At the Piano With……David Barton

What is your first memory of the piano?

I don’t think I’d really come across the piano seriously until I started school. I was very lucky to go to schools where music was a valued and important part, not just of the curriculum, but of the life of the school. At the infant school I attended, the headmistress was musical, and the deputy head played the piano; after I’d seen her play, I was hooked! I started lessons shortly after, and nearly 25 years on, I’m still in touch with that teacher; I’m always pleased to be able to go back to her and say “You’re the one who started it all off…”

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Like many teachers, I ‘fell’ into teaching almost by accident. When I was in the 6th Form at school, I was asked by a friend at church who knew I played whether I’d be willing to teach her daughter. Reluctantly, I agreed, and within a couple of years, several other pupils had come via the same route. Initially, I didn’t see teaching as a job, or even a career; the inspiration for teaching didn’t come until several years later when I no doubt concluded that maybe it was a good idea! Although it’s had many ‘ups and downs’, I’m glad I made the decision to continue, and I still thoroughly enjoy it. I was lucky to have had good teachers at all the schools I attended and I suppose that my inspiration would rest with several of them.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

There have been so many… As I mentioned earlier, I attended schools where music was seen as important; whether the teachers were musical or not was largely irrelevant as they all supported and encouraged us, whatever we chose to do. The larger-than-life music teacher at the grammar school I attended certainly proved a lot about the value of music. In the days before any sorts of government initiatives, he found no problems in organizing school concerts several times a year; 90% of the boys, right through from Years 7 to 13 took part in the choirs who sung. Although I had some misgivings about the academic side of his teaching, there was no denying his passion for music and I feel very grateful for having experienced such an inspiring foundation to my musical studies.

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

It has to be the pupils themselves; without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Their enthusiasm, commitment and enjoyment have shaped my teaching over the past 11 years, and I’m enormously grateful for the support they’ve given me.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I have always been concerned that learning an instrument should be about more than the weekly one-to-one lesson. Some of my most memorable experiences have come from events such as concerts and workshops in which pupils have had the chance to work with and share their music with other pupils. In addition to these, there will also be particular pupils who’ve been both significant and memorable (not always for the right reasons!). It might have been their personalities (giving the sight-singing test back to examiner and saying “I don’t like this one, can I have another one” must surely rank high on the list!) or their individual achievements.

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

Whilst I know not all teachers feel the same, I thoroughly enjoy teaching adults; currently, around 80% of my pupils are adult learners. They do present their own particular challenges and it’s often necessary to take a different approach to the one you might take when teaching children. I’m always very conscious that as well as the time and financial outlay required for learning an instrument, there’s an enormous emotional investment to be made too. Many adults, particularly those coming to it later in life, have already been successful in their chosen careers; starting again learning something from scratch requires an almost infinite amount of patience (also on the part of the teacher too!). It can be very frustrating, and as a teacher, you have to strike the balance between enjoyment, encouragement and progress.

What do you expect from your students?

Above all, to get anywhere with learning an instrument, you have to be committed; there is no denying that enjoyment and progress will be lacking for those whose music doesn’t feature regularly in their everyday lives. I’m keen that all pupils take some responsibility for their learning; after all, for most, the lesson itself accounts for a tiny percentage of the time in each week. Overall, I want to ensure that pupils remain adaptable, that they’re open to new ideas and that they retain a willingness to experiment.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Generally, not all pupils wish to take exams and I entirely respect their decision. That said, and without me exerting any pressure, I’ve come across very few who don’t wish for an independent assessment of their ability at some stage or another. We are very lucky that there are so many options out there in terms of external assessments. While a large number of pupils still follow traditional graded exams, many have opted for other assessments such as the LCM Leisure Play exams and the ABRSM’s Performance Assessment. I want any exam taken to be as positive an experience as possible, and therefore it’s very important to match the requirements of the pupil to the exam most suited to them. I am very clear though that I do not teach to exams; where required, I use exams along the way as a benchmark for progress, but they do not form the basis for my teaching.

For me, I have never seen music in a competitive sense and so I have mixed feelings about festivals and competitions. As a child learning the piano, these weren’t things I was exposed to and consequently, they’re not something I’ve explored with my own pupils. Unfortunately, even when I’ve sought to look into these options further, I heard too many negative stories which only went to further put me off! I’m sure there are some fantastic festivals and competitions out there… For me, music is a sharing activity, whether that is playing in an exam, performing in a concert or simply entertaining family and friends.

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

For me, above all, the most important concept, whatever the level, is that the learning should be enjoyable. That’s not to say that it’s always going to be easy and that we’re only going do the things the pupil wants to do, but that we should never lose sight of the wider enjoyment of not just our chosen instrument, but of music in a much more general sense.

I am particularly concerned that beginners need a good grounding in basic musicianship. The ability to understand, explain and experience such basic concepts as pitch, pulse and rhythm is hugely important and paves the way for far quicker progress in the future. I’m particularly interested in the way in which Dalcroze and Kodaly principles can be introduced into the individual lesson, and whilst I don’t advocate any one method over another, I feel that they have an important role to play. In terms of the piano itself, a solid technical foundation is important; this is what I lacked when I had lessons. Such basic concepts as posture, hand shape and arm weight will provide the pupil with a real solid basis for future progress.

When it comes to more advanced students, this becomes a harder question to answer. The important concepts which need to be imparted will largely depend on their own particular needs at that time. Generally, as pupils progress there is likely to be a greater emphasis placed on interpretation and musicality. There’s still a lot of technical work to cover, and as the pieces become more demanding, the more pupils need a solid technical foundation to support and underpin their playing.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

The most satisfying part of the job has to be seeing pupils achieve things which they didn’t think were possible. This is particularly the case for adult learners where the littlest step forward is often a huge milestone. I have always been concerned that above all, pupils should be enabled to reach their potential: for some it will be that elusive Grade 8 distinction, and for others it might be simply playing a piece in front of other people.

Teaching isn’t as rosy as perhaps people think it might be! Private teaching is a lonely business, and this combined with the inevitably unsociable hours means that it’s hard to maintain any kind of work-life balance. People often tell me how wonderful it must be to be able to do something I love, to be able to work from home, and to be able to pick and choose my work as if choosing from a menu…I doubt that many have experienced the world of self-employment. The uncertainty and lack of stability which this brings can be overwhelming. For 99% of pupils, music lessons are a luxury, and when money’s tight, it’s often the first thing to fall by the wayside. As a teacher, you have to attempt to be everything to everybody; you’re not just a teacher, but also an accountant, marketing specialist, record-keeper, researcher, mediator and a whole host of other things too…it’s hard work!

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

I suppose that in a very twee sort of way, I enjoy teaching music which inspires pupils. I want them to enjoy the pieces they’re learning and I want to ensure that each piece presents something with which they can engage with. In terms of my own playing, I enjoy a whole host of things; if I like a piece, I’ll probably learn it but very rarely do I get fixated on having to play all the works of one single composer. For many years I was led to believe that you weren’t a ‘proper’ pianist if you didn’t play ‘this’ sort of music, or music by ‘that’ composer. Now I enjoy the music for what it is and am not in the slightest bit bothered about whether I’m considered a ‘proper’ pianist! At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying the piano music of Ernest Moeran which is much-neglected!

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

I suspect it’s a generation thing, but I don’t really have favourites. I’m probably more interested in the music, and will simply look for a recording which I like. I rarely buy recordings because it’s a particularly artist. Come to think of it, I’m the same with concerts; I look first at what’s being played, then at who’s playing it! I’ve seen many pianists over the years, but for me, the versatility and sensitivity of Imogen Cooper stands out.


David Barton runs a busy private studio in Lichfield, Staffordshire where he has taught flute, piano and singing for the past 11 years. In addition, he is a piano accompanist and composer, with music published in the UK, USA and Canada. More information about David’s work can be found at www.davidbartonmusic.co.uk

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