Tag Archives: piano teacher

At the Piano with Mark Polishook

What is your first memory of the piano?

My piano journey began more or less when I was 3 or 4 years old. Movers brought a 1932 5’3” Chickering baby grand to our house. It was a gift from my grandparents.

That piano eventually travelled with me from one coast to another in America, which is where I’m from. It came with me when I arrived in the UK 4 years ago.

Last summer I acquired a new Steingraeber Phoenix 205. It’s an amazing instrument. I looked at a lot of pianos in the UK and America  before I selected it. Some of them were very good but none of them had the special, personal “this is the one – this one is it” kind of feeling I was looking for. When I finally met the 205 at Hurstwood Farm Pianos in Surrey it did seem like the one. It’s definitely reaffirmed that to me since arriving in my house.

There are more than a few fascinating lessons I learned looking for a piano which I’ve written up on my blog. Meanwhile, the Chickering has moved to my neighbour’s house for new and more family adventures.

Who was your first teacher and what do you recall about your early days of learning about the piano?

My first teacher was a very nice woman in our town in New Jersey. But after not all that long I mostly taught myself. I wasn’t systematic or organised in what I learned. It was mostly the Chickering was in the house and I’d play by ear.

From the beginning I had an affinity for jazz. I don’t know why or from where or how because I remember hearing Liberace and Victor Borge but not jazz. I also recall trying to pick out bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ after hearing a recording of it. But picking out tiny bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ was about all I could do.

Do you remember what you liked to play?

The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ was the book that had my interest. When I played the pieces in it with the right spin they sounded like boogie and blues. But I hadn’t yet heard real boogie boogie such as Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson used to play. And I didn’t know about New-Orleans-style piano playing even though ‘The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ had pieces in that genre. And of course I didn’t know of the great jazz pianists like Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.

My parents and neighbours used to say I had a “nice touch” when I played boogie-woogie-type things. That phrase resonated with me. I could feel what it meant in my hands. And I could hear how that feeling translated into sound.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

While working towards a PhD in composition at the University of Pittsburgh I taught courses in basic theory and musicianship, jazz history, class piano, and a seminar on Mozart. Teaching was part of what PhdD students did while working towards the degree. So that’s where I began with students and learning about teaching and how to do it – and finding that I really liked it.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The important teacher who fastened my wheels to the track was Floyd “Floogie” Williams. I met Floyd in the second semester of my first year at university which was mid-1970s. He had recently moved to the area from New York City where he had been a drummer and a percussionist in jazz and studio worlds.

Learning with Floyd was immersion all things musical. I couldn’t possibly have had a better teacher. He had experience in the world I wanted to enter. Essentially he put one on the path towards that world.

Lessons with Floyd always included stories and more stories, all them colourful, about how this or that musician practiced and learned. And there was always an important point that came out of it all. With the piano Floyd boiled it down to one essential: Practice and practice some more.

What he meant was put in time and effort. Serious time and effort – as a method it was brute-force “put-your-back-into-it.” I spent virtually every hour of the day playing Bach, and Chopin, Beethoven, and Oscar Peterson piano transcriptions or picking excerpts out of the Dover editions of scores.

Another big lesson from Floyd was to the importance of being around great pianists – to see and hear firsthand how the did what they did. So Floyd arranged for me to visit to New York City to meet John Lewis, who had who played with Charlie Parker and later formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. A few months later Floyd sent me to New York City again. This time for lessons with Jaki Byard.

Jaki is among the great pianists and teachers in jazz. He played like a one-man jazz repertory orchestra, always with allusions to different pianists and styles, all of which he juxtaposed with wit and great humour.

So for example Jaki’s left hand might play in a stride piano style. But his right hand would play over it in very free bebop style – and perhaps in a different key. But the thing was, no matter what Jaki played he sounded uniquely like Jaki and never like he imitating something. Jaki was postmodern long before postmodernism was a style.

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

At New England Conservatory I continued studying with Jaki and then I switched over to William Thomas McKinley who’s a composer and a jazz pianist. Whereas Jaki’s approach to the piano was based on play, play, and play Tom’s way – because  he was a composer – was write, write, write. So I wrote excerpts and examples – I filled notebook after notebook – of what I wanted to improvise.

I also took lessons outside of NEC from Charlie Banacos who had his own fascinating teaching niche. Charlie was a great jazz pianist but he gave up performing to focus exclusively on teaching. And he was well-known as a teacher – as perhaps “the teacher. All his students first went through his two-year waiting list before lessons began. Many of Charlie’s students went on to play with fabulous jazz musicians. And Miles Davis said he wanted to study with Charlie!

Most of what Charlie taught was simple in concept – for example transcribe a McCoy Tyner solo. But to do that required a lot of focused work with a tape recorder. Once the solo was transcribed, the next step was to play it at speed.

With Charlie simplicity of concept definitely wasn’t the same as ease of execution. Some  of the “simple stuff” Charlie showed me a long time ago is still among what I practice now.

The big picture I synthesised from all of that which is right at the centre of how I teach is “Experiment: cast the net freely and widely.” In other words explore, explore, explore – as Robert Frost said very well:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I moved to New York City in the early 1980s after New England Conservatory and Boston. New York was exhilarating because it was populated to beyond bursting with fabulously-skilled musicians. If there’s a genre or a style of music anywhere in the world someone in New York is exploring and playing it at some unbelievably high level. Probably along with an entire community of equally-skilled practitioners.

After several years of freelancing there and all sorts of gigs I completed a Masters’ degree in Jazz Piano at the Manhattan School of Music. One of the classes I took there was an introduction to composition. The solo piano piece I wrote for it – along with Tom McKinley’s prescriptions to write, write, write – launched me on to composing.

So I went from the Manhattan School of Music to the University of Pittsburgh for PhD studies in composition and theory. But at the time – mid-1980s – composition there was focused narrowly on serialism through the lens and teaching of Milton Babbitt. Which wasn’t uncommon at that time. But it wasn’t the direction the interested me so I moved on to the Hartt School of Music where there was more plurality of approach and style. That’s where I completed the doctorate.

Beginning in the 1990s I taught composition, music technology, and jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta. From there I went to Central Washington University where I directed the music composition and theory programs. During that period I had short and long-term residencies in the United States and Europe – at the Crakow Academy of Music, STEIM in Amsterdam, the Banff Centre in Canada, and the University of California Santa Barbara, among others. And I was always playing jazz.

How do you teach?

Everyone comes to the piano and improvisation with their own interests, strengths, and abilities. So how I teach depends on the interests and experiences my students bring with them. It’s very much based on what they want to learn.

I’d say what I do as a teacher is help students acquire a musical voice. That means on the one hand exploring what, why, and how we do music- and piano-related things. And being creative with whatever comes back from those questions. On the other hand it’s about building as much technique as we can to support creativity. Creativity and technique are the two sides on the same coin.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I’m keen on teaching improvisation through Skype to students around the world. What’s amazing to me about Skype is it works without getting in the way. So looking into my studio from a distance literally means looking through Skype.

For me, there’s magic and the miraculous in working with students who literally are all around the world. Because with Skype connections to distant places don’t feel distant.

From time to time I’ll think “Well we’re working together in realtime but there’s a 12-hour time difference between us.” Which to me is mind boggling. I’ve had some improvised, interesting two-piano duets with students on Skype.

I’d say what Skype brings out is it’s the creativity and enthusiasm we bring to the learning process that counts. Which is the same for everyone really – without or with Skype. Creativity and enthusiasm are essential.

The biggest challenge with Skype has been managing clock shifts and timezones around the world. So, for example, I’ve since learned some countries – Iran is one and I have a fantastic student there – set their clocks to the half-hour rather than to the hour.

What do you expect from your students?

The first thing I teach is relaxation helps improvisation and playing the piano enormously. Because when we’re relaxed it’s easier to play and make music.

But after that expectations can easily become “it-has-to-be-this-way” or “it-has-to-be-that-way.” If we can reduce “it-has-to-be-this” to as few instances as possible we’re that much closer to relaxation where music and everything can seem easy. So removing expectations is about learning to play and practice in the moment with the skills we have instead the skills we wish we had.

A different example of a removable expectation is the idea that knowledge of theory – scales and chords  – precedes meaningful improvisation. The reality is thinking about theory when improvising is about as helpful as applying theory to playing anything.

Of course later or sooner theory is among the great extra stuff that broadens and deepens how we play. But as a prerequisite to improvisation – and particularly for students who come to improvisation with technique already – it’s not the start point.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I’m mostly interested in the quality of experience of the individual – instead of the quantity of quality competition judges have to quantify. The thing is, quality of experience doesn’t depend on prescribed skill levels. A different way to say that is I’m focused on processes of music-making – because experience is process.

On the other hand I competed in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition which is the huge international one of the jazz world. I was a finalist in the the Great American Jazz Piano Competition. My Robots-in-Residence installation which I built in Denmark was a prize-winner in a competition in France. I learned a lot by being in those events and I’m glad I had those experiences.

And many pianists know competitions and such to be exactly what they want to enter into. In that case of course I’m happy to assist and support. But to the question of “are competitions and such things fundamentally part of learning to play an instrument?” my opinion is, no, they’re not.

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

Being in the moment with the music we’re making. Focusing on right now. To do that we have to relax. Which isn’t a question of “Are we relaxed? Yes or no?” It’s that relaxation is a continuum. Which means we can always bring it to deeper and deeper levels.

Also important is listening to the sound that comes from the piano. Listening to how the piano resonates. How it projects. One way forward with this  play and listen to single, sustained notes – long tones at the piano.

It’s like magic but ears and mind usually then go right to the moment – because they’re listening to the attack, sustain, and decay of each note and then each note after that.

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

We all deal with it in one way or another. I wish I knew how to banish it once and forever. But the reality probably is that’s just part of music making and not really all that unusual.

My approach is to work with it in small increments – instead of looking to conquer or suppress it once and for all. Small increments could mean learning to use specific relaxation techniques of which breathing is one of them.

Breathing meaning focusing on and recognising the importance of breath while we’re at the piano. And of course listening to the sound of the piano. Focusing on sound as it floats out of the piano. The more we focus on breath and sound the more we go to those worlds and then on to relaxation and the moment of “right now.”

Differentiating between “practice” and “performance” mode can be helpful. Practice mode is about working out details and looking to improve “this thing” or “that thing” or both things or all things. It’s intentionally focused to things such as “play these notes” or “perform that passage softly.”

Performance mode on the other hand doesn’t require analytic thinking. It doesn’t require that we try to do something better today than yesterday. It’s sitting down at the piano and being in the moment: Comfortable, and relaxed with the music we make, the sound we hear, the ability we have. Then “letting” everything flow together into a performance. Instead of “making” it flow together into the performance.

Are there any books you’d recommend to pianists or musicians or anyone interested in improvising?

The book for the desert island, assuming the piano’s already been delivered, is The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music by W.A. Mathieu. It has listening exercises and philosophy for everyone at every level of ability and experience.

How can we contact you?

My Mark Polishook Studio website is a blog about improvising, jazz, and all things of interest to pianists. My email address is mark@polishookstudio.com.

Dr. Mark Polishook, a pianist, composer, and music technologist, teaches improvisation in his studio in Leicester and on the internet through Skype. Among his compositions is Seed of Sarah, an electronic chamber opera that was made into a film seen across North America, Europe, and Australia. As a jazz pianist Dr. Polishook has performed with many eminent artists. 

To the experimental side of sound art Dr. Polishook has worked with graphics tablets, robots, and open-source software. His Robots-in-Residence installation which he created in Denmark was a prize winner in the 2004 International Bourges Electro-acoustic Music Competition in France. 

Dr. Polishook directed the music composition and theory programs at Central Washington University. He’s been a professor of jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta and a Senior Fulbright Lecturer at the Crakow Academy of Music in Poland. Dr. Polishook has been a resident artist in the Aarhus Computer Science Department, at STEIM in Amsterdam and at CREATE at the University of California Santa Barbara. 

He has a DMA in Music Composition from the Hartt School of Music, a masters’ degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and the Manhattan School of Music. His undergraduate degree is from the New England Conservatory of Music.

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……Lynne Phillips

Lynne14What is your first memory of the piano?

I first learnt to play the piano when I was very young and living in Vermont, USA.  I have a distinct memory of my first piano – a vast white upright with a black-leaf Art Nouveau design on the front.  I can remember learning Mary Had a Little Lamb on black notes, and I have a very clear recollection of my first teacher, us sitting next to each other on the piano stool, me marvelling at not just her piano playing, but also her incredibly long hair! I can also remember playing a peculiar electric organ upstairs in the house, with my Mother helping me and playing alongside me.  I had a Children’s Song Book that we used to play together, and I can remember Mum helping me with my piano practise, and also getting stuck on ‘The Bullfrog’ for many months before finally abandoning it.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? 

To be honest, teaching was something that I fell into.  After finishing University, I was asked by a friend of a friend to teach her teenage daughter. Luckily for me, she led me to the realisation that teaching was something I absolutely loved to do.  I made a lot of mistakes with those first few students – I moved them on too fast, I entered them for exams too quickly- but I learnt from them and I hope that they weren’t too scarred by the experience.  Today’s music students who are taught teaching skills modules, and who have access to other lessons to observe and learn from, are incredibly lucky. I doubt if I’m the only teacher of my age who had to learn our skills with little or no help, and had to do it fast.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

My A-level music teacher at Lady Verney High School, Miss Hughes, was the first teacher who opened my eyes to counterpoint, fugues, and the structure of music.  At the time, I was struggling wildly with a Bach Fugue, and it was only when I began additional lessons with Miss Hughes, that I discovered why I was coping so badly; I had no concept of a fugue, I didn’t understand the ideas of counterpoint and voicing, I was trying to play the fugue as a harmonic piece, reading it and realising it vertically as if the notes were chords.  The idea that this music was essentially conceived around a single melody was like a revelation to me.  When I moved to Cardiff to study music at University, I became a student of Richard McMahon (now Head of Keyboard Department at RWCMD).  If my eyes were opened by Miss Hughes, then my vision was completely transformed by McMahon.  He taught me to think of the music I was playing as not only of vocal origin, but also taught me to listen to and identify the underlying harmonies, he taught me the concept of direction, shape and colour in music, and the importance of thinking not just pianistically and vocally, but also orchestrally and percussively.

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

Certainly Richard McMahon has been an enormous influence on my teaching.  Through all my years studying with him, I don’t believe I heard even once the phrase “Play it like this…” or “It should sound like this…”.  He taught me that the key to being able to play a piece was in its understanding, and that once I understood the music, I would be able to work out how to perform it.  Of course, he helped with technical issues, but most of my lessons revolved around my comprehension of what I was playing.  His teaching has influenced me enormously – I rarely talk to my students about the literal markings on the page, rather helping them to understand the ‘why’ of the markings; for instance, “Why does the music get louder here? Where is it driving towards?” rather than “The music gets louder because it is marked ‘crescendo”.  He also taught me that there are very many valid interpretations to any one piece, and this is something that I teach my students.  During one memorable lesson, he explained that he disagreed wildly with how I was articulating a specific section, so asked me play it so convincingly that it would persuade him of its validity.  This experience, and many more like it, has left me with a love of my students disagreeing with my ideas on interpretation, and I frequently find myself asking them to “convince me and anybody else listening” of their ideas.

I have also been heavily influenced by Daniel Barenboim – I have read “Everything is Connected” many times over, and can often be found quoting him during lessons.  His description of the true meaning of the term ‘rubato’ is nothing short of genius, and something that I discuss frequently with my own students.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

I have so many! Most of my memorable teaching experiences are to do with a student ‘getting’ something after a period of struggling – whether it is an understanding of a musical concept, a sound, a technique, a performance, or an exam result. I had a recent lesson where a student developed a whole new level of touch and tone control after working all lesson not just on listening to speech patterns but also on playing on a closed piano lid (a favourite teaching trick of mine that instantly allows a student to hear how much or how little attack there is behind the notes).  That Eureka! moment is something I cherish every time it happens.

Because I teach a wide range of students and I have an open-door policy for anyone wishing to learn, this does mean that I get just as much of a buzz out of a gifted musician being able to play a technically demanding piece with insight, depth and skill, as I do out of a student who finds learning the piano so much more challenging, finally achieving a full piece with musicality and confidence.

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

Adult learners come with their own challenges and difficulties, but also a unique set of skills.  Adults are much more able to think logically and work out things by themselves over the week, but they tend to have far more problems with finger agility than children, and I often find that adults struggle to find the time to practise regularly. Most of my adult learners are extraordinarily busy, often juggling work and children before they even begin to think about practise, and this often leads to frustration from themselves with regards to their progress.

What do you expect from your students? 

I have different expectations from different students, depending on their commitment level, their goals, and obviously their age, but I do expect from all of them a high level of honesty, a certain level of hard work, and as much respect towards me and my instrument that I give them.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

I have very mixed feelings about all of these.  Although they all have their uses, I’m becoming more and more convinced that there is a culture of overuse and misuse that has been on the rise for many years and is now reaching a peak.  There are many students and parents who don’t see progress unless they have a certificate or medal to prove it, and who have been taught that the only way to learn is to ‘progress through the grades’, sitting every one along the way, and often sacrificing time spent learning new repertoire and skills in the process. I don’t know what the answer is to this, but I think if music education continues along this route, we will end up with a generation of musicians who have a grade 8 certificate but who are unable to think of music as anything other than its individual examination sections – scales, aural tests, pieces, and sight reading.  A parent of one of my students once said to me “Isn’t it sad that when my son says he plays the piano, the immediate question is “What grade are you?”.  Why does nobody ask, “What interesting pieces are you playing at the minute?””, and I think this sums up the present exam culture perfectly.  I spend a lot of time attempting to convince parents and students that exams, festivals and competitions are all very useful sidesteps in their musical education, but that to use them as the sole goal is not only detrimental, but not what the systems were set out to do in the first place.

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

To beginners – that you should never play a single note without listening to yourself, that odd mistakes don’t matter, that you should question yourselves and your teachers, and that it is ok, great fun and incredibly useful, to improvise.

To advanced students – that you should never play a single note without listening to yourself, that odd mistakes don’t matter, that you should question yourselves and your teachers, and that it is ok, great fun, and incredibly useful, to improvise.

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

I think the only teachers who can effectively teach performance technique are ones who have a history of performance behind them.  Not all of my students enjoy performing (in fact, many of them actively shy away from it), but I believe even those students need to be aware of the elements of performance practise, even if the only people they will ever perform to are themselves.

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

Too many to mention! But I grew up with a love of older pianists such as Ashkenazy and Barenboim, and this love for these great musicians has stuck by me over the years.

Lynne studied piano in Cardiff at Cardiff University and RWCMD where she had regular tuition from renowned concert pianist and teacher Richard McMahon.   

She has been teaching piano to children and adults through private lessons and at RWCMD for 15 years.  She is a specialist in early years teaching, in working with children with visual impairments, autism, dyslexia & dyspraxia, and she recently spent two years working with a student who only had the use of her right hand.   

Lynne does not use a specific teaching method, but she firmly believes that young musicians should be taught to think independently, to question themselves and their teachers, and should not become reliant on graded examinations in order to achieve a sense of progress.   

Lynne is currently researching and writing a book about piano teaching.  Visit Lynne’s blog and website properpianofingers.com

At the Piano With……Catherine Riley

Cathy 294-smallWhat is your first memory of the piano? 

When I was around 5 years old a piano appeared in our house. I can’t remember now how it came to be there – I think it may have been inherited from my grandmother. I can remember watching my father play the piano by ear. I would stand at one end of the piano, joining in playing notes too, fascinated by the effect. Not long after I began to make up little tunes of my own. The ability to play by ear and to improvise has stayed with me all my life.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? 

My first introduction to teaching piano was teaching the two young children of some friends while I was studying piano at Auckland University in New Zealand. I was really quite novice at it then and can’t imagine how effective I was as a teacher. However later when I came to study and work in London it eventually became a necessity to earn part of my living as a piano teacher and gradually my ability to teach developed.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

A number of teachers remain very special to me. My first significant teacher, Mary McClafferty, was a very fine musician, who took me through my advanced piano grades and diplomas whilst I was at school. She was so modest – she would have never told me at the time but in her obituary I read that the great Henry Wood invited her to play in the proms when she was young. I remember she always spoke very fast – perhaps trying to fit in as much as possible in the time allotted!

When I went to Auckland University to study music I had the unique experience of studying with two piano teachers simultaneously. This was only possible as one had been the pupil of the other. They worked in perfect tandem, covering a wide range of solo and chamber repertoire between them with each student. Janetta McStay (who sadly died just recently at the age of 95) was not only a great teacher but a really world class musician and performer. During the 1970’s I heard her play as an equal with many wonderful musicians during their visits to New Zealand and it was not surprising that the Borodin Quartet especially requested her to join them on a tour of Russia. I also studied with her former pupil, Bryan Sayer, also an excellent pianist and teacher, who had studied in Paris with Vlado Perlmuter. They have both remained lifelong friends and mentors.  In the five years I studied with them I learnt such an enormous amount from them: about technique, style, detail and precision, beauty of tone and phrasing. The list goes on…

Later in London I was privileged to study with the late Peter Wallfisch – a very special pianist and musician and so incredibly generous: he would think nothing of giving a three or four hour lesson, if he felt the music required it. He had such wonderful imagination and made you really think about interpretation in a very deep and creative way. In his teaching I felt there were connections back to great teaching pedagogues such as Artur Schnabel.

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

All of those wonderful piano teachers have left their mark in different ways through their generosity, high professional standards and complete commitment to their art.

I am also influenced by the playing I do with other musicians as I am being constantly challenged to remain open to different ways of working, which keeps me fresh.

I find much can be learnt from observing master classes.  Andras Schiff, Richard Goode and Murray Perahia have all given me much to think about. I am also fascinated by less conventional approaches: Nelly Ben–Or is a pianist who offers a unique take on performance due to her training as an Alexander Technique Teacher. William Westney (American pedagogue and prize winning pianist, influenced by the teaching of Jacques Dalcroze) also offers a completely original and refreshing approach to practising and performing. I recommend reading his inspiring book The Perfect Wrong Note (published by Amadeus).

Lastly and certainly not least I am always learning from my students!

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

Whether modest or momentous I find there are regular moments of satisfaction and delight with teaching that are too numerous to recall. It is always a joy when a student experiences a break through, whatever level they are at.

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

I have a number of adult students these days and enjoy very much working with them. Sometimes it is necessary to make their aims more realistic – “Schumann’s Carnival is a great work but let’s start with exploring some of his shorter piano pieces first”! However, age needn’t be a barrier to progress and playing the piano is great exercise for the mind as well as for physical co-ordination. It is also self-sufficient and there really is a fantastic repertoire to choose from.

What do you expect from your students?

Enthusiasm, commitment and a willingness to try something new.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

They have their place and can be an excellent goal for students and of course some students thrive on competitions although I believe they shouldn’t be the end all. All performance opportunities are important however– what is music if not communicated?

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

The teaching of beginners can be much underestimated in importance. It really does require careful planning and patience to teach well at this level and deliver a sound and well balanced programme of musicianship and technique. Elements such as pulse, rhythm and pitch need to be broken down and taught in small achievable steps. Introducing the sound before the symbol is so important- too many tutor books immediately push notation first.

To make the journey towards artistry the advanced student needs to be encouraged to develop their interpretive ability as well as their technical proficiency. It’s about having something individual to say as a musician.

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

I believe one helps the other. How often when I teach I find I am telling myself what I also need to take on board in my own playing. Playing oneself gives one the ability to empathise with the student, to understand the process. I will regularly demonstrate in my teaching to make sure I have offered a clear aural model of the ideas I am suggesting.

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

There are too many pianists to name but I listen to them to be inspired. We are lucky to have a rich heritage of recorded performances of many great pianists of the past to draw on. There are still a lot of wonderful classical musicians out there playing live. I am also drawn to jazz – there is so much creativity happening in this field, which harkens back to the era of composer/ performers.

Catherine Riley graduated from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, with an M.Mus degree in Performance, with first class honours.  Following successes with the two major New Zealand concerto competitions, she recorded for Radio New Zealand and undertook several professional piano concerto engagements.   

A grant from the NZ Arts council enabled her to continue with post graduate studies at the Royal College of Music with Kendall Taylor and Peter Wallfisch.  Several awards led to concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room and Fairfield Halls.  She has also given performances in the Barbican Centre as well as St. John’s, Smith Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields.  

She has performed as both soloist and chamber musician and given numerous recitals and chamber music concerts in the UK and in Europe and has recorded the complete works for violin and piano by Grieg with American violinist, Christopher Collins Lee. In 2007 she formed the Johannes Piano Quartet with colleagues who are fellow tutors at the Centre for Young Musicians, in London. She has also recently formed a duo with the pianist Graham Fitch.  

Catherine is also very active in the field of music education and is Head of Piano at the Centre for Young Musicians as well as being a principal tutor for the EPTA Piano Teaching Course. 

UPCOMING CONCERTS:

26 May 2013 The Johannes Piano Quartet with guest Lynn Cook perform piano quintets by Brahms and Granados.

The Colour Theatre, Merton Abbey Mills, SW19 (www.mertonabbeymusic.com)

31 July 2013 Piano Duet recital by Graham Fitch and Cathy Riley

Markson Music and Wine Evening: St Mary Magdalene Church, NW1

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……Graham Fitch

Graham Fitch

Graham Fitch

What is your first memory of the piano?

It is a very strong memory of visiting my grandparents and being drawn to this huge thing against the wall, with its ivory teeth, ornate carvings and candlesticks! We didn’t have a piano at home, so every time I visited I sat for ages completely fascinated and oblivious not only to the passage of time but also to the irritation my infantile experimentation must presumably have caused my captive audience. I was completely passionate about the piano from that time onwards!

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I started formal lessons very late, so I learned everything the hard way – through sheer hard work and determination. I was lucky to have had extremely good teaching every step of the way but because of my age, it all went in consciously. I wish I had been through that unconscious stage that young children experience, when playing the piano is as natural as breathing and you don’t have to think about anything. Because of my enquiring mind, I always asked my teachers a lot of questions. I needed to understand how it all worked. I think I was destined to be a teacher from the start, I really do see it as a vocation rather than a choice.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I don’t believe there is any such person as the one ideal teacher for everyone. Each teacher I studied with gave me different pieces of the puzzle. My first teacher, Val Dickson, set extremely high standards and instilled in me a sense of musicianship and discipline. Philip Fowke, a consummate pianist, similarly inspired me not only with his playing but by showing me exactly how to practise. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for that. Stephen Savage, my first professor at the RCM back in the mid 70s was an extremely thorough and skilful teacher of piano, and a great inspiration as a musician. He brought vibrancy and energy to each and every lesson. It is hard to overestimate what I gained from my second teacher at the RCM, Peter Wallfisch. He switched on so many lights in my mind, with lessons sprawling over three hours a week. I have written about those amazing years on my blog, so rather than repeat myself I would direct readers to the post: http://practisingthepiano.com/?p=329. Before taking up my Fulbright scholarship in 1982, I took part in Andras Schiff’s classes at Dartington, quite the most magical summer of my life! We think of him as a player of the classics and yet he was teaching Prokoviev sonatas without the need to refer to the score. After the week of classes, Andras invited me to play for him privately from time to time, which was a privilege and a great inspiration. In my first year in the USA, I studied with Ann Schein at the Peabody Institute who gave impeccable and impromptu demonstrations of anything and everything I took to her. As one of Rubinstein’s only students, I inherited some of the maestro’s fingerings for Chopin, and there was much magic in those lessons! During that year, I participated in Leon Fleisher’s weekly classes which had a huge influence on my thinking. I draw on this incredible musician’s wisdom and rich legacy every day. My final teacher, Nina Svetlanova, passed on her amazing tradition, the very best of the modern Russian school – she had studied for many years with Heinrich Neuhaus – and lessons were pure gold. During those years, I also had some marvellous lessons with Julian Martin (a teacher I would recommend to anyone) who now teaches at Juilliard, but the last influence was Peter Feuchtwanger here in London, who presented the diametric opposite of what I consider athletic piano playing. His extraordinary approach put my playing in neutral, and from that place I managed to really take off in different directions.

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

I think all of my teachers were important, also the masterclasses I participated in, concerts I attended as well as life experiences that had nothing to do with music.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

It’s hard to single anything out here. It may seem that some teaching experiences are better than others, but I think that’s ultimately an ego thing. I taught talented young pianists at The Purcell School in the early 90s, then tertiary level piano students at the University of Cape Town and then at the RWCMD while giving masterclasses at such institutions as the RAM, last year at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore and the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. But a professional piano teacher should be available for anyone who is serious about playing, professional and amateur alike, and should give each student equal attention and respect.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? (if relevant)

The main challenge of teaching adults is respecting their agenda without imposing mine. I once had a student who was a highly influential and successful person in finance, in charge of people as well as vast pension funds. His passion and solace was to retreat from this heady world into middle and late period Beethoven sonatas, his tackling and understanding of which were remarkable. After some time struggling to give him what I considered a detailed lesson and ending up frustrated because he wouldn’t let me, I learned that he simply wanted to play for someone who knew these works intimately, whose ears and opinion he trusted. That, and a few general comments, was enough for him to play better than he would by himself. Even though I knew I could have helped him improve more, this was not what he wanted. I have an elderly student at the moment who has lessons because he wants to keep his brain active. Who is to say this is any less valid a reason to come to me than my university music students? I guess the single biggest difference with an adult is the fear of letting go, of making mistakes, and the fear of being judged. Sitting in a lesson involves trust in the teacher, and I always tell them if they feel judged, it’s their own judgment, not mine!

What do you expect from your students?

That’s a very good question, as it varies from person to person. If I have a youngster doing an exam or a college student doing a degree in music, there has to be an element of discipline and pressure coming from me, so that weekly progress is evident and ongoing. It’s different with an adult with a busy life away from the piano who comes for lessons because they love playing, it’s almost none of my business why they come. In all my teaching, I think my role is to instruct, inspire and motivate rather than assume the role of ogre-taskmaster.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

There’s no denying that grade exams provide a very useful structure for learning as long as they don’t become the be-all-and-end-all. As part of an overall musical education exams are fine, but it pains me to think of kids stuck on the same three pieces and a bunch of scales for a whole year, that this is their experience of music. I love adjudicating festivals, hearing everyone present themselves in front of peers and public. Festivals were extremely positive and constructive elements of my own upbringing, and gave me invaluable performing opportunities. As for competitions, I always say to my own students just because you won something today, it doesn’t mean you’re the best thing since sliced bread, nor does it mean you’ll win something tomorrow. Conversely, if you didn’t win it just means you didn’t play your best on the day, or that particular jury preferred someone else. It shouldn’t knock you back, but unfortunately a negative experience often can.

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

The number one priority must surely be the love of music and the appreciation that by playing the repertoire we do we are dealing with some of the most profound or most beautiful artistic products of the human mind. Some obvious things would be teaching them about music, how their pieces are constructed – I like to approach a piece with a composer’s-eye view. Teaching them how to listen, equipping them with a solid, reliable piano technique, how to practise, craftsmanship, a sense of freedom in self expression. .

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

My teaching is enhanced and enriched by my performing career, there’s no doubt about that. Actually getting up there and doing it means I teach with a different set of skills and priorities, and there’s no substitute for that. There’s a world of difference between being able to play a piece for yourself and presenting it in front of an audience. Performance skills and performance preparation are areas that only a performing musician can really teach.


Graham Fitch maintains an international reputation as a pianist, teacher, adjudicator and writer. This year he will be adjudicating the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival, Abingdon, Beckenham and Dulwich Festivals. Recent activities include a concert tour of Singapore and Australia with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with masterclasses at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Griffith University in Brisbane, and Melbourne’s Team of Pianists. Graham is a regular writer for Pianist Magazine, and has several video demonstrations on the magazine’s YouTube channel. He has recently published an ebook based on his popular blog, www.practisingthepiano.com. Graham teaches privately in London, and counts among his students Daniel Grimwood and James Baillieu, with many others active in the profession. In addition to teaching talented youngsters and tertiary level piano students, he is very interested in working with amateur pianists. He is on the staff at this year’s Piano Summer School at Walsall.


www.practisingthepiano.com

www.grahamfitch.com

dulwichpianofestival

Summer School for Pianists, Walsall

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……..Nico de Villiers

What is your first memory of the piano?

My bare feet cooling on the cold pedals of the piano during the hot summer. Another is playing the piano and singing to my grandfather and grandmother on a Sunday afternoon.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Teaching has always come naturally to me. I found that when I am passionate about something I can explain it comfortably. So when I started teaching during my undergraduate studies I realised that I enjoyed teaching and learned a lot about my own playing at the same time.

I suppose I also subconsciously took in a lot about teaching techniques from the way my teacher taught me when I was growing up.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Johan Cromhout was my teacher for ten years when I grew up in South Africa. He has taken me from learning to properly read music (I started by playing by ear) up to performing and being able to comfortably discuss my programme in the viva voce of my DipABRSM. He always managed to find a balance between allowing my spontaneity to flourish whilst shaping my progress in the right direction. We listened to a lot of music as well. A part of my two-hour lessons in later years included a cup of tea and listening to CDs.

Martin Katz was my teacher during my study at the University of Michigan. He is a fascinating teacher and the way he can put every scenario in context of today is inspiring and admirable. Charles Owen taught me about focus and economical use of technique to acquire a better result.

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

The teachers I studied with influenced me greatly as I mentioned above. I am also very much influenced by Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) where (said in an immensely simplistic way) the imagination is used to build an awareness of what one wants to achieve and then following that path your imagination has set out already. I am not giving it its best explanation, but it is fascinating to learn how we can open up various avenues for ourselves by imagining it all in as much detail as possible first. I try to introduce visual art and literature in my teaching as well. It just helps to get students thinking a bit differently about all those black dots.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I was teaching a very talented 6 year old. He had been taking lessons for a year and I introduced B major to him. He experimented a bit and worked out C major and D major on his own. I shall never forget the excitement and marvel that he was filled with. He realised that he can create things on this white and black maze. This reminded me of the importance of not only to always try and convey this to my students, but also to remind myself of this lesson.

It has been said many times before, but it is also very true for myself: I constantly learn from my students.

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

I enjoy working with adults because they often have their own ideas from the beginning and then open themselves up to more ideas. Challenges can be that old habits die hard and as teacher one has to find an individual barometer for each student to keep the balance between encouragement, alteration and guidance. Where children often take things at face value, adult students often ask more questions, challenging the teacher. I like that – it makes both of us think!

What do you expect from your students?

A motto I try to instill in my students is to have dedication and discipline in accordance to one’s goals. Some adults I work with want to play for relaxation and do not have careers as a musician in mind. For me it is important that they still have certain expectations of themselves and live up to them. For my students studying music degrees I expect them to aspire to the same motto. They are often in a place in their careers where they are trying to find where they fit in in the musical world and so it is important to keep one’s head. I think this motto can help them to be inspired, but also impresses upon them the responsibility associated with their work. The children I teach (often second study pianists) often have this motto naturally build in, but I think it is the result of the fact that they have learnt the lesson by learning one instrument already.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Any experience of performance is important and influences the development of anybody learning a musical instrument. Each of the above brings up its own challenges as a performer, but I think students are not often enough reminded of how different these experiences can be. Competing against oneself in an exam vis à vis competing against others in competitions and some festivals often make performers react when in the heat of it all. Performing in a concert is also different. Some people prosper better in some scenarios than others. I think it is important as a teacher to find which of these different performance setups work best for each student and then encourage them accordingly.

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

For beginners I think the most important lesson is to be disciplined and meticulous – count, check rhythm, play correct notes and learn sensible fingering as (hopefully) set out by the teacher.

For advanced students I would actually say the same and on top of it to read as much and as widely as possible, trying to put the works they play in social and historical context.

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

Both performance and teaching is a way of communication, similar to two dialects of the same language. Some are well-versed in both dialects, others are fluent in one and proficient in another. It is the individual’s responsibility to find his or her feet in either or both dialects.

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

Argerich for fire, Barenboim for colour, Schiff for philosophy and Perahia for surprise.

South African-born pianist Nico de Villiers is an accompanist, teacher and coach, based in London. He holds degrees from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, the University of Michigan and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Read Nico’s full biography here

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…….Mark Tanner

Mark Tanner

What is your first memory of the piano? 

Having a lovely time in my first piano lessons (but usually improvising when I was supposed to be practising), and nudging my mum off the piano stool so that I could take my turn. Also, listening to my father’s collection of jazz recordings – pianists such as Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and Jacques Loussier: in fact, it was while sitting on stage right next to Loussier at one of his ‘Play Bach’ concerts at Bristol’s Colston Hall that I first woke up to the possibility of Classical music and jazz functioning plausibly together. Not too long after that, I had my own opportunity to play on that same piano as part of Fairfield Grammar School’s annual concerts, put together by the ever-energetic Bob Latham (whom incidentally I still rub shoulders with from time to time – we both adjudicate music festivals). I’ll never forget the feeling of smallness on that vast stage, surrounded by a sea of faces, nor the uproarious sound of the applause; it all seemed rather improbable to me at the time. At roughly the same time I appeared on a BBC TV piano competition as semi-finalist, and vividly remember having to improvise live on the programme in front of Sir David Willcocks in response to a video of a fire station amid full action-stations…

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? 

Teaching the piano, for me, seemed an inevitable adjunct to playing. I ‘fell into’ teaching I suppose, initially taking on an occasional youngster for a few quid while I was a first year student at college, and then getting rather more serious about it a little later on, with the taking of teaching diplomas and so on. I’ve always felt that teaching and playing are flip-sides of the same coin, and indeed that the crossover points are sometimes so hazy that it can be difficult to know who is gaining the most from the experience. I certainly never considered piano teaching to be a second-best option.

We all know that teachers regularly learn from their pupils (there’s nothing new in that, of course), and yet it strikes me that this is a crucial part of keeping going as a teacher. We hear constantly about how important our pupils are – well of course they are – but so is the mental health of their teachers! It’s worth bearing in mind that if teachers are insufficiently nourished by their daily experience, they may become jaded, semi-functioning box-tickers with one eye on the clock; not a recipe for happy piano lessons. Resisting this is easier said than done of course, and I have known of a number of perfectly good piano teachers who were simply not able to withstand the tide of fatigue and frustration that their jobs entailed. This is a real shame, and yet we shouldn’t be too quick to judge teachers who cave in under the strain of what is a tremendously tiring and responsible job.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

I’ve been really blessed. Mrs Dean (I now realise that I never actually knew her first name), then Gwyn Pritchard – both as a boy in my hometown of Bristol – followed by Geoffrey Buckley, Philip Martin and Richard McMahon. I was given composition lessons by Richard Roderick-Jones and Andrew Downes and was fortunate enough to play in quite a number of masterclasses too, with John Ogdon, Peter Donohoe, John Lill and many more. Peter Johnson was my PhD supervisor at the Birmingham Conservatoire – he is a terrifically resourceful academic who never ran dry of suggestions or alternative ways of thinking about things; I owe him a great deal.

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

Well, inevitably all of the above people! Interestingly, my interactions with concert pianists quickly revealed to me that they operate quite differently, prioritise differently and hence directed me differently. To my thinking, the biggest challenge, from the perspective of a fragile music college student, is coming to terms with seemingly conflicting views. At first, it can all bubble up like a melting pot in one’s head, and one can end up feeling utterly rudderless and confused – until, that is, one wakes up to the startlingly obvious reality that one has to take one’s own view when it comes to matter of performance, and that often all one is really grappling with is a difference in emphasis.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

I suppose there are many individuals whom I feel I have been able to support along the way, and a number of these are ‘out there’ today, operating very comfortably within the music profession, as performers, teachers etc, even the odd rock star. It seems a bit ridiculous to single people out really, but I’ve often thought it remarkable that the very first piano lesson I ever gave as Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset (arriving straight from a fairly harrowing PGCE course, I might add, where crowd-management seemed all too prevalent a feature), was to a lad who would turn out to be the most accomplished musician to come my way in sixteen years of teaching there. Each lesson was, in reality, a trawl through the great piano concertos – we’d hack our way through Rach. 3, the Grieg, anything I happened to have a copy of to hand, and his sight-reading was at least as good as mine, even then. (He is now much in demand internationally as a freelance organist and writer). School teaching was a very enriching experience for me, on the whole, and I certainly feel I learned a lot about aspects of music I’d never really come into contact with before, such as choral music and music technology. I also had the chance to do bits of conducting from time to time and to gain experience playing nearly all of the brass instruments that were lying about ownerless in the music school. During this time I was lucky enough to have both a head of department and a headmaster who were willing to let me off the leash, as it were, to perform all over the place and indeed to undertake research for my PhD, which involved day-release to Birmingham over a period of four years. Running concurrently with my school career, I did a fair amount of lecturing up and down the country, but notably at Dillington House and then at Jackdaws in Somerset; I feel an especial connection with Jackdaws to this day, generally running a couple of courses each year – notably a popular Summer School for Pianists. Jackdaws serves as a constant reminder to me that the learning process never stops, either for me or for the endless stream of people (many of a ‘certain’ age), who can amaze me with what they are doing at the piano. Incidentally, if you’ve not yet experienced Jackdaws, I’d suggest there’s a hole in your life that you’d better set about fixing straight away; it’s not necessarily because of the standard of playing (though there are some excellent players who attend the courses), more the level of human being.

At the same time, it’s good to remember that sometimes progress is measured in inches, not miles. Success for one person might constitute a complete disaster for the next, so ultimately the only person worth comparing yourself with is you. That way, you keep nudging your way forward, at whatever rate you are capable of, mindful of the fact that any distance travelled down the road of progress is better than none (even if it happens to be a tad less impressive than people half your age). I say this because I can call to mind a number of ex pupils who were less than remarkable as younger players, but who found their legs later, and it is so gratifying to learn that something you said or did as a teacher helped to bring about a eureka moment, maybe decades later. The dedication angle usually turns out to be absolutely crucial to succeeding in music – in my view diligence is at least as important as natural ‘talent’ (and let’s face it, could you ever find two people who could agree what talent actually is?)

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

Adults are not big children (and therefore, it goes without saying, children are not small adults). To treat either as such is to misunderstand them, and it’s only a short step from here to underestimating them, patronising them and losing sight of what playing the piano actually means for them: experiencing enjoyment and fulfilment. In 95% of cases our adult pupils hanker after personal enrichment and a sense of engagement with something tactile and beautiful – and all of this is perfectly achievable without becoming a serial devourer of grades, diplomas or other gongs (helpful though these can undeniably be, though in a relatively small number of cases in my opinion).

Adults tend to talk rather a lot in lessons, I’ve noticed! This used to bother me – after all, surely it’s taking money under false pretences if much of the time is not spent ‘on the job’…then, one day quite a few years ago, it came to me in a flash…we all need different things from our piano lessons. Confidence-building can take many forms, and we don’t all need bolstering to the same extent or in quite the same way. I no longer feel guilty about having a cup of tea and a chat during a lesson…

Adults often lack an awareness of where they are at, both technically and musically, especially if they are not working under the auspices of a regular teacher; hence, they might turn up wearing a beaming smile, brandishing hopelessly unrealistic volumes of late Beethoven Sonatas, or whatever, and within two bars of stumbling about, I know this will end in tears, particularly if the student in question has already committed him/herself to an exam of some kind for which they are wholly unsuited. Related to this, is that I find adults frequently don’t seem to know what they don’t know, if you see what I mean, and hence, left to their own devices, they fixate on unreachable goals such as attaining a higher diploma, a qualification which is really designed to meet the needs of aspiring professionals, not amateurs. I’m all for working towards something a little way off, but in extreme cases only the most strong-willed teacher can succeed in imposing a restraining order.

Nevertheless, while the risks may sometimes be greater with adults, arguably the gains can be greater also. After all, unlike many children, adults know what their lessons are costing them in time, money, conflicting family pressures and so on, and hence in many cases it matters more to them. The adult learner is often a ‘returner’ – I can’t help noticing that the world seems to be full of grade 3 pianists who ‘gave up’ thirty-odd years ago. Things change, and life can overtake us, causing us to bid a reluctant farewell to the piano for a while, and yet thankfully, most people cherish the prospect of coming back to playing some day when the children are married off, they can afford a decent instrument and they rediscover that elusive bit of ‘quality time’. It can be terrifically rewarding as a teacher to help returners, but it certainly helps if they bring a measure of realism and common sense to their approach and are prepared to be guided.

What do you expect from your students? 

I suspect I’m rather untypical. As an examiner and trainer for ABRSM you might imagine that I spend much of my time ‘selling’ the Board’s wares…actually, I’ve always been a little slack in this area, to be frank. I generally wait for students to mention exams, and then I respond in the way I feel is right, but rarely do I initiate such discussion. I’ve known parents to be a little problematic if they carry with them personal ‘baggage’ (such as wanting their child to have the opportunities they didn’t, etc.) and this might mean that the teacher feels cajoled into entertaining the next exam before the time is ripe. I suppose I expect students to take their playing seriously, not to waste my time (or their own), and to aim to make the most of their attributes, be they great or small. In return, I try to be a cheerful motivator and to have a positive influence on the course they have chosen to undertake.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

Interestingly, I notice that the question deliberately groups together exams, festivals and competitions as if they all amount to virtually the same thing. To my mind they are all very different; festivals may well be the right way to go for musicians who are more interested in participation than direct attainment, or for the musician who simply can’t get to grips with all of the supporting tests that are expected for the various grade syllabi. Here too though, teachers and parents all too often get the wrong end of the stick, and the poor child is frogmarched onto the stage, quivering like a jelly, with little hope of acquitting him/herself positively. I have adjudicated dozens of festivals up and down the country, and although overall I do feel they have an important basis for helping amateurs to evolve, I privately worry about the impact on the more fragile contestants who end up proving to themselves what they’d suspected was true along; a real pity. Following on from my comments in relation to the previous question, I feel that exams can play an important role, but only when all of the circumstances are right; they’re a double-edged sword. I deplore the sausage-machine approach (the minute grade 3 has been achieved, a spanking new copy of the grade 4 pieces is magically prised out, like a rabbit from a hat, with no time for consolidation, reflection, fun…).

Competitions are a rather different ballgame – these are for your more go-getter types who have probably already shown considerable aptitude in grades and/or festivals, and are now looking for something with a bit more ‘edge’ to keep them on their toes. But, with every winner there will be, by necessity, a whole bunch who did not win (or are ‘working towards’, to borrow a more politically correct term). Teachers ought to guard against exposing their pupils to less than positive experiences, and they should be continually guarded to the less than helpful influence parents can unwittingly bring to the situation. Whereas few parents would attempt to influence the strategy of, say, an A level maths teacher, some feel qualified to steer the piano teacher down avenues they’d rather not go, resulting in a less than happy outcome. All of this adds to the teacher’s lot, I’m afraid; ultimately, it’s about maintaining diplomacy and compassion, while keeping the pupil at the heart of it all.

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

For beginners, I feel lessons ought to be about helping them to fall in love with the sound of the piano – its vast range of effects, colours, idioms and styles. For this reason, I am a fan of demonstrating a lot in lessons – it’s not really showing off, so much as showing the instrument in the best possible light, to help them to recognise good playing when they hear it and to want to move towards that in their own playing. I’m not too fussed about introducing notation, not for quite a bit longer into the process than is seen as conventional. I believe that learning to read music is, especially for younger beginners, a big, unnecessary distraction that could easily wait until it is properly needed – in other words, I advocate the learning of notation on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis. After all, learning to play and learning to read are two quite separate things, notwithstanding the collision course that eventually occurs once they are properly up and running. I’d draw the line at an overly Suzuki approach however – the minute reading music shows the potential to become more of a help than a hindrance, it ought to find its way into the teaching. After all, we learn to speak years before we learn to write, and we learn to enjoy food years before we learn how to follow a recipe, so what’s the big rush with learning to read music?

With advanced students, I reckon there is generally still too much emphasis on whizzy-fingered playing. Technique is relatively easy to teach, in the scheme of things, and so teachers may be tempted to place undue emphasis on it, even when it ought to be clear there are more important musical issues still to resolve. My maxim is: come to an understanding of what you wish to achieve musically, and only then get to work on the technical procedures needed to make these achievable. The ‘notes-per-minute’ card can become a distraction from what I call ‘grown up’ piano playing, by which I mean things like chord-voicing (how many pianists, even at diploma level, know what that is?) and acquiring an understanding of what makes the music ‘tick’. There seems to be a prevailing confusion that pianists play, composers compose and analysts analyse, but I believe this to be too simplistic and ultimately somewhat limiting. A pianist who is really able to get to the soul of a piece has, perhaps instinctively, come pretty close to feeling what the composer felt when s/he wrote it. There has to be a measure of structural awareness therefore underpinning the playing, even if there is a shortfall in the ability to articulate it. It annoys me when people derive pleasure from referring to certain jazz pianists as non-readers, as though this in some way absolves them of the need to acquire high-level reading/analytical skills. (Besides, although Oscar Peterson didn’t read music, he understood it more profoundly than most).

Furthermore, only rarely do advanced students seem to be the ‘complete’ musician. Your average grade eight pianist wouldn’t be capable of playing a simple Christmas carol by ear in the key of B major without several minutes grappling and swearing, which I think means we as teachers must be overlooking this type of skill in favour of a more one-dimensional approach. I wish, too, that advanced players were more regularly encouraged by their teachers to measure their accomplishments in relation to the quality of what they are producing, rather than the self-evident complexity of the dots scattered over the paper. If a teacher were to suggest to a teenage boy that, despite having already gained his grade seven he might consider performing a grade five piece in public, I suspect a typical reaction would be that this is some kind of insult to his manliness, or at any rate, an inferred retrograde step. Surely, advanced players are so because they bring a heightened musical intelligence, stylistic awareness and flexibility of technique to their playing, and this should at all costs not be confused with being able to race through a piece at top speed with hurdles tumbling at every stride.

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

I’m guessing you are asking whether it is possible to teach the art of performance? If so – yes! (…and no…). I reckon it’s the case that teachers can only hope to tease out what is already there to be brought out. By the same token, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Having said that, I once had a pupil who gained a distinction in her grade 8 piano exam (mind you, it took her over a year to prepare the pieces) and only by applying every single nuance, tenuto, pedal effect that I handed to her on a plate. Left to her own devices, she demonstrated an alarming incapacity for artistry, but because she was bright, an attentive observer and a hard worker, she acquitted herself very well in the exam, and I remember feeling that she deserved her success. (I can’t help feeling, however, that if I’d handed her three similar pieces and put her on a desert island for another year without any help, she would revert to type: a grade 8 pianist going on grade 5).

With pupils on the cusp of giving recitals in public, I spend quite a bit of time on ‘owning the moment’, i.e. how long to wait before taking the first bow, how to create the right atmosphere before the first note is played, how fast to walk on and off the stage, etc. The theatrical element is, after all, an integral part of what goes into creating an impression with an audience, and even with very polished players it all needs properly tackling until it begins to feel natural. I also spend quite a bit of time working on memorising, programme building, developing sufficient stamina and generally getting to grips with the finer details that go into making a memorable performance.

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

Among my favourite pianists would have to be Ivo Pogorelich, Murray Perahia and Howard Shelley. All three place artistry and finesse high up the agenda, but (certainly in the case of Pogorelich) in rather different ways. Technical aspects are so thoroughly embedded into their playing that one barely notices things like notes, just the larger musical gestures that add up to a persuasive personal account. I generally dislike players who possess an overly heavy foot (no names!) – after all, we play the piano with our fingers, not our feet, and that the sustain pedal is as likely to contaminate the sound as to assist it (ditto vibrato for singers, incidentally – and, rather like chilli powder, a little goes a long way). I also find it difficult to enjoy piano playing when it seems overly encumbered by exaggerated body movements in order to justify a massive rubato, especially when, in a recording, the visual element is no longer there to help us understand what on earth is happening.

Mark Tanner will be teaching at the following summer schools in 2013:

Chetham’s International Summer School for Pianists: 20th-26th August

Mark Tanner was born in Bristol in 1963. His first tentative solo appearance at Bristol’s Colston Hall, aptly described as “intrepid” by the Bristol Evening Post, came at the tender age of 13, and shortly after he appeared on BBC TV, playing Liszt. Studying piano with Philip Martin, Richard McMahon and Geoffrey Buckley, Mark gained his PhD from the Birmingham Conservatoire; he was awarded their honorary degree in 2009. He has appeared in many of Britain’s most celebrated recital halls, including five consecutive appearances at Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and St John’s Smith Square in London, as well as a number of prominent educational establishments including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, RWCMD, Birmingham Conservatoire and Chethams International Summer School for Pianists. With duo partner Allan Schiller, Mark appeared at St George’s Bristol as part of the Mozart 250 celebrations; he has appeared there on many other occasions besides. He is a popular recitalist onboard cruise liners around the globe, including the entire Cunard, P&O and SAGA fleets, having now given several hundred recitals at sea, many of which have been with flautist partner Gillian Poznansky; the duo’s recording of music by Graham Lynch was chosen as an ‘Outstanding’ disc of the month in International Record Review and is broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 3. Together they have premiered several important new works at Wigmore Hall and elsewhere, with recent recitals at festivals in Spain and Denmark. Mark has broadcast several premières live on BBC Radio 3, and his many recordings have attracted consistently high critical acclaim. Of his York Bowen double-disc, Bryce Morrison wrote:

“Tanner’s performances are magnificent. Most pianists would give an arm and a leg, or at least a finger, to achieve his sumptuous sonority and seamless legato…such enviable breadth and poetic commitment.”
­­GRAMOPHONE

Mark has contributed hundreds of reviews and articles for International Record Review, Classical Music, Musical Opinion, International Piano and Piano Professional. He has also published scholarly articles in the USA and UK, including 19th Century Music and the Liszt Society Journal, and edited several contemporary scores for Peters Edition and Europa Edition. For Spartan Press he has published thirty albums of original music and a piano-friendly edition of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book in a much lauded new graded series. As a trainer and international examiner of grades and diplomas for ABRSM, Mark has undertaken tours to all five continents; he adjudicates festivals for the British and International Federation of Festivals and on three occasions judged the EPTA Piano Competition; he has given numerous lectures on a diverse range of subjects, as well as masterclasses in the UK, Europe and mainland China.

For sixteen years Mark was Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset; he has now been active in music education for some 30 years and is currently a visiting lecturer of piano and composition at University College, Falmouth. He also enjoys preparing students for diplomas, college entry and recitals from his homes in Cornwall and Somerset. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of Mensa, and his first novel, Life on Mars? A Catinel’s Chance was published by Llama Press; with it he undertook a successful book-signing tour of Waterstone’s stores.

Mark Tanner’s website