At the Piano with Alice Pinto

What is your first memory of the piano?

My first memory of the piano is hearing it rather than seeing it or playing it. Until I was about five years old my family lived two doors down from my first piano teacher, Fiona Matthison, and I used to hear her piano being played every time I passed her house. I also remember my father playing it for birthday party games in our living room! I can’t remember starting to play myself.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

In all honesty, I needed the money. A fellow student asked if I was interested in teaching a friend of hers, who was a local academic in her thirties returning to the piano having learnt as a child. I was nervous at first but we got on well and I learnt as much if not more from her than she did from me. I gradually realised how much I enjoyed explaining practising methods, working as a team to overcome technical issues and create an interpretation, and how much this conscious and thoughtful process was helping my own playing and learning processes too by making me analyse what I was trying to achieve. I’m a rational and business-minded type of person so I started to actively acquire more students, and pursue teaching as a part of my career.

I’ve always been socially and politically aware, so teaching and sharing my expertise is a way for me to help classical music blossom in quality and quantity in the UK. I really want to do my bit to ensure that the professional musicians of the future have a chance to receive a great musical education, and equally importantly that the music-lovers and audiences of the future do too! I think it’s very important to nurture music from an early stage in education.

I continue to teach not just because I genuinely adore it, but also from a practical perspective as a musician; teaching for three or four days a week gives me the financial freedom to be able to pursue performance projects that I may not realistically be able to afford to do otherwise, and allows me to be able to turn down gigs that I feel won’t enhance my career or fulfil me creatively. It’s a tricky balancing act but I’d personally rather be teaching a Chopin Ballade or coaching a Beethoven Piano Trio than accompanying another Grade 1 exam or a ballet class.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I’ve had wonderful teachers. My first teacher Fiona Matthison set me up in a way for which I am forever grateful. At the Junior RCM I had the honour of studying with John Barstow who was the first person (besides my mother) who unreservedly supported my dream of becoming a professional musician and set into motion serious and pragmatic approaches to making that happen. He was also someone who blew open my musical world, by taking me to concerts and persuading me to be brave in my repertoire choices. At the same time I was a real thorn in the side of the composer Julian Grant who was my A-level teacher at school. I have a lot of sympathy for him, as at the age of sixteen I was a good pianist but very stubborn, and with no knowledge or interest in any music after 1915! I am now very grateful he carted me kicking and screaming into the 20th century, and forced me to consider my theoretical understanding. Without his help I wouldn’t have survived my degrees and I’d be a completely unbearable and ignorant person.

As an undergraduate I was beyond fortunate to have Hilary Coates, who remains one of my best friends and is one of the first people I turn to for advice on any topic! She taught me the art of true preparation- how to inject music with style and substance. Hilary’s energy is unrivalled, and her students all know how much she believes in them. After a further two years with Carole Presland, as a postgraduate at RAM, I felt I was finally able to take my passion for the piano and craft any score into exactly the way I wanted it to sound. Carole showed me the physical tools to tackle just about anything and be comfortable with it, and critically, how to do it quickly.

If I tried to name the numerous musicians who have taught and inspired me over the years it would fill a whole book. I had many wonderful experiences as a teenager in chamber groups, youth orchestras, and as a violinist and violist too, and was so lucky to have the support of many professionals helping me along then and during my degrees. They all taught me a lot about music but also about how important it is to have mentors who are good people and care about the whole person.

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

It sounds clichéd, but the most important influences are definitely my students themselves, and how they react, both short-term and long-term. It’s crucial they’re happy and comfortable with what we are doing at the piano. They must be progressing too, or something isn’t right! Sometimes it takes patience to see results, or to realise that something isn’t working. I’m constantly shaping and rethinking my teaching to adapt to how my students are reacting, and I keep up my own professional development as a teacher by attending courses and searching out articles and books about classical music, child psychology and different learning theories. I also try to keep developing as a musician and pianist myself; learning new repertoire, reading up on performance practice, attending concerts and listening to recordings.

My own teachers of course influenced my teaching, mainly those I have mentioned above. There are of course teachers who will remain nameless who gave me a very good idea of how I didn’t want to teach!- I have come across people who I think are too complacent, or lazy, or even abusive in their treatment of students. To my mind it is so important always to nurture, as what a student is offering, at any level, is such a precious part of themselves, and a direct dismissal of their music-making can be very hurtful. I find the writings of teachers from generations past interesting, particularly the advice of people like Dr Suzuki, Kodaly and Joan Last and their ideas on developing the talent, voice, and instrumental capacity of small children. I also feel when reading Susan Tomes’s books and blog that someone has put into words absolutely everything I exactly felt about all issues, musical and otherwise!

The colleagues I work with now constantly inspire and influence my teaching, particularly on Pro Corda courses where the staff are so committed and such fun. I’ve been surrounded by experts in Dalcroze, improvisation and conducting, and I try to observe their lessons and approaches, and learn from what they do. Likewise, seeing the music staff in the wonderful departments I teach in being so committed to their students, the students repaying the commitment, and both parties reaping the reward is just brilliant. It’s great to have time to share ideas with a whole range of specialist instrumental and music teachers and I’m very lucky to have that opportunity most days of my year; it’s one of the big reasons I chose to work in schools and departments rather than teach privately.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

I always love hearing my students perform, as it gives me a chance to sit back and appreciate how far they have come, and enjoy the music! It’s also nice when students gain music places at good schools, achieve a good mark in an exam, or win a festival prize. Achievements like that make me feel as though I’m on the right track with how and what I’m teaching. I’ll never forget getting the phone call offering me my first teaching job in a school, nor the subsequent similar phone calls, especially the one for my job at Junior Guildhall as I’d always dreamt of teaching at a junior conservatoire and never imagined it would happen when I was only twenty-five years old.

During the actual teaching process, I love seeing the ‘eureka’ moment happen with a student, when something just ‘clicks’ technically for them. Whether that’s the first time they get their fingers to coordinate in a piece or scale, or finally understanding how a theoretical concept such as key signatures works, or overcoming a nasty bit in the cadenza of the Grieg Concerto and realising they will be able to play it after all… all of those are great and they happen many times a day, so I’m very privileged. I sometimes suspect I enjoy teaching primary age children so much because these moments come so often. They’re almost addictive!

There have been some lovely musical moments too. On the Pro Corda Adult Piano Course a gentleman in his mid-eighties introduced me (a teacher on the course) to the music of York Bowen, and we performed one of his rollicking duets in a concert. The same gentleman went on to perform a French Suite by Bach so touchingly and with such wisdom it was extraordinary. He wrote afterwards to tell me that my enthusiasm was infectious and my playing really lovely and I returned the sentiments. On the opposite end of the scale, three of my girls who had only been learning the piano one year performed two tiny six-hand pieces flawlessly last June and had such fun even though one of the six arms was in a sling; the student in question was determined not to let anyone down or miss the concert. I’ve recently returned from Pro Corda North where the standard of playing was exceptional, and I coached three seventeen/eighteen-year-old boys on the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s C minor Trio which they performed with incredible maturity… nothing beats experiences like these, and tellingly they often occur in chamber music.

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

I enjoy that they very often have quite a well-formed idea of their own musical self. I encourage adults and older teenagers to lead their own repertoire choices, and enjoy discussing advanced technical and musical issues at an adult and artistic level.

Older students (in my experience from about the age of twelve upwards) often come with the challenge of managing expectations (to put it bluntly!) and balancing the speed at which students think with the speed (fast) at which they can physically complete tasks (not so fast). I tend to find that adults expect a lot from themselves at the piano, especially when they fully understand (from a theoretical perspective) what they are being asked to do, and can become frustrated when results are instantaneous. They can also experience nerves more than children, and tend to compare themselves against other musicians or their own expectations, meaning they don’t congratulate themselves enough on their achievements enough and instead live in a perpetual state of struggle and disappointment, which can be very harmful to the delicate psyche after long periods.

What do you expect from your students?

Firstly, that they are doing their best. It is so easy to tell when this isn’t the case; I don’t think some students realise how transparent this is! I personally expect my students to practise every day, at whatever age or level. I expect them to prepare well, which to me means that they come well-equipped to a lesson with not just all their materials, but also questions or issues about the work that they have been set. I will often ask “What do you need help with?” and expect that they can readily answer this. All my students play at a high standard regardless of level; I might have a student at Grade 1 or 2 playing a Bach or Mozart Minuet but they will do it with exquisite phrasing, articulation and dynamics. We don’t cut any corners.

I expect my students to love music, love the piano, and to love learning, and I expect them to really want to progress and not to be reluctant to work hard or to shy away from a battle- everyone struggles at some point. I expect them to have their own aims and ambitions at the instrument, whether these are to pursue a musical career or not. After a certain age or level I expect students to lead their own repertoire choices, to have musical interests surrounding the piano, to listen to live and recorded performances, to study theory to the appropriate level and to have a knowledge of other instruments and the history of music.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I think they suit some students very well, and others not at all. I think exams are not necessary, and part of me sympathises with the character in Jessica Duchen’s novel Alicia’s Gift who states that they help: “…amateur children to impress amateur parents. They play nicely to the dinner guests and sometimes they play for school assembly and everybody claps… The British view music as a diversion, an amusement, something it’s not quite cricket to be too good at… We [true artists] have something profound to say about life, why we’re alive, what it means to be human. We don’t jump through hoops to show out parents’ friends how talented out parents’ offspring are”. I think to just base a teaching or learning method around exams can be limiting, and can result in a student learning only three pieces a year, and gaining no real repertoire or knowledge outside the exam syllabus. It is my understanding that the exam boards were not set up for this purpose, but sadly (in my opinion) the emphasis on exams when teaching an instrument is huge. I never took any grade exams myself, although I auditioned for schools and courses and performed regularly in concerts and festivals. However, I do understand why many students want to take exams, and I think for many they can be a good yardstick or motivator. It really does depend on the student, their ambitions, and their reasons for learning and playing. I would however, never condone a student going from exam to exam without thought or question as to the motives, nor would I want a student to take exams for mistaken or false reasons.

Likewise, festivals and competitions can be brilliant platforms when considered on an individual basis for the student. I tend to suggest these events to those I feel might gain from the experience, but in general let the student lead the decision. I prefer non-competitive concert situations for most students, though again there will always be some who thrive on the competitive element and want to push for it. In my experience, those who gain a lot from the experience in the long-term tend to be in the minority, and my instinct and own experience tells me that there is plenty of time to compete when skills are more honed, hands have finished growing, musical interpretations have been fully-formed and are personal, with plenty of context and life experience behind them, and ambitions for life are clearer. But individual circumstances merit different approaches.

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

Beginner students must learn two almost opposing elements, in my opinion; joy and discipline. The most successful are those who quickly realise (or already know) that the two are actually intertwined, and that joy comes from discipline. I encounter a few students who harbour vague hopes that one day they may just sit down and be able to produce Fur Elise from nowhere. To have a beginner student who gains a lot of joy from working very hard at a tiny little aspect or piece and is inspired by their own hard work makes me confident and happy for their future.

For this reason I feel it is best for students to start young so they digest the concept of discipline from an early age. If you tell a four-year-old they must brush their teeth every day, they must wear a school uniform, they must practise the piano, and most importantly you don’t just tell them these things but you set in place a system that doesn’t allow them not to, then they grow up with this unconscious but very valuable discipline which will reap rewards later in life. That sounds harsh but too many parents sit back and hope their child will practice because they love music. That’s just not a reality for most small children or even teenagers with many demands on their time and other temptations. Why practise the piano (which seems to progress so slowly and give comparatively so little satisfaction) when you can play with friends?

An advanced student is someone who already appreciates discipline, but I think the joy still needs to be nurtured. Sometimes music-making at a high level can become mechanical, and so I’d encourage an advanced student to focus on bringing music to life. I think chamber music is so valuable in that respect and I’d urge everyone who can to make music with friends. Advanced students need to continue to work hard to improve, as everyone has something left to learn. But always remember why you love music, and what is at the heart of it.

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

I get irritated by the assumption that musicians are either great players or great teachers. It is patently not true and it makes a mockery of the wonderful work many musicians are doing. I think we’re all familiar with the false premise that many who teach only do so because they can’t play and I hope that is something that is gradually losing its clout. However, I still come up against the idea that because a person trained to a high level as a concert pianist at an elite conservatoire, it automatically means they are a selfish diva who doesn’t understand children, or doesn’t have the time or patience for beginners and amateurs.

To teach well and professionally at any level demands a certain level of musical training, and the more professional the training, the more the teacher has to draw on when imparting advice to others. I believe teachers who perform, and performers who teach both have a lot to share with audiences and students alike, and I’d love to see a greater acceptance that these two strands of musical communication are not so far apart. It irks me to meet performers who claim to not be able to ‘communicate’ in a teaching studio, just as much as teachers who claim not to be able to perform on their instrument. Both these methods of communication take practice, confidence and skill, and I don’t see how you can do one without the other. I’d urge all budding musicians to take time to hone as many types of communication as possible through which to share their music.

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

I love musicians who communicate with passion, and so my favourite pianists are probably Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim. I respect Barenboim’s fearlessness in being politically involved as well, and the fact that he takes risks in his professional life and on stage. I also have some favourite recordings by Richter, Gavrilov, Sudbin, Imogen Cooper, Mitsuko Uchida, Kissin, Bernard Roberts for Beethoven- an odd bunch probably… I once travelled to Berlin for the evening just to hear a recital given by Sokolov, once I’d realized he probably would never return to the UK in my lifetime. I think I listen for energy and vigour above finesse, and hopefully that’s what I put across in my own playing and teaching too.

British pianist Alice Pinto has appeared as concerto soloist with the Cheltenham and Cambridge Graduate orchestras, and recent recital highlights have included concerts at St. John’s Smith Square, Kings Place, and a live broadcast on Icelandic national radio. Alice performs regularly nationwide at festivals including Two Moors, Cambridge Summer Music, Lake District, Vid Djúpið and Malcolm Arnold. Praised particularly for her interpretation of repertoire from the Classical period and neglected British works, Alice is also in demand as an ensemble musician, and currently holds a Leverhulme Fellowship with Pro Corda. 

Alice gained her MMus degree in Piano Performance and Research from the Royal Academy of Music in 2012, where she held a Richard Carne Scholarship and was shortlisted for the Jacob Barnes Scholarship. She was awarded the Anthony Lindsay Prize 2007, the Jaques Samuels Manager’s Discretion Prize 2008, and was keyboard finalist for the Isabelle Bond Gold Medal in 2010. Alice previously held the Else and Leonard Cross Memorial Scholarship at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and Nora Day Scholarship at St. Paul’s Girls’ School. She currently teaches Piano and Chamber Music at Junior Guildhall, Dame Alice Owen’s School and Bute House Preparatory School. 

Alice’s upcoming concerts include for Leeds Lunchtime Chamber Music Series (8th October), St Lawrence Jewry London (13th October) and the Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton (18th October).