Andrew Eales: an interview

Interview by Frances Wilson

This interview includes material that originally appeared on Frances Wilson’s site The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and is reproduced here with her kind permission.

Frances:  What is your first memory of the piano?

Andrew: I was about eight years old. My older sister Alison had started taking lessons and was making brilliant progress… I had double-pneumonia around that time, and was recovering in bed, and I remember hearing her playing and wishing I could learn too.

I was taken to meet her teacher, who did some initial assessment and decided to take me on. Within a year I had gained ABRSM Grade 3 Distinction, and I just knew that the piano would be a major part of my whole life.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I was lucky to have several outstanding teachers. My first teacher was quite scary, and had a reputation for shouting at students, but having made a decision that I wanted to grow up to be a great musician I was happy to take my chances with her. In fact she was always tender and encouraging with me, although she did periodically wander off to another part of the house to shout at her husband!

When I told her I liked Grieg, she said that when I grew up I would prefer Sibelius. When I said I had enjoyed hearing Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, she announced that in a few years time I would like Wagner. I think she recognised that I was musically inquisitive and deliberately goaded me, but she knew exactly what she was doing and before long my musical taste grew in many new directions. When I was eleven I won a music scholarship to boarding school, and as a parting gift she gave me a copy of ‘The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’, an unusual present for sure. That seed lay dormant for many years, but remains one of my favourite possessions in terms of sentimental value.

Many years later I was studying for my music degree at Birmingham University. David Ponsford was assigned to teach me the harpsichord, and he had a very profound influence on me. Of all my teachers he is one I feel particularly indebted to, and following on from those lessons I chose to specialise and study the Early Music course at the RCM, where I learnt with Robert Woolley.

My final piano teacher was Joseph Weingarten, the Hungarian concert pianist. He had studied with Dohnányi at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest before coming to the UK in 1934. There was a clear sense that he was connected to this incredible heritage, that his teaching was authoritative, and yet he was so supportive and gently encouraging. He had a perfect balance there, which I can only attempt to emulate!

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

A friend of mine was a classroom music teacher. He asked me to give lessons to one of his sixth form students, who had self-taught up to about grade six, but with major flaws in his playing.

At the time I was working for EMI Classics and commuting to London. Initially I resisted. But the lad phoned a couple of times, insisting he play for me. So I gave him an evening lesson, and fairly instantly knew that I had found my vocation. That was more than 20 years ago, and that lad went on to become a successful MD in London’s West End … he was and is great, and we are still in touch.

So in November 1993 I gave one month’s notice to EMI Classics. By then I had a handful of students – but a young family to support! By the beginning of January 1994 I had several hours of students already lined up, and after the first month it was more than 30 hours a week. I’ve never looked back …

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

The biggest influence is actually my love for the music itself, and all that it communicates. And by that I include music from a wide range of traditions, not just classical. When I hear great music I am just inspired, and want to share it with others, so that informs my teaching from one day to the next. For me, music is an incredible journey of discovery – and my students are also on their own journey, so it’s a privilege to share that and play a part.

My wife Louise works in child and adolescent psychiatry, and it would be remiss of me to ignore the huge influence this also has on my teaching ethos. Her insight into the issues that affect the lives and mental wellbeing of children and families in contemporary society inevitably has a massive impact on my own approach to people.

And through the Pianodao website it is a privilege to also share some of those insights with other musicians and teachers.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Working for the local authority Music Service in schools in the 1990s was formative and very significant, forcing me to think carefully about my understanding of music education. I learnt so much about collaboration – as piano teachers we can miss this.

Although a pianist, most of my work at that time was teaching electronic keyboards in a group context. The ensemble programme that I created took me down a very exciting creative route that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced, and led to a lot of opportunities both here in the UK and in the USA.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

A foundation of all my teaching is the principle of “sound before symbol” – it underpins everything. At the higher level, this is about “transmission” – the imperative to pass on the qualities of music which were imparted to me by my own teachers. There are aspects of music that simply can’t be learnt from a book or website.

And again, the most important thing of all is to develop a proper LOVE for the music. We must be careful not to trivialise music or pretend it has to always be “fun”, but it must never be dull either.

There are the three essentials that underpin all playing: literacy, musicianship and technique. They need to be developed in tandem, and it’s the same whether a player is a beginner or more advanced.

The big enemy (as always!) is tension. I believe that the way to overcome that is to use physical movement away from the piano, and I have developed specific exercises based on Qigong forms and theory, which are proving very effective. Once a player is more relaxed, their musicality and creativity finds better freedom to be expressed.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Adults have more understanding of the journey they are on as musicians, and they know what music they like and what they don’t like. They also have a clearer idea of what they hope to achieve through the lessons. So that is a different type of challenge to teaching a child. I find it exhilarating.

Because my teaching is driven by my own love for music, it’s important that the student’s interests and tastes coincide to some extent with mine. But often I have found that a student’s enthusiasm for a composer or style has fed back into my own interest, and that’s a real joy too – another discovery that feeds my enthusiasm as a teacher.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams can be great if used as a celebration of achievement, provided we don’t let them dictate the way we teach, or neglect creativity. Most of my students take selected ABRSM Grades, with positive experiences and fantastic results. I use ABRSM because I like the professionalism of their service, the positivism and consistency of the examiners, and the superb published resources.

My students do not compete in festivals. Growing up, I won virtually every competition I ever took part in, but I didn’t enjoy a single one of them. In fact they turned performing into something I dreaded, although I didn’t upset my teachers by admitting that to them at the time!

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

Performance anxiety primarily feeds off three things: the fear of failure, of looking silly, and of being compared critically with others. So we have to cut off this toxic food supply.

  • Firstly, we minimise the fear of failure by ensuring students are well prepared, realistically confident, and focussed on enjoying the music they play.
  • Secondly, we can ease their fear of looking silly by diminishing the formality and ritual associated with classical performance.
  • And thirdly we can move away from the practice of having an adjudicator publicly evaluating and comparing performers, and in so doing establish a more positive context for both public performance and private, constructive feedback.

Having performed in popular music settings as well as classical, I know the positive feelings that a good concert should engender, but sometimes it appears to me as if the classical world is deliberately trying to eschew enjoyment. And in classical settings the personal report between performer and audience can be next to non-existent.

The welfare of our students is more important than any tradition, and as music teachers we can have a powerful role in remoulding and recasting our performance culture for the better. So long as we remember that music is an art form, not a competitive sport, performers and audience alike can all come away from concerts feeling entertained and enriched.

Once we have this basic understanding that performing music should be a celebration, we can start to look at how we approach a performance in terms of our preparation, how to deal with natural nerves and the effects of adrenalin in our system, breathing and stretching exercises, mental control, diet, and so on.

This is again an area where I personally believe that Qigong can offer a genuine breakthrough.

Thank you so much.

Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She also writes a regular column on various aspects of piano playing for ‘Pianist’ magazine’s e-newsletter, and is a guest blogger at HelloStage, InterludeHK, Music Haven and The Sampler, the blog of SoundandMusic.org, the UK charity for new music.

Frances holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas (both with distinction) in Performance, and currently studies with acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch.

http://www.crosseyedpianist.com
http://www.franceswilson.co.uk
Twitter: @CrossEyedPiano

The Pianist’s Solitude

The Pianist’s Reflections

Guest Post by Frances Wilson.

“The loneliness doesn’t worry me …
I spend most of my life alone, even backstage …
I’m there completely alone. I like the time alone …”

British pianist Stephen Hough, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme

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10 Ways to turn “I can’t” into “I can”

Guest Author: Frances Wilson

Whenever we have a thought or physical sensation thousands of neurons are triggered and get together to form a neural network in the brain.

“Experience-dependent neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for this activity of continual creation and grouping of neuron connections in our brains which takes place as a result of our personal life experiences. With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time, and neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the brain can be “trained” to build positive neural traits from positive mental states.

The trouble is, the brain tends towards the negative and is very bad at learning from good experiences and very good at learning from bad ones. This negativity bias was very important in keeping our ancestors alive during times of great hardship and danger, but in our 21st-century brains it can be a block that prevents positive experiences from becoming inner strengths which are built into our neural structure.

As musicians most of us are very familiar with “the inner critic”, that destructive voice within that can sabotage a practise session or performance and damage our self-esteem with negative self-talk.

Continue reading 10 Ways to turn “I can’t” into “I can”

Accentuate the Positive: Music and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Guest Article by Frances Wilson

What is Neuro-Linguistic Programming?

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) was created in California in the 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. The name makes a connection between the neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”), and behavioural patterns learned through experience (“programming”) which can be altered or harnessed to achieve specific goals in life. Popularly known as “the study of human excellence”, NLP uses the criterion “does this work?”, and gives us the tools and processes to deconstruct how we do things to discover the key elements of a positive strategy that enables us to do something more successfully. Equally, it can highlight negative issues and help us to discard unsuccessful actions and impulses.

In NLP the word “strategy” is used to describe how we organise sensory representations – external and internal images, sounds, sensations and feelings. This determines how successful we are in doing something, assuming we have the relevant skills.

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Tobin Mueller and the Influence of Illness on his Music

Guest Author Frances Wilson interviews pianist Tobin Mueller

Composer and pianist Tobin Mueller has recently completed a trilogy of recordings in which he explored three eras of Western music through adaptive arrangements, reinvention and original composition. Each album took one year to develop. The Masterworks Trilogy included jazz interpretations and new works based on:

  1. the Impressionists (Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Fauré, Carpenter)
  2. the Baroque period (J.S. Bach), and most recently
  3. the Romantic movement (Frederic Chopin).

The albums by title are :

  1. Impressions of Water and Light
  2. Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller”, and
  3. Of Two Minds: The Music of Frederic Chopin and Tobin Mueller”.)

Not only have these double-CD albums highlighted the elements of modernity found in these forebears, they have allowed Mueller to discover a personal kinship with each composer.

Tobin’s personal journey has also been colored by the challenges of dealing with a compromising illness. This relationship between the composer and his illness is what we wanted to discuss…

Continue reading Tobin Mueller and the Influence of Illness on his Music

Social Media and Feelings of Inadequacy

Following on from her well-received post “Am I Really Good Enough“, guest author Frances Wilson turns her focus to the impact that social media can have on our view of ourselves…

Continue reading Social Media and Feelings of Inadequacy