Summer schools and courses for (especially) adult piano enthusiasts have become an embedded feature of the music education landscape in recent years, and last year saw the launch of the latest.
The Thinking Pianist is the brainchild of David Jones, an established pianist, educator, and presently Head of Keyboard Studies at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
I am delighted to announce that for this, the course’s second year, I will be joining the faculty. Here in advance, I talk to Jones about what it is that makes this particular course special, and distinct from other successful summer schools…
Breathwork is a form of meditation that relies on the body, rather than the mind, to do the work of calming. It lowers stress by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and increasing oxygen to the brain.
Breathing is the first and last thing that we do as humans. And yet most of us breathe in unconscious and restricted ways, leading to dire consequences for our bodies, physical health and emotional wellness.
But as Jennifer Patterson advocates in her brilliant The Power of Breathwork (2020, available here),
“Breathing happens unconsciously all the time, but it can also be consciously and intentionally engaged with. How present you are to your breath is how present you are to your life. By bringing consciousness to the breath you can interrupt automatic responses, reactions, thought patterns, and more.”
During breathwork practice we intentionally focus on and systematically adjust our breathing patterns. Such exercises have been a core element of meditation, yoga (pranayama) practice, and qigong for centuries, but have recently been popularised worldwide by the wellness movement and as a mindfulness technique.
Breathwork is now also recommended by the NHS here in the UK as a tool to overcoming stress. Many find that this practice promotes deep relaxation and leaves them feeling energised.
In this article I am going to consider the value of simple breathwork practice for pianists, explaining how and when it can be a helpful tool, and introducing you to some easy and popular breathwork exercises that you will be able to try for yourself, straight away.
The Qigong for Pianists articles on Pianodao focus on those “secondary benefits” of Qigong which are particularly relevant to piano playing, with descriptive instructions for a few simple introductory Qigong exercises and techniques.
But it is likely that having experienced the initial benefits these bring, readers will want to find out more about Qigong, its background, and exercises. Qigong is a huge and fascinating subject, and there are a great many excellent books and other resources now available to help the Westerner with an interest in finding out more.
If you are keen to find out about the primary benefits of regular Qigong practice, here are some recommended books to explore. Between them they include practical advice, simple exercises for beginner practice, a philosophical grounding and general overview of the history, science, styles and applications of Qigong.
I have included a short description of each, which I hope will help you to select the right book for you. And elsewhere, Pianodao includes a growing number of reviews of other book and Qigong Resources here.
In my article about Breathing at the Piano, I shared some tips and simple exercises to help you reconnect with your breathing while playing.
That article 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.
“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.
Born in Milan, pianist Emanuel Rimoldi first studied in the Conservatory of his home city with Vincenzo Balzani , and then studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow with Elissò Virsaladze from 2009-2015. He is presently continuing his doctorate specialisation at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien in Hannover with Arie Vardi. In addition to his official studies, he has completed a series of master- classes with famous pianists such as Dina Yoffe, Boris Petrushansky and Vladimir Askenazy.
Emanuel has won several international competitions in Italy including the ‘Ettore Pozzoli’ in Seregno and the ‘Città di Cantù’. In 2013, he won the 1st prize at the “Top of the World” international piano competition held in Tromso (Norway), and in 2016 he won the Grand Prix and the ‘Ivo Pogorelich Prize’ at the first Manhattan International Music Competition.
Emanuel’s performances have lit up stages from the Carnegie Hall in New York to London’s Wigmore Hall, and from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky State Conservatory in Moscow.
Prior to his last performing trip to the UK, Emanuel very kindly wrote an insightful guest post for Pianodao, following on from which we got chatting and I found that he is a keen practitioner of taichi, an interest which coincides with my own interest in ‘piano qigong’.
I am delighted that Emanuel agreed to talk about the impact his taichi practice has had on his development as a pianist in this world exclusive interview for Pianodao.
Regular readers will have seen that I sometimes quote from the contemporary Daoist (Taoist) author Deng Ming-Dao, and as we rapidly approach the Chinese New Year it gives me pleasure to recommend his recent book “The Lunar Tao”, published by Harper-Collins in 2013.
According to the publishers:
“The lunar calendar is a main pillar of Chinese culture, encompassing many stories and festivals. Deng Ming-Dao looks to the lunar calendar and highlights where these festivals and stories coincide with Taoism, giving readers a renewed and original way into this ancient philosophy.
Each day of the lunar year is represented with a reading meditation, original translations, illustrations and illuminating facts about festivals and traditions, providing readers with the context that gives Taoism such depth and resonance.”
Are you sure that you breathe when playing the piano?
It might seem like an odd question – of course we continue to breathe while playing! But to what extent are we aware of our breath, and how it affects our technique, musicality and comfort at the piano?
Here is a simple qigong practice that provides an easy hack for diminishing the effects of anxiety in our lives. It can help before performing, taking an exam, or simply enable us get through the basics of daily life.
Anxiety. It seems to be the curse of the modern age, inflicting and blighting so many of our lives. As pianists we often talk about “performance anxiety”, but the truth is that our anxiety about performing is often one element of a bigger picture, and shouldn’t lightly be isolated…
Opening the Chest is the second movement from the 18 Taiji Qigong Shibashi form, and extends the Open and Commence movement previously shared here.
Opening the Chest can be used to expand your own Qigong routine as well as to help students who have benefited from Open and Commence. Before practising “Opening the Chest”, be sure to master Earth Posture and Open and Commence.
This next exercise assumes that you are familiar and comfortable with both.
The Open and Commence movement from the 18 Taiji Qigong Shibashi provides a wonderful way to mindfully reconnect with the sensations in the wrist area, developing supple flexibility.
The 18 Taiji Qigong Shibashi is a modern qigong set created in 1982 in Shanghai, China by Tai Chi Master He Weiqi and Qigong Master Lin Hou Sheng.
The routine is often used as a “warm up” by T’ai Chi groups, as it uses many of the stances common to the Yang form, as well as integrating several more traditional breathing and stretching exercises from qigong.
The opening movement of the 18 Taiji Qigong Shibashi is in fact the same as the opening movement from the Yang form of T’ai Chi itself, so will be familiar to those who have trained in T’ai Chi.
This qigong exercise is extremely simple – using the instructions below you should easily be able to learn the movement involved. However, the powerful benefits that are possible come less from the movement itself, and more from the mental focus and breathing aspects.
Earth Posture is a very simple Qigong stance which combines many of the most basic benefits of qigong practice, and offers a great entry point to qigong.
In this exercise you will focus on posture, alignment, balance, breathing, and release of tension. These are all crucially important for qigong practice – and for piano playing of course! Earth Posture also offers a fabulous way to quiet the mind prior to mediation, or as a meditation in itself.
Good posture (at least as assessed by external observation) seems elusive for many pianists. Qigong practice in general addresses posture through an internal awareness of alignment and balance.
At the same time, Earth Posture facilitates good circulation, thus promoting improved general health.
These benefits are, of course, not instantaneous. I would advise practising Earth Posture daily for a few weeks to experience the maximum benefit. Even many experienced Qigong and T’ai Chi practitioners return to Earth Posture as a prelude to their practice.
The full instructions are written below, but you may find it more helpful to use this recording: