Category Archives: Teaching

At the Piano with……Liz Giannopoulos

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What is your first memory of the piano?

I was surrounded by music as a child  and I fell in love with music at a very young age. My mother would play piano many evenings and I would lie in bed and listen to Don McLean’s Vincent or Clementi’s  Sonatina  No. 4. At the weekend, my father allowed me to choose music to listen to. This was a wonderful privilege because I was allowed to touch his precious records. My favourite was Lloyd Webber’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini;  I also loved Beethoven (particularly his “Pastel”(!) [Pastoral] Symphony), Miles Davies and Elton John, whose Your Song settled my sons to sleep when they were younger.

By age 10, I was taking piano lessons and wanted to play “like my Mum”. She was perhaps my most inspirational role model because she played for her own enjoyment and seemingly without effort.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

In my mid-thirties, I found myself with a husband, two children and a deeply unsatisfying, yet very demanding, career. There was no doubt that my family needed more of my time, but I was equally certain that I needed creative and intellectual stimuli beyond pureed carrots and a 40 degree wash cycle! My husband asked me what I wanted to do when I was little. My answer was simple; “I wanted to be like Becky” – more on her later.

My reasons for becoming a teacher were mostly about the practicalities of my own life. The reasons I am still a teacher – and still love being a teacher – are the daily challenge and reward it brings; the impact I can make on an individual’s life experience; the ‘eureka’ moment when they get it; learning something new about myself, my students, teaching or music every single day; and the sheer joy of working creatively, reactively and proactively alongside children who are joyfully learning. My son (and piano student) gave me a hand-written plaque last year; it said “Teachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning”.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I started clarinet (age 9) and piano (age 10) with Becky, an enthusiastic graduate, who coached me to ABRSM Grade 5 on both instruments and introduced me to the alto saxophone. I adored Becky and worked hard to please her. My parents say she was an excellent role model and they rarely had to nag me to practice. Silver and gold stars were available for each piece learned and she hosted student recitals at her parents’ house. Quite simply, she made learning music fun.

My second piano teacher, Miss Faulkner, taught at my secondary school. We had musical interaction outside our regular piano lessons through the GCSE music course and other school activities. I learned about music history and the theory and structure of music, which helped me understand what I was playing. This is where I find most technical memories including using variable rhythms to perfect tricky passages, word patterns to master poly-rhythms and using well known tunes to identify intervals aurally. Miss Faulkner used metaphors, analogies and examples and asked me to listen, observe and discover techniques for myself.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

There are so many; where do I begin?

The foundations of my teaching style are influenced by Becky and Miss Faulkner – simple things like awarding stars and certificates, agreeing objectives with the students and parents and providing a progress reports at the end of each term, motivating students through the thrill of achievement, not through fear of being scolded or failing. Miss Faulkner taught me there is great value in exposing children to the wider possibilities of music making. I enjoy taking groups of students to musical experiences, from youth jazz at The Barbican to FUNharmonics with the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall; from the London Mozart Players to STOMP!

I read many pedagogy books when studying for my ABRSM Certificate of Teaching and was particularly struck by Harris’ simultaneous learning approach. His book, Improve Your Teaching has been invaluable, and the concept of simultaneous learning is rather succinctly and eloquently summarised in The Music Teachers Companion: ‘integrating aural work with pieces, scales with sight-reading, aural work with scales and so on. The ingredients of musicianship can be both taught and learnt much more effectively when they are seen as being part of a whole. The objective is to make each lesson much more like an organic process. The teacher sets the agenda, is pro-active rather than re-active, and there is a considerable amount of pupil-teacher interaction throughout. This is what is meant by simultaneous learning’.

Simultaneous learning is still a relatively new concept for me and despite my best intentions I know I am still delivering hybrid lessons; combining simultaneous learning with more reactive teaching. As a teacher, it is important to realise that you can’t just wake one morning and decide that you will be teaching simultaneous learning lessons from this day forth; the transition requires time and commitment, thought, exploration and above all, experimentation.

Despite all these experiences and pedagogical experts, it’s the students themselves who have the greatest influence on my teaching. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again; every student is different and as I collect learning and teaching experiences my musical knowledge grows and my teaching style is constantly evolving. Teaching strategies that work with one student will work with others, but not all of them, and I keep a teaching diary (inspired by my CT) in which I record interesting experiences, what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

One of my first students – we’ll call him Michael, now age 10 – has been with me for 5 years. Although some students have joined me at a more advanced stage, Michael is the most advanced student I have taught from the beginning of his piano learning experience and is one of my most dedicated students. He presents well-developed technique, keen attention to detail and a love of performing. His meticulous preparation and assured stage presence result in naturally polished performances. Michael has a keen interest in jazz music; he often chooses music to work on independently for his own enjoyment. He has also experimented with improvisation, composition and duets. This year, Michael has made a significant step forward in the way he communicates as he performs. As his technical ability continues to develop, he is learning notes and fingering quickly and consequently spends more time working on interpretation and musicality. He offers robust debate on the merits of his own interpretations and opinions and ultimately implements advice to good effect. We are still on a journey together, as Michael continues to push me to discover new music and challenges for him. There can be no doubt that he is exceptionally bright and very conscientious but I do feel a small amount of personal pride in knowing that I’ve taught him – and I’ve taught him well. I look forward to his lesson every week!

I try to shake up my lessons and do something different every now and then. Sometimes, the most creative ideas come from throwing away the rule book and trying something different and entirely unexpected. One memorable afternoon saw me teaching two brothers without saying a word. We did everything through the music, with call and response activities, working out scales by ear, and a constant pulse throughout the lessons. You can read the full story ‘A Little Less Conversation’ on the Articles page of my website 

Every term I run ‘doubles week’, pairing students to work together in lessons. Last term I introduced an improvising exercise inspired by the legendary Keith Jarrett’s performance of Summertime a the Royal Festival Hall, London. I was immediately struck by an ostinato bass line and resolved to adapt it for my students. In a mentoring session, Mary played the accompaniment and encouraged younger student John to improvise. This was John’s first experience of improvising but he was willing to give it a try; his melodic shape had some appeal but it was rhythmically uninspiring. I took over the bass line and encourage question and answer improvising between the two students. Mary immediately included some swing rhythms which John copied, seemingly subconsciously. When I asked them to summarise their learning experiences, they talked about listening to one another, rhythmic variety and learning from others. They also, unwittingly, hit on the infamous saying about improvising; “if you play a wrong note, play it again!”. I videoed this session and on review, the intense concentration coupled with the progress they made was quite remarkable. Sometimes, as a teacher, the best thing you can do is sit back and let things unfold without interfering. That itself is improvising in its simplest form!

There is one funny story that I simply must share. Several years ago, young beginner Graham was learning to play in triple time with a melody passing between two hands. He left the lesson having mastered the first line with the promise to learn the rest of the piece for homework. At the next lesson his performance was utterly unrecognisable; beyond the correct first note I could not connect the notes he was playing to the notes on the page. His repeat was identical – there was no doubt he had been practising, but what? I was stumped, so I asked Graham to teach me to play the piece the way he played it. We swapped seats and he calmly and logically explained that the time signature was like a fraction; the 3 on the top meant he should play every note on the top stave three times and the 4 on the bottom meant that every bottom stave note should be played four times. I believe this flawed logic was a result of learning to multiply fractions at school and playing from the grand stave for the first time!

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

I have mixed feelings about teaching adults and have only a few in my timetable. I tend to avoid adult beginners completely as I had a series of mature students who were very impatient; they thought they were taking on something easy – after all children can do it! – and were reluctant to put in the basic ground work at home. Where children can take time to understand the theory of notation, adults seem to pick it up very quickly. Conversely, adult beginners are not as supple as children and they need to spend much more time developing finger control to deliver even rhythms and tone. I struggled a lot with attendance – last minute cancellations and even no-shows – and don’t get me started on lack of practice! They came with plausible but different excuses every week, ranging from a big project at work, a chicken pox epidemic amongst the kids, the spouse that didn’t cover the babysitting – and there’s not much more you can say other than “try to do more this week”. Of course, when they don’t improve they become frustrated; it’s a vicious circle!

But it’s not all bad. I have a few adult returners who gave up in their teens and have returned to music in their 40s. Susan is very driven; her husband has promised to buy her a grand piano if she can pass Grade 8 by age 50. After 4 years tuition and at 45 she is about to take Grade 6 so she is well on the way. These adult students are much more productive; they learn the notes independently so we can spend a lot more time working on the performance of a piece rather than just getting through the notes. I enjoy these lesson immensely as I can lead the students to work things out for themselves and we have interesting debates and discussions about how to improve their playing. There are still challenges of course; Frank refuses point blank to sight-read and (against my strongest advice) works towards every exam on the basis that he will score 0 for that part of the test. Peter is utterly disinterested in the theory of scales (“don’t start on that technical stuff again, Liz”) and continues to work them out by ear, trial and error.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect my students to turn up on time, with their books and clean hands! Sometimes I have to settle for two out of three!

In terms of technical ability and musical achievements my expectations are different for every student; they all have different priorities in their lives, they are different ages, at different schools, with different musical experiences at home and different learning styles. But I do expect every student to try their best. I expect them to listen in lessons, read the notebook at home and try to improve each time they play. As long as a student is interested and really giving it their best shot, I’m happy! I spend a lot of time coaching students on effective practice strategies, which encompasses time management and fitting in practice around their other commitments, eliminating distractions, the value of reading the practice notebook, the importance of warming up and technical exercises, tools for approaching a new piece of music and techniques for developing the performance of a piece they have learnt. We talk about setting small but manageable goals, celebrating (and rewarding themselves for) successes and making music with and for others – just for fun. There is a clear relationship between regular, effective practice and student success.

I’m also very clear on what I expect from parents. In the Art of Teaching Piano, Denes Agay writes ‘Music lessons are a three-way effort by teacher, student and parents’. Encouraging parents to attain Agay’s ideal of ‘display[ing] a constructive interest…without being overzealous or meddlesome’ is a critical, but often overlooked, aspect of teaching. Parents should expose their children to music, facilitate lessons, encourage practice and provide support. I explore this in more detail in my article ‘Parent Power’ .

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

There is much debate about whether or not students, especially children should sit music exams. One of the main benefits of taking exams is that they are a source of motivation and they provide a strong incentive for students to continue studying their chosen instrument. Exams can be used to chart the musical and technical ability of a students against an existing set of standards which allows teachers, pupils and parents to monitor progress. The feedback received, if delivered in a positive light, can be constructive and inspiring and often reinforces comments that teachers have made. The need to learn repertoire and studies to a very high standard and experience performance pressure should not be under-rated.

Conversely, if the exam system is used inappropriately, it can be demotivating. Students should not follow a curriculum based solely on exam repertoire to the exclusion of all else as this will greatly reduce their enjoyment of playing and the range of their musical experiences. It is of great importance that students sit exams at the appropriate level; an exam that is too easy will not inspire appropriate effort and equally, an exam that is too difficult will leave a student feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. Failing an exam is demoralising for both students, parents and teachers and should be avoided at all costs.

There have been limited opportunities for my students to take part in festivals and competitions, although we had a few placings at Kingston Performing Arts Festival 2013 and at Dulwich Piano Festival in June 2014. As a child, I was encouraged to play in music festivals regularly. I was never expected to win but encouraged to participate nonetheless. It is important both teacher and student have realistic goals. Had I been encouraged to compete with unrealistic ambitions, I would have been disappointed and possibly demotivated.

I think giving pianists – children in particular – the opportunity to perform and to hear their peers performing is invaluable and a critical part of musical learning. It is unlikely that many (if any) of my students will choose a career as a professional performer. But in all likelihood, every single one of them, at some stage in their life, will have to stand up and present a speech, give a presentation, or simply share an opinion amongst a group of friends. I like to think that this early experience of getting up and performing their own composition or their latest exam piece in front of an audience will sow the seeds for these invaluable life skills. Through these performances they learn the importance of disciplined preparation, focusing on the moment, keeping going (even when it goes wrong) and responding appropriately to audience applause.

I am excited to be organising the first Battersea Piano Festival in March 2015. I see this event as a celebration of musical talent in our local area and it will be open to all pianists, regardless of age and experience, with carefully defined competition classes to ensure a fair platform for all participants. A panel of respected adjudicators will join the team to select winners in each class and provide constructive feedback and inspiration to the participants.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

It is one thing to master the techniques of playing an instrument. It is quite another to experience and appreciate music.  I was taught the value of both and I strive to pass on to my students a broad musical experience. If I can teach children to love music, whether it be playing, composing or listening, then I’ve done something right. Learn to play music you love and learn to love the music you play.

When a student walks in for a lesson I want them to have enjoy it; to enjoy playing and to enjoy learning. But it’s important to be honest – there will always be moments  when it isn’t fun; I have spent many hours practising huge and painful Rachmaninoff chords and it really wasn’t the highlight of my day. The first week of two handed scales will be agonisingly slow and immensely frustrating. But these are just moments in a whole world of musical experiences and like caterpillars becoming butterflies they should morph into rewarding and uplifting experiences.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

Inspired by Becky, I host student recitals twice a year. A few years ago, one of my students asked me what I would be playing. It had not crossed his mind that I would not take part, any more than it had crossed my mind that the students (and parents) would like to hear me play. Since then, I’ve closed every student recital with a short piece and a little information about what I will be playing.

I avoided any performance for many years, but the feedback from students and parents has inspired me to re-evaluate, along with lots of encouragement from my teacher and my husband. I have found that learning a new work properly – as opposed to tinkling away purely for my own entertainment – has forced me to practise with discipline, address technical difficulties and learn more about the music which, of course, directly translates to my teaching. Lorraine Womack-Banning said in her interview that we should ‘practise what we preach’ and I think she’s right.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

I’ve been lucky that my young students don’t seem to get too worked up about performing – perhaps because they take part in the recitals right from the first term of lessons. However, I have found that adult students are generally reluctant to play in organised recitals and are much more nervous about exams. Kath (age 40) came out of her Grade 3 and burst into tears declaring it a disaster (she later discovered that she achieved a Merit), and Susan (age 44) was in such distress before she went into her Grade 5 exam that she was unable to find the opening notes of her first piece when she warmed up.

Aside from the obvious points about thorough preparation and a good nights sleep, I think the best way to tackle performance anxiety is just to do it – and lots of it. I recently completed my Advanced Performance Certificate with Trinity. I had not taken a music exam or given a serious piano performance in over 20 years so part of my preparation strategy was to practice performing the music to an audience. I took part in the Dulwich Piano Festival, joined and performed with the London Piano Meetup Group and hosted a concert for friends and family at home. At Dulwich, I was a wreck, my knees were visibly shaking and I felt that my heart was going to hammer through my chest! It was still pounding at the end and I have little memory of what I played. My second performance with the London Piano Meetup Group at the 1901 Arts Club was less nerve-wracking although I did get a fit of the giggles between movements. At my home concert I was almost too relaxed and took some of the trickier passages too quickly necessitating some quick thinking to recover. As a combined result of these experiences, I was very pleased with my performance in the exam, the initial bone shaking nerves had gone, but I was mindful of the need to stay focused. I am thrilled that the London Piano Meetup Group is hosting an event for adult beginners in January 2015, although my student, Susan is less pleased as I have insisted that she performs at least two of her Grade 6 exam pieces!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

I’m always on the look out for concerts that will inspire my students and in particular my son James (age 10). I am particularly drawn to younger performers as children find it easier to make a connection with them.

James and I regularly attend the International Piano Series at Queen Elizabeth Hall; it’s an intimate venue and I choose the seats carefully so we can see the performers’ hands. Last year, we particularly enjoyed performances by Ingolf Wunder and Federico Colli. We were fortunate to have stage seats for The Scott Brothers Duo at Guiting Festival a few years ago. They explained the story of Saint-Saën’s Danse Macabre and it’s still one of James’ favourite CDs, along with Jason Rebello’s Jazz Rainbow.

In September 2012 I heard the British Paraorchestra perform at London’s Southbank Centre. All the musicians were incredibly talented and tremendously inspiring, but naturally the pianist, Nicholas McCarthy stood out for me; I wish I could play half as well as he does. I admire his tenacity, his commitment and his talent. YouTube clips of his performances can be particularly inspiring for students who have broken a finger playing netball and think they should stop lessons and practice for two months! I’m looking forward to experimenting with some of the one-handed piano music McCarthy recently helped promote in International Piano Magazine.

Liz Giannopoulos is a piano tutor and music teacher based in SW London. She founded Encore Music Tuition in 2009 and currently works with three associates, tutoring over 60 piano students. Liz provides curriculum advice and mentoring for her associates and she also teachers Foundation Stage and KS1 music at Alderbrook Primary School.  Liz is founder of the Battersea Piano Festival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running a successful piano studio

The following text formed the basis for a presentation and discussion which I led at a workshop for piano teachers held on Sunday 23rd November at Cecil Sharp House in north London. The presentation slides can be accessed here (Powerpoint presentation) or here (PDF file).

A vocation and a profession

Many people regard piano teaching as a vocation rather than a “profession”, and many do not understand or see the need for admin and business practice to enter into the craft of piano teaching. However, with a few simple steps you can organise your studio to run it in a way that is enjoyable, largely stress-free and profitable

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MARKETING YOUR STUDIO

1. Website

This is the 21st century business card and the first port of call for most people who are looking for a piano teacher.  Your website is your “shop window” and you should present a professional appearance. Pick a website design that is clear, accessible and easy to navigate. Having a website allows you to put up things like your studio policy, fees, term times (if applicable), business hours, your CV and qualifications, and teaching philosophy. Some teachers also like to include exam results and testimonials, sound and video clips and links to other sites. A well-designed website reduces time-wasting questions. You don’t even have to pay a specialist web designer to create a website: attractive and easy to build templates are available free from platforms such as WordPress, Blogger, Wix and Tumblr.

2. Get listed

Take advantage of free listings on sites such as MusicTeachers.co.uk and also local sites such as Mumsnet or a local site for small businesses (I belong to something called Teddnet). Being listed shows you are proactive and “out there”. Local music shops often have teacher listings too.

3. Use social networks

Don’t underestimate the usefulness of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Use both platforms to advertise your studio and connect with other teachers and music professionals etc around the world. Include links to your Twitter and Facebook profiles on your website. You can set up a Facebook page which is separate from a personal Facebook profile. Be intelligent about how much information about yourself you share on these networks, but don’t be afraid to use them: they can be a fantastic source of resources, information sharing and interaction between others in the profession.

BEING PROFESSIONAL

Adopt a professional demeanour in everything you do – from the way you dress to teach to how you interact with your students and their parents (your “clients”)

Have a clear studio policy/T&Cs and post this on your website. And stick to it! If you don’t offer catch up lessons, don’t make an exception for one or two students. Your policy must include information on payment, cancellation and make-up policies, punctuality, practising, exams and your expectations of parents and students. Some teachers ask students/their parents to sign a contract to indicate they have understood the T&Cs. Clear policies like these give credibility and confidence by setting expectations from the outset and let everyone know they are being treated fairly. You can also refer to them in the future to clarify things for anyone who may have forgotten or who queries missed lessons, payment of fees etc.

You can obtain a contract template from bodies such as EPTA and ISM.

Fees – always a tricky area as you don’t want to price yourself out of the market nor undersell yourself. Your fees should reflect your experience and qualifications but also take into account the demographic of area you live/work in. Look at what other teachers in your area are charging for guidance. The ISM publishes an annual survey of fees which gives a national average (currently £25 – £36 per hour for private instrumental teaching outside London) and London average (currently between £30-£50). How you choose to bill your students is up to you, but invoicing termly or half-termly reduces admin. Collecting fees can be a major headache so encourage all your clients to pay by direct bank transfer and give a date by which fees must be paid each term. Consider using billing software such as Music Teacher’s Helper (30-day free trial)

Tax and record keeping – be scrupulous about record keeping and keep your tax affairs in order. Use a tax accountant to help you if necessary.

Join a professional body such as EPTA or ISM if you feel this will lend credence to your professional standing. These bodies offer free listings, legal advice, , child protection, and can assist in disputes about fees etc

Get CRB checked – if you work with children you need to be completely transparent. An Enhanced Disclosure Certificate (formerly CRB check) is easy to obtain https://www.gov.uk/disclosure-and-barring-service-criminal-record-checks-referrals-and-complaints#types-of-check. State on your website that you have this certification.

Ongoing professional development – attending seminars, workshops and courses all feed into your teaching experience, allow you to connect with other teachers, and demonstrate that you are a teacher who is enquiring and interested in keeping up to date with new trends in piano pedagogy.

Personal development as a pianist – taking lessons and attending courses, masterclasses and conferences, learning new repertoire, performing, demonstrating to students that study does not end at Grade 8; that it is an ongoing process

Extra-curricular activities – enhance and add value to the teaching experience for your students by organising concerts and encouraging them to enter competitions and festivals, attend concerts and visit museums with musical connections. Student concerts are a wonderful way of celebrating your students’ achievements and allow family and friends a chance to see how your students are progressing. They are also a way of showing that piano lessons and regular practise bring recognisable achievement and progress.

Feel in charge of your own professional destiny and maintain your integrit  - for example, setting fees which you feel reflect your value and experience; being honest about who you want to tell (you don’t have to take on everyone!), setting high expectations of yourself and your students; not resting on the laurels of exam successes.

Related articles

An Image Crisis in Independent Piano Teaching?

Being Professional – the debate

Being Professional – the debate

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L to R: Sally Cathcart (standing), Frances Wilson, Sharon Mark-Teggart, Nigel Scaife & Lucinda Mackworth- Young

Those readers who have followed and contributed to my research and articles on Professionalism in Private Piano Teaching may like to read a summary of the presentations and subsequent debate at The Oxford Piano Group last month. This is taken from TOPG organiser Sally Cathcart’s blog:

At the end of October the first Oxford Piano Group meeting of the year focussed on discussing definitions of what ‘being professional’ means for the UK piano teacher.  It was a fascinating discussion stimulated by the thoughts of four presenters; Lucinda Mackworth-Young, Director of the Piano Teacher’s Course (EPTA UK), Nigel Scaife, Syllabus Director at ABRSM, Sharon Mark-Teggart, Founder and Director of Evoco and Frances Wilson, pianist, teacher and writer. 

Read the rest of Sally’s article here

Those who are interested in continuing this important debate about professionalism in private piano teaching may like to join a Facebook group which I have set up in order to share thoughts and resources and to debate issues which concern us:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/PianoProfessionals/

 

Related articles:

An Image Crisis in Independent Piano Teaching?

On Professionalism in Private Piano Teaching

Improving the Image of the Independent Piano Teacher

On Professionalism in Private Piano Teaching – presentation for The Oxford Piano Group

I was delighted to be invited to contribute to a very interesting and stimulating discussion on the subject of professionalism in piano teaching at the The Oxford Piano Group  on 29th October 2014. Other contributors to this important debate were Nigel Scaife (Syllabus Director, ABRSM), Lucinda Mackworth-Young and Sharon Mark-Teggart (Evoco) who each gave presentations which explored the many facets of professionalism, including proper accreditation, good business practice, membership of professional bodies and minimum standards of qualifications for piano teachers. After the presentations, there was a round table discussion about professionalism, which touched on other important aspects, including the setting of fees.

My own presentation was based on my personal views on this subject, discussions with friends and colleagues in the profession, and the results of my recent survey Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers.  The slides which I used as a starting point for my presentation and discussion are below, and you can read the text on which I based my presentation here: OPG presentation (click to download the PDF file)

 

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Improving the image of the independent piano teacher

As a follow up to my article An Image Crisis in Independent Piano Teaching?, in which I revealed the somewhat alarming results of my survey Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers, I would now like to explore ways in which independent piano teachers can improve the overall image of the profession. This will also tie in with a presentation I am giving at the Oxford Piano Group meeting at the end of the month at which we will be exploring ideas of “professionalism” within the field of piano teaching.

Music teaching in the UK has had a very bad press in recent years, with the disturbing revelations about child abuse, physical and emotional, in some of the top music schools and conservatoires. But even before the activities of certain teachers were brought to public attention, private instrumental teachers have suffered from negative stereotypes (“little old lady down the road”, “eccentric person with cats and cardigans”, and worse). The interesting thing about my survey was that the majority of respondents were independent piano teachers and it was they themselves who revealed these negative perceptions of the profession.  And yet many of the piano teachers I know are normal people, who run their teaching practices in an efficient and professional manner. As is usual in all walks of life, it is the minority of poor teachers who give the whole profession a bad name.

Rather than me write a long article in which I outline ways in which I think the profession can improve its image, I would very much welcome contributions from readers. Please feel free to leave comments below, or if you would prefer to respond privately, use the Contact page to get in touch with me. All responses will be treated in the strictest confidence.

Thank you in advance for your help.

At the Piano with Roberta Wolff

What is your first memory of the piano?

It is more of a feeling, I remember being struck by the beauty and loving the patterns of the keys.  I don’t remember a time when there has not been a piano near by calling me to play.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Inspire is the right word and it was probably the music which did it. It had always been my long term intention, however, I also wanted to know about the workings of the instrument so trained as a technician first.  One day whilst tuning a piano I realised that I was ready to move into teaching.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Beyond my lovely students from whom I learn continually I have had 6 teachers and they have all been significant in their own way.  If I had to pick one I would say Tim Barratt who snapped my playing, and practising into shape and guided me through the teaching diploma exams.  I also learnt more than expected, musically, during my time tuning for Steinway.  The sheer volume of high quality music I heard daily still runs through me.  I used to practise at Steinway over the weekends, helping myself to the concert fleet model Ds and receiving helpful passing comments from the likes of Alberto Portugheis and Charles Rosen.  When out on the road tuning I often had to wait for rehearsals to end, for me it was fascinating to listen in.  I am a better musician than I might have been as a result.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

This is an interesting one and the first thought that comes to mind is this……. when I was around 15, a piano teacher told me that I did not have a good enough ear to consider tuning pianos as a career.  By 22 I was tuning for Steinway covering Wigmore Hall and BBC Proms Concerts.  As a result I will never discourage a student but rather guide them in what they need to do to achieve their goals.  For me it is also important to keep myself musically stimulated through attending concerts, lessons and meetings with other musicians, taking the best from these experiences and passing it on.  I find trusting my intuition to be a very open and reliable way of working.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

They are probably the individual breakthroughs that students make after some time of careful work.  These delight me, no matter what the level, because of the personal feeling of success it brings the student.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

As well as the joy music brings, there is so much to be gained, on a personal level, from learning something later in life.  It is wonderful to watch adult students begin to trust and rely on the process, accept their mistakes and move away from their natural tendencies to be over analytical and critical.  The challenge for me is to lead by example!

Tell us how you developed the Music Me Piano Practice Books and how you think it will benefit piano students and teachers:

Music Me Piano is a piano practice note book available in three versions.  They developed out of a practice-a-thon my students took part in which highlighted a vast difference in achievement between the two week event and normal termly lessons. We realised that the speed of their progress during normal term time was hampered, not by the difficulty or time requirements of what I was asking them to do, but by their ability to divide up their work and use their practice time smartly.

During lesson time student and teacher plan what needs to be practised day by day for the week ahead.  Students benefit from very clear weekly targets which set in motion a positive cycle of achievements.  Their self-efficacy and enjoyment is increased but they also develop really powerful learning skills which translate to any subject.

Teachers benefit because they are working with more motivated students who are placed in a greater position of responsibility.  Teachers ensure, through the Reference Section, that the student has all the information needed to practise their work correctly.

A happy by product of all this is that lesson planning is a much more fluid process done in conjunction with the student.  The book opens up a discussion between teacher and student on the topics of practice and all the different areas which need to be covered to develop into a rounded musician.  The book can be used when you are teaching exam syllabuses and is also incredibly inspiring to use when lessons are not following the exam curriculum.  Providing a tool for teachers to connect all aspects of theory, form and musicianship through the piece being studied. A great way to set your own syllabus tailored to your student, and a super way to teach and learn!

What do you expect from your students?

The same as I expect from myself……..To give it their best, remain open and never ever say “I can’t”

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

As long as you approach them in a level-headed way when the time is right they are valuable learning experiences.  Also, I really feel music should be shared, so developing performance skills is important

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Actually they are not that different.  Follow the sound you are making, you can learn so much this way.  Don’t confine your musical education to the time spent in front of the piano, live it, music is everywhere.  Go to concerts, you need to experience many different styles, lines, tones and colours before you can go in search of what you want to create.  Observe yourself.  Play from the heart.  Know the value of deliberate practice, there is no quick fix which will give comparable results!

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

For me it is important to do both because developments in one area fuels the other in ways I may otherwise have missed.  Without stretching myself I would soon lose true empathy for my students; my best teaching and breakthrough moments with students come when I am working through difficulties of my own.  As well as that, performance needs to be taught and students learn much from watching.  I make sure I perform to all my students and parents during termly concerts.  We are all human, we all make mistakes, some people are just more practised at letting them slip by.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

Alfred Brendel, tone colour and mastery of every nuance and line.  Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, I was blown away by his playing last year, I think it was one of those special concerts where music, pianist and venue work perfectly.  Mitsuko Uchida, Maria Joao Pires, Krystian Zimmerman, especially the Schubert Impromptus.  I think it is good though to keep listening to new pianists and new music in new venues.

If you would like to know more about Music, Me, Piano please visit www.musicmepiano.co.uk

For more information on lessons, book presentations and book details please contact Roberta on info@robertawolff.co.uk or via her website www.robertawolff.co.uk

 

Review of the Music Me Piano practice notebook

At the Piano with……Norma Fisher

What is your first memory of the piano? 

A dark black shiny upright in my parents living-room that I couldn’t stay away from. Never mind dolls and toys…..this became the most irresistible, exciting, time-consuming and total love of my earliest years

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I’ve always loved people and helping/ sharing: even as a child if I learned something myself – my joy was to share it with others, in order to derive complete enjoyment and satisfaction from it.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

I was lucky with my teachers throughout: firstly, my earliest teacher (an unknown German lady called Else Schumann) inspired me, through her belief in my talent (I was 10 or 11 years old) and her encouragement of my natural gifts. Then, the wonderful Sidney Harrison who selected me (from those auditioning for the Junior Department at GSMD) to study with him, from the age of 11, and who continued to boost my confidence with his encouragement and delight in my abilities. Finally, the significance and importance of the legendary Greek pianist, Gina Bachauer, my mentor and “musical mother” and my beloved Ilona Kabos (the distinguished Hungarian teacher to so many of the great pianists) from the age of 15, who changed my way of thinking, attitude, and started me on the “road to artistry”. I also spent a wonderful six months in Paris, concentrating on French music with another legendary figure, Jacques Fevrier. Altogether the strongest and best influences one could ever hope for.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching? 

I think my work with Ilona Kabos planted the seeds from which my own “methods and ideas” grew: the importance of sound, understanding the depths and possibilities, the keyboard has to offer and how vital is stylistic awareness.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

All my teaching experiences have brought their own memorable and significant moments……but, I think (in terms of working with great young talent) the years of teaching for the Horowitz Foundation, in Kiev, Ukraine have been the most exciting and rewarding.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

If you mean, late beginners……. I have not much experience in this area but, would be fascinated by the challenge of dealing with the physical problems that may hamper the speed of learning to “make music”!

What do you expect from your students? 

A huge sense of responsibility to serve the music, at all times.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

Wonderful experience, if dealt with correctly………from an emotional/psychological standpoint.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students? 

I repeat, that all we do has to serve the music………i.e. that every technical problem, ceases to be that, if making sense of and finding the spirit of the music, is the goal. Obviously, with beginners an understanding of how the hands and keyboard connect, and the raison d’etre, is vital.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching? 

Again, vital! I do believe it is imperative to have an understanding of what it means to perform, at a certain level, before one can deal with the problems the would-be-performer has to face. Also, it is only when one has prepared oneself at the highest level can one understand how to help prepare another.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension? 

Very difficult and requires much thought and understanding of the student’s mentality and personality. Everyone is different and these different problems have to be dealt with, accordingly.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

I adore Murray Perahia and, on the odd occasions, when I’ve heard him teach……..I adore his logic and humanity. I’m sure, my idol, Grigory Sokolov, would make a fantastic teacher (if he were to have the time and desire!) as his understanding of sound quality/ quantity, is second to none.

 

Norma Fisher will be teaching at London Master Classes 2014 Summer Master Course, July 8 -13 at the Royal Academy of Music and Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, July 8-13 www.londonmasterclasses.com, Accademia J.S.Bach, Sardinia, July 19-29 2014, and MusicFest Perugia, Italy, August 2014 

Norma Fisher is acclaimed internationally as one of the UK’s leading pianists and teachers.  As a child she was recognised as ‘a rare musical talent’ winning an exhibition, at the age of eleven, to study with Sidney Harrison at the Guildhall School of Music.  At the age of fourteen she came to the attention of the celebrated Greek pianist Gina Bachauer who became her mentor, introducing her to the distinguished Hungarian teacher IlonaKabos, with whom she subsequently studied. A period was also spent in Paris studying French music with Jacques Fevrier. 

Her many, highly acclaimed, early performances for the BBC led to an invitation by the German radio station RIAS, in Berlin, to make her debut with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra – which launched her career in Europe. Success in the Busoni International Piano Competition as a top prize-winner followed and in 1963, when she shared the much-coveted Piano Prize in the Harriet Cohen International Music Awards with Vladimir Ashkenazy, her international reputation was sealed.  That same year she made her debut at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall and became a favourite soloist with leading British orchestras including the London Philharmonic, Philharmonia, London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, Hallé, Bournemouth Symphony, and the City of Birmingham Symphony orchestras. 

Norma Fisher is known for her versatility as a performer, receiving recognition worldwide as one of Britain’s leading pianists. This versatility extends to chamber music, which she plays with leading musicians throughout the world.  Her early relationship with the Dartington, Allegri and Delme String Quartets led to a much sought-after partnership with the Stamic Quartet of Prague, both in the UK and the Czech Republic. She has also performed regularly with the International Chamber Ensemble of Rome, Carmina Quartet and Reykjavik Wind Quintet and partnered such well known soloists as Stephanie Gonley, Alan Hacker, Maurice Hasson, Emanuel Hurwitz, Ralph Kirshbaum, Steven Isserlis, Peter Lukas Graf, GyorgyPauk, Hu Kun, Sylvia Rosenberg, GrigoriZhislin, Yossi Zivoni and singers Benjamin Luxon, Sherrill Milnes, Nelly Miricioiu and Sir John Tomlinson. 

Her reputation as a teacher is widely established and many of her top prize-winning students are well known on the international concert circuit. She is aProfessor of Piano at the Royal College of Music and a Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music.She is invited to give masterclasses throughout the world and has taught at the International Musician’s Seminar at Prussia Cove, UK, the International Summer Academy in Lenk, Switzerland and the Horowitz Foundation Summer Music Academy in Kiev, Ukraine, amongst many others. She is regularly invited on the Jury of leading international piano competitions including Gina Bachauer (USA), Horowitz (Kiev, Ukraine), Joanna Hodges (USA), Boston Grand Amateurs (USA), Newport (Wales), Sydney (Australia), Tbilisi (Georgia) and Virginia Waring (USA),  

She is the Artistic Director of London Master Classes (www.londonmasterclasses.com) whose courses attract major talent from around the world to work intensively with top performers/teachers in London. London Master Classes 2014 will celebrate 26 years of offering these prestigious events. 

 

 

 

 

 

At the Piano with……Dr Michael Low

What is your first memory of the piano?

Growing up in Malaysia, my first memory of the piano was not a particularly happy one. When I was about 7 my parents decided that I should begin formal music lessons. Unfortunately I had a teacher who was neither sympathetic nor encouraging. I remembered being constantly shouted at and whacked for playing wrong notes (perhaps there was a clash of personality between the two of us…) and I will never forget writing 5 pages of treble and bass clefs (both front and back) as well 6 pages of middle C! (and to think that my students complain when I ask them to write 2 lines!). Needless to say I gave up the piano very quickly. Even though I don’t want to admit this (as I pride myself on being a purist), it was a few years later when I heard a recording of ‘Ballade for Adeline’ played by Richard Clayderman (who was practically the greatest pianist in the world according to all Malaysians at the time) that inspired me to play the piano again. Shortly after my encounter with Monsieur Clayderman, my parents introduced me to the ‘Yellow River’ Piano Concerto, the one piece of music my mother listened to and loved while she was 6 months pregnant with me (perhaps you can say that my musical education started way before I was 7). My family then emigrated to England in 1988. There I met the teachers who started me on the journey to where I am today.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

To be honest, I never saw myself as a teacher; all my life I wanted to be on the stage, to be a pianist, a performer. I think this had much to do with the glamour of the concert platform and never having the opportunity to work with brilliant teachers. I am from a culture (and period in time) where it was normal for a teacher to humiliate and belittle a student and it was not until I lived in England that I came in contact with fantastic teachers who changed my opinion about teaching. The real advice to start teaching came from the mother of a good friend, Ricki Lombard (Ricki’s son Benn is a brilliant pianist who studied with Martino Tirimo in London). Ricki heard me ‘play through’ a recording programme and told me afterwards that perhaps I should also look into teaching as (in her humble opinion) I have a ‘knack’ with children. (I had not written progamme notes for the performance but instead introduced each piece before playing) Ricki was convinced that I am able to introduce Classical music to the ‘little ones’ (in her own words) while at the same time make learning fun and enjoyable. With hindsight I must say that the best part about Ricki’s advice was that I listened and looked into it!

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I do not believe that there is such a thing as one teacher for everyone. Every teacher has something to contribute and therefore it is difficult to say who my most significant (or memorable) teacher was. All of them played an important part at a certain point of my musical and pianistic development. My first teacher in England, Richard Frostick (currently the Artistic Director of British Council’s World Voice) set a high standard of technical attainment and instilled in me the discipline of musicianship. When I joined London’s CYM (Centre for Young Musicians), I was extremely fortunate to study with Graham Fitch, who is (sweeping statement perhaps) a genius of a teacher. The attention to detail in Graham’s teaching is really something to behold – especially when it comes to producing endless layers of musical colours within the most complex of musical structures. Graham was also obsessed (I meant this in the most complimentary sense) with the musical line and his for respect for the musical text was a real eye-opener. My teacher at Surrey University, Clive Williamson (a wonderful exponent of the 20th century repertoire) taught me the discipline of rhythm and what it means to play what is written as oppose to what I think is written. I will never forget Clive saying to me ‘Michael, you have the easiest yet hardest job as a musician, all you have to do is to play what Beethoven has written.’ My teacher after Clive, Nils Franke, showed me that music (and playing the piano) is not something that is entirely detached from life itself, whereas Niel Immelman taught me what it is like to work more independently. I consider my Doctorate supervisor – Hendrik Hofmeyr – a musical genius in every sense of the word. I learnt from Hendrik the ability to go for the ‘guts’ of the composition as well as the ability to read the musical score (in the more profound sense of the word). In other words, don’t just play a crescendo when you see a crescendo, what comes before the crescendo? What comes after it? What musical effect that the composer is trying achieve by writing such a marking? I have very fond memories of my times at CYM, especially of the teachers who took the monthly piano studio classes – John Biggs, Catherine Riley, Petra Casen, Peter Croser and Julie Taylor. I also considered it a privilege to have played for eminent musicians and teachers such as Nina Svetlanova, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden. The prominent American Rabbi Harold Kushner noted in one of his books that everyone carries within themselves one or more piece of the jigsaw which will go towards helping others. None of my teachers could have made the impression that they had without the work of their predecessors.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

All my teachers played an important influence when it comes to my own teaching. I think it is worth mentioning that as well as being great teachers they are also wonderful human beings. This meant that all of them were able to communicate and get their ideas across very successfully. I remember Richard Frostick told me to be ‘an artist’ instead of a pianist, a view echoed by Clive Williamson (when we were working on Tchaikovsky 1): “‘For goodness’ sake, Michael, you have proved that you can play all the notes, now be a musician!” Both Richard and Clive’s statements made little impression at the time until I came across an interview given by the eminent Chinese pianist Fou Ts’ong – “In life, one must first be a man, then an artist, then a musician, and finally a pianist.” Fou Ts’ong was right, of course. Art and music have always been a reflection of life, whereas life has never been about just playing the piano! If one has not had certain life experiences, how are you supposed to translate them into playing and performing, or teaching, for that matter? I recall saying to one very talented and musical student, ‘I am happy that you enjoy practising, but please do yourself a favour and go and have some fun! Go and do something an eight-year-old is supposed to do! Funny though this may sound, I also learn as much from my students as they learn from me. Furthermore, one of my hobbies (since my student days) is comparing interpretations by various artists, finding out which performance ‘works’ for me. I also enjoy interacting with my colleagues, often swapping ideas on the methodology of teaching and how to achieve ‘breakthroughs’ with certain students. I do not take it for granted that I work with so many terrific musicians and I am learning all the time.

Perverse though this may sound, it is occasionally enlightening to come across bad musicians and teachers (some of the posts on YouTube are quite extraordinary, to say the least!). Looking at these can be aesthetically reassuring as they show me what not to do, both as a musician and an educator.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

It is difficult to say which is the most significant or memorable teaching experiences because there are so many of them! I am very fond of the interaction with my students at Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel High School as all of them are so different – and to see their progress is extremely rewarding. I particularly enjoy the sense of honesty and directness when it comes to working with children (they often tell you what they think and you know exactly where you stand with them) – maybe this is because I am still a child at heart! (My sister once remarked that although my real age may be 35, my mental age is 15.) It warms my heart that quite a few of my former students still keep in touch, and it is always wonderful to see what they are doing with their life. What makes me really proud is that many of them still love their music and have kept up their piano playing even though they have not chosen music as a career. I was also in Singapore recently working with students from Kawai Music School Elite, which was an incredible opportunity. It was particularly interesting to see the differences between the East and West in terms of musical mind-set and culture. Also amongst my memories was the very first time I entered students for ABRSM exams and all of them came back with Distinctions and Merits. There was also the occasion when a former student greeted me in a shopping mall; I will never forget his words after I embarrassed myself by not being able to recall his name: ‘Dr Low, I’ve only had four piano lessons with you, but I so enjoyed them and will never forget you.’

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

I have often been asked by adult students if there is a ‘cut-off point’ when it comes to starting piano lessons, and I always tell them that one is never too old (or in the case of Benjamin Button, too young) to learn something new in life – my most elderly student is a seventy-year-old lady who absolutely adores her piano lessons. Perhaps the most challenging aspect about teaching adults is to ask to them to be patient (especially as most of them find it difficult to set aside a daily practising slot). I recall falling in love with the game of golf a few years ago and spending many hours on the driving range (with my golf coach) trying to learn the mechanics of the golf swing. At the same time it was particularly humbling to see junior golfers as young as ten who could swing the club so naturally! Learning to play the piano is exactly the same: if you have never played before, don’t expect everything to come at once; it sometimes takes a while to learn how to utilise the muscles in your hands. I will never forget Graham telling me in one of our first piano lessons that I am in charge of ‘ten circus monkeys and I am the ringmaster.’ Like most things in life, I truly believe that if one persists long enough, then things will happen, but – and this is the important part, especially for those who find it difficult to practise every day – practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. If (for whatever reasons) you don’t feel like practising, then rather don’t, as that will set you back in the long run. My colleague Marianne McLean has a good analogy for this: she likened unproductive practising to having a virus that gradually took over your computer.

What do you expect from your students?

One word: Commitment. I do not mind in the slightest what level the student is at or how talented the student is, as long as they approach piano playing with a sense of responsibility, then I am happy. I do not believe in enforcing a strict practising routine on students because I always believe that one practices because one wants to. You don’t play the piano for your parents or your teacher(s), you play for yourself. It took me a long time to grasp this, until one of my teacher told me ‘Michael, if you must play the piano for someone, then do it for Jesus, but even Jesus may have reservations…’) I truly believe that the happiest people in life are those who do things with commitment – whether it is going to church, being a parent, running a business, playing a golf shot, or doing a questionnaire J.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

In my opinion they can be very good if one approaches them with the right mind-set. Performing is such a fickle and (at times) highly stressful activity that is almost impossible be ‘on the money’ every time one appears on stage – Vladimir Horowitz once noted in an interview that the secret about performance is that you have to be feel great on the actual day itself! If you play in a competition and don’t get to the next round – it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a bad musician or a bad pianist, it could just be that it is not your day. Similarly, if you enter a competition and win, it doesn’t automatically guarantee a performing career as there is a distinct difference between being able to play your competition programme stunningly and having a repertoire that is able to consolidate your prize-winning engagements. Furthermore, competitions can be full of subjectivity, for every Argerich, Berezovsky and Perahia, there must be at least fifty international prize winners who never consolidated their performing career. Niel Immelman always encourage his students to go listen to the next round of a competition whenever they get eliminated, in Niel’s words, ‘one of the two following things will happen; either the student will learn a lesson or they will disagree with the jury’. I am tempted to add that if the student is lucky enough – sometimes they will end up learning a lesson and disagreeing with the jury! Exams and festivals can be very useful as they give the student something to work towards. However, the candidates also need to approach them with the correct mind-set – a person that scores 128 for his/hers ABRSM exam is not an inferior musician to someone who scores 132. This is because like competition, the marks can be very subjective and different examiners look for different things. There have been occasions when I felt that the exam mark is by no way a reflection of the student’s effort and there have been occasions when I thought the examiners were perhaps a touch generous with their marks. I remember telling a few students a couple of years ago, ‘In my opinion your score of 30/30 is unacceptable, there is no such thing as perfection in my book when it comes to performance’. At the end of the day, if competitions and exams can be approached with a positive attitude, then I am all in favour of them.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginner students, and to advanced students?

For beginners there are a few things: I considered it important to teach any beginner student the importance of rhythm: to make them count out the beat explicitly – sometimes to the extent that I ask them to nod along with their counting (to quote Hans von Bulow, ‘In the beginning there was rhythm’. It is only when I am convinced that they have understood the rhythmic construction of the composition that I am open to discuss the concept of interpretation. I feel that this is particularly important, as there is a difference between playing what is written, as opposed to what you think is written. I have come across quite a number of students with the following mind-set when learning a piece of music, ‘Let me first get the notes and then I will get the rhythm’; to which I response, ‘Surely you never eat your sushi first and then have your soya sauce? Or the other way round for that fact, the two of them goes together!’ Equally important to impart to a beginner (or anyone else for that matter) is the love for music, along with all the discipline that comes with learning an instrument. This (in my humble opinion) has become even more important in an age of social media and instant gratification: why should you practise the piano for 25 years with the prospect of perhaps becoming a good musician, when you can be on Idols and be famous the next day? One doesn’t teach the piano in order to turn every student into the next Lang Lang (the world wouldn’t be big enough for starters) although it is always a privilege to work with talented students. Similarly, one doesn’t learn the piano in order to be the next pianistic superstar. One learns the piano (and other musical instrument) because along with acquiring the mechanics on how to play the piano, one also attains a set of life skills which will make you a better person. These include grit, persistence, integrity and honesty amongst many others. As for teaching more advance students – one merely play the role of a ‘facilitator’, not to impose one’s ideas on the student but instead to present the student with different opinions on interpretation. This could be finding a hidden melodic line within a complex musical composition, highlighting a bass line, or helping them to overcome a particular technical problem.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

For me, I felt that I became a better performer after I started teaching. Up until then my playing was plagued by the lack of internal rhythm (this has much to do with not being taught the importance of rhythm at a young age) and the situation reached its all-time low (no pun intended here) when a very famous professor told me to ‘sort out my rhythm or never play the piano again’. Perhaps you can say that this has something to do with ego and reputation, but when I started teaching I don’t want any of my students to go down the same route where I have been. Even more so, how hypocritical will it be if I am constantly preaching the importance of rhythm but neglect the same thing in my own playing? So I changed my mind-set and approached learning pieces differently, instead of worrying about the technical challenges I concentrate on getting the rhythmic structure before anything else. It was hard work and humbling at the beginning, but as things begin to fall into place, it is almost like curing my playing of cancer – the real eye-opener came when I revisited old repertoire and realised what I had originally conceived rhythmically wasn’t quite what the composer had in mind! The rhythmic discipline in my playing is now more important than ever having recently put together a chamber ensemble to perform and record the last eight Mozart Piano Concerti (amongst other repertoire). Looking back, what was said to me might be harsh but it was exactly the thing I needed to hear.

No disrespect to teachers who only teach, I strongly believe that only those who perform can bring a different dimension to their teaching when preparing the student for a performance and exam. Performance preparation and performance itself can only be taught by those who are constantly involved in performing. All of us are the world’s greatest pianist within the confines of our practising room, but how many of us can rise to occasion when we are asked to play in front of a mike, a video camera, or an audience? And sometimes we have to perform in front of all three!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

The list is endless, but I will try! From Ax to Ashkenazy, Arrau to Argerich, Berman to Barenboim, Gilels to Gulda, Arthur Rubenstein to Sviatoslav Richter, plus everyone else in between! I truly believe that everyone has something to say, it just so happens that some of us have just a bit more to say than others.

As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke. An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.

http://michaellow.co.za/

Time for a change

This week I took the difficult and reluctant decision to ask some of my students to leave my studio at the end of this term. This decision was not taken lightly, and is not something I have had to do before (a couple of students left of their own volition, for various reasons, and I have never had any trouble replacing them).

In recent months, in particular since completing my Licentiate Diploma, I have wanted to focus more on my own playing and performing, something I came late to, but now really enjoy, be it for my local musical society, at events organised by the London Piano Meetup Group, or simply for friends at home. In addition to this, my other activities – concert reviewing, co-hosting the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG) and managing the South London Concert Series (SLCS) – take up quite a lot of my time each week, and I am also toying with the idea of taking the Fellowship Diploma (FTCL) in the next few years. All of these things take time – learning and preparing repertoire for performance takes the most time. And recently I have decided I want to be “a musician who teaches”, rather than the reverse.

People say to me “I don’t know how you find the time!”, and lately I’ve been wondering this myself, as I rush from one activity to another, constantly watching the clock and frantically trying to fit everything into each day. I began to resent the time spent teaching, not just the actual one-to-one tuition, but all the preparation and admin that is required when running an active and popular teaching studio, and I found I wasn’t enjoying my busy life all that much any more. When I actually fell asleep during a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall, I decided it was definitely time for a change.

Some musicians who are regular performers who also teach regard teaching as a necessity to pay the bills, and many are able to “switch off” while listening to a student playing a song by Adele or a simple Grade 1 piece. My naturally conscientious nature won’t allow me to do this, and I want to give each student individual and personal attention, no matter what they are playing.

Learning to play the piano is hard. It takes commitment and time, and students (and their parents) need to understand that consistent, regular practise equals noticeable progress. There are, unfortunately, no two ways about it, and even top professional pianists put in many hours of practice, day in day out. One cannot simply to pitch up for lessons week after week having done nothing between lessons and expect to make progress: it just doesn’t work like that! Unfortunately, where I live in an very affluent area of south-west London, there is a strata of parents who feel that music lessons are a crucial part of their son or daughter’s c.v., along with tennis, Tai Chi, and Kumon maths. Thus, many children are pushed into music lessons which they may not enjoy nor benefit from, and it can be depressing for a teacher to sit at the piano with a child who clearly doesn’t really want to be there.

So, I took a deep breath and drafted notice letters. I decided I wanted to focus only on my more advanced students, in particular those who are studying for exams. When I wrote to the parents concerned, I placed the responsibility for my decision entirely upon myself: I cited a need for more time for my other activities, a wish to reduce my teaching hours, my desire to focus on my own repertoire, and family commitments. Fortunately, I had the support of a couple of teaching colleagues who were willing to be mentioned in my letters, and I was thus able to offer the parents alternative teachers, should they wish to seek lessons elsewhere.

There was a time, until quite recently in fact, when I would consider any student, provided I liked the student and parent, and vice versa. On reflection, it seems this attitude was based on a need for a steady income, rather than proper consideration of how my teaching talents are best served and personal job satisfaction. I admit I am in a fortunate position, being married to someone who is in a well-paid job, and I can now afford to be more selfish about my time.

My teaching philosophy has changed considerably in the seven years since I established my practice: I used to think that simply being at the piano was enough, to gain enjoyment from it, but in the last few years my interest has shifted and I am now most interested in encouraging my students to become rounded musicians, who play with fluency, expression and confidence. I want to introduce my students to the fantastic canon of classical music by offering them a broad selection of repertoire: playing pop songs is all very well, but it does not give one a proper grounding in the history of classical music. This may appear a narrow view, but I fully believe that the study of even the most simple pieces by Bach and Mozart, for example, offers students crucial insights into how music is created and important technical training.

I don’t think any teacher should feel guilty or bad about asking students to leave their studio. Sometimes it is necessary – for reasons of behaviour, personality clash, lack of practice etc – and sometimes one just has to accept that not every child can be turned into a budding musician. Above all, I think it is crucial that one gains a strong sense of job satisfaction and enjoyment, otherwise one will begin to resent certain students, an attitude which can colour one’s whole approach to teaching.

Come the new year, I hope I will be better able to balance my own piano study with my teaching, my writing and my other musical activities, without feeling put upon or stressed. And to the students who are leaving my studio, I wish them luck and hope they will continue their piano studies with another supportive and inspiring teacher.

Resources:

  • If you feel you have a problem student, try discussing the issues with the student and/or parent initially. If there is no improvement, it is then time to consider asking the student to leave.
  • Try and offer students whom you have asked to leave details of other teachers, should they wish to seek lessons elsewhere
  • Be honest: explain the reasons why you are asking a student to leave.
  • If you have written contracts with your students, be sure to observe the terms set out therein, if applicable
  • Don’t feel guilty: it is your work and your life and it is important to feel in control. This enables us to do our job better, with greater satisfaction and enjoyment.
  • Organisations such as EPTA and the ISM can offer support

The performing teacher

I meet many piano teachers, at courses, workshops and masterclasses. It is always good to meet other piano teachers, to exchange ideas, and to enjoy a collective grumble about the exigencies of the job. Many of the teachers whom I meet are also performing musicians, professional or otherwise, and many regard performing as a necessary, indeed crucial, part of the job as a teacher.

I also meet many teachers who do not perform, for one reason or another. Some cite lack of time, others anxiety or lack of confidence. I actually met one teacher who claimed she was “too afraid” to perform for her students in case she made a mistake.

As teachers, performing is, in my opinion, a necessary part of the job. An exam is a performance, and we need to be able to guide and advise our students on how to present themselves in a “performance situation” (exam, festival, competition, audition), and to prepare them physically and emotionally for the experience. A whole new and different range of skills are required as a performer, and it is important to stress to students the difference between practising and performing. We also need to be able to offer support for issues such as nerves and performance anxiety, and to offer coping strategies to counteract the negative thoughts and feelings that can arise from anxiety. How can you train others to perform if you have never done it yourself?

I used to be shy about performing, because I lacked performance opportunities when I was at school, and then had a long period away from the piano in my 20s and 30s. But I quickly realised when I started teaching that I would need to “get over myself”, and my shyness, and learn how to be a performer if I was to be useful to my students as their teacher. The hard fact about performance anxiety is the only cure is to do it. Just do it! I will never forget the sense of elation and self-fulfillment at having successfully and convincingly delivered a Chopin Étude at a concert hosted by my teacher, the first time I had performed in public in over 25 years. Sure, it was nerve-wracking, but I knew I was well-prepared – and this to me is the most crucial aspect of performing and teaching others about performing: preparation.

A successful performance demonstrates that you have practised correctly, deeply and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages us to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being thrown off course by them, and eradicates “stop-start” playing which prevents proper flow. You never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Performing also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. It adds to our credibility and artistic integrity as musicians. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

I always perform in my student concerts, not to show off, but to demonstrate to my students (and their parents, who pay my bills!) that I can actually do it, that I too am continuing my piano studies by preparing repertoire for performance, and that I have managed my performance anxiety properly. I also feel that by performing with my students, we transform our concerts into a shared music-making experience.

I hope that by hearing and watching me playing, my students can better grasp aspects of technique or interpretation we might have discussed in lessons, as well as enjoying the sheer pleasure of listening to piano music, and perhaps drawing inspiration from it. I also get ideas when I am performing which inform my teaching.

For the teacher who is nervous about performing, one can start in a very low-key way by hosting an informal concert at home, or by joining a piano group, such as the one I run with my colleague Lorraine, which provides a supportive and friendly environment where people can perform for one another. Choose repertoire with which you feel comfortable, and practise performing it a few times (at least three) to friends, family and pets before putting it before an audience. I guarantee your students will be dead impressed by anything you can play as a teacher!

Resources

London Piano Meetup Group

Music from the Inside Out by Charlotte Tomlinson. A clear and well-written book on coping with performance anxiety, with tried and trusted techniques for dealing with nerves and improving self-confidence.