The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide

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The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide
by Anthony Williams
Available from Amazon

At times in life we meet a person or read a book whose philosophy and approach change and challenge our way of thinking.  Anthony Williams dedicates his newly published book, The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide to Alexander Kelly, his teacher, mentor and friend describing the influence he had on his life and playing and now offers his own insights, musical philosophy and passion for piano teaching for the music world to scrutinise and engage with.

He has written a book out of a genuine heart-felt conviction that piano playing has for too long been straight-jacketed by the constraints of notation-driven learning styles at the expense of musical and imaginative playing. AJAW.jpg

It’s a practical book.  Williams addresses a wide range of issues that face all piano teachers and learners alike from the effective learning of foundation skills such as scales and arpeggios, sight reading and aural to athleticism at the keyboard and the art of articulation demanded by advanced repertoire.  He covers fingering, keyboard geography, posture, tone, touch and balance – in fact almost anything a piano teacher might wish to help a student with technically.   The book tackles hurdles that pupils face in thorough but not insurmountable detail and the material is presented through clinics and summary sections that make the book an easy-to-dip-into guide large enough to sit on the piano with your music but not too bulky to read at leisure.

It’s a philosophical book.  Addressing the dangers of over-thinking and performance anxiety, this book is far more than a technical manual and its psychological insights are the result of years of thoughtful reflection and analysis of what ingredients are required to produce a sound worth paying to listen to.   A musical performance (not to mention the development of a musician) cannot be achieved by technique alone and the book’s final section engages passionately with the importance of well-chosen repertoire, how to interpret different periods of composition and the need to build a relationship with the instrument and with music that speaks of more than just the ‘dots on the page’.

It’s a timely book. In an age of notation driven teaching, the book challenges standard methods generating heated discussion about the place of improvisation and of holistic learning approaches.  Williams’ passion for story-telling in his own playing and in that of children in particular will make some aware of having fallen into an uncomfortable rut but will inspire the next generation of teachers and learners to pursue physically disciplined and accurate playing but, more importantly, to become ‘motivated, involved, informed and communicative musician[s] eager to explore the next exciting piece of well chosen repertoire.’

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The Spire – William Golding


The Spire
by William Golding

Available from Amazon

William Golding’s ‘The Spire’ is the sort of book that you read at your own risk.

The book challenged my thinking, disturbed my emotions, unsettled my presuppositions, exercised my intellect, and for such a tortured book, inadvertently consoled my spirit. How many books achieve that end?

Who is not familiar with the concept of mankind’s desire to aspire to something greater than himself?  Dean Jocelin is no exception.  Believing that God has chosen him to build a spire on top of the already unstable foundations of a cathedral, he relentlessly and stubbornly pursues the insurmountable task in the face of both opposition and reason.  The spire is an architectural impossibility, being built upon an already over-weighted existing structure.  However, neither the Master Builder’s resistance nor the multiple confronting forces both around him and within deter Jocelin from what he perceives to be God’s call.  The process is deeply tortured and the Dean is comforted neither by the encouragement of his fellow men nor God Himself.

The stream of consciousness narrative is not for the faint hearted.  I don’t profess to have understood every word but Golding’s penmanship nevertheless worked its magic.

In his Nobel Lecture given in 1983, Golding himself said:

Words may, through the devotion, the skill, the passion and the luck of writers, prove to be the most powerful thing in the world’.

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There is tremendous breadth of subject matter in Golding’s novels which, according to the Nobel Foundation ‘illuminate the human condition in the world today’, ‘with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth’.  The writer’s own struggle and effort (he was haunted into adulthood by a lifelong fear of the dark) are reflected in Jocelin’s Macbeth-like overarching ambition, on one level a tremendous testimony to the force of human resolve and on another a terrifying indictment of his pride, arrogance and presumption.

Despite the passion of his vision, Jocelin is blind to the tuberculosis that is gradually claiming his life believing that the fluctuations in the physical pain he experiences are in fact a personal devil or angel at his back. He is blind to the fact that it was his aunt’s sexual influence at court that resulted in his promotion to the lofty position of Dean rather than his own merits. He is blind to the reality of Goody Pagnall’s earthy character and appetites and in denial about his own. But Jocelin is also blind to the God to whom he reaches out, seeing Him as a distant unattainable deity rather than the compassionate and loving Father brought near to us in the person of Christ – Himself the sure foundation.

 

Salad Days

Salad

You are what you eat.  Or so we are told.

Today, I want to suggest that we are what we read.

In a former life when I taught English to feral boys,  I told them that to eat a variety of nutritious foods was good for their health and to read a range of well-written books was good for their minds.   Eat junk – get spotty.  Read junk – get …flabby, mentally flabby.

My own reading this summer has not got off to a good start.  Like a good and thrifty housewife I determined to read some of the books that I’ve bought at some point but not yet read before going out to buy anything new.  Alexander McCall Smith’s ’44 Scotland Street’, the first in the series, and Lyndsey Davis’ ‘The Silver Pigs’ about a Roman detective called Falco, accompanied me on a week away near Chichester.  I didn’t spend very much time reading the Bible as often happens when away on family holidays and with little else available to read,  I chewed my way through these two books like a grumpy child who quickly realises he is not enjoying his meal but knows he must eat up or there’ll be no pudding.

My husband, on the other hand, nearing the end of a second reading of ‘Middlemarch’, has been deeply moved, wholly absorbed and stimulated to lots of Christian thought, self-reflection and engaging conversation.  I need to choose with a bit more care what I read for the remainder of the holiday.  Eating up what’s in the cupboards may be economical financially, but if it’s not good for you, throw it away.

Glancing Across Huge Plains

A Wilderness of MirrorsA Wilderness of Mirrors
Trusting Again in a Cynical World
by Mark Meynell

Available from Ten Of Those

The Bible is a book that exposes a man’s sin.  ‘A Wilderness of Mirrors’ is a book that exposes a man’s ignorance.  Or a woman’s, or let’s be honest here…mine.

This book is a tour de force of political, historical and sociological research which bravely tackles the issue of broken trust in a cynical world and presents the gospel’s answer to our deepest intellectual and emotional struggles.

Mark Meynell has a first class Oxbridge mind, so first class in fact that bears of very little brain may get lost amidst the dense forest of references, quotations and allusions.  Nevertheless, the central message about trust, broken and rebuilt, is compelling because it is honestly framed by the writer’s own personal experience – a profoundly moving section which I wished had been developed further.

If you, like Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright, wish to make ‘intellectual and explanatory sense of the world we live in’ then this book is for you.

If you want to know why a culture of suspicion has grown out of the last century and what its social consequences have been, then this book is for you.

If you want a refreshing and attractive presentation of the gospel’s solution to the human condition in its current manifestation, then this book is for you.

However, if ‘thus’ clauses or long words bother you, as they bothered Pooh Bear, then you need to be prepared to be liberally peppered and may want to read the book with a pencil in hand and a dictionary by your side.  A good dictionary.

But do read it.  Written in academically mellifluous prose, it’s an education in 200 pages which the writer self-deprecatingly describes as a ‘cursory glance across huge plains’ and which he attributes largely to the giants from whom he has learned.  He is far too modest.

Revolution and Romance

The BBC does a fantastic job bringing culture to the ordinary TV viewer,  from Mary Beard’s wacky-trainer-wearing tour of Ultimate Rome, the Empire Without Limit recently shown on BBC2 to Waldemar Januszczak’s zany tour of the art of The Dark Ages: An Age of Light on BBC4.  Their most recent offering, Revolution and Romance: Musical Masters of the 19th Century  (BBC 4 Tuesday 9pm) features Radio 3 presenter and writer Suzy Klein whose infectious enthusiasm brings this period of change in music history vibrantly alive.  The first episode (broadcast on 31st May) ‘We Can Be Heroes’ can be watched on BBC iplayer.  It’s a feast of well-written commentary, beautiful photography, quality recording and engaging analysis.

Beethoven

Ludvig van Beethoven Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Klein takes us back 200 years to the dawn of the 19th Century when musicians were no longer confined to the concert hall but ‘burst out onto the public stage’ becoming influential in both politics and revolution and earning the equivalent of one of today’s celebrity footballers.  The revolution in thinking and imagination known as Romanticism followed in the wake of the French Revolution and out of this period emerged composers like Verdi, Wagner, Rossini, Liszt, Mahler and Debussy.  The series explores the transformation that took place in the musical world during this century and how and why musicians became national heroes and remain so to this day.  In Klein’s words, ‘Music exploded into life and life exploded into music.’

The Enlightenment order and logic of 18th Century was replaced by an anti-authoritarian chaotic spirit of genius and madness.  The heroic genius of the individual.  We’re told how tens of thousands grieved at Beethoven’s funeral, how musical soirees were born inspired by the music and songs of Schubert, how the lines of art and life were blurred in the works of Berlioz and how the artist and his innermost thoughts and feelings became the focus of musical innovation. We are entertained with anecdotes about Paganini who was thought to have murdered his wife and used her intestines as violin strings; of Rossini who was immortalised in a steak, brioche and fois gras dish,  and of the strivings of Schumann to eschew celebrity whilst married to a virtuoso pianist.

Most memorable is the account of how ‘Lisztmania’ ravaged Vienna in the 1840s as women went crazy for the handsome pianist stealing his used wine glasses and cigar butts.  Klein describes the ‘insatiable public hunger’ for Liszt who was surrounded by fans whilst transported in carriages drawn by white horses.  Wanting to make his imprint on human history, however, he turned his back on celebrity and focussed on his legacy producing what Klein considers his greatest work, the futuristic and atonal Faust Symphony.

Fittingly, Episode 1 ends at the memorials of these greats which stand in Vienna’s cemetery built in 1863.  Here Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss are ‘monumentalised for eternity’ – heroes of their age.

What struck me whilst watching Klein’s documentary was the perennial tendency of mankind to misplace his worship. We are all drawn to adoration of something or someone whether or not we are aware of it.  We worship talent, looks, confidence, success, power, money and those who possess them, that is if we’re not already worshipping ourselves.  When faced with outstanding artistic or musical talent, it is tempting to succumb to envy, idolatry or even depression.  I’ve been guilty of falling into all of these pits at various times forgetting to give thanks and glory to the God who gave the gifts in the first place, who fashioned such beings in the wombs of their mothers and gave them and their gifts to us to enjoy.

This is the discipline of Christian art appreciation at its most basic level.  Engage with the work, marvel at the artistic skill and merit but then look beyond it to the One who created these artists, who never dies and whose surpassing beauty is only dimly seen and heard in their greatest compositions.  Those who attain heroic status in this world do so only for the shortest time.

‘All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall but the word of the Lord last forever.’  Isaiah 40:8

 

Blogging – One Year On

Roquesreviews reached its first anniversary last week.  On 25 May 2015 my first book review appeared and now here I am a year on, 26 posts later, reflecting on how it’s going.

26 posts doesn’t sound very impressive, does it?  That’s an average of two a month which, given that the posts are mostly book reviews, is reasonable.  Not a complete disgrace anyway.  But is anyone actually enjoying the blog?  Social Media has been my main source of  readers but to be honest, though there have been a good number of visits and views, the likes can be counted on two hands and that’s pretty dispiriting.  Is there some coffee I need to wake up and smell here?

Cup of coffee

Reluctant to quit,  I’ve been doing some research. I recently stumbled upon WordPress’ ‘Blogging Fundamentals’ course which advises posting answers to various questions whether you’re new to blogging or have been at it for a while.  Today I’m focussing on this one:

Why are you blogging publicly instead of keeping a diary?

  • Predisposition
    The main reason is that I love writing.   Secondly,  I love reading.  The third reason is that I’m a Christian and I want to serve God with these two passions.  So I review the books that have touched my heart and mind in the hope that you might read them too and be encouraged and stimulated whether you share the Christian faith or not.  I keep a diary too as it happens (and have done since the age of 11) but the diary cannot by definition be a blessing to another.   It’s private.  And I want to bless others with my writing not store it up for myself.
  • Inspiration
    I was a late starter when it comes to literature.  It wasn’t until my ‘A’ levels that I really got going and became an avid reader.  Up until then I’d existed mostly on a diet of ‘Malory Towers’ and ‘Flambards’.  Then two English teachers and a friend studying art history, in their very different ways, inspired me.  I discovered Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Iris Murdoch, Jean Rees, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster – the list goes on and on and despite a rejection from Oxford University I went on to study English at St Andrews… and read on.  I enjoyed writing about the books I was reading and have kept records ever since.
  • Conviction
    In the last couple of years I’ve been learning how the Lord can use literature (and the arts more generally) in the life of a believer to his/her own, and others’ encouragement.    Novels, music, paintings and films are not the big bad distraction from the Gospel that I’d always feared but are part of what is sometimes called ‘Common Grace’.  (I’m not talking about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ here).  What I really want to do by writing this blog is to bless others, Christian or not, by sharing my thoughts on books (and the occasional painting or other art form) and how they have helped me understand and love Jesus more.

My prayer is that you will be helped or encouraged by what you find here.  It will then all be worth while.

 

Time to ‘refresh’ your framework?

Virtually HumanVirtually Human
Flourishing in a Digital World
by Ed Brooks and Pete Nicholas

Available from Ten of Those

Can digital advancement and spiritual growth co-exist?  This, amongst others, is one of the central questions that this subtly entitled book, published in 2015 by IVP, addresses.  Ed Brooks and Pete Nicholas courageously tackle the present culture head on, engage with it, connect with its proponents and humbly confront them with the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of the gospel of Christ.  Obeying the Lord Jesus’ instruction to His disciples to be ‘in the world but not of it’ they have produced a thoroughly researched, academically weighty yet accessible read with a strong evangelistic edge.

Part One explores the nature of technology, its history and the challenges it presents to today’s users.  Part Two examines the impact technology is having on our sense of identity, our relationships and our perception of time, sex and knowledge.

The great achievement of this book is that it does what it sets out to do.

‘If we as authors do our task well, and if you are open to change, then by the end of this book you won’t see technology in quite the same way.  In fact, we hope you won’t see yourself, God or his world in quite the same way either.’  (p19)

I, for one, have had my assumptions challenged, my prejudices gently exposed, my knowledge expanded, my interest stimulated and my will inspired.  And because we all ‘live within the story of the digital age’ and therefore cannot avoid the subject, it’s a book we all need to read.

If you’re someone who feels out of your depth in this age of devices and gadgets, Virtually Human will give you an overview of the issues surrounding the subject.  If you’re a technological aficionado, it will challenge you to consider your online habits and encourage you to use technology in a way that glorifies God.  There really is something for everyone – you can’t go wrong in reading this book.

It’s also a great book to read with a friend or in a reading group owing to the thought-provoking questions at the end of each chapter that address the heart as well as the mind.  Brilliantly structured, it reads like a well-designed and user-friendly website in which the reader can find his or her way around the discussion with confidence.

The concluding chapter focuses on the Lord Jesus Christ as the most fully human being that ever lived and encourages readers to proceed in the real-time of this fast-changing digital era in accordance with, rather than against the grain of God’s design for the world.

I’d like to think that having read this book, I am now less of a ‘user’ of technology and more of a ‘reflective practitioner’ and for that I grateful to these two writers and look forward to whatever they publish next.