Andrew is one of the most versatile, energised, and talented figures in music education today. His superb blog Pianodao was launched in 2015 and continues to attract enormous interest, with an international following for its extensive range of articles and reviews. Ranked the number one piano education blog worldwide for three successive years, it is a bastion of support, insight and inspiration for piano teachers and players.
Born in Surrey in 1966, Andrew was educated at Oakham School and Bedford Modern, studying music at the junior Guildhall before entering Birmingham University to read music. His lessons with the Dohnányi student Joseph Weingarten were especially significant for his development as a pianist. He continued his postgraduate studies at the Royal College, where he took harpsichord and fortepiano lessons with Robert Wolley and was awarded the Raymond Russell Harpsichord Prize.
Andrew’s extensive and varied career includes working for EMI Classics and when he was Head of Piano and Keyboard for the Milton Keynes Music Service. He started his teaching career in the 1990s.
Andrew’s four tuition books for electronic keyboard, Keyquest, have sold more than 10,000 copies. He played a significant role in 2002 in the creation of ‘A common approach, the instrumental curriculum adopted by Music Schools and Services throughout the UK. Andrew has also been influential in ABRSM’s ‘Music Medals’ programme, composing original pieces and arrangements for their ‘Keyboards Together’ series.
Andrew is active as a present and speaker at conferences and national events and for leading organisations, including ABRSM and Trinity. He appears constantly involved with many projects, working tirelessly as a teacher, editor, writer, reviewer, and composer. In addition to his excellent new book on Practising and a three-volume edition of selected music by William Gillock (reviewed below), reviewed here, Andrew has worked as a syllabus consultant to the RSL Classical Piano Grades, consultant and composer for LCM Piano and Keyboard syllabus, a contributor to the ABRSM Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces, composer for ABRSM Piano Star books, contributor for the Mosaic Series (Musica Ferrum). Andrew has also recorded a series of educational films for PWM Edition in Poland.
MM Can you remember how you started as a young musician? Where did you grow up?
AE My parents divorced when I was six, after which I grew up in Bedford with my mum and two older sisters, one of whom took up the piano. When I was eight, I had pneumonia, and from my sick bed, I heard my sister practising the piano downstairs. And that was when I realised that I wanted to play. So that was my first inspiration, and the spark quickly became a flame.
MM Were your family supportive?
AE My mother was always supportive and made considerable sacrifices to help us complete our music education, attend our concerts, and encourage practice.
I only reconnected with my father when I was 28. He said he was pleased to hear that my sister had made a career in music but not that I had because, in his words, “piano teaching is a woman’s job”. He made a point of never hearing me play the piano until his death. I think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t very supportive!
MM Who were the key people who helped you become the musician and composer you are today?
AE I was fortunate to have excellent teachers right from the start, every one of whom made an impact in shaping who I now am. At the same time, I have always been fascinated by the lives of great musicians past and present and am a huge fan of music in many styles, so all of that, and all those listening experiences, contribute to the overall mix.
MM Can you give us a couple of vital landmarks and events which had pivotal significance in your early musical development?
AE Being given my first LP, a recording of the Mozart Horn Concertos. I wanted to learn the horn, but it cost too much, so I learnt the flute instead. But that LP was the beginning of a journey of musical discovery, which has been a wonderful focus throughout my subsequent life.
A few weeks after starting piano, I realised that arpeggios could be used to improvise my own music. That was a complete game changer; from then on, my mum had to keep reminding me to practise what my teacher had set me!
MM How did you come to terms with practising?
AE Good question! The lure of improvising and composing has always remained so strong! But seriously, I have had to learn a wide range of strategies for practice, and the rigours of traditional music education, University recital and studying at the Royal College of Music all played a part in that. I have fortunately been able to absorb a lot of good advice over many years, and of course, many of those ideas are now in my book How to Practise Music, which will hopefully help many others to find and discover ways to practice that are not only more effective but more enjoyable too.
MM Were you ever discouraged? Did you ever feel disheartened or confused about your progress/development?
AE I think that when I failed my Grade 6 flute, that woke me up to the fact that I wasn’t trying hard enough. With the help of a new teacher (the RCM’s Graham Mayger), I spent months playing long notes, improving my embouchure… again, it was really an important lesson in how to practise, and it worked, because happily, I got my Grade 8 distinction on the flute a couple of years later. Thinking about how we practise music can change everything. When things go wrong, it’s essential to look at why and learn from the experience.
MM Were you always determined to be a musician?
AE Even though the flute wasn’t my first love, learning to play it well was an essential part of my musical development. So, we keep going…
MM Did other vocations ever tempt you?
AE During my postgraduate studies at the RCM, I instead opted out and realised that performing didn’t interest me quite the way that academic study had at university. I went to work at Chappell’s for a spell before spending four years working in the recording industry for EMI Classics. I think that was a hugely valuable time in my life, and I learnt so much about business and professionalism.
MM You have such a wide and varied range of musical interests – piano teaching, harpsichord, writing, blogging, reviewing, composition, and performing. Can you tell us first about how you started to teach piano and how that developed?
AE By the early 1990’s I had moved to Milton Keynes, and in 1992 I married Louise (we celebrated three decades this year!). I was commuting to EMI in London every day, and when Louise became pregnant, I really wanted to shift to working more locally.
At the time, I was playing in a church band, and one of the other musicians was our local Secondary School teacher. He kept encouraging me to try teaching, and I kept telling him I wasn’t interested. In the end he gave my phone number to a sixth-form student who was self-taught to around Grade 6 level. This lad Matthew phoned me a couple of times, and when I reluctantly agreed to have him round to play for me, I realised immediately that he was hugely talented and that I could really help him realise his potential. So, I had a “light bulb” moment and knew at that moment that piano teaching was my life vocation. Shortly after, I resigned from EMI and took a step into the unknown. Since then, I have rarely had a day off! As for Matthew, he went on to have a successful career as an MD in the West End…
MM Also, it would be fascinating to hear about how Pianodao began and developed and about your harpsichord studies.
AE So, Pianodao! Sometime in my thirties, I became interested in Daoism (or Taoism) as a philosophy and took up Qigong practice. Along with traditional five-element acupuncture, it has significantly impacted my health and well-being, as well as my piano playing. I wanted to share that and set up the Pianodao site as a blog for that reason. Well, the site has been going for a few years now and has encompassed my other interests, which are pretty diverse!
And yes, the harpsichord has been another significant interest. I have an ARCM performing diploma and won a competition or two back in the day. It isn’t something I’ve continued to pursue, but learning to play to a high level greatly impacted my piano playing. I approach Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart very differently now…
MM Tell us how composition fits in with the rest of your life and career – firstly in your earliest years and then through your childhood, student years and up to the present.
AE My first musical ambition was to be a composer when I grew up, and even before formal lessons began, I was “messing around” on the piano. As a teenager, I visited the Careers Library, where I
discovered that there were more than 700 professional composers in the UK at the time, very few of whom were making any living from their work.
While I realised that composing probably wouldn’t pay the bills, I had no idea of an alternative and drifted through my university education, simply enjoying the ride. And on the side, I would make up rock songs with friends in bands and worship songs in church.
When I started teaching, I was approached by the local Music Service to go into schools teaching electronic keyboards. I couldn’t find material which fitted my teaching intentions, so I ended up composing my own. Those publications launched the educational composing side of my career, and several pieces were published by ABRSM in their Keyboard Together books.
Steadily I have composed more for education and published recordings of my piano improvisations on the SoundCloud platform. Those have picked up more than a million streams online, but the Careers Library were right: you can’t make much money that way!
MM Is writing educational music different from composing without pedagogical intentions? Is it constraining, and if so, how?
AE Yes, absolutely. That’s what I like about both, in fact.
Composing with specific pedagogic constraints can be liberating in one way, a bit like solving a puzzle. How can I write something with just five notes which is memorable and hasn’t been done a million times? It’s an exciting challenge.
My other composing is, to all intents and purposes, “recreational”, recorded improvisations made permanent not by pen and ink but by the development of wonderful technology and computer programmes like Ableton Live.
MM What are you currently composing?
AE Right now, I am working on some fresh solo piano pieces in response to a commission. That’s all I can say, however. Also, I have another project selecting and editing music, which follows on from the recent Graded Gillock publications I worked on for Willis Music…
MM Yes! Tell me, what are some of the hallmark features of Gillock’s approaches to writing for piano?
AE Interesting question! His music combines the two things most of us look for in educational piano music. Firstly, the pieces introduce techniques, understanding and develop expressive musical communication, so they are full of good pedagogy. And secondly, they are enormously enjoyable as music. Colleagues in the US, where Gillock’s music is hugely popular, tell me that they use his pieces to inspire their students and to keep them motivated. That is equally true with my students here in the UK. So I am immensely excited to have been able to compile three graded collections of some of his most brilliant music, especially for the UK market.
MM Can you give a list of six neglected gems of contrasting nature and describe the unique qualities of each piece?
AE That’s a challenge because there are so many, but the books cover Grades 1-6, split into three collections, so I’ll mention one from each grade level.
At Grade 1, Drifting Clouds is a marvellous, evocative piece which uses the pedal. For many learners, it will be their first time exploring those magical sonorities, and Gillock makes the most of that by including some gorgeous harmonies It’s a stunning piece.
From the Grade 2 selections, I would select Fiesta, even though it’s partially known here. But it is such a fun, syncopated piece and students adore it.
The first piece in the second book, which covers Grades 3-4, is Slumber Song, a lyrical ballad that again has exquisite harmony, and now the pedalling is more advanced. The piece begins in C minor and ends in E flat major just 18 bars later, but it has a marvellous sense of narrative flow.
Windy Weather is around the Grade 4 level and includes many crossing hands (a regular Gillock feature even from Grade 1). It’s impressionistic, evocative, and very satisfying to play.
Gillock’s New Orleans jazz pieces are all at about Grade 5 level, and tunes such as Mister Trumpet Man and New Orleans Nightfall have already become favourites here. My third collection begins with another of these pieces, Downtown Beat, which I am teaching to several students right now. It’s tremendous fun.
Dusk on the Bayou appears as the final piece and is probably around Grade 6, although benchmarking Gillock is difficult because he wrote these pieces in a non-exam culture, without piano grades in mind. Those who enjoyed New Orleans Nightfall may well enjoy this piece which evokes the deep south of America with delicious gospel harmonies.
Please tell us about any Imminent plans and projects. What projects, dreams, and plans would you dearly love to explore and work at in the future?
I have lots of ideas for possible publications, but I’m also feeling quite settled and happy with what I am doing. Dreams? I would be interested in working in a music school or college environment at some point, as that’s something I’ve not had the opportunity to do before. Although I love running my own studio business, I do often miss working more closely with others, and there’s something to be said for occasionally leaving the house!