising/playing. And remember to breathe!

For all the hours spent practising, find balance by spending quality time away from your instrument. Even just a walk in the local park can have a positive impact on our wellbeing.

The outside can only harmonise with the inside if we take the time we need to explore both.

And there’s no better time of year to heed the call, and join the party!


Fermata Series

The Fermata Series offers short reflective blog posts, inviting readers to hit the PAUSE button.
Read more from The Fermata Series here.


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Your Story: Garreth Brooke

photo copyright Lana Yanovska, used with permission.

Your Stories

Garreth was born in Hereford, UK, moved to Wales as a child, before going on to study music at the University of Oxford. He now teaches piano to a full studio of international students in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and releases original music for solo piano on 1631 Recordings using the pen-name Garreth Broke. His writing about suicide prevention has been published on Huffington Post UK.

Here’s his story …

Continue reading Your Story: Garreth Brooke

The Pianist’s Overthinking

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

“Leave your thoughts in a place you will not visit …”

Most of the pianists that I have met are easy to describe as “deep thinkers”, and I would argue that an aptitude for analytical thinking is an essential skill for the advanced piano player.

But the jump from analytical thinking to overthinking is a small one. And here’s the problem. In recent years, we have become increasingly aware that overthinking any problem can break rather than solve it, and can often lead us to bizarre conclusions. Overthinking is inextricably linked to anxiety.

If we overthink an upcoming performance, this can undoubtedly contribute to performance anxiety. And in the same way, if we overthink life in general, this can have a significant and debilitating effect on our whole lives.

A growing body of research supports our suspicions that many physical health problems are rooted in the activities of the mind. Overthinking can be associated with anxiety, fear, paranoia and mental instability, all of which can have serious physical as well as social consequences.

Continue reading The Pianist’s Overthinking

Piano Lessons: Dealing with Anxiety

I am sure that most piano teachers will be alert to the fact that some pupils coming to lessons are anxious. This post will look at some reasons for that, and offer some suggestions that might help normalise lessons.

The article is written for any player who has ever said – and any teacher who has ever heard – the words:

“It was perfect when I practised it at home this morning…”

Clearly, in order for student and teacher to make the most of any piano lesson we all want to move beyond this point!

Continue reading Piano Lessons: Dealing with Anxiety

“The Black Dog”

Guest Post by Simon Reich

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.

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.

Simon Reich

Simon is a pianist and award-winning composer from Victoria, Australia. Further information : Simon Reich Music


Pianodao is free to all, but funded with the help of reader donations.
Supporters can enjoy additional benefits by joining The Pianodao Tea Room