What is your first memory of the piano?
My Grandmother was a professional pianist and teacher, and my mother played too, though not professionally. My parents used to listen to classical music a lot and I absolutely loved it from a very young age.
My first lesson was with a rather scary teacher, Mrs Nellie Monks! Despite her very strict ways and frosty demeanour, I was hooked from the moment I walked into her music room where her beautiful grand piano looked out through French windows onto her garden. I practised constantly, much to the annoyance of my siblings.
It occurred to me recently that I have recreated that first impression with my own lovely grand piano looking out onto the garden through French windows!
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
I was inspired and encouraged to start teaching by my second piano teachers who are actually opera singers, piano was their second instrument but they were wonderful and inspiring teachers (Jennifer Dakin and her husband Bonnaventura Bottone). When I first went to them they were quite young themselves, and usually Jen would teach me, but Bon taught me quite often too as their young family began to expand and Jen became busier with her babies.
I think that their approach as singers really helped me to develop a good tone and my approach to the piano as a ‘singing instrument’, always mindful of the sound, colours, touch and tone. It also gave me a great sense of musical phrasing. I am very grateful to them both for the way in which they encouraged and inspired me musically.
Later on they did try to persuade me to move to a specialist piano teacher, I was very reluctant to do so as I really loved my lessons with Jen and Bon, but eventually I did move on. They also talked to my parents about the option of specialist music school for me, but my parents were not keen on the idea of me being away from home at a young age.
In my early twenties I visited Jen again and she encouraged me to start teaching, and I have been teaching ever since, over 25 years now.
In 2009 I decided I ought to have some more pieces of paper which reflected my experience as a piano teacher so I enrolled on the CT ABRSM course which initially I found very daunting as it encourages you to question and explore your beliefs and experiences around your teaching; it is a very reflective course. After a shaky start though, I really did enjoy it and with the support of an excellent mentor and Course Leader ( Mary Pells and Moira Hayward), I gained so much from completing this course. Having embarked on it initially for the extra qualification, I soon realised that the journey was far more valuable.
The experiences I had on the course and in particular, the chance to share knowledge, experience, repertoire and teaching materials with teaching colleagues were so valuable and really did re-energise my teaching. One of the best things about this course is the support you get from you colleagues in your mentor group, I was lucky to be with a lovely group of teachers and we still meet up when we can, in fact many of us met up at the ABRSM conference recently, and one came along to join me and other piano teachers at tothe recent EPTA meeting for the newly formed Bedford Town region.
After the CT I went on to take the ABRSM teachers Diploma: this was also a great experience and gave me chance to work with an excellent mentor Emyr Roberts who prepared us fantastically for the final exam.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
Later on, I worked with a wonderful teacher and pianist in North Devon, Susan Steele, who had studied at the Royal Academy and moved to Devon with her family and is still very busy as a performer as well as a teacher. Susan helped me to prepare for the AB Performer’s Diploma, and acted as a sort of teaching mentor too: over the years she and her husband, artist Robin Wiggins, have become very dear friends of mine.
I must, of course, pay tribute to my late husband, concert pianist and teacher Raymond Banning, who helped me enormously with my playing. Raymond was a fabulous teacher and a Professor at Trinity College of Music in London. Raymond had endless patience and was such a wonderful pianist who was known for his beautiful sound. He was a great fan of Horowitz and Arrau, and had a preference for the Romantic, and also Impressionist works. Raymond also really enjoyed teaching adult amateur pianists and believed that with the right encouragement there were no barriers to how far they might develop their playing. I attended and later also helped at his Piano weekends for amateur pianists which he ran with his friend, journalist Richard Ingrams, editor of ‘The Oldie’ magazine, who sponsored these weekends (and also an excellent pianist himself and pupil of Raymond’s). Watching his teaching on these courses was so inspiring: he was so patient and encouraging, identifying exactly what needed to be worked at and how, but in such a kind manner and by the end of the weekends you could really hear the improvement in people’s playing. He was truly inspirational.
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
The courses I have attended over the last few years have influenced my teaching enormously, as have the teachers I have already mentioned.
Last year I started studying with Graham Fitch who I have to say is one of the best teachers I have ever met!
I first encountered Graham when I was playing in a workshop he was giving for the London Piano Meet up Group and I immediately felt comfortable with his style of teaching, I have been studying with him ever since. Graham has such a wealth of experience both as a performer and as a teacher, he is always able to help you find solutions for any and every technical/musical issue and his lessons are delivered in a such positive way, I have many colleaugues who also study with Graham and all say the same thing; it is wonderful to have found the such a supportive, positive and inspirational teacher to work with.
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
I have many memorable teaching experiences and have had some lovely interesting and talented pupils over the years, but I will never forget a little girl who was really struggling to learn and had been told by a previous teacher that she would never be able to play the piano. This child did have some learning difficulties and was so shy and lacking in confidence, but desperate to learn. With a lot of encouragement she managed to prepare her pieces and won her class at the local music festival, the look of shock, disbelief and pride on her face when she won was incredible and was better than the best high flyer pupil winning, as this win really changed this girl’s view of herself, and expanded her self confidence, she had never succeeded at anything before and was being bullied at school too, so this success, which may seem so small to many, meant so much to her, and for me, this was a really rewarding moment. I have had lots of pupils go on and do really well, some winning the whole of the piano section at festivals, but this little girl’s achievement was probably one of the best moments of my teaching career to be honest because I had helped her to believe in herself and to understand that she could succeed at something.
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?
I do enjoy teaching adults because they have come to lessons very keen to learn and entirely of their own free will. Often, adults will spend more time practicing, but not always effectively!
I do believe that a great part of our job as piano teachers is to show people how to practice effectively. A lot of adults respond to this very well, and it is wonderful when this happens, I have had some lovely adult pupils who had played as a child and come back to it later in life when they have time to do it justice and most do very well and get a great deal of pleasure out of their piano lessons as it is time set aside just for them and they have returned to playing or begun playing, at this stage of their life purely and simply because they love music.
The challenges can come when the adult pupil does not really listen (but this is also true of children), or thinks they know better than you, if perhaps they are very confident/successful in other aspects of their life such as their career, and actually find it very hard to take advice/instruction from someone else.
It can also be challenging if an adult pupil has a busy full time job with very little time to practice and has come along thinking that success can be achieved just by having the lessons, not really having thought out the time commitment involved.
I do think that with time, patience and encouragement most adults get so much from their lessons and can really move forward with their playing. If this was not happening then I would always be happy to suggest that they try another teacher/colleague as it can sometimes be just that they need a different personality.
What do you expect from your students?
I think it is really up to me to inspire and encourage my pupils, but I do expect my pupils to practice effectively and see it as my responsibility to show them how to do this.
I understand that there are times when other school work has to come first, or when someone has not been well etc, but generally, there is an expectation that they must practice, after all, most of the work has to be done through practice, we cannot progress without effective practice, and there are no shortcuts with piano playing.
I am not big on rules though, I think it is very important for pupils to feel at ease during their lesson; it is very difficult for them to be creative if they are not relaxed. I have two very nice pianos though, so I do ask that they are treated with respect!
There is so much piano repertoire to explore that I do ask that pupils trust me when I encourage them to at least TRY a different style.Of course trust has to be earned, and as a teacher I always try to listen to and respect what pupils want from their lessons too.
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
I am definitely not a fan of rushing from one exam to the next and believe strongly that learning the piano is not all about passing exams, I often find that the desire to push children through grades comes from parents and I refuse to give in to this kind of pressure. I do ask them to trust my professional judgement and experience on this. Of course trust has to be earned, and as a teacher I always try to listen to and respect what pupils want from their lessons too.
I think that as long as exams, festivals and competitions are not seen as the main goal, but as part of a pupil’s overall musical development, then they do have a very good place in a pupil’s piano education.
Working towards and exam/festival/competition is very good discipline, and after all music is a performing art and lots can be learned from the preparation and taking part in these things. I know from personal experience that an impending exam, festival or competition can really help motivate you to practice, however, not all students who are suited to this process and that is fine with me. I think that encouraging exams and competitions is great, but pressurising someone who is terrified would only result in a soul destroying experience. I think you have to know your pupils well and they have to trust you enough to be honest about what their goals and ambitions are with their piano playing.
I am a firm believer that the lessons should be about each individual and I have no agenda other than working with each student to achieve their musical needs/goals. If a pupil wants to take part in exams/festivals or competitions then I am very happy to work with them on this and it is always rewarding when they do well. It must be their choice though and I do offer other less formal performing opportunities.
What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?
I think that it is hugely important for a teacher to be a good pianist and to still perform in some capacity; music is a performing art, and we need to be able to practise what we preach!
Even if performances are informal, the striving to get a work ready to perform and coping with the nerves, building up stamina and concentration, and the different dynamic of playing to others is so important and informs our teaching.
I try to perform regularly and set myself new challenges. I have an AB Diploma in performance which I did many years ago, and am currently working towards the LRSM performer’s diploma, therefore I have done quite a lot of performing recently in preparation for this, and feel that performing is a very important part of my career. Last year I joined the London Piano Meetup Group which has been a great way of finding lots of performance opportunities, both formal and informal and look forward to several opportunities to perform in their South London Concert Series this year as well as continuing to play in the regular and less formal events we have. I will also be doing a couple of recitals in Bedford later this year and will use those as opportunities to rehearse my LRSM programme and also to raise money for Music for Memory, a cause very close to my heart.
The most nerve-wracking recent performing experience was playing to a room full of fellow teachers/pianists at the EPTA conference this year! I think we learn so much when we perform and this is essential for good teaching. It also helps us to remember to empathise with our students and to be able to help them when performing nerves affect them or they struggle with the stamina and focus as we are able to relate well to this.
As musicians we never stop learning and developing, there is so much repertoire to explore and perform too. I have recently started playing duets again with a friend and would really like to get involved in performing some chamber music and will be hosting some piano platforms and duet/chamber music opportunities at my house in Bedford as part of my role as Regional Co-ordinator for the newly formed EPTA group for Bedford Town.
I also sing in a choir and we have several concerts a year. I will also be taking up the cello later this year and hope to quite quickly get to a standard where I can play in an orchestra which I think will also add another dimension to my piano playing and teaching.
I believe that performing regularly helps us to constantly stay motivated and enthusiastic about music in general and this enthusiasm is passed on to our pupils.
Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?
I have always been inspired by the recordings of Horowitz and Arrau with their beautiful warm tone. For me, tone/sound and communication are the number one priority in piano playing. I am not at all inspired or impressed by flashy technique alone, the playing has to communicate something to the audience. Music is such a powerful form of communication and the piano is able to say/sing so much without words.
There are so many pianists I admire, Murray Perahia is one favourite, I just love his Bach and Mozart playing, the tone is beautiful and never harsh, the playing precise but full of warmth, equally, I love Angela Hewitt’s Bach.
As well as the pianists and teachers I have already mentioned, I hugely admire, and have also had lessons with my lovely friend Chenyin Li who is a fabulous pianist and teacher and is also the ‘Pianist’ Magazine artist. Her sound is fantastic, and technique phenomenal she is so diverse too.
Noriko Ogawa is another favourite, as well as being a fabulous pianist, she is also warm, encouraging and supportive and has become a friend to us. I am particularly inspired by Noriko’s Debussy recordings I have heard Noriko play many times and I attended her Wigmore Hall recital where she played Debussy and Takimitsu, I was blown away by the way she is able to make such a fantastic sound, draw the audience into a wonderful atmosphere and explore every tonal colour on the piano, always maintaining absolute clarity .
Over the last two summers I have been lucky enough to study with Noriko at the piano festival and summer school run by Murray Mclachlan and his wife, Kathryn Page at Chetham’s School of Music. Murray and Kathryn are wonderful pianists too, and work so hard to make the summer school the great success that it is. The atmosphere there is so friendly, inclusive and totally inspiring with a love of the piano being at the heart of everything. The summer school is also a fantastic opportunity for piano teachers who are not necessarily professional performers, to get lots of performing experience and help. There are also two concerts by the faculty almost every evening with a huge variety of styles and repertoire. So many international pianists in one place, it is really a wonderful opportunity and experience.
During this year’s piano festival and summer school I have enjoyed attending many fabulous concerts by hugely talented pianists such as: Noriko Ogawa, Graham Caskie, Philip Fowke, Murray McLachlan, Kathryn Page, Carlo Grante, Leslie Howard, Peter Donohoe, Domonique Merlet and Artur Pizzaro to name but a few! All of whom are really inspirational pianists.
I was lucky enough to hear Leslie Howard and have some lessons with him at summer school too in 2011, he is a fabulous Liszt player and very warm and encouraging as a teacher.
Philip Fowke is also very encouraging with adults and a wonderful player, Anna Markland too.Last year I also heard wonderful Italian pianist and friend Carlo Grante whose Masterclass/Seminar on his book Fundamentals of Piano Methodology, I attended in May.My late husband, the wonderful pianist and Professor, Raymond Banning remains my greatest musical inspiration as a pianist and teacher.
Lorraine Womack-Banning is a highly experienced piano teacher and pianist based in Bedford, UK. Before moving to Bedford, she worked in North Devon both as a teacher and also using music therapeutically with terminally ill children. Lorraine is also involved with Music for Memory as a volunteer helping to deliver music to patients with dementia.
Interview date: September 2013