Monday, July 15, 2019

In His Own Words: Educator and Pianist Forrest Kinney on Living, Dying, and Accepting

For decades (and in over 40 books and collections of musical compositions), Forrest Kinney has been teaching classical pianists to break away from the prison of the written notes and improvise our own paths.  Recently diagnosed with incurable blood cancer, Kinney shared these words with his friends on Facebook--once again teaching us to improvise, only this time courageously creating life in the face of death.  Here, in his own words, Forrest Kinney's beautiful formula for living, dying, and accepting:

After fracturing my back in February, I was not healing. So I went to the hospital in April. After being diagnosed with blood cancer, I decided to try chemotherapy. The day after I began, I suffered kidney failure and nearly died. (I will spare you the rather gruesome details!) So, I agreed to do dialysis and some transfusions. For weeks, I felt like a breathing corpse. The pain was, at times, hard to bear. The doctors said I would be on dialysis every other day for a year with no prospect of a cure. So, I made the extremely difficult decision to end all treatment and let nature run its course. After all, in trying to stay alive, I had taken a course that had killed all quality of life and had hastened my death. I finally accepted this.
So, three weeks ago, I moved to a beautiful hospice facility in Seattle to die in peace. And then something strange began to happen. The staff members here are all buoyant angels who embody the deeply compassionate side of humanity, the food is delicious and is restoring my strength and my desire to eat, and the pain medications actually work. Within a week, I began to feel so much better, and began to really enjoy all my visitors. I opened my laptop and began working on finishing a book. I began to learn to play an exquisite lap harp and experience the incredible beauty of making music again.
A few weeks ago, I thought I would be ashes by now, but I am living a surprisingly rich life, even though I’m in bed all day. In accepting that the treatments were not working for me, I allowed deeper treatments to begin to do their work. In letting myself die, I have been coming back to life. Because of the advanced stage of the cancer, I will still probably die soon, but I have experienced so much beauty and love at the end.
I wanted to assure you that this final act has been a time of comfort and joy. I also wanted to share what I have learned: when we accept “what is” and act accordingly, when we quit trying to force our lives to be what they are not, life can unfold in a shockingly beautiful way.

Thank you Forrest for teaching us that there's beauty and joy in everything, even in letting go.  May God bless you on your journey.  

Forrest Kinney is an educator who has taught music for over four decades.  He is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music (NCTM) as recognized by the Music Teacher's National Association (MTNA).  His goal it to help others become creative, whole musicians capable of enjoying the Four Arts of Music: improvising, arranging, composing, and interpreting. He is the author of 40 books and collections of musical compositions.  This includes the original Pattern Play series on musical improvisation, the newer Pattern Play series published by the Royal Conservatory of Music, and the newest Pattern Play-based series called Create First!.  He has also written two series on arranging: the new Puzzle Play series and the Chord Play series published by the Royal Conservatory of Music.  His book Creativity--Beyond Compare explores common misconceptions about creativity and artistic practice.  Music-Creativity-Joy  is a collection of 105 essays and article about teaching the Four Arts of Music.  His latest book is the Quick Chord Course, an introduction to playing the 32 most popular chords.  

To learn more about Forrest Kinney and to order copies of his publications and compositions, visit his website:

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

3 Must-Reads for Musicians Who Struggle With Self-Confidence

When I was a kid, I made up songs on the piano for the sheer pleasure of sound and the feel of the keys under my fingertips.  When I started formal lessons, I played for anyone and everyone.  It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I developed stage fright, and not until I finished my undergraduate degree that I accumulated some damaging experiences which challenged my confidence.

Music is a tough business, and even those of us who had supportive instructors have memories of guest teachers, master classes, or competitions that hurt us as players more than they helped. These books freed me of much of that damage.  Through reading them I learned two invaluable things: 1) I wasn’t the only one who had been damaged by poor coaching, and 2) healing was possible.  

A Soprano on Her Head by Eloise Ristad

Eloise Ristad deals here with complex problems which torment and cripple so many of our most creative and talented people, and she does so with compassion, wisdom, and wit. The problem of stage fright, for instance, is a suffering of epidemic proportions in our society, and involves modalities of thought and projections that rob spontaneity and enthusiasm in artistic performance.

Those interested in creative education have long felt that an entirely new, holistic and nurturing process of allowing individuals to discover and express themselves is needed if our educational system is to avoid the neuroses and creative blocks of the past generation. This book illuminates through its conversational style the destructive inhibitions, fears, and guilt experienced by all of us as we fail to break through to creativity.  A Soprano on Her Head supplies answers and methods for overcoming these universal psychological blocks--methods that have not only been proven in her own studio, but which trace back through history to the oldest and wisest systems of understanding the integration of mind and body. The work bears scrutiny both scientifically and holistically.

The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self by William Westney 

In this groundbreaking book, prize-winning pianist and noted educator William Westney helps readers rediscover their own path to the natural, transcendent fulfillment of making music. Teachers, professionals and students of any instrument, as well as parents and music lovers of all ages, will benefit from his unique and inspiring philosophy, expressed with clarity and immediacy. Award-winning author, William Westney, offers healthy alternatives for lifelong learning and suggests significant change in the way music is taught. For example, playing a wrong note can be constructive, useful, even enlightening. The energetic creator of the acclaimed Un-Master Class workshop also explores the special potential of group work, outlining the basics of his revelatory workshop that has transformed the music experience for participants the world over.

Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within by Kenny Werner.  

This is a book for any musician who finds themselves having reached a plateau in their development. Werner, a masterful jazz pianist in his own right, uses his own life story and experiences to explore the barriers to creativity and mastery of music, and in the 
process reveals that "Mastery is available to everyone," providing practical, detailed ways to move towards greater confidence and proficiency in any endeavor. While Werner is a musician, the concepts presented are for every profession or life-style where there is a need for free-flowing, effortless thinking. Book also includes an audio CD of meditations narrated by Kenny to help the musician reach a place of relaxed focus.

All of these books are available on

Monday, July 1, 2019

In the Worst of Times: Playing the Piano When Your Life Falls Apart

There are times when the sun is shining, the house is empty, the piano beckons, and music pours out of the fingers like breathing.  This article isn’t about those times.  This is about practicing through days when the diagnosis just got worse, when the divorce papers arrived, when a loved one slides further and further into illness—physical or mental.  In other words, this is about practicing the piano when life is falling apart.  

It’s ironic that the times we need the solace of music the most are frequently the times we find it most difficult to drag ourselves to the piano bench and play. The struggle isn’t theoretical.  One pianist friend of mine is battling pancreatic cancer.  Another just endured a messy, nightmare-inducing divorce.  In my own life, I’m watching helplessly as a close family member is succumbing to several forms of mental illness, the most serious of which is dementia.  I know from experience that placing my hands on the keys is only the beginning of the battle; the bigger struggle is learning how to hang on to the lifeline of the notes in the middle of an emotional hurricane.  

Here are some ways I’ve found solace at the piano on dark days.  

Acknowledge that things have changed and set new goals.  Major life upheavals change us  What may have seemed like a good goal in the past may not be the best plan when life is unpredictable.  It’s time to ease up.  If there’s no energy to pursue certain ambitious plans, postpone them.  Most of us don’t do our best playing when our attention and energy is drained.  Relax.  Let it go.  Use practice time to nourish and sooth rather than push toward a big goal. Set a new goal—one made with gentleness and flexibility.  For example, my friend who has cancer is planning to play for a couple of events this summer.  Both are low pressure situations.  She is performing repertoire that she loves and knows well.  Goals give immediate motivation.  They give hope.  Even if the goal is to play the piece for a friend, it’s a glimmer of light in what can feel like hopeless darkness.  

Play music that speaks to you right now.  I love playing tangos.  I was planning to record a fistful of them.  And then a few months ago, my loved one fell apart.  I soon learned that no matter how much I tried to discipline myself to stick with my beloved tangos, they were no longer speaking to me.  I’m now  playing music that pulls me out of the emotional storm and brings me gently back home to myself.  How do I know which pieces are right for me during this time?  When I’m done practicing them (regardless of how badly the practice time went) I walk away from the piano feeling rinsed of darkness and grounded in something bigger than myself.  

Chase beauty.  Whether it’s the perfection of a musical phrase, the feel of the keys under fingers, the way the light spills across the piano, or even the sound of birds outside the widow, beauty is healing and it is everywhere.  When we’re happy and relaxed, it comes to us.  When we’re grieving or struggling, sometimes we need to stop, breathe, and look for it.  Finding these moments of beauty reminds us there’s hope--a whole world of it!--outside the maelstrom of our own thoughts.  

Be gentle. Get enough sleep and exercise.  Eat nourishing, healthy foods.  Slow down however and wherever possible.  While at the piano, appreciate every little bit of progress. Screw up (at the piano or in life)? Forgive yourself and move on.  Anger and frustration reach a boiling point (again, at the piano or in life)? Feel it, and let it go.  Tragedy usually causes people to respond by choosing one of two things:  bitterness or compassion.  It’s up to us to choose compassion—especially during the times when we feel least compassionate.  

Finding a path through the unthinkable is a deeply personal journey--one without a map or a guide.  Some days are better than others.  But time is teaching me this: all days are made infinitely richer by the piano—a “friend” who absorbs pain, sings with joy, and ultimately reconnects us with hope and with the center of ourselves. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

This is why Hanon exercises are a waste of time: an article for Pianist Magazine

A Scott Pender Tango. NOT a Hanon exercise!

If you want to start an argument between mild-mannered piano teachers, weigh in on the question of Hanon technical exercises. Well, I never shy away from a good fight. I put it out there in an article for Pianist Magazine. Let the squabble begin!!

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Dao, the Universe, and Everything: an Interview With Andrew Eales of Pianodao

"The philosophy of Daoism permeates my professional as well as my personal life, because it permeates me. Anything we deeply believe is bound to affect the whole way we live, work, behave, teach, treat others … and this is one of the big themes of the Pianodao blog." --Andrew Eales

There was once a time when the life of the spirit was as much or more a part of any musical conversation as the mechanics of notes, timing, and correct interpretation.  Today, unless a musician is performing an explicitly spiritual work, this core component of music is no longer mentioned.  But the life of the spirit is exactly what we need to be cultivating and discussing in this era of increased mechanization and dehumanization.

I've followed Andrew Eales' blog Pianodao for years.  I read it for the practical teaching advice, his in-depth reviews of piano literature, and his insights on teaching and playing.  But most of all I followed it because everything Eales writes is grounded in a deeply-lived philosophy of Daoism--a perspective on music that cuts through the clutter and goes straight to the core of spirit and meaning.

Here, in his own words, Andrew Eales' thoughts on piano, the Dao, and life.

  1. You’ve created a successful and varied career as a pianist, piano instructor, composer, writer, and creator of the internationally known blog, Pianodao ( What encouraged you to pursue all these paths, and how to they complement each other? 
The simple answer is that I have a wide range of interests and a broad musical taste, and over the course of my career I’ve given myself permission to follow several different directions. There’s been a price to pay, though, and with this range of activities I’ve probably disqualified myself from being a specialist in any sense!
The common denominators are teaching and writing. Over the years, I have always taught more than 60 regular students. And whether publishing my electronic keyboard tutor books in the 1990’s, writing articles for magazines, or contributing to books, writing has always been an important strand of what I do as well.
These experiences and activities have all complemented each other by giving me much more knowledge, understanding and breadth as a teacher and mentor.
  1. I discovered your blog years ago and have long been intrigued by its name. What prompted you to choose it, and how does that philosophy permeate all aspects of your professional life? 
Interesting question – and thanks for reading the blog! 

When I was in my 30’s, I entered a phase in my life where I found that my beliefs and philosophical outlook weren’t fit for purpose. Among other things, I found that I couldn’t simply divide everyone into “goodies and baddies”. It seems odd with hindsight, but prior to that time I had generally been encouraged to see the world in very “black and white” terms, “us and them”. And over the course of a few years, that completely changed. 

A big part of this was learning about Daoism (also spelt Taoism), the ancient wisdom of the Chinese which underpins everything from their traditional medicine to martial arts, and from calligraphy to cooking. At the heart of it, there’s an emphasis on finding and restoring balance. This became a subject of fascination to me and led to the transformation of my inner world.

The philosophy of Daoism permeates my professional as well as my personal life, because it permeates me. Anything we deeply believe is bound to affect the whole way we live, work, behave, teach, treat others … and this is one of the big themes of the Pianodao blog. 

Hence the name of the site, which means literally “The Way of Piano”.

A few months ago, I received an email from Deng Ming-Dao, one of the greatest and best-known Daoist teachers and writers in the world today. He had discovered and spent time exploring the Pianodao site, apparently with great interest. I can’t tell you how encouraged I was by his observations and enthusiasm for what I am trying to do on the site, especially with Piano Qigong.
  1. Tell me about “Piano Qigong.” What is it, and how has it helped you and your students become better pianists? 
“Qigong” – or “Chi Gung” – is an ancient and evolving system of self-cultivation, meditation and energy enhancing exercise which coordinates stillness, movement, breath and inner concentration. When I started practising qigong a few years ago, I quickly noticed significant improvements in my piano playing. Among other things, Qigong focuses on developing good posture, efficient and smooth movement, the release of tension, awareness of breathing and mind-body connection – all of which are vital for pianists.
Basic Qigong includes stretching and breathing exercises that are hugely helpful for piano playing, and this is what I have hoped to share through the “Piano Qigong” resource on the Pianodao website. Although it’s early days. 

With my own students, I’ve tended to use some of these exercises in a targeted, prescribed way. For example, on the Pianodao website there’s a post explaining a movement called “Open and Commence”. I’ve used this with many students, and there have been times where they and I have together been astonished by the immediate transformation of their playing. After a few minutes practising the movement, they have returned to the piano and, quite apart from having new physical ease, they have played with a transformed tone quality and sense of phrasing. It’s thrilling, in fact!

But it’s difficult communicating Qigong exercises over the web, and this is one reason I have been slow in sharing more. Qigong has always depended on teaching by transmission, and ultimately people need to try it with an experienced teacher to discover the full benefits.
  1. In addition to the teaching compositions you’ve written, you have released a recording of your solo piano improvisations on Sound Cloud. How important do you think it is to teach students to improvise and compose?
It’s said that Bartók (who is a musical idol of mine) generally refused to teach composition, limiting his educational role to teaching piano. I find this interesting. How does one teach composition? I was taught techniques, but that’s not the same thing.
I think it’s a music teacher’s job to teach musical language and encourage their students to use it. That definitely includes improvisation and composing, as well as interpreting the music of others – which in my view has equal value as a creative act. 
And every musician must find their path, with the teacher’s sympathetic help and encouragement.
  1. What projects are you most excited about right now? 
The big masterplan is to retire! I’ve always wanted to work my way out of a job. But I think there’s another full chapter to be written in terms of my professional career before I can do that. It’s going to be interesting to see where the story leads over the next ten years or so! I have a lot of interests yet to explore… 
I love it that the great Chinese sage Lao-tzu is chiefly remembered for retiring. We don’t know much about his life, except that he was a court adviser who decided one day he had had enough of the intrigues and competing in public life. So, he walked away, retired. His philosophical masterpiece was written at the door, just as he was on his way out! It’s definitely the best “I Quit!” letter ever written, and two-and-a-half millennia later it’s one of the five most translated books in the world.
I believe we all have to keep in mind that the door is there and be ready, be alert to our appropriate moment to exit. What happens next isn’t up to us, and that’s okay. I especially admire those who properly retire, and then let go. Nobody should spend their whole life working.
  1. What advice would you offer to young pianists who are building their careers in music? 
Well first of all don’t unless you absolutely must! 

Beyond that I think the most important thing was brilliantly summed up in one of your own recent blog posts, The Importance of Creating a Life, Not just a Career. In fact I think that’s a good summation of the core message I’ve learnt from studying the Daoist classics: we need to find and restore balance in who we are and in all we do.

Andrew Eales is a pianist, teacher and writer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs his independent music education business and creative outlet Keyquest Music.  He is a published composer and author.
Andrew has been at the forefront of piano teaching for more than two decades, working on a number of projects which have helped to shape and improve musical education in the UK and beyond.
He played a key role as a member of the National Steering Committee for the A Common Approach 2002 instrumental curriculum, adopted by Music Services and schools across the UK. He also helped create the ABRSM Music Medals, and composed several of the original pieces and arrangements published in the five Keyboards Together books.
Andrew has contributed to several publications as a writer, composer and adviser. His four Keyquest tuition books for electronic keyboard have sold more than 10,000 copies worldwide.
On SoundCloud, his original compositions and piano recordings have received approaching a million listens.
Andrew has spoken at national conferences and local events throughout the UK, as well as in Africa and the USA. He has been a guest tutor for the Piano Teachers’ Course UK, and a member of the ABRSM Professional Development Mentor panel.
Recent projects include:
  • contributing to the ABRSM Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces 2019-20
  • composing several pieces for the best-selling Piano Star books
  • composing original piano pieces to the Mosaic series
  • and consulting for the new LCM Piano Syllabus.
Andrew established Piano Network UK in 2014, an active online community which has grown around 3,000 members, including amateur and professional classical performers, jazz artists, teachers and music industry leaders.

Through the Pianodao website, Andrew continues to freely offer his professional expertise, wisdom and experience to pianists and teachers around the world.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Importance of Creating a Life, Not Just a Career

“One must play the right notes at the right time.  But if forced to choose between the right notes absent of character or some wrong notes for the right cause, the choice is clear.  Certain great artists can never play perfectly.  Perfection is too mundane, brittle, uptight for those who make music the way God makes trees.”  Russel Sherman, Piano Pieces

The world is shrill and just getting shriller.  Listening to any news broadcast or scrolling through social media is an exercise in cacophonous opinions, individual truths, and self-righteous pronouncements.  Posturing and badgering has all but replaced civil discourse.  We are, to paraphrase Pema Chödrön, wasting our gift of speech expressing our neurosis.

If ever we needed the oasis of sanity-saving music, it’s today.  We need artists who remind us that current events don’t define all of life, and that humans are more than animated pieces of meat.  We need music that speaks to the spirit—music that goes deeper than fad, flash, trends, and flamboyance.  We need those artists who do nothing short of getting their egos out of the way and letting the beauty and richness of music and life pour through them through the notes.  These gifted musicians are ones who understand that in order to be a great artist, one must be a full human being.

One of the dangers of intense piano training is the threat of becoming a technical wizard with absolutely nothing to say.  It’s easy to condemn the sort of flashy, depth-free performance that dazzles but doesn’t enlighten.  What’s harder to see is how a life that centers around nothing but practicing leads to these empty, meaningless performances.

A meaningful life is a rich one.  The artist who embraces life is curious, falls in love, pursues interests outside of music, and is spiritually and intellectually alive.  Artists committed to building a life, not just a career, know that everything they cultivate in the rest of their lives eventually finds its way to the piano.  Nothing is wasted.  Through the prism of their own rich lives, the great pianists touch our lives not because they play notes faster than anyone else, but because through their humanity and the humanity of the composer, they remind us that we’re not alone.  Others have felt what we’ve felt.

Sweeping pronouncements don’t create a well-rounded pianist.  Like practicing, this sort of richness is built bit by bit, through the ordinary stuff that makes up real life.  Most importantly, it involves engaging with life, not avoiding it.  Truly great artists have learned that all great musical insight comes directly from messy/beautiful life because like religion or sex, there are no borrowed musical experiences or insights.  They know if it isn’t real for them, it won’t be real for their audience.

Living like this takes a daunting amount of self-awareness.  It involves knowing when to speak and when to keep silent; knowing what to play and what to avoid.  At its center, it’s a commitment to the sacred task of speaking truths in a language deeper than words.  Any falsehood that springs from ego has been stripped away, leaving just the heart of inevitable grace and humanity.  

So what does this mean for ourselves and our students? In order to be true artists with something meaningful to say, we must be as committed to “getting a life” as we are to practicing the piano.  It means we walk out of the practice room and into the color and bustle of the rest of life.  We read non-musical things, commit to an exercise program, take up non-musical hobbies, travel, fall in love—in other words, grow roots deeply into our own lives so that the nutrients we find there can flower in the music we’re called to play. And then, if we’re lucky, we “make music the way God makes trees.”

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Who's Afraid of Living Composers? The Joys of Playing New Music

Imagine being the first person to bring life to the notes of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.  In your hands you hold the map of a new sound world--one that you get to birth to the world.  The music is like virgin snow--pure, clean, untouched by others' ideas of how the piece should be played.  It's just you and the notes.  You and Beethoven.

This experience, right here, is why I chose to devote much of my career to playing new music.  No Dead Guys was a tongue-in-cheek name that I first applied to a music series and now to this blog. It's not a dismissal of the masterworks of the past, but rather a decision to step outside the "holy museum" and the weight of history and create fresh paths.

It's ironic.  I, like many people, thought I "hated" contemporary classical music.  The atonal stuff I was taught to revere sent me running back to the lush melodies of the 19th century.  It wasn't until I shook off the dust of university that I discovered a smorgasbord of delicious music that begged to be played.  As a friend once said, "there aren't enough pianists to play all the music that needs to be played."

My journey out of standard repertoire began, in part, with the discovery of Yvar Mikhashoff's tango CD, Incitation to Desire.  It made my hair stand on end.  I listened to it for two weeks straight.  Then I started searching for scores.  Through this CD I discovered Chester Biscardi and Scott Pender--two of my favorite composers who's music I feature regularly on this blog.  Over the years they've both become personal friends of mine.  The title of this lushly beautiful piece by Scott Pender comes from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.  It embraces Romanticism and places it firmly in the 21st century--proof that contemporary classical music can be romantic, lyrical, intellectual and accessible.

It's time to free contemporary classical music from inaccessibility and snobbery.  It's time to find and champion well-written pieces that won't cause audiences to shut down and walk out.  It's time, in other words, to liberate it from the "shoulds" and "have-tos" and embrace music played for the sheer beauty of it.

For a copy of this Etude, visit Scott's website:

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

5 Reasons Why Pianists Should Avoid an Academic Career

Ten years ago I had a dream that woke me from a decades-long delusion.  In this dream, I was living on a very small compound--a heavily fortified, overcrowded place with too many buildings and not much open air.  I’d been told by everyone that nothing but a dangerous, post-apocalyptic world existed outside the enclosure.  I believed it, until a saw a train full of families on holiday stop outside the compound and start taking pictures of us.  I woke right after I realized I’d been trapped, Twilight Zone style, in a zoo.  Two weeks after this dream, I quit job and left academia forever.  

If you love academia, have secured a “unicorn” tenure-track gig, and have a passion for teaching, this blog isn’t for you.  If, however, you’re a musician who has faithfully “crossed your ’T’s’ and dotted your I’s” by grinding through advanced degrees, keep reading.  And if you’re a young musician considering a career in the arts, read and take notes.

True confession:  these words are the musings of a former adjunct professor—you know, the academic indentured servants who do much of the real work at any university.  That stated, I know dozens of musicians who work in academia, but only two of them haven’t found themselves bitter and creatively burned out. 

Why is it so difficult to be a creative artist within academia?  Shouldn’t tenured job security and its guaranteed salary free musicians to be more creative, not less?  After trying to find equilibrium between that “real” and the “academic” world, here are five reasons I think most musicians should commit to being entrepreneurs rather than throwing themselves into university positions.

  1. Academia is made up of, well, academics.  Most universities are self-reinforcing, insular, “snow-globe” worlds.  The focused is inward.  The creative arts require artists to look outward.  Looking outward works at cross-purposes with most university music departments because universities really only listen to and respect the viewpoints of other universities.  It’s similar to the political “bubbles” that develop in places such as Washington DC.  Artists lose touch with the outside world and in the process, lose the creative oxygen they need to keep creating beautiful music.
  2. Getting tenure is all-consuming.  This is a subset of my first point.  If a musician is lucky enough to land a tenure-track job, the next five or six years of her life will be spent playing a high-stakes and capricious popularity game.  There are papers that need to be published.  Committees to sit on.  Egos to stroke.  Egos to avoid.  Add in the worst classes and the heaviest course load, and burnout starts to set in.  Worst of all?  There’s simply no time to be creative.
  3. Academics can be petty.  I’m sure they didn’t all start this way, but after several years in the system, creative “bright lights” who arrived in any music department in any university will stop discussing things they read, places they visited, and new project ideas.  Most of them will be snarking about the professor down the hall, fighting over parking spaces, and attacking each other’s students in juries.  This problem is caused by two things: the insularity of the academic world and the fact that there just isn’t enough perceived power to go around.  
  4. Academia requires uncomfortable compromises.  I read that there once was a time that academia was a protector of free speech.  Sadly, this is no longer the case—at least not in American universities.  There’s an expected ethos that each school expects its professors to follow.  If you’d doubt me, try being a Trump supporter on a public university campus, or an Obama supporter at an Evangelical school.  And while it’s one thing to avoid talking about politics, it’s another to compromise an artistic vision if it runs contrary to your employer’s viewpoints.
  5. Academia lets musicians stop playing.  This, by far, is the most dangerous thing about working in a university music department—they’re full of people who at one point had impressive performing or composing credentials but are now content to sit back and rest on past accomplishments.  Creativity dies in places like this because a pianist’s creativity is stifled if not voiced through the notes we play.

The best place for an artist is the middle of a rich, juicy, real life.  We need the interaction with the rest of society because without it, the music we play becomes empty and lifeless.  And yes, that means sacrificing the perceived safety of a full-time job and embracing the joys and challenges of being an entrepreneur.  Thankfully there are many examples, from Charles Ives to present day, of musicians who have found creative and unique ways to balance their material needs and their artistic dreams.  They’re the ones I turn to when I’m looking for inspiration on how to balance my own careers.  I walked away from the academic zoo ten years ago.  It continues to be one of the best decisions of my life.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Entrepreneurial Pianist: 7 Things to Consider When Planning a Career in the Arts

Years ago a piano student asked me what he could do professionally with a degree in music.  I told him he could become a wine maker. 

After I elicited a startled laugh from him, I went on to tell him the truth of being a freelance musician: we get paid to do what we love, but no one is going to create the job for us. We have to create it for ourselves from the gifts and resources we’ve been given and from the circumstances of ability, location, age, and life responsibilities.  We have to become experts at creating multiple income streams.  We have to become savvy self-promoters. We have to accept that nothing—not even the biggest dream—comes without a price.

Unfortunately, while most music programs do a great job preparing us to play our instruments, they give us little or no guidance on how to get people to pay us to make music.  We have to figure that all out ourselves, drawing on our own personal abilities and determination.  Some talented and lucky few will have paths paved for them.  This advice is for the rest of us.  

Assess the music industry.  To paraphrase an old advertisement, this isn’t your grandfather’s music industry.  Neither is it your father’s.  I know musicians in their 60s remember a time of plentiful live music gigs, a large network of arts councils who sponsored concerts, recording contracts that paid artists real money, free-flowing grant money, and university career paths that didn’t end in dead-end adjunct servitude.  That world disappeared years ago.  Throw out that old “play book”, erase any hint of nostalgia from your mind, and get to know what’s happening today.  Be aware that the music industry changes as quickly as the rest of society—in other words, make it part of your job to keep up with these changes.  Knowing what is or isn’t viable in today’s marketplace will save you many hours of fruitless effort, not to mention a lot of money. 

Assess yourself.  Soberly and honestly asses your strengths, weaknesses, interests, and abilities.  Don’t lie to yourself.  Don’t pretend.  Make a list of everything you do well.  Make a list of things you don’t do well, or things that don’t interest you.  Decide if you need more training or guidance in a few areas.  Then, through the lens of what you learned about the music industry, begin to hone your options.  My particular strengths led me toward writing, collaborative playing, and teaching.  My weaknesses kept me away from jazz and pop gigs, as well as composition.  Your list needs to be personal to you.  

Assess your community.  Now that you’re aware of the music industry and your place in it, it’s time to look at the resources in your community.  Are there organizations or groups you can join to promote yourself? What performance opportunities exist?  Are there places where you can create concert opportunities for yourself and other musicians?  If you’re planning to teach, research school districts and neighborhoods before you open your studio.  But even while you’re establishing yourself in your own city, don’t forget that thanks to the internet, your community extends far beyond the borders of wherever you live.  You live in your city; you work in the world.  There are musicians everywhere who are creative and innovative “powerhouses.”  Study them, learn from them, and use these good ideas to strengthen your own career.  

Embrace social media.  For all its bad press right now, social media is one of the best effective ways to market yourself, connect with other musicians, learn about the industry, and be alert to all the latest ideas.  In today’s musical world, if you can’t be found on the internet and on social media, you’re effectively invisible.  There’s no need to sign up for all options—just pick one or two commit to it for a certain amount of time each day.  For an excellent break-down of options, I recommend reading this article by Frances Wilson:  Although written in 2015, Wilson’s points on how classical musicians can benefit from social media remain timeless.  

Have a web presence.  There’s no need to invest in an expensive website—a simple, clean, easy-to-navigate one will do.  And no, a Facebook fan page isn’t enough (although it’s great to have both and to link them to each other).  People who want to pay you for your expertise need to know that you’re a legitimate artist and business person.  It’s almost impossible to do this without a website.  

Whether you design your own or hire someone to do it for you, choose a clean and simple design over anything gimmicky and/or hard to read and navigate.  Make sure everything on your site is cleanly written, professional, and lets visitors know exactly who you are, what you do, what you’re selling, and how to reach you.  For those wishing to build their own, I recommend reading this article in PC Magazine  Important note: if you’re not a writer or if you have no desire to try building your own site, invest in professionals to help you.

Develop a “portfolio career”. Call it a “portfolio career.”  Call it multiple income streams.  I call it job security.  Let me explain: if I work a conventional job, only one person has to fire me before I don’t make an income.  If I work for myself and I have multiple sources of income, many more people have to fire me before I can’t pay my bills.  The trick to making this work involves two things—knowing what people will pay you to do, and having a great deal of personal discipline.

Any self-employed person understands that being great at something isn’t a guarantee of making a living.  Surviving and thriving as a musician means finding the magical intersection between what you’re good at doing and what other people are willing to pay you to do.  Look carefully at your list of abilities and interests.  Now look at what you’ve discovered about your community and about the music industry.  Where do these two things meet?

One of the most inspiring “portfolio” musicians I know is composer and pianist Dr. Joel Pierson.  After he received his doctorate in composition, he grew disillusioned with the idea of teaching in universities and pursued his own path.  Today he teaches piano lessons, authored the infamously hilarious You Suck at Piano teaching method books, and is creator, band lead, and composer for The Queen’s Cartoonists—a jazz band that’s now represented by CAMI and tours all over the country.  Oh, and he continues to compose some pretty amazing contemporary classical music as well.

Never stop learning or innovating. The most dangerous thing a musician can do is become frozen in time.  What’s relevant today is outdated tomorrow.  Leading musicians everywhere are blurring the lines between classical and pop and music and activism.  They’re reimagining concert spaces and recordings, and are keeping classical music alive for future generations.  They’re doing this by embracing change, not by resisting it.  We need to commit to doing the same thing because if we don’t, we’re dooming ourselves to extinction.  

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Stuff" Happens: 5 Tips for Surviving (and Recovering From) a Bad Performance

No one likes those "Oh, -----!!" moments that can happen on stage, and most performers have one or two horror stories about very public mistakes.  This article, written for Pianist Magazine, offers 5 tips for bouncing back from a bad performance--because it isn't that professional pianists never make mistakes on stage, we just know how to learn from them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Waco Variations, One Year Later: What I've Learned

A year ago I watched my novel, The Waco Variations, leave the safety of anonymity and set sail on the sea of public opinion.  The launch was a long time coming—since finishing the novel it had gone through several years of edits, a couple of years of seeking an agent, and another couple of years of waiting as the agent attempted to find it a publishing house.  Yet even with so much time between writing it and releasing it, letting go of this book was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

Being a performing musician helped a bit.  I play concerts.  I’ve released CDs.  I’ve learned to work through the crippling self-doubt that comes from having my work judged by other people.  That was why my seesawing emotions surprised me.  Many meditation sessions (and a whole lot of journal entries) later, I realized what terrified me the most:  I wasn’t afraid of failing myself.  I was afraid of failing Cassie, the book’s protagonist.  After all, I hadn’t even wanted to write the story and it was only because I felt Cassie’s insistence that I birthed her story, went through all the steps of editing it, and eventually took a risk and released it.  

A year later, I’m glad I did.  Because of this book, I’ve met, communicated with, and become friends with people all over the world.  I’ve found an online home in the music blogging community—a community I’d been reading for years but hadn’t had the nerve to approach until I needed to market my book.  Not only did they provide opportunities to guest post about The Waco Variations, they wrote reviews and have generously promoted it to their readers.  

This past year taught me that the readers who “get” the book belong to one (or more) of these groups:  musicians, former fundamentalists, and people who have suffered trauma.  The deeply personal conversations I’ve had with readers have been humbling and inspiring.  The phrase I’ve heard most often?  “I thought [experienced, lived] this very thing and I thought I was the only one.”

I’ve also learned who doesn’t like my book--generally people who can’t relate to Cassie or her story.  Through those reviews I’ve learned that I can take a punch, get up, and keep going.  

I’ve learned some unsavory things about myself this year:  I thought I could be sangfroid when sales slumped.  I panicked.  Immediately.  And it took me days to work out of that pit.    Another unpleasant truth?  I discovered an internal reservoir of anger toward friends who promised to buy the book and then didn’t—friends who’s CDs or books I dutifully purchased and concerts I attended and promoted.  It took me a month to work through those feelings of betrayal and to realize that my expectations, not their behavior, were wrong.  

Despite ups and downs (and the fact that's it's a "literary novel"--a category that would be better described as "Literary Graveyard"...), the book has been selling fairly well.  Readers ask me if I’ll write another novel.  I tell them, only if I’m compelled to.  Despite having written a couple of teen romances in my early 20s, I consider myself more of a nonfiction writer than a novelist.  But this novel was a story I needed to tell.  Perhaps it is as Ted Hughes once said, that writing is about facing up to what we were too scared to face—about saying what we would prefer not to say, but desperately needed to share.  

At this one-year mark, I am so grateful to the readers who read Cassie’s story, loved it, and took the time to reach out to me.  I’m grateful to those who have chosen to review and champion in.  Most of all, I’m grateful that through my imperfect yet earnest way, The Waco Variations is out there reminding people that healing can occur and the through the notes of great music we can touch grace.