At the Piano with……Liz Giannopoulos

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What is your first memory of the piano?

I was surrounded by music as a child  and I fell in love with music at a very young age. My mother would play piano many evenings and I would lie in bed and listen to Don McLean’s Vincent or Clementi’s  Sonatina  No. 4. At the weekend, my father allowed me to choose music to listen to. This was a wonderful privilege because I was allowed to touch his precious records. My favourite was Lloyd Webber’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini;  I also loved Beethoven (particularly his “Pastel”(!) [Pastoral] Symphony), Miles Davies and Elton John, whose Your Song settled my sons to sleep when they were younger.

By age 10, I was taking piano lessons and wanted to play “like my Mum”. She was perhaps my most inspirational role model because she played for her own enjoyment and seemingly without effort.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

In my mid-thirties, I found myself with a husband, two children and a deeply unsatisfying, yet very demanding, career. There was no doubt that my family needed more of my time, but I was equally certain that I needed creative and intellectual stimuli beyond pureed carrots and a 40 degree wash cycle! My husband asked me what I wanted to do when I was little. My answer was simple; “I wanted to be like Becky” – more on her later.

My reasons for becoming a teacher were mostly about the practicalities of my own life. The reasons I am still a teacher – and still love being a teacher – are the daily challenge and reward it brings; the impact I can make on an individual’s life experience; the ‘eureka’ moment when they get it; learning something new about myself, my students, teaching or music every single day; and the sheer joy of working creatively, reactively and proactively alongside children who are joyfully learning. My son (and piano student) gave me a hand-written plaque last year; it said “Teachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning”.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I started clarinet (age 9) and piano (age 10) with Becky, an enthusiastic graduate, who coached me to ABRSM Grade 5 on both instruments and introduced me to the alto saxophone. I adored Becky and worked hard to please her. My parents say she was an excellent role model and they rarely had to nag me to practice. Silver and gold stars were available for each piece learned and she hosted student recitals at her parents’ house. Quite simply, she made learning music fun.

My second piano teacher, Miss Faulkner, taught at my secondary school. We had musical interaction outside our regular piano lessons through the GCSE music course and other school activities. I learned about music history and the theory and structure of music, which helped me understand what I was playing. This is where I find most technical memories including using variable rhythms to perfect tricky passages, word patterns to master poly-rhythms and using well known tunes to identify intervals aurally. Miss Faulkner used metaphors, analogies and examples and asked me to listen, observe and discover techniques for myself.

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

There are so many; where do I begin?

The foundations of my teaching style are influenced by Becky and Miss Faulkner – simple things like awarding stars and certificates, agreeing objectives with the students and parents and providing a progress reports at the end of each term, motivating students through the thrill of achievement, not through fear of being scolded or failing. Miss Faulkner taught me there is great value in exposing children to the wider possibilities of music making. I enjoy taking groups of students to musical experiences, from youth jazz at The Barbican to FUNharmonics with the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall; from the London Mozart Players to STOMP!

I read many pedagogy books when studying for my ABRSM Certificate of Teaching and was particularly struck by Harris’ simultaneous learning approach. His book, Improve Your Teaching has been invaluable, and the concept of simultaneous learning is rather succinctly and eloquently summarised in The Music Teachers Companion: ‘integrating aural work with pieces, scales with sight-reading, aural work with scales and so on. The ingredients of musicianship can be both taught and learnt much more effectively when they are seen as being part of a whole. The objective is to make each lesson much more like an organic process. The teacher sets the agenda, is pro-active rather than re-active, and there is a considerable amount of pupil-teacher interaction throughout. This is what is meant by simultaneous learning’.

Simultaneous learning is still a relatively new concept for me and despite my best intentions I know I am still delivering hybrid lessons; combining simultaneous learning with more reactive teaching. As a teacher, it is important to realise that you can’t just wake one morning and decide that you will be teaching simultaneous learning lessons from this day forth; the transition requires time and commitment, thought, exploration and above all, experimentation.

Despite all these experiences and pedagogical experts, it’s the students themselves who have the greatest influence on my teaching. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again; every student is different and as I collect learning and teaching experiences my musical knowledge grows and my teaching style is constantly evolving. Teaching strategies that work with one student will work with others, but not all of them, and I keep a teaching diary (inspired by my CT) in which I record interesting experiences, what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

One of my first students – we’ll call him Michael, now age 10 – has been with me for 5 years. Although some students have joined me at a more advanced stage, Michael is the most advanced student I have taught from the beginning of his piano learning experience and is one of my most dedicated students. He presents well-developed technique, keen attention to detail and a love of performing. His meticulous preparation and assured stage presence result in naturally polished performances. Michael has a keen interest in jazz music; he often chooses music to work on independently for his own enjoyment. He has also experimented with improvisation, composition and duets. This year, Michael has made a significant step forward in the way he communicates as he performs. As his technical ability continues to develop, he is learning notes and fingering quickly and consequently spends more time working on interpretation and musicality. He offers robust debate on the merits of his own interpretations and opinions and ultimately implements advice to good effect. We are still on a journey together, as Michael continues to push me to discover new music and challenges for him. There can be no doubt that he is exceptionally bright and very conscientious but I do feel a small amount of personal pride in knowing that I’ve taught him – and I’ve taught him well. I look forward to his lesson every week!

I try to shake up my lessons and do something different every now and then. Sometimes, the most creative ideas come from throwing away the rule book and trying something different and entirely unexpected. One memorable afternoon saw me teaching two brothers without saying a word. We did everything through the music, with call and response activities, working out scales by ear, and a constant pulse throughout the lessons. You can read the full story ‘A Little Less Conversation’ on the Articles page of my website 

Every term I run ‘doubles week’, pairing students to work together in lessons. Last term I introduced an improvising exercise inspired by the legendary Keith Jarrett’s performance of Summertime a the Royal Festival Hall, London. I was immediately struck by an ostinato bass line and resolved to adapt it for my students. In a mentoring session, Mary played the accompaniment and encouraged younger student John to improvise. This was John’s first experience of improvising but he was willing to give it a try; his melodic shape had some appeal but it was rhythmically uninspiring. I took over the bass line and encourage question and answer improvising between the two students. Mary immediately included some swing rhythms which John copied, seemingly subconsciously. When I asked them to summarise their learning experiences, they talked about listening to one another, rhythmic variety and learning from others. They also, unwittingly, hit on the infamous saying about improvising; “if you play a wrong note, play it again!”. I videoed this session and on review, the intense concentration coupled with the progress they made was quite remarkable. Sometimes, as a teacher, the best thing you can do is sit back and let things unfold without interfering. That itself is improvising in its simplest form!

There is one funny story that I simply must share. Several years ago, young beginner Graham was learning to play in triple time with a melody passing between two hands. He left the lesson having mastered the first line with the promise to learn the rest of the piece for homework. At the next lesson his performance was utterly unrecognisable; beyond the correct first note I could not connect the notes he was playing to the notes on the page. His repeat was identical – there was no doubt he had been practising, but what? I was stumped, so I asked Graham to teach me to play the piece the way he played it. We swapped seats and he calmly and logically explained that the time signature was like a fraction; the 3 on the top meant he should play every note on the top stave three times and the 4 on the bottom meant that every bottom stave note should be played four times. I believe this flawed logic was a result of learning to multiply fractions at school and playing from the grand stave for the first time!

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

I have mixed feelings about teaching adults and have only a few in my timetable. I tend to avoid adult beginners completely as I had a series of mature students who were very impatient; they thought they were taking on something easy – after all children can do it! – and were reluctant to put in the basic ground work at home. Where children can take time to understand the theory of notation, adults seem to pick it up very quickly. Conversely, adult beginners are not as supple as children and they need to spend much more time developing finger control to deliver even rhythms and tone. I struggled a lot with attendance – last minute cancellations and even no-shows – and don’t get me started on lack of practice! They came with plausible but different excuses every week, ranging from a big project at work, a chicken pox epidemic amongst the kids, the spouse that didn’t cover the babysitting – and there’s not much more you can say other than “try to do more this week”. Of course, when they don’t improve they become frustrated; it’s a vicious circle!

But it’s not all bad. I have a few adult returners who gave up in their teens and have returned to music in their 40s. Susan is very driven; her husband has promised to buy her a grand piano if she can pass Grade 8 by age 50. After 4 years tuition and at 45 she is about to take Grade 6 so she is well on the way. These adult students are much more productive; they learn the notes independently so we can spend a lot more time working on the performance of a piece rather than just getting through the notes. I enjoy these lesson immensely as I can lead the students to work things out for themselves and we have interesting debates and discussions about how to improve their playing. There are still challenges of course; Frank refuses point blank to sight-read and (against my strongest advice) works towards every exam on the basis that he will score 0 for that part of the test. Peter is utterly disinterested in the theory of scales (“don’t start on that technical stuff again, Liz”) and continues to work them out by ear, trial and error.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect my students to turn up on time, with their books and clean hands! Sometimes I have to settle for two out of three!

In terms of technical ability and musical achievements my expectations are different for every student; they all have different priorities in their lives, they are different ages, at different schools, with different musical experiences at home and different learning styles. But I do expect every student to try their best. I expect them to listen in lessons, read the notebook at home and try to improve each time they play. As long as a student is interested and really giving it their best shot, I’m happy! I spend a lot of time coaching students on effective practice strategies, which encompasses time management and fitting in practice around their other commitments, eliminating distractions, the value of reading the practice notebook, the importance of warming up and technical exercises, tools for approaching a new piece of music and techniques for developing the performance of a piece they have learnt. We talk about setting small but manageable goals, celebrating (and rewarding themselves for) successes and making music with and for others – just for fun. There is a clear relationship between regular, effective practice and student success.

I’m also very clear on what I expect from parents. In the Art of Teaching Piano, Denes Agay writes ‘Music lessons are a three-way effort by teacher, student and parents’. Encouraging parents to attain Agay’s ideal of ‘display[ing] a constructive interest…without being overzealous or meddlesome’ is a critical, but often overlooked, aspect of teaching. Parents should expose their children to music, facilitate lessons, encourage practice and provide support. I explore this in more detail in my article ‘Parent Power’ .

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

There is much debate about whether or not students, especially children should sit music exams. One of the main benefits of taking exams is that they are a source of motivation and they provide a strong incentive for students to continue studying their chosen instrument. Exams can be used to chart the musical and technical ability of a students against an existing set of standards which allows teachers, pupils and parents to monitor progress. The feedback received, if delivered in a positive light, can be constructive and inspiring and often reinforces comments that teachers have made. The need to learn repertoire and studies to a very high standard and experience performance pressure should not be under-rated.

Conversely, if the exam system is used inappropriately, it can be demotivating. Students should not follow a curriculum based solely on exam repertoire to the exclusion of all else as this will greatly reduce their enjoyment of playing and the range of their musical experiences. It is of great importance that students sit exams at the appropriate level; an exam that is too easy will not inspire appropriate effort and equally, an exam that is too difficult will leave a student feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. Failing an exam is demoralising for both students, parents and teachers and should be avoided at all costs.

There have been limited opportunities for my students to take part in festivals and competitions, although we had a few placings at Kingston Performing Arts Festival 2013 and at Dulwich Piano Festival in June 2014. As a child, I was encouraged to play in music festivals regularly. I was never expected to win but encouraged to participate nonetheless. It is important both teacher and student have realistic goals. Had I been encouraged to compete with unrealistic ambitions, I would have been disappointed and possibly demotivated.

I think giving pianists – children in particular – the opportunity to perform and to hear their peers performing is invaluable and a critical part of musical learning. It is unlikely that many (if any) of my students will choose a career as a professional performer. But in all likelihood, every single one of them, at some stage in their life, will have to stand up and present a speech, give a presentation, or simply share an opinion amongst a group of friends. I like to think that this early experience of getting up and performing their own composition or their latest exam piece in front of an audience will sow the seeds for these invaluable life skills. Through these performances they learn the importance of disciplined preparation, focusing on the moment, keeping going (even when it goes wrong) and responding appropriately to audience applause.

I am excited to be organising the first Battersea Piano Festival in March 2015. I see this event as a celebration of musical talent in our local area and it will be open to all pianists, regardless of age and experience, with carefully defined competition classes to ensure a fair platform for all participants. A panel of respected adjudicators will join the team to select winners in each class and provide constructive feedback and inspiration to the participants.

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

It is one thing to master the techniques of playing an instrument. It is quite another to experience and appreciate music.  I was taught the value of both and I strive to pass on to my students a broad musical experience. If I can teach children to love music, whether it be playing, composing or listening, then I’ve done something right. Learn to play music you love and learn to love the music you play.

When a student walks in for a lesson I want them to have enjoy it; to enjoy playing and to enjoy learning. But it’s important to be honest – there will always be moments  when it isn’t fun; I have spent many hours practising huge and painful Rachmaninoff chords and it really wasn’t the highlight of my day. The first week of two handed scales will be agonisingly slow and immensely frustrating. But these are just moments in a whole world of musical experiences and like caterpillars becoming butterflies they should morph into rewarding and uplifting experiences.

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

Inspired by Becky, I host student recitals twice a year. A few years ago, one of my students asked me what I would be playing. It had not crossed his mind that I would not take part, any more than it had crossed my mind that the students (and parents) would like to hear me play. Since then, I’ve closed every student recital with a short piece and a little information about what I will be playing.

I avoided any performance for many years, but the feedback from students and parents has inspired me to re-evaluate, along with lots of encouragement from my teacher and my husband. I have found that learning a new work properly – as opposed to tinkling away purely for my own entertainment – has forced me to practise with discipline, address technical difficulties and learn more about the music which, of course, directly translates to my teaching. Lorraine Womack-Banning said in her interview that we should ‘practise what we preach’ and I think she’s right.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

I’ve been lucky that my young students don’t seem to get too worked up about performing – perhaps because they take part in the recitals right from the first term of lessons. However, I have found that adult students are generally reluctant to play in organised recitals and are much more nervous about exams. Kath (age 40) came out of her Grade 3 and burst into tears declaring it a disaster (she later discovered that she achieved a Merit), and Susan (age 44) was in such distress before she went into her Grade 5 exam that she was unable to find the opening notes of her first piece when she warmed up.

Aside from the obvious points about thorough preparation and a good nights sleep, I think the best way to tackle performance anxiety is just to do it – and lots of it. I recently completed my Advanced Performance Certificate with Trinity. I had not taken a music exam or given a serious piano performance in over 20 years so part of my preparation strategy was to practice performing the music to an audience. I took part in the Dulwich Piano Festival, joined and performed with the London Piano Meetup Group and hosted a concert for friends and family at home. At Dulwich, I was a wreck, my knees were visibly shaking and I felt that my heart was going to hammer through my chest! It was still pounding at the end and I have little memory of what I played. My second performance with the London Piano Meetup Group at the 1901 Arts Club was less nerve-wracking although I did get a fit of the giggles between movements. At my home concert I was almost too relaxed and took some of the trickier passages too quickly necessitating some quick thinking to recover. As a combined result of these experiences, I was very pleased with my performance in the exam, the initial bone shaking nerves had gone, but I was mindful of the need to stay focused. I am thrilled that the London Piano Meetup Group is hosting an event for adult beginners in January 2015, although my student, Susan is less pleased as I have insisted that she performs at least two of her Grade 6 exam pieces!

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

I’m always on the look out for concerts that will inspire my students and in particular my son James (age 10). I am particularly drawn to younger performers as children find it easier to make a connection with them.

James and I regularly attend the International Piano Series at Queen Elizabeth Hall; it’s an intimate venue and I choose the seats carefully so we can see the performers’ hands. Last year, we particularly enjoyed performances by Ingolf Wunder and Federico Colli. We were fortunate to have stage seats for The Scott Brothers Duo at Guiting Festival a few years ago. They explained the story of Saint-Saën’s Danse Macabre and it’s still one of James’ favourite CDs, along with Jason Rebello’s Jazz Rainbow.

In September 2012 I heard the British Paraorchestra perform at London’s Southbank Centre. All the musicians were incredibly talented and tremendously inspiring, but naturally the pianist, Nicholas McCarthy stood out for me; I wish I could play half as well as he does. I admire his tenacity, his commitment and his talent. YouTube clips of his performances can be particularly inspiring for students who have broken a finger playing netball and think they should stop lessons and practice for two months! I’m looking forward to experimenting with some of the one-handed piano music McCarthy recently helped promote in International Piano Magazine.

Liz Giannopoulos is a piano tutor and music teacher based in SW London. She founded Encore Music Tuition in 2009 and currently works with three associates, tutoring over 60 piano students. Liz provides curriculum advice and mentoring for her associates and she also teachers Foundation Stage and KS1 music at Alderbrook Primary School.  Liz is founder of the Battersea Piano Festival.