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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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.

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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