The Practice Room Sanctuary

The Fermata Series

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.


Fermata Series

The Fermata Series offers short reflective posts, and a chance to PAUSE.
Read more from The Fermata Series here.


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Piano: the future of music?

Guest Post by Simon Reich

Looking at the crystal ball into the future would have had me shaking my head and not believing what I was seeing…

The ubiquitous guitar is falling out of favour with the new generation of musicians.

Yes, you are reading correctly! Both electric and acoustic sales are dropping through the floor. The big guns of the guitar world, Fender and Gibson are facing hardships. In fact, Gibson, have already begun bankruptcy proceedings.

The six-stringed instrument has been the virtual logo for rock and pop since its inception. No-one ever suggested substituting a piano or keyboard as a sexy alternative to the guitar, but it appears that could now be the case.

And while you’re at it, you may need to add a laptop computer as well. Yes folks, these are the items that are causing a huge drop in guitar sales, MIDI keyboards and music software.

Continue reading Piano: the future of music?

Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

Pathways for Teaching

In the minds of many students (and in the case of children, their parents), two questions are constantly lurking –

  1. How well am I doing?  and,
  2. How can I improve?

I believe teachers should routinely answer these questions, but how best to frame those answers? As a general principle I would suggest that pupils will gain confidence if they have a clear, honest perception of their progress, and goals which are detailed and encouraging.

Graded exams can offer one way – and an important framework – for pupils to gain the meaningful, quantative answers that help foster confidence.

While exams are certainly not without their issues, most of the concerns I see raised relate more to their misuse than to their appropriate use. 

In this article I will consider both, and offer a personal perspective on some of the most common concerns. And in conclusion, I will try to provide an answer to the question: Graded Exams – Friend or Foe?

Continue reading Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

The Three Treasures of Musical Learning

Pathways for Teaching

We all have a “teaching philosophy”, whether we realise it or not.

Mine strongly advocates holistic, personalised, life-centred education. My model of The Three Treasures of Musical Learning is a key component to complement these values.

Paying attention to all Three Treasures – and at all stages of learning, from the youngest beginner to the most advanced professional – leads to deeper learning, fuelling progress and fostering a lifelong love relationship with music.

In this article I will explain what the Three Treasures are, and offer some tips on how focusing on them can help us develop as effective teachers.

Continue reading The Three Treasures of Musical Learning

Making Music Accessible

… especially to those with dyslexia and other learning difficulties

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

I have been teaching students with specific learning difficulties (especially dyslexia) for twenty years now.  It’s been a real journey which has been packed with lots of learning, creativity, patience, joy, challenge but most of all reward.

Reward in being able to share in music making with students who can find music learning has challenges.

It is important to remember that no two students are the same – and especially no two dyslexic or students with special needs. The solutions may need adapting for individual students, or strategies specially selected for them. And also remember that some students with learning difficulties don’t have any problems with music learning at all. One size does not fit all!

The topic is vast. In this post I identify four of the main Guiding Principles for working with students with special needs.

These principles work well across all my teaching – good teaching is, I believe, good teaching! And I am sure many teachers reading this post will do much of what I describe anyway.

Continue reading Making Music Accessible

Personalised Learning

Pathways for Teaching

Every aspect of music is personal.

A good performance depends on the player’s personal interpretation of the music. Enjoyment, for the listener, depends on their personal response to the music. Which in turn is informed by personal musical taste and experience.

And in the same way, learning to play a musical instrument is a highly personalised experience. In this post we’ll consider why that is true, and what it means in practice.

Continue reading Personalised Learning

Let’s talk about our practice expectations

Pathways for Teaching

Lack of practice is an issue that most piano players grapple with at some point – and it is something that teachers don’t always handle graciously and with understanding.

Continue reading Let’s talk about our practice expectations