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 Praying Life

A Praying Life by Paul Miller

A Praying Life
by Paul Miller

For those who find themselves driven by the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ of daily living, Paul Miller’s ‘A Praying Life’ is a welcome invitation to stop striving and be yourself.

In his introduction, the author writes, ‘I wrote for Christians, for those struggling to do life, who pray badly yet long to connect with their heavenly Father’.  What child of God does not identify with such a description?

A someone who loves books, reading and stories, but who has sometimes thought of them as a bit of an indulgence, I was excited to discover a writer who wove the concept of story into the fabric of the Christian walk.  ‘When we have a praying life,’ writes Miller, ‘we become aware of and enter into the story God is weaving in our lives.’

Jesus knew that stories appeal to the human mind.  He also loved children.  Miller suggests to us that we need to recapture the joy of both these ideas.  We need to relearn how to relate to God as our Father, as a child relates to his parent, and we need to be reminded of the wonder of being part of a story.  This means letting go of our cynicism and refusing to ‘dull our souls with the narcotic of activity’; it also requires humility.  The humility to trust God like a child and the humility to recognise that we are, as in a Dickensian cast list, only one character in a grand drama at the centre of which reigns a far more glorious Hero than we, in our self-absorption, may recognise.

I’ve sometimes found it helpful to think of life in literary terms.  Just as one might argue that the character development of any given protagonist in a story is at least as important as the meandering motions of the plot, so too is God more concerned with His children’s growth in Christlikeness than with the events of daily life.  This helps me to make sense of those perplexing experiences where the story isn’t going as I’d hoped it would were I the author.

Miller adopts a similar idea calling us to ‘become aware of the story’.  He writes, ‘If God is sovereign, then he is in control of all the details of my life…[We] are actors in his drama, listening for our lines, quieting our hearts so we can hear the voice of the Playwright.’

Another striking feature of this challenging and liberating book is that it dares to acknowledge that ‘private, personal prayer is one of the last great bastions of legalism.  In order to pray like a child, you might need to unlearn the non-personal, non-real praying that you’ve been taught’.  No one intends to teach us to pray like a fake but perhaps  we unintentionally impose burdens on other souls when we tell them that the best prayers echo Pauline phraseology, need to focus outward and should be Audible, Brief and Clear.  These are excellent guidelines for public praying and of course there is a danger of naval gazing behind closed doors,  but let’s join Miller in resurrecting the genuine cry of the child to his Parent in times of joy, in times of pain, in times of boredom, frustration, elation – at all times remembering that ‘apart from me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5).