A Fresh Perspective

The FERMATA SERIESby ANDREW EALES
Taking the time to pause and reflect


Those who know me well enough to have observed some of my personal struggles often urge me to stop caring what others think of my choices, opinions, beliefs and work. Many of us become trapped in the mindset of the “people-pleaser”; manipulated or bullied by others, we can easily lose sight of our own core values if we aren’t careful.

A decision not to care what others think about us can be emancipating, and can empower us to be our more authentic selves. I’m not surprised that this sentiment has become a common theme in self-help manuals.

But wait. If we stop caring about what others think, how long before we stop caring about them at all? Mutual understanding of each other’s ideas, feelings and perspectives is a crucial foundation for building empathetic, honest relationships.

We may not always agree with the opinions of others, but shutting them out ultimately isolates us. Clearly a balance is needed, along with an ability to accept the perspectives of others without feeling belittled.

As in life, so too this applies in our piano playing.

It seems growing numbers of players are so assertively independent that, at best, they regard the views of teachers and other players as an optional “take-it-or-leave-it” commodity. It is a viewpoint which I countered in some detail in my article Who Needs Piano Lessons Anyway?

The simple truth is that all of us, however good we believe we are, and however much personal satisfaction we presently gain from our playing, can benefit from the advice of other experienced players and teachers.

As the Chinese saying goes,

“However good your eye-sight, you still can’t see the back of your own head.”

There is always value in getting another, fresh perspective on our playing.

But not all opinions carry equal weight, despite the best efforts of social media to present them thus. The commenting of Facebook peers and strangers may be useful, but won’t always convey special insight; and how does one sift through so many contradictory opinions?

It seems obvious that when we consider (and if necessary, research) the expertise of the person who is giving us feedback, and reflect on the quality of our relationship with them, then we will be better placed to find the healthy balance we need.

Ask yourself:

  • Does the person offering advice just want to show off their own knowledge, are they touting for business, or do they genuinely want to help me?
  • Do they have the experience of playing this music well, or at least a good knowledge of the repertoire?
  • Are they listening carefully and engaging positively with me?
  • Am I looking for the support of a friend or the constructive advice and insight of an expert?

How we answer these questions might give us a clue as to whether we should care about a person’s opinions or not. There remains the possibility to take charge of our personal and pianistic development while also nurturing respectful, honest relationships.

But we might notice that sometimes the feedback we are given, invited or otherwise, can be useful even when we don’t feel a particular connection to the individual offering it. The observations of somebody we might not generally agree with, or even particularly like, can present the fresh perspective we were previously missing.

Beyond personality issues then, when receiving feedback on your piano playing ask yourself:

  • Does the feedback increase my understanding of the music in a way which will help me to play it better?
  • Does the feedback include practical, physical or technical advice which I might benefit from trying out?
  • Does the feedback inspire me musically, get my creative juices flowing, or offer an alternative interpretation of the music which could be interesting to explore?

Maya Angelou once said,

“We do the best we can with what we know,
and when we know better, we do better.”

Are you ready for a fresh perspective on your playing?


Andrew’s essential handbook of practising tips:




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which are free for everyone, everywhere to access and read.
Please support the site by making a small donation.



The Active Repertoire Challenge 2022

ACTIVE REPERTOIRE PROJECT
The Music You Enjoy Playing, Any Time, Any Place.



For 2022, many piano players are ready to embrace a fresh musical focus and revitalised piano goals. Whether frustrated by lack of playing in the last year or pleased with progress made, we all want to embrace the most motivated, positive version of ourselves at the piano.

Thankfully, there is an answer…

Continue reading The Active Repertoire Challenge 2022

David Hall: ‘There’s More to Playing the Piano’

EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES • review by ANDREW EALES
Supporting Your Teaching • PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING


A preponderance of music theory publications currently exist which are specifically tailored for those preparing to battle with the somewhat arcane requirements of compulsory exams. And yet, for those who simply want to understand notation and written music in a way that’s useful and relevant to today’s piano players, the market has long been wide open.

Finally we can welcome a simple textbook which is clear, concise, and of practical benefit. While not entirely eschewing the testing regime, David Hall’s excellent self-published There’s More to Playing the Piano offers a thorough explanation of music theory which is for all, and which has two very special selling points.

In the author’s own words:

  • Each chapter ends with an activity to try at the piano. These activities will bring the theory topic to life and show you how your new theory knowledge can be applied to develop your skills of composition, improvisation, analysis and performance.
  • Scan the QR Codes to gain access to online videos where David explains each topic again and demonstrates the piano activities.

Could this be the ideal music theory primer for pianists of all ages?

In a word, “yes”. Whether you are searching for a better understanding of the music you play, a returning pianist refreshing your knowledge, or a student wanting a crash course or revising for an exam, I think that this book could well be for you. So let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading David Hall: ‘There’s More to Playing the Piano’

The Post-Pandemic Piano Player

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
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“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over.
But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” 

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

As I write this, we are starting to consider and look forward to the relaxation of lockdown rules in the coming weeks, with a hope that schools will resume in March and most other activities by Easter. Being cautious, I had anticipated the probability of a return of face-to-face lessons by mid-summer, but it now seems possible that life will begin returning to some-kind-of-normal sooner. Hooray!

• But what will we all have learnt in the last year?
• How will we have changed in general, and as piano players?
• And in what ways might the teaching and learning of the piano have been fundamentally and permanently altered?

Continue reading The Post-Pandemic Piano Player

Why is My Piano Black and White?

THE PIANODAO BOOKSHELF
Books For Musicians, Educators & Enthusiasts


Nathan Holder’s latest book, written for children aged 8-12, bills itself as “The Ultimate Fun Facts Guide, and works hard to fulfil its aim.

We are told,

“From Beethoven to Billy Joel, Mozart to Mary Lou Williams, and Scott Joplin to Stevie Wonder, be inspired by some of the most interesting people who have ever played the piano.
Why is my Piano Black and White? takes you on a musical journey to help you discover the weird and wonderful world of the piano, and the people who make music on it! Filled with fun fact, jokes, quizzes and music, after you read it, the piano will never be the same again!”

Let’s take our lives in our hands and jump in!…

Continue reading Why is My Piano Black and White?

The Pianist’s Imperfection

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • by ANDREW EALES
Setting Our Piano Journey In Its Living Context.


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

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • by ANDREW EALES
Setting Our Piano Journey In Its Living Context.


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

PATHWAYS FOR LIVING • Guest Post by DOUG HANVEY
Setting our piano journey in its living context…


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

“Stand back from the edge please!”

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
Get Expert Support & Advice • BOOK A CONSULTATION


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 of course 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 beckoned me from the other side. The grass is always greener…

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 spot.

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!”

More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES • review by ANDREW EALES
Supporting Your Teaching • PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING


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

The PIANODAO MUSIC LIBRARY
Selected & Reviewed by ANDREW EALES


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

PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING • by ANDREW EALES
Lessons & Advice • BOOK A CONSULTATION


Lesson Notes is an occasional series of blog posts reflecting on specific lessons I have given and the particular issues that arose and were addressed.

Eva (not her real name) learnt to play piano as a child, but took an extended 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

Accomplishment

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
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”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.


Andrew’s essential handbook of practising tips:




PIANODAO includes more than 600 articles and reviews,
which are free for everyone, everywhere to access and read.
Please support the site by making a small donation.



Learning to Play with Precision

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
Get Expert Support & Advice • BOOK A CONSULTATION


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

Your Story: William Minter

YOUR STORIES • Readers tell us about their own piano journey
READ MORE STORIESSHARE YOUR STORY


William Minter is a teacher and composer living in Connecticut. Here, he reflects on his piano journey, and sets out the many motivations which have kept him engaged in playing.

Continue reading Your Story: William Minter