The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide

cf3ce4e8-79e2-44b0-9b93-609eecb15f25

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.’

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.

And So I Began To Read

And So I Began To Read
And So I Began to Read…
Books that have influenced me
by Faith Cook

Available from Ten Of Those

What are you reading at the moment?  Do you remember the title?  Can you name the author?  Occasionally, we speak about a book we are reading without being able to recall even these basic details.  Why is this?  Perhaps we read mostly for recreation while our minds ponder life’s banalities.  We all know what it is to read a whole page without having processed a single word.  Let’s be honest.  When we read like this, we know we are wasting our time.

Faith Cook is not one to waste her reading time.  Books have been a source of comfort, rebuke and delight to her since her childhood in China where reading matter was scarce and choice limited.  A missionary childhood taught her to prize books highly.  In her recently published book, And So I Began to Read, she shares with us some of the treasures that have most influenced her over the years and in so doing encourages the reader to reflect on his or her own reading experience and to pick up or dust off some forgotten titles.

One of the most interesting features of this short, readable and personal book (she is more commonly known for her work as a Christian biographer) is her account of her own spiritual relationship with reading.  In 1951, Christian missionaries were decisively thrown out of China following the Communist takeover of the country and Cook’s family moved to Malaysia sending their daughter to a boarding school in North Wales.  During these formative years of Christian growth she imbibed a legalism which forbade certain pastimes and stressed rules ‘to such an extent that even the reading of  a daily newspaper troubled [her] conscience.’  Shunning Dickens and novels altogether Cook describes how she learnt self-righteously to frown upon secular reading.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that all the works mentioned in this book are written by Christians and only one of the influential texts is a novel.

Starting in 1957 with her discovery of the work of Jonathan Edwards, Cook begins to walk and talk us through her library.

John Bunyan

“Cry to God that he would inflame thy will…with the things of the other world.” John Bunyan

On the topics of suffering and prayer Cook is nourished and comforted by Baxter, Bonar, Boston, Brooks, Bunyan, Spurgeon and Gurnall.  With a heart for those who may not want to tackle the dense wording of such writers, she helpfully suggests contemporary authors whose writing on similar themes may be more accessible to the modern reader.

Poetry, hymns and letters are also amongst the literature that sustained her over the years, Newton, Cowper and Samuel Rutherford being particular favourites.  These  ‘turned my thoughts away from my own troubles to the griefs and pain that the Saviour suffered for his people, putting my own in perspective.’    Through reading, Cook was self-medicating in her own suffering with the balm of others’ sanctified wisdom.  Books were to her ‘an unfailing source of strength and consolation’.  They accompany her like a reassuring and kindly guide as she journeys through the painful years of her husband’s reduced mental health and another move from Shepshed to Hull.

Reading presents the temptation of escapism but Cook assumes a responsible and structured approach to her reading time, aided by her husband’s rich supply of Puritan titles, in particular, Richard Baxter’s ‘The Saint’s Everlasting Rest’ which, ‘chimed with her own thinking at this time’.  As the Lord kindly provides reading matter for His pupil, she in turn diligently copies out long passages into a notebook, often memorising them by heart, embracing rather than running from the ‘quaint’ and ‘inaccessible’ language.  Her reading stirs a yearning for heaven and fires her desire to serve her Master in the ante chamber that is this life.  I wonder, does my reading do the same?

Cook describes movingly how the Lord often ministered to her ‘by means of a book’, especially in times of backsliding or luke warmth reminding us how tenderly ‘the great Shepherd of the sheep is well able to seek out any of his flock that are wandering in a wilderness.’

Samuel Rutherford

“Rutherford is beyond all praise of men.”  C.H.Spurgeon

The final section of the book describes how the author began to write.  Longing to share discovered gems with friends, she set about translating Samuel Rutherford’s seemingly impenetrable prose into more accessible rhyme, an endeavour which was enthusiastically received by the Banner of Truth Trust and launched her writing career.

Jesus tells us that we reap what we sow.  Faith Cook extends that principle to the world of reading inviting us to choose our next book wisely, with our gaze on eternity, aware that the time is short.  She teaches us, as Bunyan taught her, to see life as ‘a pilgrimage from this world of sin and suffering to the Celestial City.’  I am left asking myself whether my reading choices encourage or detract from this view.

 

A Mind for God – James Emery White

A Mind for God
A Mind for God
by James Emery White

Available at Amazon

You don’t have to be a scholar to be interested in the life of the mind.  In fact, if you’re a Christian, it’s important that you are.  According to the apostle Paul, the believer, whatever his calling, is to ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ (2 Cor 10:5).

Our mothers advised us to think before speaking.  Sometimes, we remember to do this but what about thinking Christianly before speaking?  According to Bertrand Russell, ‘Most Christians would rather die thank think; in fact they do.’ This is simply not true but it’s a challenge to the Bridget Joneses amongst us to pay heed not just to the murky areas of our thought life, but also to the muddled ones.

While it may be tempting to dismiss the need to think Christianly with legitimate fears of becoming puffed up with knowledge, it is also crucial to ask oneself, ‘Am I ensnared by the thinking of the current culture without even realising it?’  This is a particularly important question to ask if you:

  • watch TV
  • scroll through Facebook
  • tweet
  • read the news
  • know anybody who’s not a Christian.

I assume that is most of us.  Even if you are not someone who exposes himself regularly to the external influences of the day, we all know that the mind can play tricks on us, perhaps more than ever when we spend time alone.

If you are interested in reading more on the subject, at just over 100 pages, James Emery White’s little book is a great place to start.

The book is particularly appealing for two main reasons.

First, because it is short!  With only seven chapters and two useful appendices (recommended reading and resources) it can be read and absorbed in a few hours but stand you in good stead for many years when returning the ‘volleys against faith [that] come from every quarter and at every age’.

In his engaging and personal introduction, White cites Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in which he points out that lots of Christians consider humble ignorance a nobler quality than a cultivated mind.  If ‘homo sapiens’ means ‘thinking being’, then surely to be fully human is to think.

White then gently leads us through concepts like Moral Relativism (‘what’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me’); Autonomous Individualism (‘our choices are ours alone, determined by our personal pleasure, and not by any higher moral authority’); Narcissistic Hedonism (‘I, me, mine’ – the toddler in us all) and Reductive  Naturalism (‘life is accidental’).  Having done so, he invites us to ask ourselves whether we are actually harbouring any of these world-views without acknowledging it.

Secondly, the book motivates us to read books.  Describing our library as our ‘armoury’, he calls the reader to exercise his mind through reading as we exercise the body through going to the gym.  We don’t get fit, either physically or mentally, if we don’t make it a priority.

“As iron rusts when not used, 
and water gets foul from standing or turns to ice when exposed
to cold, so the intellect degenerates without exercise.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Starting with the Bible, White gives us a framework for what to read to develop a mind for Christ and encourages us to take the time to do it.

I once asked a busy housemaster of a prestigious boys prep school how he managed to read so many books.

‘It’s important to me,’ was his simple reply.

Is it important to you?

 

A Naturalist’s Narrative

DurrellsMy Family and Other Animals
by Gerald Durrell

Available at Amazon

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’.  To mark the event,  ITV has adapted The Corfu Trilogy (of which this book is the first part) for television.  ‘The Durrells’ provides delicious Sunday night escapism and has resurrected an interest in the story.  Spurred on by Edith Shaeffer, my husband and I have started reading it to each other.

At the end of 2015, in anticipation of the anniversary, Simon Barnes wrote in The Independent:

 

‘Joy is at the heart of everything that Durrell wrote, but most especially it is at the heart of My Family and Other Animals. Here is a book that celebrates the wild world more thoroughly and more vividly than anything else ever written. It is at the same time funny and deeply serious; and it is a poor person who believes that humour compromises seriousness. It has reached people and moved them to laughter and other emotions, all [of] them deep, powerful and packed with meaning. It has been a set book for exams and it has taught the joys of reading along with all the other joys. The book tells us that we humans are not complete alone: that without the wild world we are less than ourselves.’

‘My Family and Other Animals’ is perhaps Gerald Durrell’s most well-known book.  Many of us will remember having read it at school.  Few, I suspect, at that time in their lives, will have appreciated the exquisite quality of Durrell’s narrative.  Each sentence is so finely sculpted that an aspiring writer would do well to learn from his style.

Take, for example, the opening sentence of the first chapter:

‘July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky.’

Metaphor, simile, personification and at least two adjectives to describe the main noun!  However irregular Durrell’s education, he seems to have turned out alright in the literary department.

Durrells 4

Or let’s take a look at some of his descriptions of the animals he adopted.  Achilles the tortoise, for example, is ‘an intelligent and loveable beast, possessed of a peculiar sense of humour.’  At the sight of wild strawberries the reptile becomes ‘positively hysterical…lumbering to and fro, craning his head to see if you were going to give him any, gazing at you pleadingly with his tiny shoe-button eyes’.  More charming still is the description of how, if you were lying out sunbathing, Achilles would approach you, ‘pause, survey you thoughtfully, and then choose a portion of your anatomy on which to practise mountaineering.’

Friends made on the island of Corfu where the family lived for a time during ‘Gerry’s’ childhood, and in the five years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two, are described with comparable detail and memorability.  Such attention to minutiae testifies to the author’s delight in the natural world around him.  He notices everything.  He sees what we, in our rush and bustle, overlook too easily.  He observes, though without realising it, what God has put there for us all to enjoy: ‘wine red roses’, ‘chameleon like crab spiders’, ‘carpenter bees, (whatever they are) like furry, electric-blue bears, zigzag[ing] among the flowers, growling fatly and busily.’

I am reminded of the Welsh poet William Henry Davies’ poem:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

‘Stand and stare’ is what Durrell excels at and in re-reading his book I am delighted by his vividness of detail in describing humanity and nature.  Though it was not his intention, Durrell’s narrative puts me in mind of the Author of authors who first created ‘every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.’ (Genesis 1:21)

How many are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.’ (Psalm 104:24)

The natural world is not all that Durrell observes, however.  Humour plays a big part in both the book and the TV series.  Banal family conversations are mischievously recalled and noted down with irreverence.

Durrells 2

‘That’s the trouble with this family,’ said Larry (Gerald’s eldest brother) bitterly; ‘no give and take, no consideration for others.’

You don’t have much consideration for others,’ said Margo. (his sister)

‘It’s all your fault, Mother,’ said Larry austerely; ‘you shouldn’t have brought us up to be so selfish.’

‘I like that!’ exclaimed Mother.  ‘I never did anything of the sort!’

‘Well, we didn’t get as selfish as this without some guidance,’ said Larry.

‘Larry’ is Lawrence Durrell who first encouraged his youngest brother to write and was himself a successful writer, most notable for ‘The Alexandria Quartet’.

The TV version does not pretend to be very faithful to the original text but the photography is wonderfully evocative and the casting delightful which together make for enjoyable evening’s viewing.  And if the series gets people reading the book once again and appreciating the natural world around them, then it’s done a good job.

 

Creative Ideas for Enriching Everyday Life

41pKrEoDrZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Hidden Art of Homemaking
by Edith Shaeffer

Available from  Amazon.co.uk

A vicar was heard to comment to his wife who was industriously de-cluttering their home after a chaotic move, that she should ‘make do and mend’ rather than throwing things out.  She had recently read Marie Kondo’s successful publication ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’ and was trying to follow William Morris’ advice to ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’  Edith Shaeffer, were she still alive (she died in 2013), would have them combine their instincts in the interests of marital harmony and creative expression.  The Hidden Art of Homemaking would have shown them how to do this.

Edith Shaeffer was the wife of the better known Francis Shaeffer, the American evangelical Christian theologian, philosopher and pastor most famous for his writing and his foundation of the L’Abri community in Switzerland in 1955,  a community offering the opportunity for enquiring individuals to seek philosophical and religious answers to life’s questions.

Schaeffer-Edith

His wife, the daughter of missionaries in China, was evangelical as well as stylish.   Petite, beautifully dressed and redolent with Chanel No 5, she combined wholehearted support of her husband’s ministry and commitment to the gospel with a passion for sharing her love of music, art and literature, not least with her children.

In this short, readable and quirkily illustrated book, Shaeffer defines ‘Homemaking’ as an art form encouraging women called to this vocation to pursue their daily tasks with creativity and individuality.

Perhaps too dated in style and content for some modern readers, the book nevertheless carries a timeless message.  It is not a waste of man’s time to be creative.

‘It is not a waste to pursue artistic or scientific pursuits in creativity, because this is what man was made to be able to do.  He was made in the image of a Creator, and given the capacity to create – on a finite level of course, needing to use the materials already created- but he is still the creature of a Creator.’

Since we have been made in God’s image, Shaeffer explains, we not only can be, but are made to be creative. In fact, she suggests that Christians have a duty to be creative because of their Paternity.  It is far from being an irrelevance to a devout life.

‘What I call “Hidden Art” should be more important to one who knows and admits that he is made in God’s image, than to those who do not.’

If ‘Hidden Art’ is the art which is found in the minor areas of life, then everyday opportunities come alive with possibility.  Do we recognise the importance of living artistically as we make beds, prepare meals, paint walls, plant violas, play music to our children, read to our children, clothe our children?  Sensitivity to beauty should increase as we walk with the Lord, not dry up.

All these pursuits can be enjoyed as worship and without regard to success.

‘There is a God who is there, and who is personal, and who accepts music as praise to Himself, as worship, when given to Him in this sincere way – without being strained through the “strainer” of human acceptance.’

The writer devotes chapters to Music, Painting, Interior Decoration, Gardening, Flower Arranging, Food, Writing, Drama and Clothing to name a few and ends with an interesting take on ‘Environment’.  This is not, as I was expecting, a chapter on recycling cereal boxes but on the challenging concept that we create an environment around ourselves by the way we live.

‘We are an environment, each one of us.  We are an environment for the other people with whom we live, the people with whom we work, the people with whom we communicate.  And in this sense we do not choose an art form and create something in that form; we are an art form.’

Emily Freeman is saying something similar in ‘A Million Little Ways’ but the particular strength of Shaeffer’s book is that she reminds the bible-believing conservative Christian of the value of beauty without for a second denying the ‘first importance’ of sharing the message of the cleansing blood of Christ in whom true Beauty is found.