What is your first memory of the piano?
My bare feet cooling on the cold pedals of the piano during the hot summer. Another is playing the piano and singing to my grandfather and grandmother on a Sunday afternoon.
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
Teaching has always come naturally to me. I found that when I am passionate about something I can explain it comfortably. So when I started teaching during my undergraduate studies I realised that I enjoyed teaching and learned a lot about my own playing at the same time.
I suppose I also subconsciously took in a lot about teaching techniques from the way my teacher taught me when I was growing up.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
Johan Cromhout was my teacher for ten years when I grew up in South Africa. He has taken me from learning to properly read music (I started by playing by ear) up to performing and being able to comfortably discuss my programme in the viva voce of my DipABRSM. He always managed to find a balance between allowing my spontaneity to flourish whilst shaping my progress in the right direction. We listened to a lot of music as well. A part of my two-hour lessons in later years included a cup of tea and listening to CDs.
Martin Katz was my teacher during my study at the University of Michigan. He is a fascinating teacher and the way he can put every scenario in context of today is inspiring and admirable. Charles Owen taught me about focus and economical use of technique to acquire a better result.
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
The teachers I studied with influenced me greatly as I mentioned above. I am also very much influenced by Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) where (said in an immensely simplistic way) the imagination is used to build an awareness of what one wants to achieve and then following that path your imagination has set out already. I am not giving it its best explanation, but it is fascinating to learn how we can open up various avenues for ourselves by imagining it all in as much detail as possible first. I try to introduce visual art and literature in my teaching as well. It just helps to get students thinking a bit differently about all those black dots.
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
I was teaching a very talented 6 year old. He had been taking lessons for a year and I introduced B major to him. He experimented a bit and worked out C major and D major on his own. I shall never forget the excitement and marvel that he was filled with. He realised that he can create things on this white and black maze. This reminded me of the importance of not only to always try and convey this to my students, but also to remind myself of this lesson.
It has been said many times before, but it is also very true for myself: I constantly learn from my students.
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?
I enjoy working with adults because they often have their own ideas from the beginning and then open themselves up to more ideas. Challenges can be that old habits die hard and as teacher one has to find an individual barometer for each student to keep the balance between encouragement, alteration and guidance. Where children often take things at face value, adult students often ask more questions, challenging the teacher. I like that – it makes both of us think!
What do you expect from your students?
A motto I try to instill in my students is to have dedication and discipline in accordance to one’s goals. Some adults I work with want to play for relaxation and do not have careers as a musician in mind. For me it is important that they still have certain expectations of themselves and live up to them. For my students studying music degrees I expect them to aspire to the same motto. They are often in a place in their careers where they are trying to find where they fit in in the musical world and so it is important to keep one’s head. I think this motto can help them to be inspired, but also impresses upon them the responsibility associated with their work. The children I teach (often second study pianists) often have this motto naturally build in, but I think it is the result of the fact that they have learnt the lesson by learning one instrument already.
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
Any experience of performance is important and influences the development of anybody learning a musical instrument. Each of the above brings up its own challenges as a performer, but I think students are not often enough reminded of how different these experiences can be. Competing against oneself in an exam vis à vis competing against others in competitions and some festivals often make performers react when in the heat of it all. Performing in a concert is also different. Some people prosper better in some scenarios than others. I think it is important as a teacher to find which of these different performance setups work best for each student and then encourage them accordingly.
What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?
For beginners I think the most important lesson is to be disciplined and meticulous – count, check rhythm, play correct notes and learn sensible fingering as (hopefully) set out by the teacher.
For advanced students I would actually say the same and on top of it to read as much and as widely as possible, trying to put the works they play in social and historical context.
What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?
Both performance and teaching is a way of communication, similar to two dialects of the same language. Some are well-versed in both dialects, others are fluent in one and proficient in another. It is the individual’s responsibility to find his or her feet in either or both dialects.
Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?
Argerich for fire, Barenboim for colour, Schiff for philosophy and Perahia for surprise.
South African-born pianist Nico de Villiers is an accompanist, teacher and coach, based in London. He holds degrees from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, the University of Michigan and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Read Nico’s full biography here
Fascinating interview, thank you. Charles Owen’s advice about “economical use of technique to acquire a better result” is something that can apply to any sport as well. Seems obvious, but not always easy to put into practice! And Villiers’ comment about performance and teaching being like two different dialects of the same language: spot on, I think.