The Pianist’s Self-Care

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

At the time of writing, most of us are feeling uneasy. We are, after all, in the midst of a global pandemic, concerned for ourselves, our loved ones, our finances, and fearful of what our world might be like in a few months time.

But as we spend more time away from our usual routines, we might also discover a deeper unease. A rock has plunged into the pool of our lives. The ripples are still clearing, and a lot of mud has been churned up. As the waters settle again, we are coming to see things that were perhaps unclear to us before.

As pianists we might hope to see glimpses of answers to life’s most profound questions sat before our piano, absorbed in our playing. And certainly, as I’ve written here before, piano playing can provide a sanctuary from all else that is unfolding around us.

But while some presently find they can use their piano playing as an escape from grim news, many others are experiencing frustration at their lack of motivation, focus and inspiration.

In this entry to The Pianist’s Reflections Series I will consider some basic elements of self-care from a Daoist (Taoist) perspective in the hope that readers will find some helpful suggestions, and that each of us can enjoy a piano journey that reflects an easier, more connected and settled experience of life.

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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.

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The Pianist’s Air

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

“Installing air filters in classrooms can raise children’s scores in tests by the same amount as cutting class sizes by a third, research has found…
Mike Gilraine, author of the paper and assistant professor of economics at New York University, said the improved scores were equivalent to ‘roughly two-and-a-half months of extra learning’.”

So blazes a news story published in The Times on January 10th 2020. The article quotes from research suggesting,

“The results indicate that air filter installation is a highly cost-effective policy to raise student achievement “

And it goes on to point out that several London schools, having installed air filters in classrooms. have reported reductions in absence because of sickness, which teachers attributed to cleaner air.

Given my previous writing about the centrality of breathing in piano playing, regular readers will no doubt anticipate that none of this comes as a surprise to me; indeed, I believe that quality of air in my teaching studio is a paramount concern, and have encouraged players and teachers to take the issue seriously long prior to these new findings.

In this article I will offer some simple advice about air quality and the need to create a suitable environment for piano learning. But rather than focusing on the educational benefits in isolation, we need to consider the health benefits first and foremost…

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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?

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The Pianist’s Brew

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

I used to be a coffee addict. Seriously. I had several pots of fresh coffee a day, and when I tried to cut back I experienced acute withdrawal symptoms.

Unfortunately though, coffee has some fairly unhelpful side-effects; among other things, it is especially bad for us if we suffer from anxiety (which is so common among pianists).

Having read about the virtues of tea drinking, I decided to try a switch. My previous experience of tea was the warm, milky, teabag variety. I realised that this is not exactly the drink that the great Daoist sages spoke of, so I jumped into the deep end and started to explore the wide variety of Chinese leaf teas that are available without straying too far from the beaten track.

To cut a long story short, switching to tea has proven one of the best choices I’ve made. Aside from tea drinking being better for my health (physical and emotional), my exploration of different Chinese teas has become a fascinating and absorbing journey in its own right.

It may seem odd to encounter an article about tea drinking on a piano site, but I will explain some of the reasons why tea might actually be the perfect brew for all pianists (and, well, people in general).

Also bear in mind that Pianodao addresses my interest in Daoist philosophy and practices; hence the “dao” part of the site name. Tea drinking is so embedded in Daoist culture and practice and that it might as well be described as a core tenet of the Daoist worldview.

As the contemporary Daoist master Zhongxian Wu explains:

Pin Ming Lun Dao is a commonly used Chinese phrase which means ‘to discuss and understand the Dao through the taste of tea‘. This phrase embodies the lifestyle of the most traditional Chinese sages and scholars, whether they be a master of Daoism,, Confucianism, Buddhism, martial arts, music, calligraphy, and/or Traditional Chinese Medicine.”

foreword to Daniel Reid, The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea, Singing Dragon, 2011.

With all this in mind, this article will address the following questions:

  1. Why is tea good for pianists (and people in general)?
  2. How does one get started with drinking Chinese tea?
  3. What different types of tea are there?

Tea is by far the single most popular beverage on earth today, so chances are that many reading this are already tea drinkers.

I hope that for those readers, the article will add to your enjoyment of tea, while for those who haven’t yet considered this fascinating subject my hope is that this article will pique your interest, and give you good reason to try something new!

Let’s start by going back in time….

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The Pianist’s Motivations

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

  • What is it that motivates us as pianists?
  • Why did we start learning to play the piano? ..
  • And why do we continue to play?
  • What are our piano goals for the future? ..
  • And how do they excite us?
  • How can we motivate and inspire our students?

Ask these questions to a hundred pianists, and there’s a good chance you will hear a hundred different answers – but some common themes will most likely emerge.

In this article I am going to consider the many and complex motivations we all experience in life, focussing in on the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and how each pertains to our piano playing.

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The Pianist’s Kindness

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

As I write this I am in India on a two-week yoga retreat, in which each day has started with a reflective discourse on the ethics outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the classic text from which yoga theory subsequently developed.

The first, foundational ethic presented by Patanjali was Ahimsa, which can be literally translated no harm, and essentially means be kind.

Without kindness, there can be no true yoga. And yet, as our teacher rather decisively noted:

“There are plenty of people in this world who can touch their toes – but who are still basically arseholes!”

As usual, what is true in one field can equally apply in another, and certainly from my own observations of pianists – both in online forums and the ‘real world’ – there are plenty of very fine piano players and teachers who, it would seem, somewhat lack kindness.

So how can we encourage the piano community to be a kinder one? As always, the answer must begin with ourselves …

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The Pianist’s Generosity

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

As I write it’s December, and in keeping with the season, I’m going to consider generosity

Let me start by sharing this brilliant quote from my good friend Paul Harris, which nicely sets the scene for my thoughts on generosity:

“Performing is an act of giving.
If we perform with artistry and skill – at any level, and with unconditional generosity – then everyone is the better for it.”

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The Pianist’s Overthinking

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

“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.

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The Pianist’s Handshake

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

Do you ever feel a bit uncomfortable about shaking hands with people when you meet them?

Concerned about hygiene, and all those germs you’ll pick up “pressing the flesh”?

Worried about having your piano-playing fingers crushed by the over-enthusiastic clench of Mr. Assertive?

Then read on, and I will go over a few points that might help!

Why Shake Hands?

960px-ACMA_1333_Samian_decree_2

Shaking hands is an ancient ritual which is reported as long ago as 2800 BCE in Egypt. We have images of hand shaking from ancient Greece, such as the one shown here – Hera and Athena handshaking, late 5th century BCE (now in the Acropolis Museum, Athens).

Some speculate that because the right hand is the “weapon” hand, presenting the empty hand was seen as a sign of peace and acceptance. It is interesting to note that in Asian cultures, where many martial arts moves can start by grabbing the hand, shaking hands was traditionally less popular! This is why for ceremonial occasions and important leader meetings respectful bowing is preferred. It is also why many Chinese in daily life nod the head rather than shaking hands. However, it is important to realise that hand shaking remains one of the most important forms of greeting in most Asian cultures, although usually the hand shake itself is more gentle than it is in Europe and North America.

A study conducted by the Weizmann Institute of Science found that shaking hands can serve as a means of “Social Chemosignalling” between people, perhaps meeting an evolutionary need to learn about the person whose hand is shaken.

Quite how this happens is not fully determined, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear in the future that this links up with the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Qigong, which highlight the importance of the so-called ‘laogong’ point.

The Laogong Point

lao_gong

In Chinese medicine, there is a point in the hand called ‘laogong‘, (Pericardeum-8) which is an important gateway for energy transmission and absorption.

When you shake a person’s hand, your laogong point makes contact with theirs, which is perhaps another of the reasons why – intuitively – shaking hands became such an important and universal practice around the world.

The laogong point isn’t only recognised within TCM. It also has key importance within Japanese Shiatsu and traditional energy healing practises around the world. These traditions independently developed an understanding of the significance of ‘laogong‘.

But what about the risks?

The main concern which it seems many pianists have about shaking hands relates to hand health and hygiene. Hygiene is certainly an issue, especially if finger food is also on the table (or in the unlikely case that the other person actually has scabies – thank goodness for antibacterial gel!)

The more important issue here, however, is general hand health.

Given how important our hands are, it is understandable that we want to protect ourselves from the bone-crushers out there. However, once you know how to regulate the pressure of a hand shake it is possible to avoid social awkwardness and still protect yourself with ease.

For those worried about pain, the advice is sometimes offered that simply allowing your own hand to go limp will quickly end a handshake. While this is true, it comes at the cost of potentially ending a relationship before it even starts. To the insecure party it can communicate rejection, while to the assertive hand shaker it can communicate that you are not their equal, and they will probably move along to somebody else who they perceive is. Neither of these responses are probably what you intend.

Regulating the pressure

If a person’s handshake seems too firm, or even painful, it means they are squeezing harder than you. If you increase your own squeeze it will meet and properly balance theirs – you should no longer feel any discomfort.

You can then regulate their squeeze by gently reducing yours. Having established the connection they will follow your lead, and in effect it puts you in control. I recommend trying this out with a partner or somebody you trust. Explore how altering your own pressure will be reflected by them. You may be very surprised by the results!

For those who prefer to avoid hand shaking altogether, firstly you are missing out on an important element of interpersonal bonding that’s been built into us over a very long time. So it might be a good idea to find a confident, assertive alternative that you are comfortable with. Hugging is a nice one, but obviously not always appropriate! A nod of the head can also work as a good substitute, so long as you smile openly and give good eye contact.

I hope that this short introduction will encourage you to shake hands with people with a new confidence and more understanding, and overcome any reservations you have.


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The Pianist’s Self-Compassion

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

Guest post by Frances Wilson

The life of the pianist is, by necessity, solitary (and I have written before about The Pianist’s Solitude). For many of us, the solitude is not an issue: we crave a sense of apartness to enable us to do our work and to create special connections with audiences when we perform, and we need quietude to allow time for self-reflection and evaluation.

The sequestered nature of the pianist’s life also calls for great self-reliance: we must  be self-starting, motivated, driven and focused to ensure our work (practising and preparation) is done each day. Most of us draw pleasure and satisfaction from knowing our work is done and done well, but without other colleagues and musical companions to interact with, it is easy for self-doubt to creep in, for us to question our role or our value, to ask “am I good enough?”.

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The Pianist’s Emotions

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

Emotions are an essential aspect of our basic humanity. But when they are out of balance they can become dangerous, with the potential to leave us feeling shipwrecked and adrift.

The Problem for Pianists

Of course this is true for everyone – but for piano players (and for musicians and performers in general) there can be some additional challenges, and the swing from over-excitement to terrible disappointment and back can become our daily emotional currency:

  • We are exposed – even for hours on end – to powerful and profound emotions, communicated wordlessly by some of the most creative people in history
  • To play well we must engage with our own emotions, those of the composer, and in performance with those of our audiences
  • We work often in solitude, with few alternative emotional outlets other than our musical expression
  • The touring of the concert pianist, and the long (often antisocial) hours of the piano teacher can put additional strain on our physical and social wellbeing
  • The piano world is a hyper-competitive one (often in my view, destructively so) leaving many players with low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and a crippling sense of failure

We contend with all these issues as an added factor on our journey through life, which of course includes the same emotional challenges in our personal lives, family, security, and health that everyone else has to cope with.

It is little wonder that so many pianists sustain significant emotional damage and suffer from mental health problems.

A recent survey by The Stage reported 7 out of 10 musicians report mental health problems, while a study conducted in Australia by Entertainment Assist found that musicians are up to ten times more likely to have mental health problems than the general population.

What we need is “emotional wisdom” – the self-awareness that helps us keep our emotions in check, balanced and healthy.

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The Pianist’s Solitude

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

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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The Pianist’s Anonymity

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

As I write this, it’s been another eventful week in celebrity land, with tabloid headlines screaming the latest sordid news about Angelina, Brad, Jennifer, Jonny and others. There’s a common theme here: celebrity can be both a magnet for narcissism and unhappiness and a force that knocks lives off balance.

In the world of piano playing, albeit on a smaller scale, being well-known brings its own challenges, with exposure to conflict, malicious gossip and the envy of those who are less successful or unfulfilled.

So should we basically pursue anonymity?
Can a wise balance be found?

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The Pianist’s Lineage

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

Until quite recently it never occurred to me to consider who my teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was…

But then I realised (somewhat inadvertently while looking into the history of piano teaching) that my teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was none other than Franz Liszt, perhaps the greatest and most influential pianist of all time.

At which point I decided it was time to give the matter more serious thought…

Now let’s get this bit over with quickly, because (as we shall see) I’m really not about to claim my “lineage” endows me with any special status or ability. But here it is:

  • My final teacher at college (in the 1980s), Joseph Weingarten (1911-1996), was a student of the great pianist and composer Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960).
  • Dohnányi had been a student of István Thomán (1862-1940) and Eugen d’Albert (1864-1932), both of whom were students of Franz Liszt (1811-1886).
  • Liszt, incidentally, was a student of Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who in turn was a student of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827).

T H U D !!
There’s the sound of some pretty heavy name-dropping!

And if you are interested in tracing your own legacy, this information on Wikipedia is a helpful resource.

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