The Pianist’s Imperfection

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

Recently, my wife Louise had a minor kitchen accident which resulted in her breaking my favourite tea cup.

As she tells the story (on her social media):

“So I broke Andrew’s favourite teacup. I felt I should make him a new one in pottery.
It lists a little bit but it works!
Andrew said that it’s the best thing that anyone has given him. He then went on to say that most people would’ve given up and started again once they noticed the listing.
Clearly I’m not most people!”

As you can see from the photo above, my new cup is a thing of great beauty! But as Louise admits, it’s hardly perfect from a functional point of view. The “listing” perhaps doesn’t look serious, but when pouring tea into the cup it’s quite obvious that when one side is full to the brim, the other side is only two-thirds full.

There’s another problem too. Inside the cup, there are quirky recesses that somehow trap the tea, making it impossible to empty the cup when drinking from it in a genteel, civilised manner. Only tipping it upside down really does the trick!


Here, for comparison, is a cup that has none of these issues:


A bit boring, right?

The beauty of my new mug is in its imperfection: its quirkiness, vibrant personality, its energy. And central to all that, the fact that it was borne of relationship, made with love.

Continue reading The Pianist’s Imperfection

The Pianist’s Resolution

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

The start of any new year or season is for many a time for making resolutions: a time for ambition, grit and determination.

Whether it’s a fresh commitment to healthy eating and exercise, or a renewed self-discipline in setting aside time to practise the piano, this is a month where many make a decision to turn a new leaf.

But how can we foster perseverance and ultimately success?

Continue reading The Pianist’s Resolution

Enhancing Technique with Mindfulness of the Body

Guest post by Doug Hanvey

Have you ever had (or been) a piano student who struggles to learn good technique, or to retrain poor technique previously learned?

I certainly have! As a piano teacher specializing in adult learners, many of whom have studied in the past, it’s not uncommon that I must help a student improve or even completely overhaul their technique…

For example, there’s Monique, my 60-year-old student who last studied as a child. Try as she might, Monique has continued to struggle with flying pinkies and collapsing wrists.

Even students with relatively good technique may need improvements. For example, I’ve studied and teach the fundamentals of the Taubman technique. Bringing awareness to the many subtle movements involved such as forearm rotation, in-and-out movements and “shaping” can be challenging for any student.

How might teachers and self-learning students facilitate the learning or retraining of technique?

Perhaps it’s first worth asking: are there any prerequisites for learning or retraining technique?

Continue reading Enhancing Technique with Mindfulness of the Body

“If only I had known then…”

Tea Room Tips  from the  Pianodao Tea Room

As is often mentioned here on Pianodao, learning to play the piano is the journey of a lifetime! And the further we travel, the more insight we gain, and the deeper our skills develop. 

But… suppose you could turn the clock back to when you were a teenager… What do you really wish you had known and understood about piano playing back then?

This was the latest question I posed in the Pianodao Tea Room community, and as I suspected the answers given were many and varied. Each member contribution is, complete in itself, a heartwarming and insightful story…

Here for your interest are a selection of those contributions…

And please feel free to leave your own answer as a comment below!

Continue reading “If only I had known then…”

“Stand back from the edge please!”

As the words boomed along the station platform, I realised straight away that they were directed at me. I turned, looked up the platform towards a burly man in an official-looking hi-vis jacket and sheepishly gave him the thumbs up.

I had been momentarily transfixed in a meditation on the nature of fear.

Looking down at the rails I realised how easy it would be (having first checked there were no trains on the horizon) to step down from the platform, hop across the tracks and explore the beautiful verge that faced me on the other side.

And yet I would never, ever actually do so.

A self-preservatory terror of the rails had been instilled into me decades ago by my mother. My guess is that most of the passengers waiting on the platform would feel something of the same fear.

When movie heroes leap onto the tracks, we regard it as derring-do, suitably convinced of the huge risks involved. Meanwhile we ignore the thought that ordinary Network Rail employees routinely mosey around the rail infrastructure on a daily basis without being vaporised on the job.

Most of us rarely question the fears or values that were instilled in us at a young age. But perhaps we should do.

Continue reading “Stand back from the edge please!”

Autumn Repertoire Challenge

The Autumn Repertoire Challenge is ideal for players of all ages, and offers a great starting point for developing and building an Active Repertoire at the piano. Are you up for it?

Continue reading Autumn Repertoire Challenge

More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

Sheet Music Review

I Back in 2008, ABRSM published a series of books called Piano Specimen Sight-Reading Tests. Although deserving an award for having the most utilitarian and uninspiring titles in my whole music collection, they have nonetheless rarely been out of action in the intervening years.

In short, they were an essential purchase for any piano teacher preparing students for ABRSM’s world-leading piano grade examinations, and have seen very active service over many years.

Since 2008, many others have brought out alternative products to help teachers and students prepare for the sight-reading element of ABRSM exams. Paul Harris’s ubiquitous and respected Improve Your Sight-Reading series has been updated more than once, and now includes audio tracks. Useful and innovative alternatives have also appeared from Alan Bullard, Samantha Coates, e-music maestro and several others.

Now ABRSM return with a new series bearing the slightly-less scary title More Piano Sight-Reading, a suite of eight new books, one to tie in with each of their grades.

A superficial look at the eight books suggests that these aren’t radically different from their predecessors (which, I should add, are still valid, as the syllabus itself remains unchanged). However, a more detailed look reveals several tweaks and changes to the format which, between them, make the new books a step-improvement on the older ones.

For this review, I will focus on five specific improvements which I think make this new series a superior alternative to the previous books.

Continue reading More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

Small Hand Piano

Sheet Music Review

Small Hand Piano is the latest in Barbara Arens’ series of publications from Edition Breitkopf, following on from the successful One Hand Piano, 21 Amazingly Easy Pieces (read my review here), Piano Misterioso (reviewed here), Piano Vivace – Piano Tranquillo and Piano Exotico (all reviewed here).

Small Hand Piano is also (ironically) the largest of these collections, providing 40 Pieces “without octaves”, half of which are original compositions, the rest selected from the existing literature.

I often hear players mention online that their stretch is too small for a lot of the repertoire they would prefer to play, so this publication certainly has the potential to be something of a crowd-pleaser.

Let’s take a look and see how well it succeeds in fulfilling this useful aim…

Continue reading Small Hand Piano

Breathing with Bach

Lesson Notes

Please note: “Eva” is not this student’s real name.
However, her story is told here with permission, and with my gratitude.

Eva learnt piano as a child, but took a break in early adulthood. A few years ago she returned to playing. Since coming to me for lessons she has completed the higher ABRSM grades and gained a DipABRSM performance diploma.

Eva continues coming for a 90 minute consultation lesson once a month. Her focus is on expanding her repertoire, and at present she is working on Bach’s Partita No.1 in B flat major.

In this lesson, we address the importance of the breath in alleviating shoulder tension, using three dance movements from the Partita as example repertoire.

Continue reading Breathing with Bach

Thumbs up for the Thumb!

Featured Image: Anthony Kelly

Guest Post by Mark Tanner

Pianists tend to think of the thumb as being the root cause of unevenness, bumps and a host of other undesirables…

Continue reading Thumbs up for the Thumb!

Practice Resolutions

Featured Image: Wolfgang Lonien

Guest post by Liz Giannopoulos

As the New Year begins, my thoughts turn to my practice routine, and I’m full of good resolutions about what, when and how I will practise.

A new term also provides an opportunity to reflect on my students’ practice habits and how I can encourage them to commit to regular and effective practice.

Continue reading Practice Resolutions

Accomplishment

”In the beginning of training, it may seem as if you are doing very little. You compare yourself to your teachers and to more accomplished people, and you may despair at ever reaching their levels.

“But if you are diligent, then it is inevitable that you will make something of yourself. Once you reach such a plateau, you will be able to relax a bit and contemplate where you are on your journey.”

Deng Ming-Dao,  365 Tao Daily Mediations (204).

Piano students, and adults in particular, often underestimate the time it will take to become proficient players, to play the music they aspire to, and to sound as good as they hoped.

When newcomers ask me, “how long until I can play really well?” I typically answer, “How does ten years sound?

It’s an easy (if entirely random) guess, but can be qualified by pointing out that if “really well” equates to ABRSM Grade 8 (the highest amateur qualification), then in real terms it means progressing by around one Grade per year, with a bit of slack thrown in for good measure!

But the more important truth, which I quickly bring up, is that EVERY STEP of the journey is actually a real ACCOMPLISHMENT in which the player should take satisfaction.

We may wish our skills could be multiplied, but often moving a single step at a time counts for more. Two PLUS One is actually more than Two TIMES One.

And ultimately, as piano playing is a journey with no fixed destination, it’s important that we really take time to enjoy the scenery.

If patience is really a virtue, perhaps it is because learning to appreciate each moment leads to a rewarding lifetime of happiness and health.



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


Learning to Play with Precision

In my recent article  Why Bother with Scales?  I considered the many benefits that arise from regularly playing and teaching scales and arpeggios.

In this shorter post I’m going to hone in on one especially important advantage which is sometimes overlooked entirely:

Regular scale and arpeggio practice trains the brain and the fingers to develop precision in judging and playing all intervals up to a fourth, using any standard combination of shapes and fingerings, and in all the standard keys.

This significant benefit is certainly not to be sniffed at, and fosters a technical ability that is otherwise unlikely to develop during the formative stages of learning the piano.

Let’s consider how this works…

Continue reading Learning to Play with Precision

Curved Fingers, or Flat?

This post is an exclusive excerpt from the new monthly online newsletter from the UK branch of EPTA, The European Piano Teachers’s Association.

In order to reach a wider audience, Chair of EPTA  Murray McLachlan  has kindly agreed to Pianodao exclusively hosting the newsletter for non-members, as well as picking a short piece each month to feature as a guest post here.

This month, I’ve picked this short but very helpful and thought-proving piece written by Murray himself… and below you can download the full newsletter for additional free articles!


Curved Fingers or Flat Fingers?

Guest Post by Dr. Murray McLachlan

A big subject, but in essence I would say a lot depends on the style of the music…

If I want to play rapid semiquavers in pre-Beethoven repertoire then I naturally curve my fingers for more articulation.

If I wish to have more legato and sonority in the romantic repertoire, then they tend to flatten instinctively.

Of course, we should all try to find power, focus and physical control from the knuckles. It is fundamentally bad practice to collapse the first and second joints of the fingers.

However, pupils with hypermobility may well find it difficult not to collapse their finger joints inwards as they play. Perseverance, patience and awareness of what they are doing can help.

Stress, tension and stiffness should be avoided at all costs. It can certainly help to focus on the knuckles and visualize internally a mental picture of finger movement from the ‘bridge’ of the hand (knuckles).

But in terms of how curved fingers should be in terms of a default position, try experimenting:

To find a pianist’s natural finger curve, get them to pick up a pencil without thinking about it. Just say have the thumb on one side, and the fingers on the other. After this is done, look at the curvature of the fingers.

What is there is what is comfortable – the correct curvature for that pianist at that time in most normal contexts.


EPTA Piano Teacher Talk No.1 (September 2018)

This article is drawn from the EPTA Teacher Talk newsletter. If you would like to read more from and about EPTA UK, please download:

pdf-logo   Piano Teacher Talk No.1

Special Thanks to Karen Marshall, Murray McLachlan and Liz Dewhurst. 

Your Story: William Minter

Your Stories

William Minter is a teacher and composer living in Connecticut. He is the author of Journeys, a piano series for intermediate learners.

Here, William reflects on his piano journey, and sets out the many motivations which have kept him engaged in playing …

Continue reading Your Story: William Minter

Are You a Fanatic?

“If you’re invited for tea by a connoisseur of Pu Er (tea) in Yunnan, be prepared to deal with a fanatic, for Pu Er inspires a zealous devotion among its advocates, who, like missionaries of a mysterious cult, will try their best to coax you away from your own acquired taste in Chinese tea, and persuade you instead that Pu Er is the high and mighty lord in the entire pantheon of Chinese tea.”

Daniel Reid: The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea (Singing Dragon, 2011, p78)


I can think of several parallels in the world of the piano, where advocates of a particular approach or style present themselves as zealots for their cause.

It seems to me that there’s nothing wrong with such passion, so long as we each remember to show respect for one another, and present our views and ideas with dignity, generosity and grace towards others.

I have been, and remain, a fanatic for many musical and other causes. If something works for me, there’s a good chance it will equally work for others, and I am happy to share my experiences and insights if they might help.

But what works for one, although it may work for all, need not do so.

We are, each of us, unique. Each must find their path, and few of us like to feel coerced or pressurised into accepting a rigid model stipulated by another.

Experience ultimately always triumphs over dogma. As the saying goes,

“The older I get, the less I know.”

So let’s keep the fires of healthy fanaticism alight, but in our passion we must remember humility, keeping our hearts and minds open. Above all, pursuing kindness.


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


More Breathing at the Piano

Piano Qigong Exercise

In my article about Breathing at the Piano, I shared some tips and simple exercises to help you reconnect with your breathing while playing.

Breathing at the Piano was warmly received. I have heard from, and worked with, many players who found the simple exercises helpful – even revolutionary for their playing. If you’ve not already printed off and tried the FREE exercises, please check them out before going on.

The aim here is to help players easily check in with our breathing when at the piano. To understand the importance of this, please read about “Awareness in Breathing” in my article What is Piano Qigong? and refer back to my article András Schiff and Natural Breathing for more background.

In this article, I will now build on the foundation of the exercises and ideas previously shared…

Continue reading More Breathing at the Piano

Stories of Recovery

Guest post by Simon Reich

Unless you lived in a humidified bubble, away from sharp objects and potential harmful items, injuries are part of life.

The response to my invitation for stories and anecdotes regarding incidents that may have curtailed your piano playing or ended your musical career altogether was overwhelming. As I was therefore unable to squeeze the material into one blog, I’ve been compelled to write a second part to You Can’t Stop the Music.

Just to reiterate, the injuries were not necessarily musically acquired, but things as simple as falling off a bike, crushing fingers between two bricks or hurting your back slipping down a flight of stairs.

Amazingly, after writing the first article, I found out my mum has some nerve problems in her fingers.

She told me that as children, her siblings would melt wax on their fingertips and when cooled to dry, play the piano as a fun alternative to the standard method! This was the way she described how playing the piano keyboard now felt. It hasn’t stopped her from performing but it’s certainly put a spanner in the works of eliciting dynamics and feeling to her performances.

Continue reading Stories of Recovery

Fancy Footwear?

My wife Louise and I recently visited my cousin and her husband for a delightful evening meal. At some point in the evening, conversation turned to footwear, and my cousin was appalled to learn that I often wear slippers when teaching in my home studio.

Inevitably, I was quickly ganged up on, the object of much mirth. To be honest, it was a bit harsh. Jibes included:

“How old did you say you are again – 87?”

Followed by,

“Do you wear pyjamas and a dressing gown too?”

And even …

“Are you trying to look like Hugh Heffner?”

Now I ask you, what kind of question is that?

Gamely, I tried to defend myself with:

“…but slippers are really comfortable when playing the piano…”

But of course this quickly led to:

“So do all your pupils bring slippers to wear too?”

Which got me thinking …

Continue reading Fancy Footwear?

What Can You Play?

One of the major stumbling blocks for players is that we too often feel that we are struggling, making little progress, and perhaps just haven’t got what it takes to become a “good player” (however we define what that even is!).

To enjoy playing an instrument, we need to move beyond this negative self-talk. And I suggest that one of the most easy and powerful ways we can all achieve this is to adjust the balance between working and playing during our personal piano time.

Continue reading What Can You Play?

Developing Performance Skills

Guest author – Roberta Wolff

Success Criteria to Develop and Enhance Students’ Performing Skills.

The season of exams, festivals and Spring Concerts is approaching so today I am sharing a simple but powerful approach to help students take their piece from practice room to stage.

The tools we will use are success criteria which leave almost no room for ‘failure’, and which develop confidence, and a sense of control and awareness as students practise the art of performance.

Continue reading Developing Performance Skills