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