Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Summer Update from "Flyover Country"

(In Time's Unfolding: A beautiful piece by Wisconsin-born composer Chester Biscardi)

“You moved to WisCONsin?” 

This question—like so many others like it—was delivered with a snarl through a curled lip.  Ironically the speaker asked it in the middle of a city that is currently experiencing a homeless epidemic, spiraling housing costs, regular demonstrations and riots, and all manner of urban blight problems.  I’d be more surprised at the speaker’s vitriol except that her words echoed so many other comments that others have made to me since I moved here last January.  

It seems my decision to be happy in the Midwest is not a believable one.  The surprising thing is that so few people on the coasts know anything about the area they dismiss as “backward,” “ignorant,” and “flyover country.”  It has turned me into something of a self-appointed ambassador for all things Wisconsin because this area is so much more than “cheese curds and ice fishing.”  

This is Wisconsin: in early August 220 bands from all over the country arrived in Appleton for Mile of Music—a four-day music extravaganza.  Downtown businesses, street corners, parks, and even busses were turned into performance spaces and the city was awash in music.  Staffed by volunteers, the 700+ performances ran from noon to midnight and were free to the public.  100,000 people showed up for this enormous block party—people of all ages.  Not one person was arrested for drunken or disorderly conduct, despite the bars opening at noon each day.  There was no trash on the ground.  There were no fights or arguments in crowded venues. 

This is summer in Wisconsin:  It’s tidy gardens and multi-generational families at the Friday night fish fry.  It’s trips to Door County and cabins “up North.”  It’s live music and bottomless “Old Fashionends”. It’s saying hello to people on the sidewalk and getting outside every time the weather allows.   It’s “pizza farms” (it’s a thing; look it up).  Dining al fresco.  Thunderstorms.  Balmy days.  Muggy days.  Farmer’s markets.  Sweet corn.  Tomatoes bursting with life.  Cookouts. It’s family reunions, fishing, and boating.  It’s baseball games and tailgating.  It’s living fully because in this part of the world you know these summer days are limited and the cold will come again. People do stuff here. 

Is it the strong middle class that keeps this place so livable?  This is a “can-do” part of the world.  A recent study of the Fox Valley (a region that has about a million people) turned up thirty-two homeless people.  Instead of forming task forces to “study the problem” the city organizations found housing for these people, and they’re in the process of putting up 100 new houses and several new apartment buildings—all for low income housing.  People are proud of their community and it shows in a high level of civvic involvement and in the way they maintain their homes and businesses.  They don’t talk about it; they do it.  

The people here possess a refreshing lack of hubris.  Wisconsin is home to household-name international companies (Kohler, Menard’s, Kimberly-Clark, Sentry Insurance, American Family Insurance—just to name a few) but the locals don’t brag about it.  They also don’t mention that Neenah, WI (a neighboring town to Appleton) once boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country.  When I rave about all the live music, the friendliness of the people, the cheese, the beauty of the farmland, and the sheer livability of the place, they don’t understand why it’s special. They don't know that it’s rare to see multi-generations socializing together, or to be able to walk home late at night without fear, or to be in a place where courtesy is the rule, not the exception.

I recently had a conversation with a woman who moved to Appleton from Sacramento, CA.  After the two of us compared all the reasons why we like it better here than on the west coast, she summed up what both of us were saying with her phrase, “I live bigger here.”  

It’s a phrase I’ve adopted as my own.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Beyond Burnout: Recovery Tips for the Classical Pianist

Entering the music profession is an act of love, not logic.  Logic tells us that we’d be much wiser pursuing work in more stable fields where jobs are plentiful and remuneration guaranteed.  Still, many of us choose music because we can’t imagine spending our days doing anything else.  We expect that we’ll love it forever, and few resources exist to help us cope when we burn out on what we used to treasure.

I went through severe burnout twenty years ago.  That was when I quit music forever.  Well, forever lasted about a year and a half before I was lured back to the piano.  While I’d like to report that my break from music was spent peacefully tending a flower garden and writing sensitive thoughts in a decorative journal (with a comforting cup of tea nearby), the reality was much less attractive.  I worked for a temporary agency to pay my bills.  I tried to figure out who I was apart from the piano.  Like many instrumentalists, my identity since childhood was tied up in being Rhonda-the-Pianist.  Suddenly I was in my early thirties and had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  It was one of the most painful yet rewarding times of my life.  When I did return to music, playing the piano was what I did, not who I was.  That enabled me to keep a healthier balance in my life and to recognize times when burnout threatened to strike again.  

Burnout is rarely spoken about in the classical music world.  Since we’re supposed to love what we do, we dare not admit there are days when the thought of another gig or that full teaching day fills us with dread.  I was surprised when the responses to my recent blog post (Pianists and the Art of the Graceful Exit) uncovered so many tales of burnout, along with some excellent ideas on how to cope with it.  I’ve included those suggestions in this blog. 

Take a break.  This is an obvious solution to burnout, although it can be a complicated one to implement.  Many wouldn’t choose to do what I did and do menial office work just to make ends meet.  There are still ways to get time off without completely walking away.  Can you take a few weeks off in the summer?  How about a month?  Can you consolidate your teaching schedule to four days a week?  How about giving yourself a raise?  Or teaching some group lessons?  At the very least, carve out one day a week that you don’t do anything musical. 

Find the “energy vampires” in your schedule and eradicate them.  How much time do you spend each day in correspondence?  Can you schedule a bit of time in the morning and a bit in the afternoon?  Are there gigs you can walk away from that pay too little for the hassle involved?  Most studios operate on the old 80/20 rule—20% of your studio will cause 80% of your headaches.  Is it possible to drop one or two of the problem students and focus on the ones who are a joy to teach?

Examine your personal life.  This requires some introspection and a hard look at how many demands are being placed on you by others in your life—spouses, children, aging parents, neighborhood associations, etc.  Is it possible to get help in some areas and possibly quit other things?  Are you needlessly contributing to your own busyness because you feel no one else can do what you do?  Maybe it’s time to risk other people’s irritation and frustration to save yourself.  

Be your own caretaker. Many of my readers offered these excellent suggestions: Meditate.  Commit to exercising every day.  Daoism. Qi Gong.  Yoga.  Learning new repertoire just for yourself.  I’d like to add, learn how to say “no.”  Cultivate your friendships—inside and outside of music.  Watch your diet—caffeine, alcohol, sugar, fatty foods all feel good in the moment but eventually contribute to exhaustion.  

Distance yourself from toxic individuals.  I’ve learned (the hard way!) to never underestimate how draining and demoralizing some people can be.  I’ve been in teaching and playing groups that are nurturing and supportive, and I’ve been in groups so caustic and competitive that they nearly drove me out of the music profession.  Choose your friends and colleagues carefully.  If the toxic individual in your life is someone with whom you must associate (family member, work colleague, etc.), set firm boundaries and stick to them.  The other part of this equation?  Create your own informal support group—people who can be counted on to support and encourage you, not tear you down.  Nurture these relationships by making time for them.  

Ultimately, moving beyond burnout means falling in love with music all over again.  My own return to the piano happened slowly and was accompanied by a bone-deep conviction that music is more about fertile earth, heart-to-heart talks with friends, and cooking spaghetti than marble halls and the monolith of perfection.  Soul music is about playing Clair de lune at a friend’s funeral, watching a great-grandmother dance to New York, New York, and seeing a student’s eyes light up when she can play Für Elise.  It’s about going to the piano every day and becoming a beginner over and over again while always waiting for glimpse of the reality behind the notes.  Simply put, it’s about recapturing wonder.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Pianists and the Art of a Graceful Exit

“There’s a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over -- and to let go. It means leaving what's over without denying its value.”  —Ellen Goodman

“I want to quit before someone tells me, ‘you were great once, but not any longer’," my father always said.  A science and mathematics teacher for most of his career, he followed his own advice. When I asked him how he came to his decision, he replied, "I could feel myself slipping, and it wasn’t fair to the students.”

In an era where people are praised and encouraged to keep working indefinitely, it’s painful to talk about the inevitable loss of ability that comes with age.  When rock stars are still touring in their 70s and some elderly classical pianists are powerful performers, we expect to do the same in our “golden years.”   It’s hard to admit that those older phenoms are the exception, not the rule.  Sadly, no matter how good we are in our prime we will see our skills and abilities decline.  This is especially painful for musicians—our art isn’t just what we do, it’s (in many ways) who we are.  Even those who have a life and identity outside of their art find this a hard transition.  It’s disastrous for those with no sense of self beyond their careers.

Most of us have had the painful experience of watching or listening to a once-great performer who refused to leave the stage before her abilities did.  We’ve sat through masterclasses taught by teachers who are no longer capable of sharing ideas in a coherent way.  We’ve seen some turn bitter and attack younger musicians.  We’ve watched some fall into depression. In a particularly horrifying example, I've watched someone lose all interest in living when her career ended.

Big life transitions are painful.  They don’t happen without a lot of self-reflection and preparation—both emotional and practical.  The biggest question we all have to answer is what to do with the piano-shaped hole in our days when we stop performing or teaching.   Even more importantly, how will we express ourselves when we step back from what has been our creative voice for most of our lives? If this is difficult for someone like myself with modest talents and accomplishments, I can't begin to fathom how disorienting it is for those who have ascended to the top of the pianistic pantheon.  Exiting the profession forces us to acknowledge that we can and will be replaced.  It causes us to stare into the abyss of irrelevance and invisibility.  It is--in short--terrifying.  

When facing these hard questions it helps to look at what we can do rather than what we can no longer do.  One singer I know turned to composing when his voice “went” and his singing career slowed down.  Several pianist friends have created workshops for adult students.  The example of my older friends have helped me start planning for my own transition out of music—a shift that has already started to take place due to my decision to leave teaching and most gig work to pursue my writing career.  This change allowed me to rethink my self-identity. I continue to fill my days with creative and meaningful things outside of music and this is teaching me that new creative outlets can replace the old.  But that's on the good days.  On bad days I just feel directionless and a little lost.

Change is inevitable.  We all have to exit our careers at some point.  The question is, will we do so gracefully?  Will we choose  our exit and plan for it, or will we be forced into it in the most painful way possible?  It’s up to us to decide if our final decades will be spent nursing bitterness or living a rich life pursuing new ways to live creatively and passionately.     

Saturday, July 27, 2019

PianoDao Review of The Waco Variations

The biggest gift a writer can receive is a reader who who truly understands her writing--on multiple levels.  Andrew Eales of the internationally read PianoDao website has given me such a gift.  I’m honored to share his insightful  review of my novel, The Waco Variations, here:

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 (and gave me permission to post it on my blog)--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:  https://forrestkinney.com

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 Amazon.com

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 (https://pianodao.com). 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:  http://www.scottpender.net

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.