Teachers and Mentors

For those of us who had piano lessons as children, I’m sure we can all remember our first teacher. Mine was Mrs Scott, in Sutton Coldfield, who seemed ancient to me, and really quite scary, with her big grand piano, her elegantly manicured and scarlet-painted nails, her pearls (jewellery, not wisdom!). I learnt dull pieces, and early Czerny and Clementi studies and sonatinas. I took an exam a year. I recall being quite bored by my lessons.

One friend of mine remembers, with a shudder, the teacher who rapped her knuckles with a ruler and, on occasion, dropped the lid of the piano on her fingers (this was in the 1970s, not the 1870s!). Another has never forgotten the teacher’s withering words about his playing – and his parents’ insistence that he keep taking lessons (he didn’t – but started learning with me a year ago).

My music teacher at secondary school was enthusiastic and inspirational (I can still hear him, when I say to my students “pretend you’re a trumpet/cello/clarinet”), and the piano teacher, recommended by him, was energetic and motivating. I learnt quickly with her, always the sign of good teaching, in my book, because she encouraged me, and engaged my interest and excitement in the music I was studying. I was very sorry to leave her when I went to university.

When I decided to resume piano lessons in my mid-40s, I was fortunate to study with several respected and highly-skilled teachers, who were themselves taught by some of the greatest pianists and pianist-teachers of the twentieth century.

Alfred Cortot with Jacques Thibaud

This connection to earlier teachers and pianists interests me: one of my teachers’ teachers, Vlado Perlemuter, studied with Maurice Ravel, and was a student of Alfred Cortot who was a student of Descombes who was, possibly, a student of Chopin. Thus, I could, albeit somewhat tenuously, claim to be a great-great-great-grand-pupil of Chopin! Students of British pianist Phyllis Sellick (1911-2007) can trace a direct lineage back to Chopin via Isidor Philipp and Georges Mathias. Another of my teachers’ teachers, Guido Agosti, was a student of Busoni. Yet another, Maria Curcio, studied with Artur Schnabel, who was a student of Theodor Leschetizky.

A good teacher is like a doorway, a connector to earlier teachers and mentors, and, most importantly perhaps, to the music. One feels a tremendous sense of continuity through these generational connections, and such musical ‘provenance’ is invaluable and inspiring when one is learning. A teacher can act as a spy on the past, if you will, passing on ‘secrets’ handed down from earlier teachers, and enriching one’s experience of previous performers and performances. This musical genealogy also enables a good teacher to be eloquent and articulate about what makes a good performance – and what makes a really great one.

When learning at an advanced level, a good teacher is less a didactic tutor, more a guide and a mentor, and, ultimately, a colleague. It always excites me when my teacher asks me what I thought of something, why I played this or that passage in a particular way, or how I might translate an aspect of technique to suit my most junior students. Such exchanges prove that teaching is an ongoing learning process in itself: the best teachers are often the most receptive too, and engage in continuing professional development to ensure they remain in touch with current practices and theories. Mix this with that wonderful heritage of past teachers, an ability to communicate well, patience and empathy, and a positive attitude, and you should have a truly great piano teacher.

More on teachers and mentors here

4 thoughts on “Teachers and Mentors”

  1. I must be very blessed. I didn’t have formal piano lessons until I was 11. Phylllis Sellcik’s timetable was too full, so she sent me to a friend, Beryl Barton (who ran the Richmond School of Music in East Sheen) who taught me up to Grade 8 before passing me onto Ruth Harte for my LRAM Piano Teaching Diploma. When I went off to Bristol University to do my Music Degree she then sent me to HER teacher Norman Jones (then in his 80s) who had been taught by Georges Matthias, and spent much of WWII playing Piano Duos on the radio at BBC Bristol.
    He once told me about their being summoned to HM Queen Mary’s drawing room one afternoon to play while she had afternoon tea with a lady – in – waiting. She suddenly rang for her butler to enquire why the soldiers in the grounds who were practising digging trenches, etc., didn’t stop for afternoon tea – and insisted that the Butler and staff take out trays to the men – who did their best to wipe the mud off their hands on their uniforms before handling the china teacups and saucers. He was sure that the men appreciated the break, but the Sergeant Major didn’t look too happy!
    My last “lesson” was with the great Carola Grindea whom I first met at Dartington and enrolled me into the foundling EPTA. Having watched me play some Debussy, she complimented me on my teachers! – “You have been well taught!” she exclaimed, before adjusting my shoulders to release tension. That was in the days before the “no physical contact” rule was even dreamt of!
    In the last 37 years of teaching, I am sure I have had failures as well as successes – but that, I have concluded, is down to the willingness of the student to learn. Those who are only there “because their parents want them to learn an instrument” rarely have the drive and commitment necessary to progress. Perhaps this is why teaching adults is so rewarding: they are taking lessons because THEY WANT TO LEARN, and are far more diligent in their preparation of materials between lessons. Those students who have gone on into the profession have wanted to learn off their own bat and asked intelligent questions about interpretation and style.
    I am also fortunate that most of my former students keep in touch, wherever they are in the world.

    1. What wonderful teachers you had, Jo! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I agree about teaching adults: they can be very rewarding (tho I have one who doesn’t practice which is rather demoralising for me). Luckily, most of my students seem to love their lessons, clearly like me, and come willingly each week. If one can transmit one’s passion & enthusiasm & fire up one’s students, it makes a huge difference to their learning & enjoyment.

      The “no touching rule” is ridiculous. How can one possibly teach any instrument without touching the student?

      1. Something I find amazing about piano teachers is how strong of a bond can form between the teacher and student. I still remember all the piano teachers I’ve had growing up and still write them Christmas cards each year. Each teacher has made a profound and lasting impact on my life that I will remember forever. I hope as a budding piano teacher I can provide the same inspiration to my students. Thanks for the great article.

        -Theresa

      2. Yes, the relationship between teacher and pupil is very special. As it is such a close relationship, it is important for both pupil and teacher to feel comfortable with each other, otherwise learning will never be truly successful. I am continually touched and flattered by my students’ attention to me: when I meet them in the local supermarket or in the street, or friending me on Facebook and leaving comments about their practising or which pieces they are enjoying/not enjoying (!). I feel that positive interaction like this outside of the piano studio is all helpful in the learning process and encouraging them to love the piano!

        Thanks for your comments, Theresa, and welcome to my blog.

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