Category Archives: Teaching

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.

At the Piano With……Lorraine Womack-Banning

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

At the Piano With……Janet Jones

What is your first memory of the piano? 

My mother always played the piano. We had an old Aldrich upright that she played while she was pregnant with me and that I played until I was 13 years old. She was my teacher at that time.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I was a performance major and first taught some students for a friend in her absence. I enjoyed teaching but did not have the training for it.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I studied with Franceen Downing, who took me through my early teen years and then with Dr. Bob L. Bennett through my last two years of high school and four undergraduate years at California State University, Fresno.

I studied with Ena Bronstein while working on my Master’s Degree. She had a beautiful way of imparting the Arrau technique. I also studied accompanying with Tait Barrows, a wonderful and humorous collaborative pianist and wife of the late John Barrows, horn player.

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

By far the most important influence on my teaching was a one-year internship with Margaret Talcott who gave me a teaching curriculum specific to piano that introduces concepts and skills at appropriate age/cognitive levels.  Curriculum-based teaching enables anyone who practices regularly a chance to play the piano with confidence.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

Most lessons I teach are memorable (to me anyway). The only lessons I find difficult occur when a student loses interest and stops practicing for a period of time. Fortunately, this does not happen often.

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

I find it exciting to teach adults when they progress. Adults are a challenge because the business of life can easily get in the way of practice. Their time is not protected by their parents as a child’s would be.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect regular practice, the ability to work out a piece independently with correct notes, rhythms and dynamics, regular attendance at lessons, performance on some recitals, and a solid understanding of the theory behind their music.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

They are fine if they don’t interfere with the process of learning skills and concepts. If the extra activity throws off the curriculum or forces concepts to be taught before I would normally teach them, then it is not worth the imbalance it produces in my teaching. I have no personal stake in whether my students impress adjudicators or other teachers by their playing and I am more interested in how well they are learning. They are happiest and want to continue piano lessons when they feel confident in their ability to teach themselves.

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

To beginners: solid rhythmic playing, reading skills, the use of creative improvisation to reinforce concepts

To advanced students: persistence, technical ability to play what they want, freedom to choose the type of music they like to learn

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

I think it’s wonderful to begin a student when they’re young and watch them grow up. The worst aspect is the pay.

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

I like to teach any music and prefer to play “classical”, especially chamber music. I also enjoy singing and playing my own songs accompanying myself on the piano or  guitar.

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

Claudio Arrau was my all-time favourite because he often took slower tempi, enabling the listener to hear everything that the composer wrote. Ena Bronstein is my favourite pianist-teacher.

Janet Jones began piano lessons at age four and has taught many students of all ages, preschool through adult. She also teaches Musikgarten, birth through age five. She grew up in Fresno, California and received her Master’s Degree in piano performance from CSUF, Fresno. She also has a Master’s Degree in Education, Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Phoenix. She currently teaches at her own small piano studio in Madison, Wisconsin. She also enjoys performing folk tales and original songs and stories for children and adults.

At the Piano With……John Humphreys

What is your first memory of the piano?

An upright piano in the family home

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Abandoned the unrealistic idea of being a performer!

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Henryk Mierowski, John Hunt (pupil of Schnabel) and Harold Rubens.

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

Harold Rubens

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

Their wide-eyed curiosity and eagerness to learn.

What do you expect from your students?

Hard work, self-discipline and RESPECT!

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

All useful in their ways but only as a means to and end and not as an end in itself (often the case)

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

Respect for the composer above all – and the constant need to examine, intellectually and physically how things are achieved.  It is years since I have taught beginners so I’m not qualified to comment on this…

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

Best – raising the level of achievement of a moderately talented player (the best can fend for themselves). Worst – not being able to do that, also feckless, indolent students with no care for their progress or even a modest desire to please me…..

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

Mozart A minor Rondo or Chopin 4th Ballade 

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

Old oldies – Richter above all, Gilels, Cortot. Schnabel. In the case of Richter, sound and integrity.

John Humphreys studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Harold Rubens, and in Vienna on an Austrian Government Scholarship. He made his Wigmore Hall debut in 1972 with Busoni’s rarely heard Fantasia Contrappuntistica and since then has led an active life as a teacher and performer. He has broadcast on BBC Radio3, and played throughout the UK, in Iceland, Hungary, Austria, Holland and the USA. He is a Diploma Examiner for the Associated Board and both Artistic Advisor and jury member of the Dudley International Piano Competition. His recording (with Allan Schiller) of the complete two piano music of Ferrucio Busoni was released by Naxos in December 2005 and in March 2007 they recorded major works of Schubert as part of Naxos’s ongoing complete Schubert duet series due for release in January 2008. In January 2006 he and Allan Schiller were invited by the Wigmore Hall to present a recital on the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. In 1998 he received the honorary award of ARAM from the Royal Academy of Music for his ‘distinguished contribution to music’.

www.schiller-humphreys.com

At the Piano With……Gail Fischler

Gail Fischler

What is your first memory of the piano?

I remember sitting at the piano at my Grandma Packy’s as a very little girl and being completely entranced. We didn’t have a piano and I would pick out songs and create my own whenever I found one. I wanted to take lessons for years as a child but my parents refused until I was 9. My Grandfather Zickert was an opera singer and they didn’t want that life for me.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

It wasn’t a matter of whether I was going to teach—it was what. I remember getting in trouble for bringing all the little neighbourhood kids to our house and playing school when I was 7 or 8. I am pretty much a born teacher. You know the old saying, “them that can’t teach”? I don’t think it means what we commonly think. To me it means that you can’t do anything else because it is your true nature—your true calling.

I started teaching when I was in high school. As much as I would do things differently with those early students now, I know that that those first teaching experiences—good and bad—are the rock that my teaching and blogging are built on today.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

All my teachers have been memorable. Some in positive and others perhaps not so much. I learned both what to do and what not to do from them all. From my childhood teacher, I learned to read music, basic theory, and how to create basic arrangements. From my undergraduate professor, Patrick Meierotto, I learned that music was an entire world of sound, thought, and communication with others—the most important lesson of all in my opinion. Once that lesson was well and truly ingrained, I was able to build on it and grow into myself. As I practice and teach bits of advice from all of my teachers and coaches bubble to the surface and it’s like I have this great support group. Sometimes it can be quite startling! I still chuckle over Johana Harris’ simple little gem, written in my copy of the Poulenc Flute Sonata, “Don’t hold over gone notes.”

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

Obviously, my teachers and coaches have been a large influence. But, I think the most important influences are my colleagues and my students themselves. Both continually both validate and make me question my choices and that is an excellent thing.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I have had a lot of memorable experiences over the years, but, here are a couple that have truly stuck in my mind.

A high school transfer student I’ll call Marcella had had lessons with me for about 18 months. She would learn the nitty-gritty musical details alright, but never really seemed to be able to make the music come alive or have much connection to it. I did everything to bring it out of her and was beginning to think that perhaps she just didn’t have it in her. One night at studio class, we did an activity where I played recordings of a piece by 3 different artists. I had the students fill out a form which asked what they liked and didn’t, details of patterns and repetitions, and form, as well as how they thought each artist used interpretive details to convey their personal view. Marcella’s insights were stellar—by far the best in the class. She had really heard and learned everything I had been trying to teach her. She just couldn’t make it come out of the piano. By the time she graduated, she had become only somewhat more able to be expressive herself but I was content that I had given her something that would last a lifetime—the ability to appreciate music at a deep level.

An adult student who came to the college had many holes in her background. The biggest was her ear. She could only hear the melody and everything else went by the wayside. During her 3rd semester we were working on one of the more accessible Beethoven sonatas in hopes of building her musical conversational skills. It was quite a stretch for her. We spent many hours working on recognizing the layers and letting the voices interact with each other. One day she came in and said I heard it! I heard it! She had made the connection in an 8 measure section of the piece. After that, she began to be able to apply what she had learned to other sections. At her jury, she performed her piece with many mistakes but with such determination and understanding of the voices and musical content that I was brought to tears, I was so proud.

Neither of these students had demonstrated perfection in performance by any means, and yet each had broken a barrier and transcended themselves. I continue to be changed by each and every student I teach.

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

I love teaching adults. They are motivated extrinsically for the most part. They come to lessons because they want to. The biggest challenges are that they get frustrated easily and their learning habits are ingrained. Because they have clear goals, they don’t always have the patience to let the process have the time it needs. Since their learning habits are ingrained, it can be hard and sometimes very emotional to change those habits. Adults also often get fixated on details and fail to see the larger picture. ( i.e. a missed Bb ruins the entire lovely tone and mood they created in a piece) You also often have to work through a great deal of fear.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect them to do their best and push themselves beyond that which they think they are capable. I want them to be themselves but the best themselves possible. That’s it.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

These are important parts of becoming a professional pianist. For those who will go on to other careers, they are important because they give concrete goals to work for. Participating in events like these are a trade off because the lessons and practice are differently focused. Some of my students participate and others’ time is better spent in deep practice and discovery of a larger variety of music and creative projects.

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

Beginning students need to learn what practice is and how to do it. It doesn’t matter what skill or concept you are learning. It matters how you work. Students have to learn to work smart and not get down on themselves just because something doesn’t go right. As they advance, they need to continually refine these skills to adapt to their repertoire and adult lives.

Another important thing all students need to learn is that listening to music of all genres is essential to being a good musician. As they mature, they need to learn to bring their total experience of life into their music.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects of the job?

The best aspect of the job is that I get to do something I love and it’s new everyday. I get to help people grow and stretch themselves through teaching, workshops, and blogging. I also get to work with a lot more repertoire than I could ever keep up on my own. The worst aspect has to be some of the parents. It’s so sad when they stand in their child’s way and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

My favourite student funny of all time went something like this: Me: How are you doing today? 8 year old girl: Not so good. My brother and I had a fight. Me: Oh no! what happened? Girl (clearly disgusted): Well, he said there was no such thing as F Major!!!

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

I am really quite eclectic in my tastes. My favourite music is always what I am working on at the time somebody asks. That said, Beethoven is definitely my boy! I also am continually drawn to 20th century and contemporary composers and I teach quite a lot of that repertoire.

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

Our home library consists of about 75 linear feet of 78s, 33s, and CDs plus a large iTunes library and my YouTube channel. I love listening to performers from all eras and discovering their unique approach to a piece or a time period. It really does keep you honest and put details such as ornaments, tempo, and touch into perspective. The common thread I find is that rules, such as ornamentation, touch, stylistic details, etc, never drive the interpretation—the music itself does. It drives me quite crazy when someone discounts an entire performance because of a preconceived idea of an ornament , tempo, or slur.

Gail Fischler is an MTNA Nationally Certified Teacher, and a past president of both Arizona State Music Teachers Association and Tucson Music Teachers Association. Gail received her undergraduate degree in music from San Jose State University and completed her masters in piano performance and her doctorate in Music Education and Piano at the University of Arizona. Her teachers and coaches have included Patrick Meierotto, Johana Harris, Marilyn Thompson, Ozan Marsh, Rex Woods, and Carol Stivers. She is a recipient of the Janice McCurnin – Beatrice Searles ASMTA Honored Teacher Award.

Gail was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the National MusicLink Foundation and has served as Southwest Regional MusicLink Coordinator. She has performed across Arizona and presented lectures, workshops, and research presentations throughout the United States and in Canada. Gail has adjudicated for the Arizona Study Program, Roberta Slaver Competition, Prescott Fine Arts Association Piano Scholarship Competition, NAU Adele Piano Competition, ASMTA Honors Recital, TMTA Scholarship Audition, AMEA Solo & Ensemble Festival, Cochise Young Artists Competition, and NAU Concerto Competition.

Gail currently teaches private and community class piano at Eastern Arizona College and maintains an independent studio in Tucson. Her students have won honors in state and local competitions, evaluations, and festivals. She is co-author with Neeki Bey of Latin America, a volume of original, folk, and popular pieces coming in August from Piano Accents. Gail also runs Piano Addict, a website for piano students, teachers, and avocational players and The Musical Adjectives Project, an interactive Wiki to aid pianists and musicians in describing and understanding the emotions and character within repertoire. She holds Permanent Professional Certification in piano from Music Teachers National Association.

Gail’s blog – Piano Addict

At the Piano With……Simon Nicholls

What is your first memory of the piano?

Playing by ear on an instrument belonging to a neighbour.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

My own teachers.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

E. Marie Oswald (Woking) Michael Matthews, John Barstow, Kendall Taylor (RCM) Paul Badura-Skoda; Vlado Perlemuter, Louis Kentner.

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

Experience of the lessons of Louis Kentner and Vlado Perlemuter given to my own pupils at Yehudi Menuhin School. The writing of: Friedrich Wieck, Heinrich Neuhaus, Günter Philipp, Donald Tovey and others.

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

Adults understand concepts but they are set in their ways and find it difficult to change habits.

What do you expect from your students?

Commitment.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

They are useful focuses and inducements and experiences of performing but should not be ends in themselves.

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

Rhythm and sound, in both cases.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

Very rewarding to work with dedicated students. Deadly to work to predetermined criteria.

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

All good music – whatever the piece (if good) that we are working on – that is my favourite.

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

When I am working on a performance or doing concerts I have more ideas for teaching. So I try always to be practising something, however busy I get.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?  Heinrich Neuhaus – huge general culture,  telling comparisons in teaching. Great artistic concept. Alfred Cortot – ditto. Vladimir Sofronitsky – complete unselfish possession by the music. Tatyana Nikolayeva – ditto. Mariya Yudina – ditto.  Edwin Fischer – ditto, plus inspiring poetic writing. Imogen Cooper – singing quality. Mitsuko Uchida – compelling focus and beauty of concept. Evgeny Kissin – perfection of gift and supreme achievement, with effortless physical aspect.  Murray Perahia – focus and concentration. Stephen Kovacevich – ditto. Grigory Sokolov – ditto.

 

Simon Nicholls studied at the Royal College of Music with John Barstow and Kendall Taylor, winning many awards and prizes, and attended master classes by Paul Badura-Skoda in Germany. For ten years he taught the piano at the Yehudi Menuhin School, working with Louis Kentner and Vlado Perlemuter, and for twenty years was a professor  at the Royal College of Music,  London. He now teaches piano, accompaniment and song interpretation in Birmingham Conservatoire. He has often been a visiting artist at Dartington International Summer School, teaching improvisation, piano and chamber music.

Simon Nicholls has performed frequently at London’s major recital venues, at Snape Maltings and Dartington International Summer School, and toured and broadcast on radio and television in Britain and abroad. He has performed in the United States,  including at New York’s Lincoln Center, and he has also played in the Czech Republic (Prague Spring Festival), Eire, France, Germany, Greece, Holland and India. He has recorded for Chandos Records and Carlton Classics, and written for many musical journals.   Compositions by Simon Nicholls have been published by Faber Music and Bärenreiter.

Simon Nicholls’ interest in the music of Skryabin is long-standing. He has made many research visits to Moscow, and in October 2007 he gave a lecture and masterclass on Scriabin interpretation at the State Memorial Skryabin  Museum, Moscow. He has had articles on Skryabin published in the U.K., America and Russia.

 

At the Piano With……GéNIA Part 1

Recently, I had the very great pleasure of interviewing GéNIA, Russian pianist and teacher, and creator of innovative piano technique, Piano-Yoga®. We met at London’s prestigious Steinway Hall to talk about many aspects of piano teaching and performing, and, in a departure from the usual format of the At the Piano….. interviews, our conversation was filmed.

The videos will be published in six short instalments. In the first, we discuss GéNIA’s musical heritage, her first piano, the influence of her great-grand uncle Vladimir Horowitz, significant teachers and other influences that affected GéNIA’s musical development.

For more information on Piano-Yoga® please visit

www.piano-yoga.com

More At the Piano…… interviews

At the Piano With……David Nelson

David Nelson

***The inaugural Hebden Bridge Piano Festival, conceived by David Nelson, takes place from 19-21 April.

Further information and tickets here***

What is your first memory of the piano?

Age 5 picking out tunes on a neighbour’s piano. She encouraged my parents to get me an instrument. To this day I’m not sure whether she recognised my innate talent -or whether she just needed me to make that row in my own home!

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? Nothing really: I just wondered whether I could do it. Made a start and found that I could.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? My current teacher, concert pianist Paul Roberts. Also Katerina Wolpe at Morley College.

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

Probably all the other musical things I do in addition to playing Classical music. So…jazz, pop, world music, playing guitar and bass, singing, writing music and lots more. All these things  help explain music differently and sometimes better than more formal routes, and add  vibrancy and colour to lessons (and to the music too)

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

The moment a student plays beautifully for the first time – in their piece, or in their lives perhaps. That’s when you know it’s all been worthwhile!

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

Keeping them going! They often demotivate when other aspects of their lives get tough. Musically: bridging the gap between what their highly formed musical minds know the music should go like -  and what their fingers are actually able to do!

What do you expect from your students?

Their best.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? I don’t really have a view on these things. I have a view as to whether they might benefit or be detrimental to the progress of each individual student which is based on their own needs, wishes and abilities.

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

Perhaps the holistic nature of the intervallic relationship between notes. We read, see, hear, and (at the piano) feel them too. Oh, and rhythm obviously. I think these things might be the same regardless of the ability of the student.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

It’s all good: I love it! Worst thing is when good students leave (for whatever reason)

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

Those who are inspirational, with a good sense of humour and infinite patience! Their ability to go deeper into the heart of the music, but into the microcosmic detail too

David Nelson has been teaching piano for over 25 years, giving lessons to hundreds of students/pianists both in London and in West Yorkshire. A sizeable number of these have gone on to become professional performers or teachers, whilst others have become influential in jazz and popular music. Many others have continued to play long after their lessons had ceased and value the life-enhancing qualities of such activity.

More about David Nelson at www.piano40.co.uk

 

At the Piano With……Karl Lutchmayer

Karl Lutchmayer

What is your first memory of the piano?

Actually, and rather embarrassingly, I used to use the spaces between Bb and C# and Eb and F# to park my Dinky cars – and run them along the fronts of the white notes! It always vexed me that the spaces between other black notes weren’t wide enough for such a clearly useful purpose. However, it is also true to say that, at about the same time, I would hear my mother playing those timeless classis such as Rustle of Spring, Maiden’s Prayer and In a Persian Market.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I am ashamed to say that in my 20s it was simply an economic necessity! However that changed significantly when I was awarded the Lambert Fellowship to return as a member of the keyboard faulty at the Royal College of Music, and it was here that I realised that I was far better at connecting with older minds, and it was at this time I stopped working with younger pupils.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

One always remembers one’s first teacher! June Luck (with whom I had tea recently!) taught me from middle C up to my Diploma and entry to the RCM, and I know it’s a cliché, but probably taught me as much about life as she did about playing the piano. Then there was John Barstow, who, somehow, and I really don’t know how he did it, managed to turn youthful dreams into grown up realities (as long as students were willing to work!). And here again too, broader culture was as important as practice – he expected students to go to concerts, the theatre, read literature, follow current events. After that there were of course many other extraordinary musicians who helped me to grow, but perhaps Lev Naumov (formerly Neuhaus’ assistant) stands out for showing me how to throw away the score!

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

Of course my own teachers, but also the many extraordinary treatises, from CPE Bach, and Czerny to Schnabel, Brendel, Rosen etc. Each time I open up one of those tomes I become acutely aware of my own ignorance, and try to become a little better! Also Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which has been by my side for a couple of decades now, but most importantly, as any teacher knows, my students, from whom I learn at least as much as I attempt to impart.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Every time a student tells me that I’ve made a difference to their life – I can’t imagine anything more significant than that.

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

The passion – the idea that amidst a busy life here are people who want to be part of the tradition of human creativity. Of course, bringing such a wealth of experience, often quite, quite different from one’s own is also exciting as it offers so many various ways of discussing and understanding a concept. But it is so hard for adults to get used to the idea of necessary repetition, when its something they usually left behind at the school gate.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect them to do all they can with all that they have. The results don’t actually matter, as long as the journey is honest, which is why I get upset with the lazy ones, and those just in it for the buzz/fame/ ego, no matter how good they are, but the honest student with meagre talents is always a joy. If it isn’t about the journey of a whole person I really don’t know what the point is.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Gyorgy Sandor once told me that in his day pianists played concerts, but now they played piano competitions because there were no concerts left! In some ways he was probably right. A judicious use of exams/festivals/competitions in order to fire the work ethic/enthusiasm seems very wise – so that the young artist understands what it is to throw themselves at a particular goal at a particular moment (and let’s be honest, unlike most professions, we can’t just stand up in the boardroom and say ‘sorry been very busy, will a week next Tuesday do?’!), but as soon as they become an end in themselves they can only harm the art. After all, the artist has to throw himself wholly at his art every single day. I remember, when I was teaching in America, how students would ask whether it ‘would be in the test’ – when music becomes about jumping over hurdles, or acquiring laurels then it inevitably forgets about touching souls.

However, perhaps we should start being more honest in the big international piano competitions. We all know they’re fixed, whether through outright skulduggery or old fashioned juror bias, so why not instead make it a purely sporting event. Speed trials with time penalties for wrong notes and split-screen TV coverage, loudest chords and fastest octaves measured electronically, a speed learning competition, audience prizes for the most dolefully dreamy stare into the middle distance etc – what a great spectator sport, and at least it would be honest! ;)

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

I don’t really teach beginners, but from the wrong end of the telescope it seems to me that the fundamentals must be entirely thorough – fluency and lack of tension in the body, a real understanding of notation (I have yet to meet a 1st yr college student who understands the very different purposes of a slur and a phrase mark), a sense of musical style and an understanding of how music works.

For my advanced students these are all the same issues! But most particularly the idea of interpretation – the art of investing a score with life in an honest and coherent way. Once that is understood, adapting one’s skills to allowmit to happen in concert is just a matter of hard work!

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

Best is to see a musician grow and be able to help that process, and to meet so many wonderful people (anyone who loves the piano is going to be a friend of mine!). Worst is dealing with the many terrible neuroses which seem to come out so clearly in music making and so hamper the individual.

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

To teach – Haydn. He knows all the rules, and constantly subverts them! It’s just so joyous!

To play – hmmmm. I love playing Liszt and Busoni, and at the moment I’m thrilled to be immersed in Alkan for the bicentenary next year, but every time I approach Beethoven I know I’m in for a rollercoaster ride – so vexing and daunting, but there is nothing like that moment after you’ve just played the last chord of one of the sonatas!

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

Pierre Laurent Aimard – an extraordinary artist at his best (although it does sometimes appear that he does too much) and his masterclasses combine the practical with the truly revelatory.

David Dubal – although he rarely plays the piano these days, his unique way of challenging, beguiling and even outraging his students, and his unbelievable breadth of culture pays the most extraordinary dividends. A true educator (recalling that the word ‘education’ actually means to draw forth, quite different from instruction, which is putting in!).

Karl Lutchmayer studied at the Royal College of Music under Peter Wallfisch and John Barstow and also undertook periods of study with Lev Naumov at the Moscow Conservatoire. For his Masters’ degree he conducted extensive research into performing practice in the piano music of Busoni, since when his research interests have grown to include Liszt, Alkan, Enescu, The Creative Transcription Network, reception theory, and the history of piano recital programming. He later returned to his alma mater and started his lecturing career when the prestigious Constant & Kit Lambert Fellowship was awarded to him by the Worshipful Company of Musicians – the first time in its history that it was awarded to an instrumentalist.

Full biography here

www.karllutchmayer.com