Tag Archives: piano teaching

Piano Dao: the way of piano

Pianist and teacher Andrew Eales introduces his new blog:

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Pianodao is my new blog site launching Saturday 1st August 2015.

Built around the metaphor of piano playing as a lifetime journey, the site will focus on our musical and creative development as well as on our personal well-being: mind, body and spirit.

Pianists usually find that self-evaluation is crucial to their progress and musical development. When I started teaching piano I quickly also realised that one of the best ways I can improve is to continuously reflect on my teaching practice and student response. Pianodao takes this basic principle and places that process of reflection and evaluation within a much broader context – our journey through life.

When teaching I continue to observe that many of the problems and issues that I and my students grapple with have very little to do with our pianism and musical understanding, and far more to do with our physical limitations, tension, mental state and internal beliefs.

We all have a life outside of our piano playing, and it is clearly worthwhile considering the connections between our experience of life and our ongoing musical development. But where do we start? When it comes to considering those connections, I believe that the wisdom teachings of Dao (or “Taoism”) can offer a uniquely powerful and insightful approach.

Pianodao will have five main sections:

The Pianist’s Path focuses on specifics of how we learn, play, teach and help others develop as pianists. I hope to explore what it means to be a pianist in today’s world. There will also be articles about developing our creativity and performing with confidence and enjoyment.

The Pianist’s Well-being takes a broader look at our lives – our inner beliefs, physical health, and general lifestyle. This section will consider powerful quotes from great musicians past and present, as well as the teachings of wise thinkers ancient and modern.

Piano Qigong will offer suggestions for applying qigong practice to the needs of piano players, developing into a free resource offering simple breathing and stretching movements and exercises suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels. This part of the site will go live sometime before Christmas this year.

Interviews with pianists about their journey as players will focus on the obstacles they have faced and overcome in order to move forward on their path.

Music & Reviews complete the site, providing a space to share news and comment about resources that will hopefully be of interest to readers.

Pianodao is ultimately a record of my own journey, but I hope that in sharing I will encourage others. Making connections between my experiences as a pianist and teacher, my practice of qigong and interest in the wisdom of Dao, I hope to offer insights which will bring clarity to your own “Way of Piano”.

Please take a moment to visit www.pianodao.com and “follow” the blog. Thanks!

Teaching our students to teach themselves

Following on from my earlier post about the notion of the “self-taught pianist”, I would like to explore further how teachers can – and should – enable their students to teach themselves.

The word “teach” comes from the Old English tǣcan which means “to show, present, point out”. This for me, (and having studied Old English at university), gives a big clue to how teachers should approach their teaching. We should not be telling our students how to learn, but showing and guiding them.

My personal stated aim as a piano teacher, in addition to encouraging a love of all things piano in my students, is to enable them to become independent learners – to show them how to teach themselves. Based on my own piano studies as a teenager and as an “adult returner”, there is nothing more satisfying than discovering that it is possible to explore, learn and enjoy music without constantly running back to teacher for support.

Sadly, it strikes me that due to the way children are taught in primary and secondary school in the UK, they are being robbed of the ability to think and work independently, instead relying on teachers to spoon-feed them information to enable them to pass tests and exams, and to meet targets set higher up the educational hierarchy. I have observed this unwillingness to think and act independently in a number of my students, and I try to encourage them to instead take a leap of faith and rely on their musical knowledge and experience gained during their lessons with me.

There is a lot of mystique surrounding music teachers, particularly those who teach at a high level in conservatoire and specialist music school. Students may compete to be assigned to a “top” or “famous” teacher, and there can be huge advantages, real or imagined, in studying with these teachers, for they have been taught by the great teacher-pianists of an earlier generation and can pass down “secrets” from these teachers to their own students. This heritage can be very important – I have studied with high-level teachers/concert pianists who in turn have studied with such pianistic luminaries as Peter Feuchtwanger, Maria Curcio, Guido Agosti, Phyllis Sellick, Peter Wallfisch, Nina Svetlanova and Andras Schiff – but I think it is also important for students not to be too much in awe of these teachers, and to learn how to take from their current teacher what they need to enable them to play and progress to their best of their ability.

To quote from Leon Whitesell, a US pianist and teacher, At best, we as teachers, must become like a wonderful cafeteria, where the pupil chooses and takes, as well as applies, whatever he/ she desires. We really can’t ” teach” anything, but pupils may take from our offerings that which they choose!”

In order for our students to select from our teacherly “cafeteria”, we first need to equip them with the necessary tools to learn independently. This may include:

  • notation
  • rhythm
  • sight-reading
  • technique and an understanding of how it serves the music
  • structure
  • an understanding of keys and key relationships
  • musical terms and signs
  • historical context
  • performance practice and stagecraft

In addition, the teacher’s role is to build self-esteem to enable the student to play with poise, expression and musicality. A good teacher supports the student to find their own musical voice and personality, will guide the student to find an appropriate and tasteful interpretation of their music, and encourages the student to be a musical explorer, to discover music outside of the repertoire under study for regular lessons. A sympathetic teacher tailors lessons to suit each student individually, is adaptable and flexible, and is able to identify what the student needs at that moment. In fact, the best teacher to teach students to teach themselves is one who is also engaged in ongoing study, who remains open and receptive to new ideas, and who is also willing to learn from their own students.

In contrast, an egotistical and/or possessive teacher wants to produce students in their own image whose sound reproduces that of the teacher, and whose students feel enthralled to their teacher. This approach does little more than boost the teacher’s ego, and makes students anxious

Adult students can present different challenges for the teacher as they often self-teach before seeking regular lessons, or enjoy exploring and studying outside of their lessons and may bite off more than they can chew and then become discouraged. I find that some adults, while being voracious learners, can lack confidence when it comes to trusting the musical instinct which enables them to work independently, and much of my work with adults, both as private students and via my piano group, is building self-esteem, encouraging them to let go of negative experiences with previous teachers (as both child and adult), learning to be wary of comparing themselves to others, and understanding how to practise effectively and intelligently in order to prepare music properly.

Adults also often like to seek feedback and advice from others aside from their regular teacher, through workshops, masterclasses and piano courses. I have met adult students who have attended so many courses and masterclasses they they have become confused by the myriad suggestions and signals given by different teachers. From my own experience attending courses and masterclasses, I would stress that it is important to take from these sessions only what you feel you need at the time (that notion of the “cafeteria” again!).

I encourage all my students to be questioning, to challenge me, and to set off on a path of musical self-discovery. I regard my teaching style as flexible, open-minded and sympathetic, and I tend to teach by asking questions of my students, or making suggestions, rather than saying “this is how to do it!” or “do it my way”. My own study currently involves two teachers/mentors who hold me to account for what I am attempting and who set the bar for my technical preparation through detailed study and knowledge of the score (Schubert Sonata D959). They do not impose their interpretation but allow the music-making to be my business, thus encouraging me to develop my own musical voice and to take ownership of the music.

One of the best aspects of my job is when a student arrives having resolved an issue which was proving problematic in an earlier lesson. Or the student who has selected a piece to learn on their own initiative and who simply needs some guidance from me to enable them to progress. Hearing my students perform in their end of term concert, as I did last weekend, was a wonderful indication of how much they are developing as young musicians, each with their own individual sound and style.

On self-teaching and the continuous learning curve

A “self-taught” pianist (Lucas Debargue) who made it through to the final of this year’s prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition, has been exercising journalists, commentators and bloggers in the immediate aftermath of the competition. Debargue is unusual in the highly competitive and often cut-throat world of international pianism as he came relatively late to his craft: he started to play aged 11, gave up at 17 and worked in a Paris supermarket before he started again and played so brilliantly that he was put in touch with a hot-shot Russian teacher. He was praised by two of the judges on the panel, pianists Dmitri Bashkirov and Boris Berezovsky, was awarded the Moscow music critics’ prize, and was invited by Valery Gergiev, no less, to play in the winners’ gala recital in the presence of Vladimir Putin. In addition to much positing and pondering about the notion of a “self taught” pianist making it to the final of such a major competition (one which has launched the careers of many “greats” of the piano world today, including Peter Donohoe, one of this year’s judges, John Lill, Barry Douglas and Daniil Trifonov, to name but a few), there has also discussion about what constitutes a “proper” musical training. These days, most of us understand “musical training” as study at conservatoire, music college or a specialist music school. In the rarefied hot-house atmosphere of such institutions the talents of tomorrow are carefully nurtured, ready to launch into a professional career when they graduate, and the “three C’s” – Conservatoire, Concerto, Competition – are regarded by many as the holy grail of a musical training leading to assured success and a slew of international bookings. The notion of someone who is “self-taught” reaching these dizzying heights, specifically the final of the Tchaikovsky Competition, seems alien, and yet perhaps the best students are those who realise that studying extends beyond the confines of conservatoire, music college or private lessons with a teacher or mentor. In fact, it is inaccurate to state that Debargue is “self-taught” (but of course the mainstream media have latched onto this and sensationalised it). In reality, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire (CNSMDP) from the age of 20, and is currently taking instruction at the Ecole Normale de Musique Alfred Cortot in Paris under Prof. Rena Shereshevskaya. In 2014 he won the 9th International Adilia Alieva Piano Competition in Gaillard (France). He is pursuing a “proper” musical training, albeit somewhat later than some of his contemporaries. As Jessica Duchen says in her intelligent article on this subject, it is “dangerous to overplay the “self-taught” card because, sad to say, a large part of the British public thinks music happens by magic. That it’s something for “fun”. That it doesn’t take hard work to be good at it…………They seem to believe, too, that if you by-pass all the traditional channels but follow your dream in any case, you’ll be bound to come out as some kind of genius. That traditional studies are somehow bad and the inspiration of the moment is good, indeed is everything.” To describe Debargue as “self-taught” devalues the amount of effort and hard work he has put in to get to where he is now. As a teacher myself, my aim is to encourage my students to become “self-teachers” – by which I mean to encourage them, through my guidance and support, to become independent learners, to explore, be curious, questioning, ambitious…… As one of my students said recently “I want to be able to open a book of music and play anything I want to”. My role, as teacher, is to equip him and my other students with the tools to do that. And as a mature student myself, I hope I can demonstrate to my students (and others) that one’s studies do not end when one has completed graded exams, for example, or left university; that learning is an ongoing process and one which can – and should – be undertaken independently. “Self-taught” is not the panacea you think – Jessica Duchen’s article The self-taught French pianist who wowed the Tchaikovsky competition – article in The Spectator

At the Piano with……Jenny Walker

11540907_1014642958549022_1294551780_oWhat is your first memory of the piano?

I think I was born to play the piano. I was lucky enough to have an upright piano in our dining room. I was always in school choirs and from the age of 5 would arrive home and play the songs we had sung during the day. It was my aunt that mentioned I should have piano lessons and the seed was planted. My mother, although not a musician, sang in the home and often had classical music playing, and I myself had an extensive collection of recordings. Both parents have always encouraged me to continue my love for music and their support has been unwavering. I was taken to many classical music concerts and regularly heard the likes of John Lill and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. At secondary school I took up the violin and joined orchestras, but my main love remained the piano and I considered myself a pianist.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I studied music at the University of North Wales, Bangor. There, I had a rich and varied musical life, taking part in two orchestras, singing in the choral society and continuing with my piano and violin lessons. I went onto study at Bretton Hall to gain a PGCE qualification with a view to teaching in schools and whilst I was there I had a request to teach a boy in the village. I enjoyed this and it whetted my appetite. We also had a visit from a practising piano teacher talking about her profession and it seemed a good career to consider. I trained as a music teacher and, not finding a job, went into secretarial work and computer programming. I vowed never to give up my music and joined a choral society and played in orchestras. I decided to teach on Saturdays, cycled to student’s houses and acquired a few home pupils.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

My first teacher was fine up to a point, but had a terrible memory, and that meant I could hoodwink her as to how far I’d reached and still gain a reward toffee. I had one who gave me thirty minutes practical and an hour of theory; needless to say, this didn’t work. My greatest teacher was a Gertrude Tomlinson who I stayed with for some twelve years. We played Beethoven Symphonies as duets, she was an avid fan of Southampton Music Festival and encouraged me to enter every year. She continued to encourage me and later on I was one of two students who remained with her. It was thanks to her that I acquired my performance diploma before going to university.

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

The most important influence was Mrs Tomlinson: there was a great emphasis on sight reading and I became very good at it. We often played together and I also had a regular duet partner of my own age. She became more of an aunt later on, and lived with my duet partner’s family after her husband died. Nowadays my influences are: my students (their enthusiasm, ideas and different needs), Beethoven and Debussy (composers I like to introduce students to as part of their repertoire), social media (awareness of books and resources from other piano teachers and pianists), my own experience in different genres (swing bands, soul bands, theatre bands, orchestras) and my piano tuition at university (with an emphasis on finger technique).

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

This is a difficult one … there are many teaching experiences, mostly good. Recently a student has acquired a place with the junior department at the Guildhall School of Music and she told me that it was thanks to me that she decided her second study was to be piano. I’ve also received a gift and note from a young student, something made by her and her sister. Last year I had a student who, against all the odds, gained a good pass at a recent examination, is getting a piano and is now determined to practice vehemently. My older students give me great pleasure too: I have taught two ladies who love to play duets together and a seventy-three-year-old lady obtained her grade three examination from scratch.

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

Adults are usually very keen students. There have been a few who have, for one reason or another, decided it really isn’t for them but the long stayers have a determination to catch up on what they’ve missed out on. One of the biggest challenges is when a student has studied piano before and had a long break; the technique they had may need modifying and with the onset of arthritis and other matters we may have to have alternative strategies for note reaching and speed. Some are keen to do examinations whilst others just want to acquire a bank of pieces to play. We have to find appropriate tutor books for adults for many are geared to younger players and we have used the Smallwood tutor a fair amount, and we often change the names of the ‘quaint’ titles. Adults are often surprised at what they can achieve and I take this as a great compliment.

What do you expect from your students?

“Practice makes progress” is a phrase we use and “no practice, no point”. Most are willing to practice adequately and come with a guilt complex if they have not done this. I like to think I’m not a scary teacher but they do seem to feel bad if they’ve been unable or forgetful. I expect students to be my partner during the lesson …. for instance, sometimes I’ll take the top part of a piece whilst they take the bottom, or we use rhythm cups together, or we play a duet. They like the fact that we both take part and it relieves the feeling that they’re just being watched. I expect them to converse and tell me about any difficulties in their playing and I expect them to be on time. At the same time, they expect me to inspire, direct and encourage them, which I very much hope I do.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I wish my students had more time for competitions and festivals but they often have so many other activities. A few do enter our local festival but I don’t tend to press them for anything else. Examinations are useful markers for students and parents but there is no need for them to enter every single one, and we often take a longer time to ‘skip’ to a higher grade. Some adults are keen to do examinations and, having persuaded them that they too can enter, they bite the bullet and are surprised at how welcome they feel at the venue and at how much they can achieve. I encourage students to help each other, especially if they’re learning the same examination pieces, and by playing duets. If they can collaborate on something in the school concerts, this is a really good experience. The bottom line is that I want my students to enjoy learning the piano and not to see it as an added burden.

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

For beginning students, they need to know that they too can achieve as much as the person they’ve just heard next door who they perceive is playing brilliantly. My job is to convince them that they’ll get as much as they put in. They need achievable goals. Emphasis on slow, accurate playing rather than the opposite is something I tell all students, beginners or advanced. Advanced students need to be aware that there is always something else they can do to improve their playing and that perfection is something that concert pianists are still trying to acquire. In short, all students should do their best, and that is all anyone can do. I do expect students to respect other people’s abilities for there is nothing worse than feeling inferior.

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

I consider myself a pianist and piano teacher. Teaching something can make you realise certain faults in your own playing you didn’t notice before. But it also inspires your students if you can play something advanced in front of them. For me, the fact that I’ve won a first and third in the EPTA composition competition last year and this, has encouraged some to consider composition themselves. Leading by example is always a good thing and many people don’t have the exposure to professional piano performances, and it’s good for them to see what can be achieved (even if I’m not quite to the standard of Lang Lang).

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

I ask them the question “Do you think most of those people watching you could do this?” and the answer is invariably “no”. We agree that nerves are a good thing for making you perform better and that the piano doesn’t present any danger if you make a mistake. I do have a couple of students who do not wish to do examinations for that involves playing in front of a strangers but occasionally I’ll get them to play for a teacher or another student. Any opportunity for them to play is a good thing, whether it’s in a school concert, music festival or in front of me and a few students.

It’s important for the students to realise that I too get nervous and I tell them about my own experiences, such as when my nose starts to run whilst I’m playing or I panic about a page turn. I stress that live performances involve risks and that audiences are usually very forgiving and indeed some events, such as a collapsing music stand, can be amusing ice-breakers.

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

John Lill, Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy are amongst my favourite pianists. I love their combination of rage and sensitivity. Going back to the issue of anxiety and the fact that performance involves risks, I remember an incident at Southampton Guildhall where the sustaining pedal came off. John Lill saw the funny side and showed his professionalism by merely restarting the piece. My tutor at university was William Mathias, a Welsh pianist and composer, and we had a visit from Ashkenazy who played Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. I have recently had the pleasure of meeting many pianist-teachers through the European Piano Teachers’ Association and believe it’s a very necessary part of our profession.

Jenny was raised in Southampton and studied the piano from the age of 7. As a teenager she obtained her grade 6 violin, and after leaving school she worked at a bank for a year and achieved a Licentiate in Piano Performance from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She went on to gain a BA (Hons) in Music Arts from the University College of North Wales in Bangor, and a PGCE from Bretton Hall.

She married, moved to Oxfordshire and had children. Unable to find a teaching job, she took office work and during that time acquired a computing certificate at Oxford University (External Studies), acquiring work Oxford University Computing Services and ABB Simcon. She eventually acquired a teaching position (Music, ICT and French), managing to reduce this to ICT at the Mary Hare School for the Deaf in Newbury where she gained a diploma in special education. After a permanent move to Grantham in 2001, she taught ICT until her post was made redundant.

Jenny has always had piano students and when her job was declared redundant, that was the spur to make it her main career. She is now a private piano teacher at Kesteven and Grantham Girls School in Grantham and has students at home. An accomplished pianist and musician, she is in demand as an accompanist. She is Musical Director for Grantham Operatic and has overseen productions of Sweeney Todd, The Mikado and Fiddler on the Roof. She also deputises for the keyboard player in Grantham Rhythm and Blues Band and has played in the theatre for several productions.

She has sung with choral societies in the Beethoven Halle in Bonn, The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and Oxford Town Hall. She has played the violin in Sankt Augustin Musukschule (German), Harlaxton Manor and Grantham (Lincolnshire Strings Celebration). She has performed piano solos at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, Didcot Civic Hall, Harlaxton Manor, Belvoir Castle, St Wulfram’s Church in Grantham and Warwick University. She is the proud winner of a first prize in the 2014 National Composition Competition organised by the European Piano Teachers Association, of which she is a professional member. She has also learned that she has won a third prize in the 2015 competition.

Jenny loves to teach and considers her wide-ranging experience an advantage when deal with different personalities, abilities and aspirations. Many students want to take examinations but some prefer a more relaxed approach. As long as they enjoy the lessons and have some sort of goal, Jenny is happy.

For more information about Jenny please visit her website at www.jswmusic.co.uk

 

 

 

At the Piano With…… Diane Durbin

What is your first memory of the piano? 

I think I was about 6 or 7 when I first played a piano. I remember my mother taking my younger sister and me to visit one of our great aunts; there was a ‘piano in the parlour’ – the kind where the music stand appeared out of the lid at the top.  There was treasure trove in the piano stool – full of old volumes of folk tunes and hymn books.  These had tonic sol-fa written over the top; with a bit of help, I cracked the code, added some broken chord accompaniment by ear and away I went.  We adopted the piano and more formal lessons followed.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? 

A love for learning.  After I left school I went into the banking sector and sat financial exams while attending other arts evening classes.  I suppose I have always wanted to be involved in education and to put something back.  I qualified as a primary practitioner some twenty years ago with responsibility for leading music and literacy, which go together very well, but decided that I would leave full-time school teaching early to concentrate on piano and theory teaching.  Teaching itself provides the opportunity to learn. I had already taken up piano lessons seriously again as an adult and the diploma studies began.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Probably the first teacher who had a big influence on me was my high school teacher, Margaret Hemingway.  She had high expectations in terms of practice and preparation.  When I was preparing for the Advanced Certificate and LRSM, I had lessons with my daughter’s first teacher, Beverley Clark.  As I was teaching full time while studying for these, she was very supportive; it felt more like a mentoring relationship.   The late Bernard Roberts stands out for me too.  He remarked on the positive before going on to say, “Now let’s see if we can just…”  Exploring ways of producing the precise tone you wanted to hear was something he passed on to me.  He had a wonderful laugh – “Ha! Yes! That’s it!”

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

Watching professional performances plays an important role, but I would say that students have the most influence, because they shape your approaches according to what they need. Apart from my own teachers, there are those I have met over the years with whom I have shared experiences and ideas.  Conferences and courses are always good for such meetings and for opportunities to gather notes and resources; I try to attend something every year at least. Piano teaching can be an isolated profession, so it’s good to get out there and meet like-minded people so that your teaching can evolve.  Now we have social media, the learning net is cast even wider…

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

It’s difficult to choose, because every week brings something special, but I suppose they would have to include:

  • When a beaming student comes to the next lesson, saying their practice went really well;
  • Helping a student to find a way around a persistent issue, be it fingerings, note accuracy or a tricky rhythm;
  • A great lesson with a student who has special educational needs;
  • The 75 year-old who was finally confident enough to be able to play the Rachmaninov Prelude and Brahms Intermezzo he’d always wanted to perform for his family

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

Adults aren’t necessarily driven to pass exams and qualify like younger students – they want to be the best they can and as such are highly motivated.  Experienced players appreciate new ways of practising and will discuss issues of interpretation, sometimes challenging you.  Some beginners have high expectations because they are adults, and want things to be perfect; conversely some arrive with self-imposed limitations and are really pleased to discover what they can achieve.  Having to fit in practice with family and work commitments is something I empathise with.  Some of my most rewarding lessons have been with adult learners who rediscover the joy of playing.

What do you expect from your students? 

Commitment to the lesson and to practising regularly – if necessary I mention the 10,050 minutes in a week that they aren’t with me.  I ask them how they organise their practice time around everything else so they see that it can be done if they manage time well – it’s an important life skill anyway. I want them to talk to me about ‘ups and downs’ so we know how to progress.  I expect them to listen when required in the lesson and to every sound they make when practising.  I want to develop all-round musicianship skills, so engaging in learning activities other than ‘fingers on the keys’, for example aural work and creating tableaux, is a must.  I like to involve parents where students are very young.  In general, it’s important that all show a willingness to take part in music events outside the lesson, be it a performance of their own or a visit to one.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams can be a great incentive to achieve high standards and are a useful way to obtain feedback.  Some students work best when they have such structure in their timetables, too.  However, they’re not the ‘be-all and end-all’, and we only embark on an exam syllabus if the student wants to. All three platforms give a student the opportunity to perform and develop confidence.  Uncompetitive festivals with friendly audiences and performing in front of peers at school or as part of extended lessons are great occasions in which to develop artistry.  Competitive festivals can be a bit of a hot potato, depending on which side of the winning post you’re on. I’ve experienced elation and disappointment myself, as a performer, as a teacher and a parent.  I was awarded a piano scholarship at high school in the sixth form, and it’s great when you ‘win’ and your hard effort is rewarded, but winning seems such an odd concept in art; subjectivity always plays a part in adjudications.  Explaining to a youngster how they’ve missed out on a trophy by a narrow margin of marks can be quite hard, even with the ‘it’s all about the taking part’ platitude in advance. But it’s horses for courses – if a student is really serious about a performing career, then they are important, and just as time management is a life skill, so is dealing with competitive situations.

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

For beginners, developing a sense of pulse first, rhythmic subdivisions, independent fingers, wrist/arm alignment and posture.  Lessons should be fun and varied. The ‘Experience, Language, Pictures, Symbols’ progression that I learned as a primary practitioner still holds good on a 1:1 basis for instrumental beginners.  Pedalling techniques come in when they can be reached comfortably and this can be quite early on. More advanced students hopefully have a sound technique on which to develop communication of the music and a sense of style.  We sing a lot in lessons at all levels – the ability to breathe with the music is so important for phrasing, I think.

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

You have to practise what you preach to a certain degree, without doubt.  Even if you’re not a regular on the concert platform, then attending summer schools and other courses, where a performance element is included, is vital to your ability to teach aspects of it.  I have enjoyed masterclasses and performing ‘in turn’ during tutorial groups.  Also, if teachers experience any nerves, it helps them empathise with students and it can be a useful discussion topic.  These days, my ‘public’ performances are mainly accompaniments and I enjoy the feeling of performing ‘with’ others immensely.  I think that imparting enthusiasm for the playing the piano beautifully, whatever the situation, is one of the most important things a teacher does.

Who are your favourite pianists and why? 

Such a difficult one to answer!  I love to watch Paul Lewis play – he has such a relaxed yet thoughtful style and makes controlling the whole playing mechanism look effortless.  I could watch his performances of the Beethoven Concertos in the 2010 Prom season over and over…  I do admire Angela Hewitt’s Bach interpretations and listen to her playing before and during practice. As for modern pianists, Stephen Hough plays my favourite Rach 2 and Keith Jarrett’s piano improvisations are amazing – total commitment evident in both performers.

Diane Durbin BA (Hons) LRSM CTABRSM PGCE  is a private piano and music theory teacher and accompanist based in Lincolnshire.  After qualifying with a degree in English from the University of Nottingham, she went into primary teaching where she led music and literacy.  She gained the CTABRSM in 2000 and the LRSM (Piano Teaching) in 2002.  She also sings with Lincoln Cathedral Consort, The Hungate Singers and The Lincoln Chorale. You can find more information at:

http://www.dianedurbin.com

http://www.epta-uk.org

http://www.music-link.org/teachers

http://www.musicteachers.co.uk

http://www.twitter.com/DianePDurbin

At the Piano with……Natalie Tsaldarakis

What is your first memory of the piano?

I saw and played a piano when we were visiting one of my father’s colleagues at his family home. It was a long visit, and I had time to explore: I fell in love with it at first sight and although I was around 4 years old, I remember I sat and tried to play using my fingers. I was glued, and although my parents looked a bit embarrassed I had taken over somebody’s possession, they were clearly impressed. Apparently our hostess tried to impress on my parents I should start lessons.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

My piano teacher in Greece, the well-known concert pianist and pedagogue D. Toufexis, a Julliard graduate and former Lateiner pupil along with concert pianist Danae Kara, both staff at The American College of Greece, inspired me to maintain a portfolio career. I loved how I could go see them perform at major venues and festivals and then have the privilege of private conversations and lessons with them.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The teacher who inspired me to become a musician was the head teacher of a large, state primary school in a well-to-do leafy suburb of Athens. He was himself a frustrated violinist with real passion for music education. His class produced three concert pianists (me included), one musical theatre singer-actress, and a musicologist. Yet the school was an ordinary non-selective state one.

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

I finished my studies at the conservatoire in Greece, yet I knew that I could not trust myself to teach. When I came back from my Master of Music studies in the US at West Chester University of Pennsylvania (1994), I felt I could tackle anything: intensive courses in piano pedagogy were compulsory and included teaching practicums under supervision. At the end of my studies, my teachers were very eager to impress on me the need for certain books which became my bibles, especially the Denes Agay books on Teaching Piano, and were packed in my already impossibly heavy suitcases. Greece at the time felt quite cut off in many ways, and I still remember sending and receiving letters to the US which took about a couple of months: this was the era before Internet and Amazon!

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Despite having taught at all levels for at least 20 years, I still remember being 10 or 11 and helping my friend practice her sonatina. After about 20 minutes her mum couldn’t help herself anymore and stormed in with my mum to stop me from what she thought was merely distracting my friend. My friend whispered “thank you”, as I had helped her to repeat sections rather than play through mindlessly. Years after, when we met again, the first thing she remembered was how grateful she was for helping her practice that one time. I’m sure her mum is still not convinced, but I know it was the earliest confirmation that I could actually be of real help, and is certainly my fondest memory.

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

I’ve been teaching adults almost from the beginning of my career. Challenges, except for time constraints, include self-imposed limitations, mainly arising from clashes with self-image, and definitions of achievement and prospects. That’s why my best adult student to date is a hard working dad of three who is totally committed to his lessons because he sees it as personal growth.

What do you expect from your students?

A certain level of commitment: I can inspire, demonstrate and explain, but I can’t force them to practice. There needs to be an initial interest, and in the case of younger students, there has to be parental support.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams and festivals can be great motivators while providing benchmarks of attainment. Competitions are both exciting and a necessary evil: as long as there are transparent selection processes they have a place in one’s development. I think it is important for a musician to enter any form of competition trying to achieve playing their personal best (rather than focusing on being better than the other competitors). At the same time it is important to come into contact with one’s peers. What I do not like is the message that one has to comply with what’s expected – and certainly there are pianists who are unhappy at the suggestion of modifying their affinities for certain repertoire. I also do not condone excessive emphasis on performativity at younger ages: young children and teenagers should not be criticised for being their awkward selves on stage, especially if this does not interfere with projecting the music.

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

Smart practice, healthy posture-technique, and fingering, along with reading notation and counting are all concepts presented from the very first lessons and reinforced throughout the studies. Style and phrasing, along with pedalling, however, take a lot of exposure to repertoire and are more gradually introduced.

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

My preference is for teachers who teach by example, as I found it most exciting to watch my own teachers perform. I am therefore a performer who teaches pupils how to perform on the piano, rather than how to play the piano. To perform is more than just pressing keys as instructed through notation: it is to communicate without the burden of words. The process of learning to perform is a complicated one of empathy with the perceived intention of the composer, and of enculturation.

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

Martha Argerich is a firm favourite for her transcendental technique, as are the Labeque sisters. I saw the Labeque sisters perform live in Greece and their communication and poise were simply amazing. From my own teachers, Dimitri Toufexis taught me a lot about projecting phrasing through physical gestures, Danae Kara stepped in as my mentor at the early stages of my career and pushed for a totality of conception in extended works. Dr. Bedford introduced me to Alexander Technique and Tai Chi to focus the mind, and my dearest Dr McHugh taught me how to control my hands and the piano keys in what she termed “slow key-depression”. Martino Tirimo and Elena Riu will always occupy a special place for being so flattering and incisive as duet coaches.

 

Natalie Tsaldarakis is a concert pianist and member of the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble. Natalie has also been active as a lecturer, piano teacher and examiner since the 1990s.

In 1994 Natalie was invited to membership by the American National Music Honour Society Pi Kappa Lambda for excellence in performance and she has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including first and second place winners in piano competitions in the US, and Greece (MTNA Wurlitzer Collegiate Competition, West Chester State University Concerto Competition, the Pottstown Orchestra Competition, Deree College Faculty Development Award, WCU Graduate Development Award etc.).

Since 2005 Natalie has been based in London, UK. Between 1995 and until 2005, Natalie was artist teacher in residence at the American College of Greece as well as piano professor and examiner for Greek conservatoires of music including the National Conservatory of Greece.

Natalie has performed extensively at various venues and festivals in the UK and abroad, including the Southbank Centre, St John’s Smith Square, Oxford University, St-Martin-in-the-Fields, Glasgow City Halls, Sibelius Academy, Athens Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls, Winchester Cathedral.

Natalie has recorded both solo and with the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble for the National Greek Radio (ERA-1, ERA-3), and has appeared on Greek television, and UK’s Resonance FM 104.4. The duo’s CD “Romantic Dance Music for Piano Duet” was requested by the Archive for Greek Music and Musicians (Lilian Voudouris Library, Athens Concert Hall) and hailed as an important musical event of international standing by the Greek specialist press.

http://natalie6784.wix.com/ivoryduopiano

https://m.youtube.com/Ntsaldaraki

http://www.twitter.com/Ntsaldaraki

 

 

At the Piano with……Andrew Eales

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What is your first memory of the piano?

I was seven years old. My older sister was taking lessons. I had double-pneumonia, and was recovering in bed. I remember hearing her playing and wishing I could learn too.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

A friend of mine was a classroom music teacher. He asked me to give lessons to one of his sixth form students, who had self-taught up to about grade six, but with major flaws in his playing. I was working for EMI Classics and commuting to London – which I hated. So I gave the student an evening lesson, and fairly instantly knew that I had found my vocation.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I was lucky to have several outstanding teachers. My first teacher was quite scary, and had a reputation for shouting at students, but having made a decision that I wanted to grow up to be a great musician I was happy to take my chances with her. In fact she was always tender and encouraging with me, although she did periodically wander off to another part of the house to shout at her husband! When I told her I liked Grieg, she said that when I grew up I would prefer Sibelius. When I said I had enjoyed hearing Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, she announced that in a few years time I would like Wagner. I think she recognised that I was musically inquisitive and deliberately goaded me, but she knew exactly what she was doing and before long my musical taste grew in many new directions. When I was eleven I won a music scholarship to boarding school, and as a parting gift she gave me a copy of ‘The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’, an unusual present for sure. That seed lay dormant for many years, but remains one of my favourite possessions in terms of sentimental value.

Many years later I was studying for my music degree at Birmingham University. David Ponsford was assigned to teach me the harpsichord, and he had a very profound influence on me. Of all my teachers he is the one I feel most indebted to, and following on from those lessons I chose to specialise and study the Early Music course at the RCM, where I learnt with Robert Woolley.

My final piano teacher was Joseph Weingarten, the Hungarian concert pianist. He had studied with Dohnanyi at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest before coming to the UK in 1934. There was a clear sense that he was connected to this incredible heritage, that his teaching was authoritative, and yet he was so supportive and gently encouraging. He had a perfect balance there, which I can only attempt to emulate!

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

The biggest influence is actually my love for the music itself, and all it communicates. And by that I include music from a wide range of traditions, not just classical. When I hear great music I am just inspired, and want to share it with others, so that informs my teaching from one day to the next. For me, music is an incredible journey of discovery – and my students are also on their own journey, so it’s a privilege to share that and play a part.

My wife Louise works in child and adolescent psychiatry, and it would be remiss of me to ignore the huge influence this also has on my teaching ethos. Her insight into the issues that affect the lives and mental wellbeing of children and families in contemporary society inevitably has a massive impact on my own approach to people.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Working for the local authority Music Service in schools in the 1990s was formative and very significant, forcing me to think carefully about my understanding of music education. Although a pianist, most of my work at that time was teaching electronic keyboards in a group context. The ensemble programme that I created took me down a very exciting creative route that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced, and led to a lot of opportunities both here in the UK and in the USA.

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

Adults have more understanding of the journey they are on as musicians, and they know what music they like and what they don’t like. So that is a different type of challenge to teaching a child, who might be more open to new experiences. Because my teaching is driven by my own love for music, it’s important that the student’s interests and tastes coincide to some extent with mine. But often I have found that a student’s enthusiasm for a composer or style has fed back into my own interest, and that’s a real joy too – another discovery that feeds my enthusiasm as a teacher.

What do you expect from your students?

Respect. If a person doesn’t respect me – both as a musician and as a human being – then I can’t teach them.

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

There are the three essentials that underpin all playing: literacy, musicianship and technique. They need to be developed in tandem, and it’s the same whether a player is a beginner or more advanced. And again, the most important thing of all is to develop a proper LOVE for the music. We must be careful not to trivialise music or pretend it has to always be “fun”, but it must never be dull either.

The big enemy (as always!) is tension. I believe that the way to overcome that is to use physical movement away from the piano, and I have developed specific exercises based on Qigong forms and theory, which are proving very effective. Once a player is more relaxed, their musicality and creativity finds better freedom to be expressed.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams can be great if used as a celebration of achievement, provided we don’t let them dictate the way we teach, or neglect creativity. Most of my students take selected ABRSM Grades, with positive experiences and fantastic results. I use ABRSM because I like the professionalism of their service, the positivism and consistency of the examiners, and the superb published resources.

My students do not compete in festivals. Growing up, I won virtually every competition I ever took part in, but I didn’t enjoy a single one of them. In fact they turned performing into something I dreaded, although I didn’t upset my teachers by admitting that to them at the time!

These days of course we have a much better understanding of the direct link between the public criticism of players and their performance anxiety. The welfare of our students is more important than upholding any tradition, however well intended, and as music teachers we can have a powerful role in remoulding and recasting our performance culture for the better.

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

While we are all individuals with different strengths, I believe it is really important for performers to also teach, and for teachers to also perform.

I also believe that all musicians should try to compose and/or improvise. I see creating, performing and teaching as the three key areas of musical activity.

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

Performance anxiety primarily feeds off three things: the fear of failure, of looking silly, and of being compared critically with others. So we have to cut off this toxic food supply. Firstly, we minimise the fear of failure by ensuring students are well prepared, realistically confident, and focussed on enjoying the music they play. Secondly, we can ease their fear of looking silly by diminishing the formality and ritual associated with classical performance. And thirdly we can move away from the practice of having an adjudicator publicly evaluating and comparing performers, and in so doing establish a more positive context for both public performance and private, constructive feedback.

So long as we remember that music is an art form, not a competitive sport, performers and audience alike can all come away from concerts feeling entertained and enriched. Having performed in popular music settings as well as classical, I know the positive feelings that a good concert should engender, but sometimes it appears to me as if the classical world is deliberately trying to eschew enjoyment!

Once we have this basic understanding that performing music should be a celebration, we can start to look at how we approach a performance in terms of our preparation, how to deal with natural nerves and the effects of adrenalin in our system, breathing and stretching exercises, mental control, diet, and so on. This is again an area where I personally believe that Qigong can offer a genuine breakthrough.

ANDREW EALES is a pianist, teacher and educational consultant based in Milton Keynes UK.

His ‘Keyquest’ tuition books for electronic keyboard have sold many thousands of copies in the UK and overseas, and he has contributed to several other publications as composer and author.

To find out more please visit www.keyquestmusic.com

Andrew is also the founder of the online community The Piano Cloud, which brings together creative pianists from around the world. www.thepianocloud.com

Andrew’s next publication, ‘Piano Qigong’, is planned for Spring 2015.

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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