Tag Archives: piano teaching

At the Piano with……Liz Giannopoulos

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What is your first memory of the piano?

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

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

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

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

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

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

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

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

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

There are so many; where do I begin?

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

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

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

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

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you expect from your students?

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

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

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

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running a successful piano studio

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

A vocation and a profession

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

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MARKETING YOUR STUDIO

1. Website

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

2. Get listed

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

3. Use social networks

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

BEING PROFESSIONAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles

An Image Crisis in Independent Piano Teaching?

Being Professional – the debate

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

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

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

 

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At the Piano with…… Nadine Andre

What is your first memory of the piano?

My parents moved from Hammersmith to Surrey when I was 3 years old, and the house they bought came with an old grand piano that was left behind! I remember being fascinated by the keyboard and what went on behind the lid. I had my first lesson when I was 5, and remember my response to my father asking me if I wanted lessons being “yes, but will I have to practise?” The rest is history.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I studied with Judith Burton for a decade until I went to the Royal Northern College of Music in 2000. She was so dedicated, and her devotion to every one of her students filled me with admiration. She has certainly been my biggest influence with regards to teaching; I always used to think, “if I can spend my time doing what Judith does, I’ll be happy.”

My path hasn’t always been that clear. I struggled with my relationship to music in my later years at music college, and despite achieving an MMus degree, I left feeling convinced that I would convert to law! After speaking to many people about it, the woman who helped me to see the wood for the trees was my piano teacher at the time, Carole Presland, who said, “if you say you love to work with people, what more privileged position can you be in, than to teach students on a one-to-one basis, where you really get the chance to make a difference?”. That was enough to help me back onto my path and I’ve never looked back.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

They are all memorable and significant!

Judith Burton I have already mentioned. We are still good friends, and she was my biggest influence and guide when I was young.

At the RNCM, I studied with Kathryn Stott for 2 years, then Carole Presland for 3 years.

After graduating, two teachers have really helped me in different ways:

Vera Müllerová is a Czech teacher and concert pianist who I met while teaching on a Summer residential course. She showed me some finger exercises that, in one session, solved technical problems I’d been having with trilling in 3rds for years! I now visit her in Plzen once or twice a year to take lessons.

On the same summer course, I met a jazz teacher, who persuaded me to join his student trio for 15 minutes one evening to learn a blues. I had never played by ear and was terrified! In 5 minutes, he had me playing “Sunny Moon for Two”, improvising round it, and taking solos with the band. I was elated, and it felt like the first time I’d really had fun while playing the piano. His name is Paul Cavaciuti, and he is now my husband!

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

This is a difficult question to answer!

My own state of mind is my biggest influence on my teaching. As a professional musician, it is easy for our music-making to become something we MUST do, and this can become tiresome. Also, finding a good balance between teaching and playing is not easy and needs constant adjustment. I put a lot of time and energy into maintaining my own love of music, feeling inspired, and ensuring that what I pass on to my students, predominantly, is a love of music and playing the piano. My husband is wonderful and helps me a lot with this. His expertise is in helping people rediscover their love of music and also helping with stage fright. I’m so lucky to have him available to me 24/7!

Other influences, among my own teachers, are Horowitz, Dr. John Diamond (an educator in the US who has created his own system which involves using the arts therapeutically), and our record collection. We have thousands of LPs, most of which are jazz and classical, and every time I listen to one, I’m immediately drawn to the piano to play, or come up with ideas for my students! I’m sure it has something to do with the analogue sound production. I never feel the same when listening to digital.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Every teaching experience is significant, and sometimes we have to trust that what we show our students now, may not sink in until much later on in life. My most rewarding experiences are when I take on a student who has been traumatised by the grade exams, or is about to quit, and within weeks they have found a new approach to playing, and realised that they do, in fact, love music after all. It brings me such joy!

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

One of the most challenging aspects is that many adults have pre-conceived ideas of things, so often they want a detailed explanation of why I’m asking them to do something, rather than just rolling with it and seeing where it takes them. I don’t see it as a negative – it’s natural that adults want to understand first and experience afterwards – however it’s not always the best way to learn.

The most exciting thing is seeing adults enjoying themselves through music, and doing something meaningful with their time. In today’s society, many parents offer the opportunity to learn music to their children, but secretly long to play or sing for themselves. I feel so excited when a parent comes to me and says, “can I have a lesson?” Being an adult brings with it so many responsibilities of the “must” kind. It’s great therapy to commit to something (especially something creative) for the love of it. If I can assist with that, I am delighted to.

What do you expect from your students?

Application. That’s it.

I’m not concerned with achievement or standards. Nor do I mind if their attitude isn’t positive for a while. We all have our struggles, and if I can find a way to use music to help them through troubled times, then my work is done.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Firstly, the term festival is misused. A festival is a celebration of something, and we use the term to describe competitions. Lose the competitive element, (but keep the constructive, positive adjudications) and I think they would be fantastic occasions!

I think exams and competitions are a disaster. I won’t blither on for too long about this (that’s for a future blog!), but developed societies are obsessed with assessment and quantifying ability. This has absolutely no place in the arts, especially in music, and the rise of grade exams and competitions has contributed to:

  • an increase in competitiveness among musicians and parents, (e.g. children in the playground saying “what grade are you on” instead of “fancy a play sometime?”)
  • an increase in performance anxiety and even stage fright.
  • a focus on skill acquisition without a true understanding of music being a language, and to the detriment of having something to say through playing or singing.
  • in the words of Horowitz, “standardisation”. Everything is now the same, instead of people playing as individuals. The idea of playing correctly and incorrectly shouldn’t be at the forefront of a musician’s mind, and it is only with note-reading that it’s an issue at all.
  • a feeling of self-worth being attributed to achievement. Musicians who receive distinctions in exams are often the ones who won’t play in restaurants, at parties or among friends. I think that’s tragic.

I could go on, but I should probably stop there. As a teacher, I want to spend my time convincing people that learning music for the sake of the music, and bringing people together, is enough. Benchmarks are not necessary to become a great musician!

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

To both beginner and advanced students, to love playing music. Another important concept is to realise is that the music comes from the person, not the instrument. The instrument is there to help release the music (though some instruments are more of a hindrance!)

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

I think they are very complimentary; however I think the importance of their connection differs depending on whether the musician has been professionally trained or not.

A musician who has trained to perform professionally, should perform. There are too many teachers who have stopped playing in public, and project bitterness and envy onto their students. This is the most destructive thing a teacher can do, therefore maintaining a balance, in my eyes, is essential. (I’m not suggesting we should all be playing at Wigmore, but some kind of performance is important – like nourishment!)

The advantage of having performed is the advice that can be imparted from the experience of having done so. Performing does feel quite different to playing to the four walls and the dog.

An amateur musician who teaches because they love to teach, but has never really performed, or had the opportunity to perform publicly, is unlikely to pass any such negativity onto their students. Their relationship to music is probably quite different and unaffected by the rigours and strains of the profession. For this reason, it isn’t important that they perform.

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

I’ve been through the mill with performing-techniques. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. The one thing that has helped me more than anything, and that I do to this day, is sing along internally while I play. I do lots of singing aloud at home (and ask all my students to do the same), then on stage, whatever state I’m in, singing under my breath grounds me, helps me to concentrate without thinking too much, and regulates my breathing perfectly – consequently releasing tension. The ceiling could fall in or Jack Bauer could walk past, and I’d stay focused. It really is the best thing, and I learnt it from my husband!

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

My favourite classical pianist has to be Horowitz. Every time I listen to him or watch him on Youtube, I sit at the piano for ages afterwards. He’s so inspiring.

For years, my idol was Alfred Brendel. He has an incredible mind, and a wicked sense of humour. He’s a real artist – I’ve been to many of his concerts, and he played differently every time. On a bad day he was great, on a good day, he was sublime. (I went to his final retiring concert at the RFH, and shed tears on and off all the way home!)

In the jazz world, I adore Art Hodes. He was playing in the US in the 30s and 40s, and had the most incredible groove. The amazing thing about him is that his music is often in the spaces between the sounds. He isn’t flashy or a show-off, but boy does he make you want to tap your foot!

Lastly, (I suppose this counts as he was a pianist and a teacher), it has to be Beethoven. Whoever composes music and says, “Music is the mediator between the life of the senses and the life of the spirit” knows his purpose as a musician, and to elevate others to something higher, is a wonderful purpose.

Nadine’s biography

Nadine André’s website

For the Love of Playing – Nadine’s blog

Nadine on Facebook

Follow Nadine on Twitter

Nadine’s contemporary trio, Trifarious

And on Facebook and Twitter

Classical Babies

At the Piano with Alice Pinto

What is your first memory of the piano?

My first memory of the piano is hearing it rather than seeing it or playing it. Until I was about five years old my family lived two doors down from my first piano teacher, Fiona Matthison, and I used to hear her piano being played every time I passed her house. I also remember my father playing it for birthday party games in our living room! I can’t remember starting to play myself.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

In all honesty, I needed the money. A fellow student asked if I was interested in teaching a friend of hers, who was a local academic in her thirties returning to the piano having learnt as a child. I was nervous at first but we got on well and I learnt as much if not more from her than she did from me. I gradually realised how much I enjoyed explaining practising methods, working as a team to overcome technical issues and create an interpretation, and how much this conscious and thoughtful process was helping my own playing and learning processes too by making me analyse what I was trying to achieve. I’m a rational and business-minded type of person so I started to actively acquire more students, and pursue teaching as a part of my career.

I’ve always been socially and politically aware, so teaching and sharing my expertise is a way for me to help classical music blossom in quality and quantity in the UK. I really want to do my bit to ensure that the professional musicians of the future have a chance to receive a great musical education, and equally importantly that the music-lovers and audiences of the future do too! I think it’s very important to nurture music from an early stage in education.

I continue to teach not just because I genuinely adore it, but also from a practical perspective as a musician; teaching for three or four days a week gives me the financial freedom to be able to pursue performance projects that I may not realistically be able to afford to do otherwise, and allows me to be able to turn down gigs that I feel won’t enhance my career or fulfil me creatively. It’s a tricky balancing act but I’d personally rather be teaching a Chopin Ballade or coaching a Beethoven Piano Trio than accompanying another Grade 1 exam or a ballet class.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I’ve had wonderful teachers. My first teacher Fiona Matthison set me up in a way for which I am forever grateful. At the Junior RCM I had the honour of studying with John Barstow who was the first person (besides my mother) who unreservedly supported my dream of becoming a professional musician and set into motion serious and pragmatic approaches to making that happen. He was also someone who blew open my musical world, by taking me to concerts and persuading me to be brave in my repertoire choices. At the same time I was a real thorn in the side of the composer Julian Grant who was my A-level teacher at school. I have a lot of sympathy for him, as at the age of sixteen I was a good pianist but very stubborn, and with no knowledge or interest in any music after 1915! I am now very grateful he carted me kicking and screaming into the 20th century, and forced me to consider my theoretical understanding. Without his help I wouldn’t have survived my degrees and I’d be a completely unbearable and ignorant person.

As an undergraduate I was beyond fortunate to have Hilary Coates, who remains one of my best friends and is one of the first people I turn to for advice on any topic! She taught me the art of true preparation- how to inject music with style and substance. Hilary’s energy is unrivalled, and her students all know how much she believes in them. After a further two years with Carole Presland, as a postgraduate at RAM, I felt I was finally able to take my passion for the piano and craft any score into exactly the way I wanted it to sound. Carole showed me the physical tools to tackle just about anything and be comfortable with it, and critically, how to do it quickly.

If I tried to name the numerous musicians who have taught and inspired me over the years it would fill a whole book. I had many wonderful experiences as a teenager in chamber groups, youth orchestras, and as a violinist and violist too, and was so lucky to have the support of many professionals helping me along then and during my degrees. They all taught me a lot about music but also about how important it is to have mentors who are good people and care about the whole person.

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

It sounds clichéd, but the most important influences are definitely my students themselves, and how they react, both short-term and long-term. It’s crucial they’re happy and comfortable with what we are doing at the piano. They must be progressing too, or something isn’t right! Sometimes it takes patience to see results, or to realise that something isn’t working. I’m constantly shaping and rethinking my teaching to adapt to how my students are reacting, and I keep up my own professional development as a teacher by attending courses and searching out articles and books about classical music, child psychology and different learning theories. I also try to keep developing as a musician and pianist myself; learning new repertoire, reading up on performance practice, attending concerts and listening to recordings.

My own teachers of course influenced my teaching, mainly those I have mentioned above. There are of course teachers who will remain nameless who gave me a very good idea of how I didn’t want to teach!- I have come across people who I think are too complacent, or lazy, or even abusive in their treatment of students. To my mind it is so important always to nurture, as what a student is offering, at any level, is such a precious part of themselves, and a direct dismissal of their music-making can be very hurtful. I find the writings of teachers from generations past interesting, particularly the advice of people like Dr Suzuki, Kodaly and Joan Last and their ideas on developing the talent, voice, and instrumental capacity of small children. I also feel when reading Susan Tomes’s books and blog that someone has put into words absolutely everything I exactly felt about all issues, musical and otherwise!

The colleagues I work with now constantly inspire and influence my teaching, particularly on Pro Corda courses where the staff are so committed and such fun. I’ve been surrounded by experts in Dalcroze, improvisation and conducting, and I try to observe their lessons and approaches, and learn from what they do. Likewise, seeing the music staff in the wonderful departments I teach in being so committed to their students, the students repaying the commitment, and both parties reaping the reward is just brilliant. It’s great to have time to share ideas with a whole range of specialist instrumental and music teachers and I’m very lucky to have that opportunity most days of my year; it’s one of the big reasons I chose to work in schools and departments rather than teach privately.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

I always love hearing my students perform, as it gives me a chance to sit back and appreciate how far they have come, and enjoy the music! It’s also nice when students gain music places at good schools, achieve a good mark in an exam, or win a festival prize. Achievements like that make me feel as though I’m on the right track with how and what I’m teaching. I’ll never forget getting the phone call offering me my first teaching job in a school, nor the subsequent similar phone calls, especially the one for my job at Junior Guildhall as I’d always dreamt of teaching at a junior conservatoire and never imagined it would happen when I was only twenty-five years old.

During the actual teaching process, I love seeing the ‘eureka’ moment happen with a student, when something just ‘clicks’ technically for them. Whether that’s the first time they get their fingers to coordinate in a piece or scale, or finally understanding how a theoretical concept such as key signatures works, or overcoming a nasty bit in the cadenza of the Grieg Concerto and realising they will be able to play it after all… all of those are great and they happen many times a day, so I’m very privileged. I sometimes suspect I enjoy teaching primary age children so much because these moments come so often. They’re almost addictive!

There have been some lovely musical moments too. On the Pro Corda Adult Piano Course a gentleman in his mid-eighties introduced me (a teacher on the course) to the music of York Bowen, and we performed one of his rollicking duets in a concert. The same gentleman went on to perform a French Suite by Bach so touchingly and with such wisdom it was extraordinary. He wrote afterwards to tell me that my enthusiasm was infectious and my playing really lovely and I returned the sentiments. On the opposite end of the scale, three of my girls who had only been learning the piano one year performed two tiny six-hand pieces flawlessly last June and had such fun even though one of the six arms was in a sling; the student in question was determined not to let anyone down or miss the concert. I’ve recently returned from Pro Corda North where the standard of playing was exceptional, and I coached three seventeen/eighteen-year-old boys on the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s C minor Trio which they performed with incredible maturity… nothing beats experiences like these, and tellingly they often occur in chamber music.

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

I enjoy that they very often have quite a well-formed idea of their own musical self. I encourage adults and older teenagers to lead their own repertoire choices, and enjoy discussing advanced technical and musical issues at an adult and artistic level.

Older students (in my experience from about the age of twelve upwards) often come with the challenge of managing expectations (to put it bluntly!) and balancing the speed at which students think with the speed (fast) at which they can physically complete tasks (not so fast). I tend to find that adults expect a lot from themselves at the piano, especially when they fully understand (from a theoretical perspective) what they are being asked to do, and can become frustrated when results are instantaneous. They can also experience nerves more than children, and tend to compare themselves against other musicians or their own expectations, meaning they don’t congratulate themselves enough on their achievements enough and instead live in a perpetual state of struggle and disappointment, which can be very harmful to the delicate psyche after long periods.

What do you expect from your students?

Firstly, that they are doing their best. It is so easy to tell when this isn’t the case; I don’t think some students realise how transparent this is! I personally expect my students to practise every day, at whatever age or level. I expect them to prepare well, which to me means that they come well-equipped to a lesson with not just all their materials, but also questions or issues about the work that they have been set. I will often ask “What do you need help with?” and expect that they can readily answer this. All my students play at a high standard regardless of level; I might have a student at Grade 1 or 2 playing a Bach or Mozart Minuet but they will do it with exquisite phrasing, articulation and dynamics. We don’t cut any corners.

I expect my students to love music, love the piano, and to love learning, and I expect them to really want to progress and not to be reluctant to work hard or to shy away from a battle- everyone struggles at some point. I expect them to have their own aims and ambitions at the instrument, whether these are to pursue a musical career or not. After a certain age or level I expect students to lead their own repertoire choices, to have musical interests surrounding the piano, to listen to live and recorded performances, to study theory to the appropriate level and to have a knowledge of other instruments and the history of music.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I think they suit some students very well, and others not at all. I think exams are not necessary, and part of me sympathises with the character in Jessica Duchen’s novel Alicia’s Gift who states that they help: “…amateur children to impress amateur parents. They play nicely to the dinner guests and sometimes they play for school assembly and everybody claps… The British view music as a diversion, an amusement, something it’s not quite cricket to be too good at… We [true artists] have something profound to say about life, why we’re alive, what it means to be human. We don’t jump through hoops to show out parents’ friends how talented out parents’ offspring are”. I think to just base a teaching or learning method around exams can be limiting, and can result in a student learning only three pieces a year, and gaining no real repertoire or knowledge outside the exam syllabus. It is my understanding that the exam boards were not set up for this purpose, but sadly (in my opinion) the emphasis on exams when teaching an instrument is huge. I never took any grade exams myself, although I auditioned for schools and courses and performed regularly in concerts and festivals. However, I do understand why many students want to take exams, and I think for many they can be a good yardstick or motivator. It really does depend on the student, their ambitions, and their reasons for learning and playing. I would however, never condone a student going from exam to exam without thought or question as to the motives, nor would I want a student to take exams for mistaken or false reasons.

Likewise, festivals and competitions can be brilliant platforms when considered on an individual basis for the student. I tend to suggest these events to those I feel might gain from the experience, but in general let the student lead the decision. I prefer non-competitive concert situations for most students, though again there will always be some who thrive on the competitive element and want to push for it. In my experience, those who gain a lot from the experience in the long-term tend to be in the minority, and my instinct and own experience tells me that there is plenty of time to compete when skills are more honed, hands have finished growing, musical interpretations have been fully-formed and are personal, with plenty of context and life experience behind them, and ambitions for life are clearer. But individual circumstances merit different approaches.

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

Beginner students must learn two almost opposing elements, in my opinion; joy and discipline. The most successful are those who quickly realise (or already know) that the two are actually intertwined, and that joy comes from discipline. I encounter a few students who harbour vague hopes that one day they may just sit down and be able to produce Fur Elise from nowhere. To have a beginner student who gains a lot of joy from working very hard at a tiny little aspect or piece and is inspired by their own hard work makes me confident and happy for their future.

For this reason I feel it is best for students to start young so they digest the concept of discipline from an early age. If you tell a four-year-old they must brush their teeth every day, they must wear a school uniform, they must practise the piano, and most importantly you don’t just tell them these things but you set in place a system that doesn’t allow them not to, then they grow up with this unconscious but very valuable discipline which will reap rewards later in life. That sounds harsh but too many parents sit back and hope their child will practice because they love music. That’s just not a reality for most small children or even teenagers with many demands on their time and other temptations. Why practise the piano (which seems to progress so slowly and give comparatively so little satisfaction) when you can play with friends?

An advanced student is someone who already appreciates discipline, but I think the joy still needs to be nurtured. Sometimes music-making at a high level can become mechanical, and so I’d encourage an advanced student to focus on bringing music to life. I think chamber music is so valuable in that respect and I’d urge everyone who can to make music with friends. Advanced students need to continue to work hard to improve, as everyone has something left to learn. But always remember why you love music, and what is at the heart of it.

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

I get irritated by the assumption that musicians are either great players or great teachers. It is patently not true and it makes a mockery of the wonderful work many musicians are doing. I think we’re all familiar with the false premise that many who teach only do so because they can’t play and I hope that is something that is gradually losing its clout. However, I still come up against the idea that because a person trained to a high level as a concert pianist at an elite conservatoire, it automatically means they are a selfish diva who doesn’t understand children, or doesn’t have the time or patience for beginners and amateurs.

To teach well and professionally at any level demands a certain level of musical training, and the more professional the training, the more the teacher has to draw on when imparting advice to others. I believe teachers who perform, and performers who teach both have a lot to share with audiences and students alike, and I’d love to see a greater acceptance that these two strands of musical communication are not so far apart. It irks me to meet performers who claim to not be able to ‘communicate’ in a teaching studio, just as much as teachers who claim not to be able to perform on their instrument. Both these methods of communication take practice, confidence and skill, and I don’t see how you can do one without the other. I’d urge all budding musicians to take time to hone as many types of communication as possible through which to share their music.

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

I love musicians who communicate with passion, and so my favourite pianists are probably Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim. I respect Barenboim’s fearlessness in being politically involved as well, and the fact that he takes risks in his professional life and on stage. I also have some favourite recordings by Richter, Gavrilov, Sudbin, Imogen Cooper, Mitsuko Uchida, Kissin, Bernard Roberts for Beethoven- an odd bunch probably… I once travelled to Berlin for the evening just to hear a recital given by Sokolov, once I’d realized he probably would never return to the UK in my lifetime. I think I listen for energy and vigour above finesse, and hopefully that’s what I put across in my own playing and teaching too.

British pianist Alice Pinto has appeared as concerto soloist with the Cheltenham and Cambridge Graduate orchestras, and recent recital highlights have included concerts at St. John’s Smith Square, Kings Place, and a live broadcast on Icelandic national radio. Alice performs regularly nationwide at festivals including Two Moors, Cambridge Summer Music, Lake District, Vid Djúpið and Malcolm Arnold. Praised particularly for her interpretation of repertoire from the Classical period and neglected British works, Alice is also in demand as an ensemble musician, and currently holds a Leverhulme Fellowship with Pro Corda. 

Alice gained her MMus degree in Piano Performance and Research from the Royal Academy of Music in 2012, where she held a Richard Carne Scholarship and was shortlisted for the Jacob Barnes Scholarship. She was awarded the Anthony Lindsay Prize 2007, the Jaques Samuels Manager’s Discretion Prize 2008, and was keyboard finalist for the Isabelle Bond Gold Medal in 2010. Alice previously held the Else and Leonard Cross Memorial Scholarship at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and Nora Day Scholarship at St. Paul’s Girls’ School. She currently teaches Piano and Chamber Music at Junior Guildhall, Dame Alice Owen’s School and Bute House Preparatory School. 

Alice’s upcoming concerts include for Leeds Lunchtime Chamber Music Series (8th October), St Lawrence Jewry London (13th October) and the Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton (18th October). 

At the Piano with Roberta Wolff

What is your first memory of the piano?

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

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

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

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

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

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

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

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you expect from your students?

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

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review of the Music Me Piano practice notebook

Defining ‘professional’

Many people regard piano teaching as a vocation rather than a profession, including some who are active practitioners, and I have encountered many people outside the profession of piano teaching who regard the role as some kind of superannuated “hobby”: on one occasion the parent of one of my (former) students actually said to me: “You’re so lucky to be able to do your hobby as a job”, thus totally overlooking the fact that I take my job as a piano teacher very seriously, and regard myself as a professional within the sphere of piano teaching.

But how to define “professional” with regard to piano teaching?  Sally Cathcart, a musician, educator, researcher and director of the Oxford Piano Group, has been exploring the issue of professionalism and piano teaching in a series of posts on her blog The Curious Piano Teacher, and she poses some interesting questions about the definition of a professional:

  • Do you consider yourself a ‘professional’ piano teacher? What, in your view, makes you a professional?
  • How is your piano teaching validated ? By reference to others’ expectations or by continuous questioning of fitness for purpose?
  • Do  you adhere to a set of professional standards or teaching principles, either your own or others?
  • Do you think that being a member of a group that represents professional musicians and teachers (e.g. EPTA UK, ISM, MU) is relevant to your work as a piano teacher?

Do visit Sally’s blog to read her articles on this subject. and to respond to these questions, or contact me via my Contact page and I will pass on responses to Sally.  This is an area which is of great interest to myself and many of my piano teaching colleagues, and I would be most interested to hear people’s responses.

Read the full text of Sally Cathcart’s article here

Links to Sally’s previous articles:

Being Professional – the beliefs and attitudes of UK piano teachers

Two Stories about Piano Teachers

Students’ Concert at the 1901 Arts Club

This year my annual student concert was held at the 1901 Arts Club, a beautiful, intimate venue in a former schoolmaster’s house (built in 1901) close to London’s Waterloo Station. The venue boasts a lovely Steinway C grand piano and an informal, convivial atmosphere, thanks in no small part to the very welcoming personalities of the people who run it. I use the venue for the South London Concert Series, an innovative series of concerts which I organise and co-host with my friend and piano teaching colleague, Lorraine Liyanage. I felt the small size of the venue (it seats just 45 people in a gold and red salon redolent of a 19th-century European drawing room) would enable the young performers to feel less anxious and to relax into the special atmosphere of the place.

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club
The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

I cannot stress too highly the importance of performing, at whatever level one plays, and I have written extensively on this subject on this blog, my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and in my column for Pianist magazine. Music was written to be shared – whether in the home or the salons of other people’s houses, or in recital rooms or concert halls. But on another more important level performing builds confidence, not just in the sphere of music but in many other walks of life, and equips people (of all ages) with an important life-skill.

When I was the age of my students (9-14) I had few opportunities to perform for others. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, not even small-scale events in her home, and as a pianist at school I was always rather sidelined (a solo instrument being deemed the epitome of showing off!), so my only real performance experience was either in the orchestra (where I played the clarinet) or in the choir, both instances where one’s performance anxiety is tempered by performing with others. One of the many decisions I took about my piano teaching when I established my practice in 2006 was that I would give my students performance opportunities. And so from little house concerts (with obligatory tea parties!) to the event this week at the 1901 Arts Club, the annual student concert has become an integral part of my studio’s activities.

Preparations begin many months before the actual date – and I know from my own experience as someone who has come relatively late to performing (in my late 40s) that preparation is everything. Being well-prepared is one of the best insurance policies against nerves and will enable one to pull off a convincing, enjoyable and polished performance on the day. Good preparation, including practising performing in less stressful situations, also means that any slips or errors in the performance on the day can usually be skimmed over and will not upset the flow of the performance.

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Many of my students chose to perform exam pieces – music which they had already played in an exam situation and with which they were therefore very comfortable. It’s always interesting to play exam repertoire after one has put it before the critical ears of the examiner: when I revisit my Diploma pieces (as I am now, in preparation for a concert in January) I notice a distinct sense of relaxation in the music – and my students have commented on this about their own pieces too. Some selected new pieces, and we also had solo clarinet and saxophone performances (it is so gratifying that a number of my students play other instruments – saxophone, trumpet, clarinet and cello – or sing in school choirs).

I always perform at my students’ concerts as well. I think it is important for them to see their teacher performing and to understand that I do my practising and preparation just as they do; also that I am also engaged in ongoing learning of new repertoire or revising previously-learnt music.

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The event at the 1901 Arts Club was really lovely. The young performers all played beautifully (no visible nerves whatsoever, though a number did say to me afterwards that they were really nervous!) and we had a lovely range of music from Arvo Pärt and Einaudi to Bartok and ragtime. Despite knowing my students pretty well now (some have been learning with me almost as long as I have been teaching), I am always amazed at the way they step up to perform with such poise. I don’t know what I do, but maybe by assuring them that their performance will be wonderful, they learn to trust me and this gives them confidence. Each performance was greeted with much enthusiastic applause by family and friends, and at the end of the event another piano teaching friend, Rebecca Singerman-Knight, awarded prizes for Star Performer (Tom Driver) and Most Enjoyable Performance (Eli Hughes). The children were presented with boxes of chocolate grand pianos (which I doubt lasted the homeward journey!). I have had some lovely feedback, from students and parents, and I think the general consensus is that this was a really enjoyable and inspiring event. I certainly felt so!

More about the benefits of performing:

On performing

Performing in a safe circle

Going into the zone

Strategies for coping with performance anxiety

Piano teachers’ workshop at Faber Music

On Saturday 24th May I attended a workshop for piano teachers hosted by the Faber Music Academy/Faber Music, in association with Alfred Music and Edition Peters, as a guest of Edition Peters. The all-day event featured lectures by Pam Wedgwood, Andrew Higgins and Roy Howat, and concluded with a recital by pianist Daniel Grimwood. My friend and teaching colleague Rebecca Singerman-Knight accompanied me – and we met a number of other teaching friends and colleagues at the event. Rebecca has co-authored this review of the day with me (her comments are in italics).

The morning session offered opportunities for two publishers (Faber Music and Alfred Music) to showcase their method books. Pam Wedgwood from Faber used her slot to introduce her new 3-volume ‘Piano Basics’ Course (a 2-level course with accompanying ‘workout’ book offering technical exercises).  Pam is well known to UK piano teachers as the composer of many engaging and popular pieces in a variety of styles which are accessible to children and adult learners.  Her session included entertaining examples of games that can be played in lessons to reinforce rhythmic and pitch awareness away from the piano bench and I expect that all teachers present gained some fun ideas to take back to their studios.  She also played some of her own compositions which would certainly appeal to young learners.  However, ultimately I was left with the feeling that the session was little more than a marketing exercise for her own books, particularly towards the end as one book after another was presented.  Overall the overt marketing undermined what was otherwise a fun session. 

Andrew Higgins from Alfred Music followed, a refreshing change in that the Alfred books were used purely as examples to illustrate a truly inspirational session.   ndrew’s focus was the teaching of harmony – in particular chords and chord progressions – to allow students to fully explore musical concepts, develop improvisation and composition skills, and to gain a deeper understanding of repertoire. He demonstrated a wide variety of teaching ideas that would enable students to fully understand how harmony works across music of all genres – a highlight being how a popular Adele song used the same harmonic progressions as Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata!    

The contrast between the two morning sessions reflected the dilemmas faced by UK piano teachers today: I speak as one relatively new to the profession, having been teaching for just over a year, and as a current student of EPTA-UK’s Piano Teachers’ Course.  Although Andrew Higgins did not push the Alfred books to the participants, in response to a question he did state that Level 3 of the Premier course equated roughly to a Grade 1 standard. The first two levels of this course each contain two method books. Therefore, a teacher using this course (myself included) would go through five books before their students reached an approximate Grade 1 standard. In doing so, Andrew Higgins’ presentation made it clear that they would receive a good introduction to the use of chords, chord progressions and harmonic knowledge and be well on their way to being well-rounded musicians who could use this knowledge in improvisation and composition as well as being able to tackle the standard of repertoire needed at a Grade 1 level. In contrast Pam Wedgwood’s Basics book (in common with other UK methods) contains only two volumes and states that this will get a student to Grade 1 standard.  However, there is less in the way of work on chords and their progressions (a knowledge of which is not a prerequisite for passing early exams) and a scan through the books revealed that new concepts appeared to be introduced very quickly with little reinforcement before moving onto the next.  Whilst I have no doubt that in the hands of a good teacher this method would be successful in getting a student to Grade 1 standard I do feel that this can be rather a narrow objective for beginning piano students.  On the EPTA course we are told that it should take roughly three years from being a complete beginner to passing Grade 1 in order to develop really secure musical concepts.  This is roughly how long it would take to work through the Alfred method books and other, similar methods from the US (e.g. Piano Adventures).  However, in the UK many teachers feel pressure from parents to enter their children for exams earlier and it is common for grade 1 to be reached in 18-24 months or less.  Books such as Pam Wedgwood’s will appeal to teachers who aim to move their beginning students through the exam system quickly – which is a really valid approach for many students, particularly those for whom music is (or will become) a serious subject of study.  But it was refreshing to be reminded that there are other, very different, approaches available for teachers who want to take more time with their students in the early stages of their learning to explore many different musical ideas and concepts, not only those necessary for passing formal exams. 

The afternoon session began with a fascinating talk by renowned pianist and scholar Roy Howat, who has recently edited new Editions Peters editions of works by Debussy, Ravel and Faure. His highly erudite yet accessible talk focused on the piano music of these three great French composers, and highlighted the difficulties encountered by editors, and pianists, in trying to produce a ‘definitive’ urtext edition. By examining scores and earlier editions, Roy demonstrated how detailed analysis of source material and editorial notes can impact on the performance of these works, and how certain markings on the score have often been misunderstood or misinterpreted by performers. I found his comments on meter in Debussy’s music particularly interesting in which he showed how Debussy “wrote in” rubato, thus negating the need for exaggerated rubato or obvious adjustments to tempo by the performer. His talk was peppered with amusing anecdotes and pictures of the composers as well as demonstrations at the piano.

The event closed with a short recital by pianist Daniel Grimwood (who is an Edition Peters artist). His enjoyable, varied and engaging programme began with a work by Czerny, a composer more usually associated with piano studies and exercises, and included shorter pieces by Liszt, Blumenfeld and Henselt (also a composer of studies and exercises). He concluded with a crystalline and atmospheric encore of ‘Ondine’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.

This was a most enjoyable, stimulating and inspiring day, and an excellent opportunity to connect with other teachers and friends and colleagues in the profession.

impact of editorial and source research on performing the music of these great composers – See more at: http://www.fabermusic.com/news/faber-music-academy–piano-workshop-day-inspiration-for-inspirational-teachers15042014-1#sthash.0RQ8aTFv.dpuf

 

At the Piano with……Dr Michael Low

What is your first memory of the piano?

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

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

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

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

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

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

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

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

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

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

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

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

What do you expect from your students?

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

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://michaellow.co.za/