At the Piano With……Lynne Phillips

Lynne14What is your first memory of the piano?

I first learnt to play the piano when I was very young and living in Vermont, USA.  I have a distinct memory of my first piano – a vast white upright with a black-leaf Art Nouveau design on the front.  I can remember learning Mary Had a Little Lamb on black notes, and I have a very clear recollection of my first teacher, us sitting next to each other on the piano stool, me marvelling at not just her piano playing, but also her incredibly long hair! I can also remember playing a peculiar electric organ upstairs in the house, with my Mother helping me and playing alongside me.  I had a Children’s Song Book that we used to play together, and I can remember Mum helping me with my piano practise, and also getting stuck on ‘The Bullfrog’ for many months before finally abandoning it.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? 

To be honest, teaching was something that I fell into.  After finishing University, I was asked by a friend of a friend to teach her teenage daughter. Luckily for me, she led me to the realisation that teaching was something I absolutely loved to do.  I made a lot of mistakes with those first few students – I moved them on too fast, I entered them for exams too quickly- but I learnt from them and I hope that they weren’t too scarred by the experience.  Today’s music students who are taught teaching skills modules, and who have access to other lessons to observe and learn from, are incredibly lucky. I doubt if I’m the only teacher of my age who had to learn our skills with little or no help, and had to do it fast.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

My A-level music teacher at Lady Verney High School, Miss Hughes, was the first teacher who opened my eyes to counterpoint, fugues, and the structure of music.  At the time, I was struggling wildly with a Bach Fugue, and it was only when I began additional lessons with Miss Hughes, that I discovered why I was coping so badly; I had no concept of a fugue, I didn’t understand the ideas of counterpoint and voicing, I was trying to play the fugue as a harmonic piece, reading it and realising it vertically as if the notes were chords.  The idea that this music was essentially conceived around a single melody was like a revelation to me.  When I moved to Cardiff to study music at University, I became a student of Richard McMahon (now Head of Keyboard Department at RWCMD).  If my eyes were opened by Miss Hughes, then my vision was completely transformed by McMahon.  He taught me to think of the music I was playing as not only of vocal origin, but also taught me to listen to and identify the underlying harmonies, he taught me the concept of direction, shape and colour in music, and the importance of thinking not just pianistically and vocally, but also orchestrally and percussively.

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

Certainly Richard McMahon has been an enormous influence on my teaching.  Through all my years studying with him, I don’t believe I heard even once the phrase “Play it like this…” or “It should sound like this…”.  He taught me that the key to being able to play a piece was in its understanding, and that once I understood the music, I would be able to work out how to perform it.  Of course, he helped with technical issues, but most of my lessons revolved around my comprehension of what I was playing.  His teaching has influenced me enormously – I rarely talk to my students about the literal markings on the page, rather helping them to understand the ‘why’ of the markings; for instance, “Why does the music get louder here? Where is it driving towards?” rather than “The music gets louder because it is marked ‘crescendo”.  He also taught me that there are very many valid interpretations to any one piece, and this is something that I teach my students.  During one memorable lesson, he explained that he disagreed wildly with how I was articulating a specific section, so asked me play it so convincingly that it would persuade him of its validity.  This experience, and many more like it, has left me with a love of my students disagreeing with my ideas on interpretation, and I frequently find myself asking them to “convince me and anybody else listening” of their ideas.

I have also been heavily influenced by Daniel Barenboim – I have read “Everything is Connected” many times over, and can often be found quoting him during lessons.  His description of the true meaning of the term ‘rubato’ is nothing short of genius, and something that I discuss frequently with my own students.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

I have so many! Most of my memorable teaching experiences are to do with a student ‘getting’ something after a period of struggling – whether it is an understanding of a musical concept, a sound, a technique, a performance, or an exam result. I had a recent lesson where a student developed a whole new level of touch and tone control after working all lesson not just on listening to speech patterns but also on playing on a closed piano lid (a favourite teaching trick of mine that instantly allows a student to hear how much or how little attack there is behind the notes).  That Eureka! moment is something I cherish every time it happens.

Because I teach a wide range of students and I have an open-door policy for anyone wishing to learn, this does mean that I get just as much of a buzz out of a gifted musician being able to play a technically demanding piece with insight, depth and skill, as I do out of a student who finds learning the piano so much more challenging, finally achieving a full piece with musicality and confidence.

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

Adult learners come with their own challenges and difficulties, but also a unique set of skills.  Adults are much more able to think logically and work out things by themselves over the week, but they tend to have far more problems with finger agility than children, and I often find that adults struggle to find the time to practise regularly. Most of my adult learners are extraordinarily busy, often juggling work and children before they even begin to think about practise, and this often leads to frustration from themselves with regards to their progress.

What do you expect from your students? 

I have different expectations from different students, depending on their commitment level, their goals, and obviously their age, but I do expect from all of them a high level of honesty, a certain level of hard work, and as much respect towards me and my instrument that I give them.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

I have very mixed feelings about all of these.  Although they all have their uses, I’m becoming more and more convinced that there is a culture of overuse and misuse that has been on the rise for many years and is now reaching a peak.  There are many students and parents who don’t see progress unless they have a certificate or medal to prove it, and who have been taught that the only way to learn is to ‘progress through the grades’, sitting every one along the way, and often sacrificing time spent learning new repertoire and skills in the process. I don’t know what the answer is to this, but I think if music education continues along this route, we will end up with a generation of musicians who have a grade 8 certificate but who are unable to think of music as anything other than its individual examination sections – scales, aural tests, pieces, and sight reading.  A parent of one of my students once said to me “Isn’t it sad that when my son says he plays the piano, the immediate question is “What grade are you?”.  Why does nobody ask, “What interesting pieces are you playing at the minute?””, and I think this sums up the present exam culture perfectly.  I spend a lot of time attempting to convince parents and students that exams, festivals and competitions are all very useful sidesteps in their musical education, but that to use them as the sole goal is not only detrimental, but not what the systems were set out to do in the first place.

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

To beginners – that you should never play a single note without listening to yourself, that odd mistakes don’t matter, that you should question yourselves and your teachers, and that it is ok, great fun and incredibly useful, to improvise.

To advanced students – that you should never play a single note without listening to yourself, that odd mistakes don’t matter, that you should question yourselves and your teachers, and that it is ok, great fun, and incredibly useful, to improvise.

What are you thoughts on the link between performance and teaching? 

I think the only teachers who can effectively teach performance technique are ones who have a history of performance behind them.  Not all of my students enjoy performing (in fact, many of them actively shy away from it), but I believe even those students need to be aware of the elements of performance practise, even if the only people they will ever perform to are themselves.

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

Too many to mention! But I grew up with a love of older pianists such as Ashkenazy and Barenboim, and this love for these great musicians has stuck by me over the years.

Lynne studied piano in Cardiff at Cardiff University and RWCMD where she had regular tuition from renowned concert pianist and teacher Richard McMahon.   

She has been teaching piano to children and adults through private lessons and at RWCMD for 15 years.  She is a specialist in early years teaching, in working with children with visual impairments, autism, dyslexia & dyspraxia, and she recently spent two years working with a student who only had the use of her right hand.   

Lynne does not use a specific teaching method, but she firmly believes that young musicians should be taught to think independently, to question themselves and their teachers, and should not become reliant on graded examinations in order to achieve a sense of progress.   

Lynne is currently researching and writing a book about piano teaching.  Visit Lynne’s blog and website properpianofingers.com

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