I think I was born to play the piano. I was lucky enough to have an upright piano in our dining room. I was always in school choirs and from the age of 5 would arrive home and play the songs we had sung during the day. It was my aunt that mentioned I should have piano lessons and the seed was planted. My mother, although not a musician, sang in the home and often had classical music playing, and I myself had an extensive collection of recordings. Both parents have always encouraged me to continue my love for music and their support has been unwavering. I was taken to many classical music concerts and regularly heard the likes of John Lill and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. At secondary school I took up the violin and joined orchestras, but my main love remained the piano and I considered myself a pianist.
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
I studied music at the University of North Wales, Bangor. There, I had a rich and varied musical life, taking part in two orchestras, singing in the choral society and continuing with my piano and violin lessons. I went onto study at Bretton Hall to gain a PGCE qualification with a view to teaching in schools and whilst I was there I had a request to teach a boy in the village. I enjoyed this and it whetted my appetite. We also had a visit from a practising piano teacher talking about her profession and it seemed a good career to consider. I trained as a music teacher and, not finding a job, went into secretarial work and computer programming. I vowed never to give up my music and joined a choral society and played in orchestras. I decided to teach on Saturdays, cycled to student’s houses and acquired a few home pupils.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
My first teacher was fine up to a point, but had a terrible memory, and that meant I could hoodwink her as to how far I’d reached and still gain a reward toffee. I had one who gave me thirty minutes practical and an hour of theory; needless to say, this didn’t work. My greatest teacher was a Gertrude Tomlinson who I stayed with for some twelve years. We played Beethoven Symphonies as duets, she was an avid fan of Southampton Music Festival and encouraged me to enter every year. She continued to encourage me and later on I was one of two students who remained with her. It was thanks to her that I acquired my performance diploma before going to university.
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
The most important influence was Mrs Tomlinson: there was a great emphasis on sight reading and I became very good at it. We often played together and I also had a regular duet partner of my own age. She became more of an aunt later on, and lived with my duet partner’s family after her husband died. Nowadays my influences are: my students (their enthusiasm, ideas and different needs), Beethoven and Debussy (composers I like to introduce students to as part of their repertoire), social media (awareness of books and resources from other piano teachers and pianists), my own experience in different genres (swing bands, soul bands, theatre bands, orchestras) and my piano tuition at university (with an emphasis on finger technique).
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
This is a difficult one … there are many teaching experiences, mostly good. Recently a student has acquired a place with the junior department at the Guildhall School of Music and she told me that it was thanks to me that she decided her second study was to be piano. I’ve also received a gift and note from a young student, something made by her and her sister. Last year I had a student who, against all the odds, gained a good pass at a recent examination, is getting a piano and is now determined to practice vehemently. My older students give me great pleasure too: I have taught two ladies who love to play duets together and a seventy-three-year-old lady obtained her grade three examination from scratch.
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?
Adults are usually very keen students. There have been a few who have, for one reason or another, decided it really isn’t for them but the long stayers have a determination to catch up on what they’ve missed out on. One of the biggest challenges is when a student has studied piano before and had a long break; the technique they had may need modifying and with the onset of arthritis and other matters we may have to have alternative strategies for note reaching and speed. Some are keen to do examinations whilst others just want to acquire a bank of pieces to play. We have to find appropriate tutor books for adults for many are geared to younger players and we have used the Smallwood tutor a fair amount, and we often change the names of the ‘quaint’ titles. Adults are often surprised at what they can achieve and I take this as a great compliment.
What do you expect from your students?
“Practice makes progress” is a phrase we use and “no practice, no point”. Most are willing to practice adequately and come with a guilt complex if they have not done this. I like to think I’m not a scary teacher but they do seem to feel bad if they’ve been unable or forgetful. I expect students to be my partner during the lesson …. for instance, sometimes I’ll take the top part of a piece whilst they take the bottom, or we use rhythm cups together, or we play a duet. They like the fact that we both take part and it relieves the feeling that they’re just being watched. I expect them to converse and tell me about any difficulties in their playing and I expect them to be on time. At the same time, they expect me to inspire, direct and encourage them, which I very much hope I do.
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
I wish my students had more time for competitions and festivals but they often have so many other activities. A few do enter our local festival but I don’t tend to press them for anything else. Examinations are useful markers for students and parents but there is no need for them to enter every single one, and we often take a longer time to ‘skip’ to a higher grade. Some adults are keen to do examinations and, having persuaded them that they too can enter, they bite the bullet and are surprised at how welcome they feel at the venue and at how much they can achieve. I encourage students to help each other, especially if they’re learning the same examination pieces, and by playing duets. If they can collaborate on something in the school concerts, this is a really good experience. The bottom line is that I want my students to enjoy learning the piano and not to see it as an added burden.
What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?
For beginning students, they need to know that they too can achieve as much as the person they’ve just heard next door who they perceive is playing brilliantly. My job is to convince them that they’ll get as much as they put in. They need achievable goals. Emphasis on slow, accurate playing rather than the opposite is something I tell all students, beginners or advanced. Advanced students need to be aware that there is always something else they can do to improve their playing and that perfection is something that concert pianists are still trying to acquire. In short, all students should do their best, and that is all anyone can do. I do expect students to respect other people’s abilities for there is nothing worse than feeling inferior.
What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?
I consider myself a pianist and piano teacher. Teaching something can make you realise certain faults in your own playing you didn’t notice before. But it also inspires your students if you can play something advanced in front of them. For me, the fact that I’ve won a first and third in the EPTA composition competition last year and this, has encouraged some to consider composition themselves. Leading by example is always a good thing and many people don’t have the exposure to professional piano performances, and it’s good for them to see what can be achieved (even if I’m not quite to the standard of Lang Lang).
How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?
I ask them the question “Do you think most of those people watching you could do this?” and the answer is invariably “no”. We agree that nerves are a good thing for making you perform better and that the piano doesn’t present any danger if you make a mistake. I do have a couple of students who do not wish to do examinations for that involves playing in front of a strangers but occasionally I’ll get them to play for a teacher or another student. Any opportunity for them to play is a good thing, whether it’s in a school concert, music festival or in front of me and a few students.
It’s important for the students to realise that I too get nervous and I tell them about my own experiences, such as when my nose starts to run whilst I’m playing or I panic about a page turn. I stress that live performances involve risks and that audiences are usually very forgiving and indeed some events, such as a collapsing music stand, can be amusing ice-breakers.
Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?
John Lill, Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy are amongst my favourite pianists. I love their combination of rage and sensitivity. Going back to the issue of anxiety and the fact that performance involves risks, I remember an incident at Southampton Guildhall where the sustaining pedal came off. John Lill saw the funny side and showed his professionalism by merely restarting the piece. My tutor at university was William Mathias, a Welsh pianist and composer, and we had a visit from Ashkenazy who played Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. I have recently had the pleasure of meeting many pianist-teachers through the European Piano Teachers’ Association and believe it’s a very necessary part of our profession.
Jenny was raised in Southampton and studied the piano from the age of 7. As a teenager she obtained her grade 6 violin, and after leaving school she worked at a bank for a year and achieved a Licentiate in Piano Performance from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She went on to gain a BA (Hons) in Music Arts from the University College of North Wales in Bangor, and a PGCE from Bretton Hall.
She married, moved to Oxfordshire and had children. Unable to find a teaching job, she took office work and during that time acquired a computing certificate at Oxford University (External Studies), acquiring work Oxford University Computing Services and ABB Simcon. She eventually acquired a teaching position (Music, ICT and French), managing to reduce this to ICT at the Mary Hare School for the Deaf in Newbury where she gained a diploma in special education. After a permanent move to Grantham in 2001, she taught ICT until her post was made redundant.
Jenny has always had piano students and when her job was declared redundant, that was the spur to make it her main career. She is now a private piano teacher at Kesteven and Grantham Girls School in Grantham and has students at home. An accomplished pianist and musician, she is in demand as an accompanist. She is Musical Director for Grantham Operatic and has overseen productions of Sweeney Todd, The Mikado and Fiddler on the Roof. She also deputises for the keyboard player in Grantham Rhythm and Blues Band and has played in the theatre for several productions.
She has sung with choral societies in the Beethoven Halle in Bonn, The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and Oxford Town Hall. She has played the violin in Sankt Augustin Musukschule (German), Harlaxton Manor and Grantham (Lincolnshire Strings Celebration). She has performed piano solos at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, Didcot Civic Hall, Harlaxton Manor, Belvoir Castle, St Wulfram’s Church in Grantham and Warwick University. She is the proud winner of a first prize in the 2014 National Composition Competition organised by the European Piano Teachers Association, of which she is a professional member. She has also learned that she has won a third prize in the 2015 competition.
Jenny loves to teach and considers her wide-ranging experience an advantage when deal with different personalities, abilities and aspirations. Many students want to take examinations but some prefer a more relaxed approach. As long as they enjoy the lessons and have some sort of goal, Jenny is happy.
For more information about Jenny please visit her website at www.jswmusic.co.uk