What is your first memory of the piano?
It is a very strong memory of visiting my grandparents and being drawn to this huge thing against the wall, with its ivory teeth, ornate carvings and candlesticks! We didn’t have a piano at home, so every time I visited I sat for ages completely fascinated and oblivious not only to the passage of time but also to the irritation my infantile experimentation must presumably have caused my captive audience. I was completely passionate about the piano from that time onwards!
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
I started formal lessons very late, so I learned everything the hard way – through sheer hard work and determination. I was lucky to have had extremely good teaching every step of the way but because of my age, it all went in consciously. I wish I had been through that unconscious stage that young children experience, when playing the piano is as natural as breathing and you don’t have to think about anything. Because of my enquiring mind, I always asked my teachers a lot of questions. I needed to understand how it all worked. I think I was destined to be a teacher from the start, I really do see it as a vocation rather than a choice.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
I don’t believe there is any such person as the one ideal teacher for everyone. Each teacher I studied with gave me different pieces of the puzzle. My first teacher, Val Dickson, set extremely high standards and instilled in me a sense of musicianship and discipline. Philip Fowke, a consummate pianist, similarly inspired me not only with his playing but by showing me exactly how to practise. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for that. Stephen Savage, my first professor at the RCM back in the mid 70s was an extremely thorough and skilful teacher of piano, and a great inspiration as a musician. He brought vibrancy and energy to each and every lesson. It is hard to overestimate what I gained from my second teacher at the RCM, Peter Wallfisch. He switched on so many lights in my mind, with lessons sprawling over three hours a week. I have written about those amazing years on my blog, so rather than repeat myself I would direct readers to the post: http://practisingthepiano.com/?p=329. Before taking up my Fulbright scholarship in 1982, I took part in Andras Schiff’s classes at Dartington, quite the most magical summer of my life! We think of him as a player of the classics and yet he was teaching Prokoviev sonatas without the need to refer to the score. After the week of classes, Andras invited me to play for him privately from time to time, which was a privilege and a great inspiration. In my first year in the USA, I studied with Ann Schein at the Peabody Institute who gave impeccable and impromptu demonstrations of anything and everything I took to her. As one of Rubinstein’s only students, I inherited some of the maestro’s fingerings for Chopin, and there was much magic in those lessons! During that year, I participated in Leon Fleisher’s weekly classes which had a huge influence on my thinking. I draw on this incredible musician’s wisdom and rich legacy every day. My final teacher, Nina Svetlanova, passed on her amazing tradition, the very best of the modern Russian school – she had studied for many years with Heinrich Neuhaus – and lessons were pure gold. During those years, I also had some marvellous lessons with Julian Martin (a teacher I would recommend to anyone) who now teaches at Juilliard, but the last influence was Peter Feuchtwanger here in London, who presented the diametric opposite of what I consider athletic piano playing. His extraordinary approach put my playing in neutral, and from that place I managed to really take off in different directions.
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
I think all of my teachers were important, also the masterclasses I participated in, concerts I attended as well as life experiences that had nothing to do with music.
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
It’s hard to single anything out here. It may seem that some teaching experiences are better than others, but I think that’s ultimately an ego thing. I taught talented young pianists at The Purcell School in the early 90s, then tertiary level piano students at the University of Cape Town and then at the RWCMD while giving masterclasses at such institutions as the RAM, last year at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore and the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. But a professional piano teacher should be available for anyone who is serious about playing, professional and amateur alike, and should give each student equal attention and respect.
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? (if relevant)
The main challenge of teaching adults is respecting their agenda without imposing mine. I once had a student who was a highly influential and successful person in finance, in charge of people as well as vast pension funds. His passion and solace was to retreat from this heady world into middle and late period Beethoven sonatas, his tackling and understanding of which were remarkable. After some time struggling to give him what I considered a detailed lesson and ending up frustrated because he wouldn’t let me, I learned that he simply wanted to play for someone who knew these works intimately, whose ears and opinion he trusted. That, and a few general comments, was enough for him to play better than he would by himself. Even though I knew I could have helped him improve more, this was not what he wanted. I have an elderly student at the moment who has lessons because he wants to keep his brain active. Who is to say this is any less valid a reason to come to me than my university music students? I guess the single biggest difference with an adult is the fear of letting go, of making mistakes, and the fear of being judged. Sitting in a lesson involves trust in the teacher, and I always tell them if they feel judged, it’s their own judgment, not mine!
What do you expect from your students?
That’s a very good question, as it varies from person to person. If I have a youngster doing an exam or a college student doing a degree in music, there has to be an element of discipline and pressure coming from me, so that weekly progress is evident and ongoing. It’s different with an adult with a busy life away from the piano who comes for lessons because they love playing, it’s almost none of my business why they come. In all my teaching, I think my role is to instruct, inspire and motivate rather than assume the role of ogre-taskmaster.
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
There’s no denying that grade exams provide a very useful structure for learning as long as they don’t become the be-all-and-end-all. As part of an overall musical education exams are fine, but it pains me to think of kids stuck on the same three pieces and a bunch of scales for a whole year, that this is their experience of music. I love adjudicating festivals, hearing everyone present themselves in front of peers and public. Festivals were extremely positive and constructive elements of my own upbringing, and gave me invaluable performing opportunities. As for competitions, I always say to my own students just because you won something today, it doesn’t mean you’re the best thing since sliced bread, nor does it mean you’ll win something tomorrow. Conversely, if you didn’t win it just means you didn’t play your best on the day, or that particular jury preferred someone else. It shouldn’t knock you back, but unfortunately a negative experience often can.
What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?
The number one priority must surely be the love of music and the appreciation that by playing the repertoire we do we are dealing with some of the most profound or most beautiful artistic products of the human mind. Some obvious things would be teaching them about music, how their pieces are constructed – I like to approach a piece with a composer’s-eye view. Teaching them how to listen, equipping them with a solid, reliable piano technique, how to practise, craftsmanship, a sense of freedom in self expression. .
What are you thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?
My teaching is enhanced and enriched by my performing career, there’s no doubt about that. Actually getting up there and doing it means I teach with a different set of skills and priorities, and there’s no substitute for that. There’s a world of difference between being able to play a piece for yourself and presenting it in front of an audience. Performance skills and performance preparation are areas that only a performing musician can really teach.
Graham Fitch maintains an international reputation as a pianist, teacher, adjudicator and writer. Recent activities include a concert tour of Singapore and Australia with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with masterclasses at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Griffith University in Brisbane, and Melbourne’s Team of Pianists. Graham is a regular writer for Pianist Magazine, and has video tutorials on the magazine’s YouTube channel. He has recently published an ebook based on his popular blog, www.practisingthepiano.com. Graham teaches privately in London, and counts among his students Daniel Grimwood and James Baillieu, with many others active in the profession. In addition to teaching talented youngsters and tertiary level piano students, he is very interested in working with amateur pianists. He is on the staff at this year’s Piano Summer School at Walsall.