In praise of the piano teacher

I have recently taken on a new student, a boy of 11 who is preparing for his ABRSM Grade 2 exam in mid-July. He’s been having lessons at school (in a group lesson with another child) but his mother felt he would benefit from regular one-to-one tuition with me. A few days after the first lesson, the mother wrote to me:

“He came home with a ‘that’s the best piano lesson I’ve ever had’ and a fantastic great big grin on his face!”

Showing appreciation for your piano teacher is important, and while I enjoy the support of a wonderful group of parents to my students, a personal thank you like this means a great deal.

Pianist and writer Melanie Spanswick offered an appreciation of the piano teacher on her blog recently, highlighting the important role of the piano teacher in a student’s success or failure. A good teacher knows how to encourage and support his/her students, to get the best of out them, and to help them develop into rounded musicians, with a proper appreciation of the piano and its literature, rather than inexpressive “typists”.

Many parents, and students, and others, fail to appreciate just how much a piano teacher does, not only in lessons, but in all the time spent preparing for lessons, submitting exam entries, organising extra-curricular events to stimulate and interest students, and generally managing a teaching practice and all the admin this entails. These activities are not, generally, included in the teaching fee – just as all the lonely hours of practice a professional concert pianist puts in are not covered by the recital fee. But we have to do these things to ensure we run an efficient studio and to offer our students the best possible learning experience. Not all teachers put in this kind of effort, and it always upsets me when I come across a teacher who does not feel these additional aspects of the job are important or beneficial.

Sadly, the profession of piano teaching is not regulated, and there are charlatans out there: I know, because I have met one or two, both as an adult student and a teacher. As Melanie stresses in her blog article, it is very important to choose the right teacher, and while personality counts for a lot, proper qualifications and experience are crucial. In my opinion, simply having Grade 8 piano does not qualify one to teach advanced repertoire. Conversely, the best concert pianist in the world may not be the best teacher: some of the finest performers are not natural teachers/communicators. However, a good piano teacher should have performed at some point in their career: a teacher who performs, whether professionally or in an informal capacity, will be able to tutor his/her students in the art of performing and how to deal with performance anxiety, important skills for success in exams, festivals and competitions. An ability to communicate, at all levels, from young children to adults, flexibility, good humour, and endless patience are all key skills too. Above all, a good teacher will convey his/her passion and enthusiasm for the piano and its literature: this is my main motivation for being a piano teacher, and if I had to distill my mission statement into a snappy one-liner, I think it would probably say “I love the piano!”.

Good teachers don’t rest on their laurels and their exam successes, and devote time in their busy schedules to ongoing professional development – honing their craft by attending courses, lectures, and masterclasses, and keeping abreast with the new thinking and writing in piano pedagogy (and with the wide availability of such material online, there is really no excuse for not doing this).

So, the next time you meet a piano teacher, either as a student or parent of a student, spare a thought for the huge amount the best teachers put in outside of their teaching hours, to ensure their students get the best out of their lessons.

Just as a post-script, I would like to mention some of the people with whom I have had the very good fortune to study. Apart from my own regular teacher, Penelope Roskell, who studied with Giudo Agosti, Maria Curcio, Vlado Perlemuter and Peter Feuchtwanger, amongst others, I have also studied with former students of Peter Wallfisch, Nina Svetlanova, Leon Fleischer, John Barstow and Phyllis Sellick. For more about the benefits of studying with teachers at this level, please see my earlier post on Teachers and Mentors.