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.