Weekend competition: the winners…

Many thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition. The prize is a copy of a new volume written by pianist, composer, examiner, and writer, Mark Tanner; Mindfulness in Music: Notes on Finding Life’s Rhythm, published by Leaping Hare Press.

I have two copies to giveaway, and the winners are…

SIMON BURGESS and MUSICATMONKTON

CONGRATULATIONS! Please send your address via the contact page on this blog and your book will be on its way.

You can purchase this book by clicking here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

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Weekend Competition! Mindfulness in Music: Notes on Finding Life’s Rhythm

It’s time for a weekend competition. This one features Mark Tanner’s new book, Mindfulness in Music: Notes on Finding Life’s Rhythm (pictured to the left). If you’ve been reading this blog over the past week, you’ll have read Mark’s own post about this publication, which provides a useful background (to read it, click here).

Published by Leaping Hare Press, this volume will be of interest to anyone who feels the need to reflect on the inner rhythms of their life, and perhaps find a different approach to hearing and  digesting music. Chapters focus on the following subjects; Music as Meditation, The Rhythm of Life, Sound & Sensuality, The Language of Music, Parallel Universes, and the The Art of Possibility.

Beautifully presented, the book contains interesting quotes from various artists, writers, philosophers, and musicians, and  I particularly like the suggested mindfulness exercises which are peppered throughout. These offer food for thought, and allow our minds to put Mark’s many theories and ideas into practice. A thought-provoking read!

I have two copies to giveaway this weekend, so, as always, please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this blog post, and I will announce the winners on Monday evening (British time). Good luck!

You can purchase Mindfulness in Music: Notes on Finding Life’s Rhythm, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Mindfulness in Music: Notes on finding life’s rhythm, by Mark Tanner

My guest writer today is pianist, composer, author, adjudicator, and music examiner, Mark Tanner. Mark has penned a wealth of piano and music related publications, including The Mindful Pianist (published by Faber Music in 2016), and numerous educational compositions (many of which have been featured on various exam syllabuses). Today, he provides an insight into his new book, Mindfulness in Music: Notes on finding life’s rhythm (published by Leaping Hare Press), which can be purchased here. Alternatively, you can pop by this blog next week and take part in my weekend competition, where I will be giving away a couple of copies. Over to Mark…


We talk a great deal about music – the role we think it plays in our lives, its seemingly endless capacity to rejuvenate, stimulate and orientate us. But we’re increasingly at risk of thinking of music as a utility or commodity – something that’s been created to tick a box perhaps, or to help us fulfil a particular function in our lives. Some of us look for music to be purposeful – or indeed to help us to be more purposeful in whatever activities we happen to be engaged in. We jog with headphones on, wait for an elevator to the accompaniment of tinny pop tune cover versions, and sit in the sauna to a backdrop of synthetic flutes and wind chimes. This resignation to the idea of ‘functional’ music seems to have become entangled with how we consume it – sometimes unthinkingly or with a sense of entitlement. Streaming music seems strangely out of kilter with the devotion shown by those who created it in the first place, drip by drip. Music on tap potentially leads to a lack of excitement and engagement – that feverish sense of anticipation we once felt as we put on a new CD is now more likely to resemble a lucky dip in Apple Music. Music might be something we sit down to listen to, but just as easily it will underscore some everyday activity such as fixing a broken toaster or waiting for someone to answer the phone about an electricity bill. One might be tempted to contrast this with music enjoyed in an earlier point in time, where the very notion of recordings would have seemed about as likely as Donald Trump becoming President. In taking music for granted we underplay its marvellous, mysterious qualities – we become harder to please, harder to be moved or exhilarated by sound, perhaps to a point where the beauty of a musical moment escapes our attention altogether. Today music all too easily blurs into ‘muzak’, which is a perilous place for us to have arrived at, since we feel robbed of choosing how, what and (perhaps even more importantly) when we listen. Listening and hearing are quite separate things of course; for me, this superabundance of music is the very antithesis of mindfulness, for we feel cajoled into consuming music instead of drawn in by its powers of intoxication. We can even feel that there is only a single, acceptable response to certain sounds, or that our emotions are in some way being manipulated to someone else’s ends. Advertising would be largely impotent without music, and yet ironically the music used is virtually always rendered anodyne in the process. Potentially, our dispassionate receptivity music leads to mindlessness, not mindfulness. This burden of choice, or else its polar opposite – no choice at all – also discourages us from pausing to reflect; we forget how to be thrilled or devastated by a musical experience. The flip-side of this is true when playing the piano of course, or perhaps especially when teaching it. The knowledge that an exam is on the horizon might help someone to concentrate on improving, but will it necessarily help them to notice what in the music is truly of value? Music exams, competitions and festivals, though hugely advantageous to many learners, unwittingly contribute to this regrettable commoditisation and compartmentalisation of music. Perhaps this is all rather inevitable and not worth getting distressed about; yet for me, the listener forms a key point in the triangle that starts with creation and ends with an emotion beyond the realm of words. Listening can even be said to be creative in and of itself, but only if we are alive to what it is trying to say to us.

I wrote Mindfulness in Music: Notes on finding life’s rhythm in 2017 as part of an ongoing series of around 30 beautifully presented hardback books published by Leaping Hare Press. I recall first noticing the series a few years ago as a table display in my local Waterstones and was immediately enticed by their craftsmanship; they really are things of beauty. Topics so far go from bread-making to bereavement, surfing to singing, Einstein to cycling! The book came out in April 2018 and was discussed in my interview with Tom Service on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Music Matters’ a couple of days later. The publishers wanted me to sum up in a concise, easily grasped way the essence of mindfulness and indeed the essence of music. There is surely no expectation of the need to be an expert in meditation, mindfulness or indeed music in order to gain something of value from such experiences – in the same way, one doesn’t need to be a virtuoso to enjoy playing the piano, or a graduate in music to enjoy listening to it being played. Music is always of the moment, even when it takes on epic proportions, such as a Wagner opera or Strauss tone poem. Perhaps Erik Satie had a rather important point to make when he penned his exquisite piano miniatures – for he achieved that impossibly difficult thing as a composer: to beckon the listener into a perfumed musical moment that seems to have already started before we’d even tuned in. Satie’s music, a little like the minimalist movement that followed a few decades later perhaps, rarely appears preoccupied by grandiose machinery, development or architecture – the music is there to be savoured, rather like caviar, truffles or a fine cognac. Deeply meaningful music does not, therefore, need to be large-scale or impressively ambitious in order to make its mark.

“Mark Tanner has written a mindfulness manifesto for music”

Tom Service, BBC Radio 3 ‘Music Matters’

It seems those who love music, or indeed use it in a more sophisticated way – either by learning about it or even earning money from it – become especially prone to this habit of picking away at the minutiae of surface details. It’s as though we imagine ourselves to be Michelangelo, putting the final touches to the Statue of David when we practise a few bars of intensely tricky music on the piano. Music students may feel a certain satisfaction from having put into words the cleverness bound up in, say, a Mahler symphony or lengthy Miles Davis jazz piece. And rightly so, for music’s narrative journey, or ‘story’, is frequently complex and deserving of that extra bit of attentive thinking, or even, dare I say it, analysis. The question here is at what point should we just let the music go its own way, unjudged, unevaluated? This is not a contradiction, more a conundrum, for there are times when we need to scrutinise, and others when we can just wallow and enjoy. As a pianist and composer, I find this question strikes at the heart of all I do, for I’ve spent many hours pouring over recapitulations in Mozart concertos, or else looking for ways to extend a simple tune that has just landed in my head. And yet, in the end, I know that this type of detailed work is only valuable because it allows me to tap into, and hence express the music’s bigger picture so that others are able to gain something from it.

When I wrote The Mindful Pianist for Faber in 2016, as part of the ongoing EPTA Piano Professional series, I dug deep into what we as pianists are attempting to achieve when we are playing; I broke this difficult subject down into four main areas: focus, practise, perform, engage. In essence, I was wanting those who love the piano to view what they do from a subtly different perspective, not just to grind away for days on end in an unwinnable bid to out-manoeuvre Beethoven, or conquer Ravel. I commissioned  perspectives from 25 well-known pianists, composers and teachers, and the ultimate aim was to provide an original way ‘in’ to the craft of piano playing, not just to offer a raft of tips on how to practise (though the book hopefully achieves that, too!). The book is unapologetically pianocentric – it’s my sincere attempt to embody the idea that we need to play and think about piano music in a thoughtful, mindful way in order to do it, and ourselves, justice.

“invigorating and thought-provoking”

Martino Tirimo

In this latest publication I assume no preexisting knowledge base or skill-set. It’s not written for aficionados or those in the know. Nor am I focusing exclusively on piano music. There are chapters on music as meditation, the rhythm of life, sound and sensuality, the language of music, parallel universes (how music can inhabit multiple meanings for us simultaneously) and the art of possibility – how the reader might acquire the confidence to sing in a choir, take up an instrument later in life or become a valued member of the musical community. I also take a closer look at what, if anything, we mean by ‘talent’ in music, what tone-deafness is, or indeed is not. I unpack the notion of perfect-pitch to see whether it really adds much to what proficient musicians might achieve, and offer 20 activities designed to help us all to resonate more enjoyably with everything from the sound of a squeaky gate to a love song by Elton John.

“Mindfulness in Music is both informative and thought-provoking – a fascinating read on many levels”

Julian Lloyd Webber

The ‘point’ of music – in virtually any way I consider to be realistic or meaningful – is surely  to connect with our human urge to feel emotion. It’s amusing to me that we talk about the Romantic period as driven by passion, feelings and expression, as if this has not always been the case, both before and since the 19th century! Sometimes we feel an impulse to re-connect with a particular song or piece of music in order to help us to relive a moment; in this respect, nostalgia in music is every bit as powerful as looking at sepia photographs or blowing dust from the yellowing pages of an old book. Come to think of it, the antiquity of Classical music perhaps renders all of our listening and playing experiences potentially nostalgic? I’ve always felt that music is all ‘ours’ – in other words, humans created it for the wonderment of other humans – and to this end the book sets out to scratch a little beneath the surface of what we thought we already knew. Let’s not forget that the world was making its own music millions of years before our distant ancestors began drumming away on stretched animal skins or experimenting with echoes in forests, and there is perhaps no greater music than silence, itself an endangered species. Becoming more aware of how we engage with music, and indeed what constitutes music in the first place (isn’t a waterfall music, or a storm reverberating through a valley?) is how we will gain more from it. I ask, in the book, “how can we be interested in the sound of nature if we are not intrigued by the nature of sound?” Can elephants really listen with their feet, for example, and why is it we cannot hear the deafening ‘songs’ of whales when we are ashore? These and other questions are not intended to be semantic or philosophical for their own sake, but seeded here and there within its pages to help place our enjoyment of music in a sharper spotlight, irrespective of what kinds of music we enjoy listening to or playing. Spirituality, in these terms, becomes more about the relationship we have with music directly – and a world that is forever teeming with sound – not necessarily tied to any god or religion.

As pianists, most of us grow used to grappling with music that was etched onto manuscript centuries ago. We take for granted that our playing skills need to be entwined with an ability to read music and make sense of heady things such as structure, harmony and counterpoint. This all too easily leads us to the numbing conclusion that music is only there to be sifted and sorted through, organised and fiddled with, until it finally submits to all our tireless thrashing about at the keyboard. If, on the other hand, we can learn to take a helicopter view of the music we love from time to time, even when we are doing battle with the intricacies of a Bach fugue or scrabbling around with fistfuls of notes in Debussy, we will access it from a more immediately rewarding place. And by doing this, not only will we derive more from the experience itself, we may also have more to ‘say’ when we sit down to play.

Mindfulness is concerned with self-compassion, i.e. forgiving ourselves for making mistakes and playing imperfectly. It’s also about savouring the here-and-now, not over-reaching, over-thinking or over-analysing. These things just throw a spanner in the works and at the same time distract us from noticing, savouring, enjoying and simply ‘being’. We can have an eye to the future prospect of playing to others, or perhaps taking an exam, without feeling fatigued by ‘end-gaming’, as Alexander would have put it. But it is also about positioning ourselves right at the centre of the musical experience. Though I am not a Buddhist, I find the notion of playing music as a ‘practical meditation’ utterly irresistible. We are engaging with the finest of art-forms – “the word music, after all, comes from ‘muses’ – the daughters of Zeus – to crystallise the purist conceivable artistic aspirations of the gods”, to quote from my own introductory text. It’s interesting that music has the power to realign us as well as fortify our daily lives, but more than this, musical experiences are valuable because they remind us of who we are, and this might even help us to become better versions of ourselves.

Mindfulness in Music, Notes on finding life’s rhythm, by Mark Tanner (Leaping Hare Press).



My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

The Mindful Pianist: An Interview with Mark Tanner

4f07a817201ecThe Mindful Pianist is a new book written by British pianist, author, teacher, composer, researcher, examiner and adjudicator,  Mark Tanner (pictured above). This volume forms part of EPTA‘s (European Piano Teachers Association) Piano Professional Series, and is published by Faber Music. I invited Mark to answer twelve questions about his life and diverse career as a musician.  Here are his thoughtful, erudite responses (in italics). I hope you enjoy reading as  much as I did.


You’ve enjoyed a varied, eclectic career; performing, writing, editing, composing, teaching, researching, and working as an examiner and adjudicator. How is your time divided between these different pursuits?

I’ve evolved what musicians often like to call a ‘portfolio existence’ – partly out of necessity, but mainly in response to my varied interests, many of which I’ve been lucky to watch blossom over the years.

My performing career has spurred off into many directions. Appearances include five solo recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and St John’s Smith Square, along with many other appearances up and down the country as soloist, in concertos and with a variety of ensembles. A venue close to my heart is St George’s Bristol, where I have appeared with Allan Schiller, Richard May, Gillian Poznansky and Michael Langdon-Davies – I’ve also made several recordings there. Recitals on cruise ships continue to form an important part of my life, too – I’ve given over 300 recitals on all of the Cunard, P&O and Saga ships, many of which have been with my partner, flautist Gillian Poznansky, with whom I have also recorded a couple of CDs.

I have made an especial feature of British piano music, with recordings, recitals and broadcasts of previously unrecorded music by York Bowen, Peter Wishart (I later edited Wishart’s entire output of piano music for Edition Peters), John McLeod (various premières in the presence of the composer, including live on BBC Radio 3), Graham Lynch and Graham Fitkin. Performing – and indeed the whole process of gearing up for recitals and recordings – has always fed naturally into my professional life. I went through a phase of playing piano/keyboards for musicals, pantomimes and backing well-known comedians in cabaret, which has certainly stood me in good stead when it comes to living off my wits (a surreal engagement in more recent times involved playing on a dummy piano to ‘accompany’ Susan Boyle for her guest appearance on the X Factor). Although these days there tends to be extended periods during which I allow practising to slip, I can’t really imagine a life without the challenge of new repertoire.

Teaching seems always to have played a role in my musical life. Any aspiring professional musician who is not prepared to consider a certain amount of teaching is probably being rather unrealistic. Moreover, teaching is a way of tapping into the realities and passions of others. For some sixteen years I was Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset. Teaching in a public school environment carried with it all kinds of parallel activities (I was head of squash, umpired the 2nd cricket team, edited the school magazine, became deputy house master of a boys’ boarding house, as well as the usual musical activities such as running bands, doing bits of conducting and putting on musicals, carol services and so on). I have enjoyed teaching privately too, as well as at summer schools. These include the Chetham’s International Piano Summer School, Jackdaws Educational Trust and Dillington House in Somerset, Maryland College in Woburn, the Farncombe Estate in Gloucestershire and the National Young Pianists at Uppington School. Commitments at home and abroad have always discouraged me from taking on regular work at higher education establishments, though I do pop up at various colleges and universities from time to time, to give recitals and masterclasses, and also to talk with students about career paths. These days, I give occasional consultation lessons, the odd Skype session (perhaps in a student’s run-up to a diploma or recital), though I can’t usually offer the kind of continuity most pianists seem to need.

Composing continues to play a very robust role in my musical life. Stimulated initially by an interest in obscure contemporary piano music, I found myself partly switching tactic as far as my own compositions are concerned. This triggered what would turn out to be a very fruitful ongoing relationship with Spartan Press, an enterprising publishing company based in the Highlands of Scotland. For Spartan, I have now composed, transcribed and arranged over 60 volumes of music, roughly half of which is for piano, the remainder for a variety of other instruments and voices. Writing music for the ‘educational’ milieu requires a sensitivity to what is practical, not merely an idea of how one might like a particular piece to sound. This has undoubtedly tugged me towards a more pragmatic way of thinking and writing, which is no bad thing, for a piece is ultimately more likely to hit the mark as regards general appeal and approachability.seascapes

It was gratifying to have my ‘Scapes’ piano series (published in five volumes) shortlisted for a recent Music Teacher Award, and indeed to follow the progress of around 20 pieces onto the current syllabuses of ABRSM, TCL and LCM. I continue to get lively responses via my website (www.marktanner.info) regarding the five piano pieces featuring on the TCL syllabus. It is in the very nature of writing educational music that composers keep their fingers crossed every time a new syllabus launch is in the offing. My Lullaby for Prince George (a grade 5 piece composed for Pianist Magazine) captured the attention of Classic FM a couple of years back; this spike in interest certainly heightens the presence of a composer (incidentally, the Lullaby, along with Nocturne for Princess Charlotte, is now published in a volume entitled Sleep Tight).

I am particularly pleased with a recent five-volume series of piano pieces, which I ended up calling Listen to the World – it taps into all kinds of ‘sound-moods’, which range from Bangkok Busker to Air Balloons over Albuquerque. I like to think I have remained fairly true to the philosophy of my first series of published books – Eye-Tunes – which evolved over a few years into a twelve-volume set comprising exactly one hundred pieces; from these, I went on to cherry-pick some arrangements for flute and piano, which became Creature Comforts and Flute Pastilles. As a spinoff from my ‘usual’ approach to composing, I enjoyed putting together a four-volume series of Elizabethan pieces from the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Pieces – intriguing miniatures, which seemed to be screaming out for a contemporary face-lift; I called it A Renaissance Keyboard Anthology. This later prompted me to compose a one-off set of quirky pieces in response to the originals, which I called The FitzTanner Collection.

Writing has always been something which gives me terrific pleasure and satisfaction. I wrote my PhD thesis on the performance history of Franz Liszt, and this spawned various articles in scholarly journals, published both in the UK and US. I then enjoyed writing several hundred articles and reviews for International Record Review, Classical Music, International Piano and Musical Opinion. For Pianist Magazine, I have written two dozen feature-length ‘masterclass’ articles, which cover aspects of piano playing such as rubato, improvisation, holding momentum, pedalling and so on. I was pleased recently to take on the role of Guest Editor for EPTA’s flagship Magazine, Piano Professional.

Examining for ABRSM is by its very nature hard work. It involves a lot of traveling around, plus an amount of administration and organisation, not to mention sitting behind a desk for six or more hours at a time, scribbling like a crazed man. The challenge of examining is to listen intently to what is happening, while keeping in mind the previous item about which you will probably still be writing! In the UK, I usually examine for about a fortnight in each of the three sessions, which is the maximum I can tuck in due to other commitments. Though I live in the South West, some of this will end up being in London, as I am on the Examiner Training Panel, which takes prospective examiners from interview on through a rigorous process leading to (hopefully) the finished article.

I find the international side of examining tremendously rewarding, though challenging work. There can be language difficulties to overcome, hassles with getting to and from obscure venues, issues with food (‘examiner’s tummy’ is an irksome topic all to itself) and of course the accumulation of tiredness, which can take a lot out of you as you move from one city or country to the next, perhaps leaping across time-zones. I have conducted several diploma-only tours to Hong Kong and Singapore, though most of my ‘solo’ tours these days involve a mix of grades, diplomas and teacher seminars. Each year I take on two lengthy international tours, which has proved to be an excellent way of seeing the world. Examiners get ‘under the skin’ of a foreign place in ways the holiday-maker is less likely to, and I find this an immensely rewarding experience – though undoubtedly the most fatiguing work I have ever done. I have undertaken over 30 international tours, to five continents (alas, we don’t examine in South America, as yet). These have taken me to the snow-topped Himalayas, the dreamy coasts of New Zealand, the stunning Swiss Alps, eerily abandoned South African diamond mining towns, Kathmandu (I happened to be working there just a fortnight before the major recent earthquake), all over the Far East many times, several trips to the USA and Canada, and (a particular favourite) India. I’ve just returned from an extended tour of South Korea and Japan, and am about to depart for New York and Princeton – next year I’ll be in Turkey and Sri Lanka.

I also undertake annual Presentation Tours for ABRSM, which involves making whistle-stop fortnight-long trips all over China (as many as a dozen internal flights), explaining to teachers how the exam system can be of help to them, providing a ‘system’ for serious study as well as fostering the simple joy of learning. I occasionally get involved with other aspects of ABRSM too, such as co-writing the Teaching Notes, an informative book to accompany the latest piano syllabus, and composing bits and pieces for various ongoing projects/syllabuses. One such project, which has just come into fruition actually, is the Piano Star series: three ‘repertoire’ books leading from pre Prep Test to about grade 1, containing solo items and duets. I also spend the equivalent of about a fortnight per year working for ABRSM’s Reading Panel, which forms part of the organisation’s ongoing quality control machine; we provide forensically detailed critiques (and of course positive feedback!) to support examiners in their quest to write helpful, consistent, well-matched comments.9781848499249

Adjudicating for the British and International Federation of Festivals is another strand of my work which I find very rewarding. Festivals in the UK tend to happen in March and November (when I’m invariably examining overseas), so I would generally expect to manage only perhaps a week or two of adjudicating each year. That said, I have adjudicated many of the festivals in the south of England, plus a sprinkling further north; this year I adjudicated the Singapore Festival of Performing Arts, with a few masterclasses and one-to-one lessons bolted on for good measure. I have adjudicated the EPTA Piano Competition several times, and this year also judged the National Composer’s Competition.

An important distinction between examining and adjudicating is the nature and depth of feedback. In a festival, it is often entirely appropriate (and sometimes specifically expected) that the adjudicator will get up onstage and offer help and advice on how to improve what was just heard. In an exam, by stark contrast, there is no provision for feedback ‘in the moment’ – just the comments given on the mark form, which is really the only lasting evidence that the exam ever actually took place.

If you were to pick one (or perhaps two!), which has been the most rewarding and satisfying, and why?

The first time we accomplish something important, I guess we tend to etch it into our memory and accord it a certain fondness. My first solo performance was at Bristol’s Colston Hall, aged 11 (the Bristol Evening Post described me as “the intrepid Mark Tanner” – I seem to remember getting lost walking off stage…) and this was followed shortly after by my first BBC TV appearance as semi-finalist in a piano competition called Major-Minor, adjudicated by Sir David Willcocks. My inaugural live BBC Radio 3 broadcast, in which I included a previously unknown work by Constant Lambert and a piece of my own, would certainly rank as a seminal moment, as would my Wigmore Hall debut. Completing my PhD, while simultaneously teaching full-time and establishing myself on the playing circuit, was an especially important five-year period for me, especially since it opened my eyes to the prospect of a side career in writing, from which I continue to gain a great deal of satisfaction.

You spend much time in the Far East presenting and lecturing for ABRSM, what differences have you noticed in the approach to teaching and playing in that part of the world, or are they very similar to those in the West?

Well, this a question I am often asked, and to which I doubt if I’ve ever given a fully honest answer! My feeling, having examined something in the region of 20,000 candidates all over the world, is that every examining day brings with it the potential for something memorable. In truth, examiners get to experience the full gamut of possibilities (in terms of playing quality) on virtually every tour they undertake. They also get to experience a very occasional tragic or humorous event, which may well turn out to be something they can dine out on for years to come. From my personal experience, the ‘average’ playing one hears in Cardiff will probably shake out as similar to that experienced in Dhaka or Helsinki, though as you might imagine, the extremes of the playing one encounters overseas can be an entirely different matter. As far as I can detect, the teaching in foreign countries (gauged purely in terms of the outcome of an exam) is every bit as effective as we would expect to find here in the UK – sometimes more so.

Many young students (including mine!) have loved playing your piano compositions (which have been published worldwide, and feature in a plethora of exam syllabuses), when did you start composing educational piano pieces? How would you describe your style?

I studied composition at college – my first ever piece was a full-blown orchestral work actually, which I’d probably shy away from doing today – and it would be fair to say that this angle of my life has grown exponentially over the last decade or so. Composing is something I can do while I’m sat on deck sipping a mocktail on the Queen Mary 2, or squeezed into the corner of a Starbucks in San Francisco, so I suppose this might explain why I have enjoyed devoting more and more of my time to this line of work.index

As far as style goes, I’m a bit hard to pin down. I have always been interested in jazz and lighter styles (I was an avid fan of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Uriah Heep in my teens), though of course my training as a concert pianist took me down myriad complex routes, too. In truth, I tend to allow a part of my imagination to run riot while I’m engaged in a particular project. So, by way of example, I’m mid-way through a five-volume piano series called Jazz Hands, which regularly ventures off-piste into more impressionist and even minimalist territory, and I have composed a series of study books for tackling the ABRSM Quick Study called Know the Score, which has helped a variety of instrumentalists to engage more fruitfully with this component of the DipABRSM. My two volumes of folk song arrangements came about as a natural consequence of a CD I recorded with veteran bass-baritone, Michael George, and these again encouraged me to dip my toe into an array of contemporary styles. I love playing around with different textures and re-working familiar structures and progressions until they yield something new and intriguing. Many TCL grade 6 pianists will have enjoyed thrusting their way through The Wit and Wisdom of the Night, a Bernstein-esque little ditty, or finessing The Owl and the Pussycat (a TCL grade 1 piece which is over before it’s begun). The style of these two examples could hardly contrast more, it now occurs to me (The Owl and the Pussycat is more reminiscent of Haydn than Bernstein). Apart from Mozart and Chopin, whose styles were pretty much in place from the earliest age, style seems generally to be a continually moveable feast (Stravinsky is an excellent example of a composer who was forever reinventing himself). The minute we attempt to define style, it has already begun to morph into something else. Composers, not unlike artists in my experience, can be a little disingenuous in that we wish to be regarded as ‘individual’, while at the same time often enjoy dabbling in genre-crossing. Besides, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a little derivative as a composer. Improvisation of course ties in inextricably with composition (the latter in some senses emerging as a ‘formalisation’ of the former), though the miracle of composing amounts to a coming together of real experiences in resonance with imagined ones.

When composing, what aspects are, for you, key? Do you hear the piece in your head before writing, or do you prefer working it all out at the piano?

An excellent question, which I shall proceed to dodge, strategically. In the same way that some Beatles melodies foreshadowed the lyrics, and others the reverse, I tend to respond to the moment and then run with it. There have been times when, for example sitting next to an elderly gentleman tapping his stick on the New York subway, I have found myself itching to compose a piece using an unusual 15/8 rhythm. But there are also occasions – for example, when I am getting close to finishing off a book pitched at a particular grade – where a more pragmatic approach proves necessary in order to hit the brief. For a piano piece to be fully pianistic, it would be silly not to road-test it thoroughly, sat at the instrument, or in the case of a violin or flute piece, to run it past an expert. Composers generally write pieces in order to coax a strong emotional response from the player and listener, not simply to be ‘clever’. This requires an appetite for new ideas, though in reality some of these may be partially preconceived. Ultimately one must trust in one’s musical intelligence.

mindfulI  thoroughly enjoyed reading your new book, The Mindful Pianist, which has just been published by Faber Music, and is part of the ongoing Piano Professional Series (published by EPTA or the European Piano Teachers Association). ‘Mindful’ piano playing has become fashionable, why do you feel it’s important?

The whole mindfulness platform brims with potential; it can be of great value to musicians of all persuasions. To say that mindfulness has enjoyed a recent resurgence (I’d entirely agree – everything from macramé to bread-making and surfing) is perhaps a bit like saying that religion has grown in popularity. In truth, mindfulness is probably as old as human thought, though it evidently came of age through the earliest Buddhist teachings.

Musicians, and perhaps pianists in particular, often become side-tracked by their longer-term ambitions – for example, an upcoming exam or public performance – and though entirely understandable, such preoccupations tend to uproot our sense of the present moment. We end up overthinking, over-reaching, over-compensating and over-reacting to aspects of our musical lives lying some way off in the future, instead of focussing on what is happening right now, sat at the piano. This remarkably simple starting point is nevertheless the trigger for my book – we need to learn how best to harness all this energy and ‘spend’ it where it will be most likely be of optimum value. From here, pianists can gradually home in on the practicalities of learning and evolving, attending to details and working up a really compelling performance.

The Mindful Pianist is split into four broad areas of study: focussing, practising, performing, engaging. Each area challenges the reader (who might be a seasoned pianist, or perhaps a keen amateur) to reappraise what they are doing and head off the blight of performance anxiety. Occasionally, it seems the teacher can unwittingly contribute to a less than robust approach also, perhaps by glossing over the specific needs of the individual student, or else by over-emphasising a particular facet of playing and skimming over others. The role of the teacher, as I reinforce more fully in the book, is to teach the pupil to teach himself, so that every practice session becomes a self-taught lesson. If we are not encouraged to take responsibility for our practising and performing, we can never fully flourish.

Did you re-exam you own approach to the piano when writing this book, or are the ideas mostly derived from your work over time as a teacher?

The book is most definitely a coming-together of different strands of my teaching (and of course thinking) over thirty years, and feeds directly into the whole conundrum of piano playing. Though piano playing is a fine motor skill, I feel it ought not be segregated too far from the broader objectives of teaching and learning. Analytical approaches (I go into these in some depth in the book, and offer some innovative models) are examples of how the enlightened teacher can trigger a creative response from their pupils. Teachers of course learn all the time from their pupils’ mistakes, not to mention their own.

The book is peppered with quintessential advice and suggestions from other piano teachers and pianists, which adds a richness, emphasizing your fundamental points. In your own education, which teachers have been an important influence, shaping your teaching and playing?

The power of a teacher to help you learn is, I believe, inextricably tied to your own capacity to respond and adapt. This is why we feel more tuned in to certain approaches and correspondingly switched off by others. Nonetheless, I like to feel I have gained as much from participating in masterclasses with pianists such as Peter Donohoe, as I have from my ‘regular’ teachers, who have included Gwyn Pritchard, Geoffrey Buckley, Philip Martin and Richard McMahon. They each played to their strengths as pianists (and in Gwyn’s and Philip’s case, as composers, too) as much as their qualities as teachers, which explains what I was able to take away from those lessons. Gwyn first opened my eyes to the value of thoughtful, methodical practising; Geoff endlessly impressed me with his extraordinary repertoire and powers of recall; Philip had me rolling around in fits of laughter (while gently nudging me to tackle some mammoth pieces); and Richard showed me what it is to be a resourceful ‘virtuoso teacher’ (as Paul Harris optimistically coined it in his book by the same name).

sp1297You teach many advanced adult students (at Chethams Summer School, Jackdaws Educational Trust, EPTA, and other educational institutions), how do their issues differ from those of the younger piano student?

Adults present a wholly different set of challenges for the piano teacher. Just as children are not small adults, adults are not big children; we so easily overlook this stunningly obvious observation. Younger players abound in energy, confidence and a gung-ho approach (not universally, but often, in my experience), while adults not infrequently fall victim to their own idiosyncratic psychological foibles. One manifestation of this (which, again, I tackle briefly in the book), would be choosing repertoire – for the physical capacity to play Rachmaninov is a quite different matter from the desire to do so; unfortunately, overstretching our capabilities can have a profoundly negative outcome over the longer term. Piano playing is hard enough without adding to the difficulties by persevering with repertoire which lies beyond our scope. Similarly, the acquisition of a reliable technique is but one among many equally worthy elements of successful piano playing. While stretching ourselves to the next level is always a commendable goal, arguably we will reach grade 6 more efficiently by first working up a clutch of grade 5 pieces to a good level, rather than by toying around ineffectually with a bunch of grade 7 pieces.

In summer schools, teachers routinely encounter a startling range of promising students – youngsters who can whizz through the Emperor Concerto without turning a hair, or older teenagers who are already able to improvise in any style from Scriabin to Coldplay. But there will be others for whom piano playing seems to have become all about persisting with a couple of pieces with which they feel a certain bond or kinship; this bittersweet tussle can endure for decades and is not always the most profitable use of their time, I’d suggest. The younger player could undoubtedly learn from his more senior counterpart, whose grasp of the musical landmarks in a piece may well be more sophisticated; conversely, the older pianist might take a leaf out of the teenager’s book as regards holding momentum and generally ‘going for it’. Knowing oneself is key to honing an approach that will prove fruitful over the longer term.

Another thing occurs to me regarding the adult learner, which is that teachers all too easily become counsellors or armchair psychologists – I am sure many teachers of adults will be familiar with the student who spends the first 45 minutes of an hour’s lesson discussing Brexit or Fracking, as if compelled to stave off the moment when they sit squarely at the piano, by which time the next pupil can be already be heard parking his car outside…

sp1180What advice could you bestow to the many pianists preparing to take performing and teaching diplomas, particularly regarding programming?

Mm…this is a knotty one. For a performing diploma, I would usually recommend a less-is-more approach. My father has a saying: “Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it”. In other words, why open yourself up to the possibility of demonstrating what you cannot do? Playing from memory, when this is not something that comes naturally to you, would be a prime example. If there is an own-choice component (as is the case for all three of the established ABRSM diplomas, and indeed the new ARSM, which is exclusively concerned with performing), then this is most definitely something worthy of serious consideration.

In general, my advice would be to put your best foot forward – start and end your programme with a strong item you know you can play exceedingly well (even if a noisy demonstration suddenly starts up on the street outside – which happened to me once in a St John’s Smith Square recital). Don’t feel hidebound by tradition, convention or chronology – it’s ok to end with Bach, so long as your choice ‘works’ – and by the same token you might consider launching your recital with Shostakovich. Pace yourself, both as regards the mental and physical stamina demanded by the occasion. Listen at least as intently as the examiner will be, and if something goes astray, airbrush out the memory in an instant – don’t let it snowball into a series of debilitating calamities.

For teaching diplomas, my best advice would be to know your stuff inside out. Many candidates sidle into an exam room with what looks like a shopping trolley brimming over with books they’ve borrowed; but when asked to put their hands on something specific, let’s say a grade 4 piece with issues of pedalling, they find themselves completely scuppered. Better, in my opinion, to bring in two handfuls of material with which you are wholly familiar, so that you can dip into it at a moment’s notice, even when under exam pressure. In the viva voce, take your time and answer the question. If you slip off topic too frequently, your examiner will be bound to lower his/her opinion of you. When you speak, aim to form sentences which have a beginning, middle and end; stick to your guns and think ahead to where you’d like to steer the topic next. Doing this will place you more in control of what is being discussed; from here you will be more able to reveal those little nuggets of information you’ve stored away.

In a few words, can you sum up the most crucial aspects of mindful piano playing; ones which students can immediately implement into their practice routine?

Start each session with something you can already play quite well, and finish with something you can play even better. In the middle part of your practice session (which in the majority of cases ought not to exceed an hour or so at a time), be prepared to fulfil a series of small, achievable objectives – tick these off one by one in your mind. If you are not measurably better after your practising, you cannot claim to have been working very effectively. Breathe calmly, pause for thought and reflect on what just took place at regular intervals. Think clearly about what you are broadly hoping to achieve for each task – then pursue it with confidence, courage and determination. Shake things up a bit when you are getting bored or restless, and in general, work from the back of a piece to the front, especially if it happens to be a large-scale work, for example a sonata or concerto. Queue up the bits of a piece which are giving you the most trouble and deal with each ‘quarantined’ passage one at a time, thoughtfully and methodically. Resist the temptation to pound away at something difficult, getting faster and faster as you do so; instead, isolate the problem, rather as a surgeon might, and deal with it mindfully: less haste, more speed. Record yourself practising from time to time, to gain a more ‘fly on the wall’ perspective, and take all opportunities to play for others, especially if your ultimate goal is to perform in some kind of ‘event’. Finally, practise practising, then practise performing – these are two quite distinct modes of working, each of which requires a specific mental outlook.

Most musicians in today’s world find social media a vital ‘tool’, however, you have successfully managed to side-step this marketing device, was this a conscious decision? Do you feel it isn’t as important as many might have us believe?

Twitter is something I am beginning to get to grips with, at long last, though I have been less enamoured by Facebook so far; I may well give in soon though. As with any form of communication, or networking, my feeling is that we shouldn’t bother to proclaim things unless we feel confident they are worth hearing; otherwise, we end up contributing to a bottomless quagmire of trivial nonsense. I also feel that if we do not impose a restraining order on our social media activities they can end up draining away every spare moment in our lives. On balance though, we cannot hope to gain advantage from social media if we are not prepared to take an active role. With this in mind, I have begun to add a series of ‘how-to’ videos to my Twitter feeds. I now have two: @MarkTannerPiano and @MindfulPianist.  It strikes me that we all use social media in different ways in order to accomplish different objectives. It falls upon each of us to decide where the useful stuff turns the corner into banality.

You can explore Mark’s music here, and purchase The Mindful Pianist, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.