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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A Million Little Ways

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by Emily P. Freeman

Sometimes a book wakes you up.  This was my experience reading Emily P. Freeman’s ‘A Million Little Ways’ subtitled, ‘Uncover the art you were made to live’.  It’s a book that touches a longing that’s hidden inside many but which can easily die at the hands of cynicism or mid-life fatigue.

Uncover the art you were made to live?  The child inside says, ‘I want to do that!’ and the adult replies ‘You’ll fail.  You won’t  manage it.  Give up.  You don’t  have the discipline or the talent or the courage’.  But as you read this book, you may find, as I did, that your heart lifts just a little bit.  Maybe I could get the paintbrush out again after all.

In her early chapter entitled ‘Desire’, Freeman put words to a feeling I’ve had countless times and am sure is shared by other Christians, particularly women:

I tend to assume if it’s something I really want, then it isn’t something I should be allowed to have.  Am I just being selfish? Greedy? Crazy?

Doesn’t that resonate?  If I’m drawn to play the piano or arrange flowers or redecorate the kitchen, aren’t I just wasting my time which could be better spent doing something more obviously servant-like?  Yes, scripture reminds us of the deceitfulness of our hearts (Jer 17:9), but Freeman dares to suggest a challenge which, rightly understood, we need to hear:

If we continue to live as though our hearts are desperately wicked, we have tragically misunderstood the work of Christ.

She invites the reader, as God does, to move with the rhythm of His Holy Spirit so that ‘maybe we don’t have to be so suspicious of desire’.

Pursuing desire is only toxic when we demand our desires be satisfied on our terms and in our timing.  As recipients of the new heart of the Spirit, our deepest desire, when honestly realised, will always lead us to God [who has] left room for creativity, innovation, and personality.  He left room in his creation for desire.

The reader is encouraged to ‘explore with abandon those things that make you come alive’ trusting that we’ll never be truly satisfied by reaching after secondary things.

There are frank sections dealing with discouragement as an artist; how to respond to the critic without and within and knowing how to recognise the pernicious drive of self-glorification but always with the balancing and biblical reminder that ‘You are God’s art’ (cf Eph 2:10) made in His image and being remade in the likeness of Christ.

Freeman recognises artistic possibility in countless ways.  It’s not just painters and writers and musicians that make art. Roadsweepers and mothers and bankers too can live out with  wholeheartedness and thankfulness the person God has made them to be to the Father’s greater glory.

I haven’t written any reviews for a couple of months.  I started telling myself that there wasn’t any point.  Everyone writes a blog these days.  ‘Vanity publishing’ I think it’s called.  Who wants to be accused of being vain?  There’s the point.   I am not to write for the opinion of any reader out there, nor because I’m any good at it, nor because it’s not yet been done, but because it’s what I have to offer; it’s me and not to share it with you really would be selfish.  So what if someone else has already written a better review.  As Freeman rather unflatteringly puts it, ‘Being a mess doesn’t disqualify you from having an influence.  And it doesn’t make you any less of a poem.’

In her last chapter ‘Create’, we read:

‘You are an image bearer and that is not about you becoming famous or important or promoted but about you becoming more fully yourself for the glory of God.  And when you are fully yourself, everyone benefits.’

If this subject touches your heart too; if you’re struggling away with your own insistent instinct towards creativity,  I would encourage you to read this affirming and honest book and to make your art too.