A response to Dame Fanny Waterman

Dame Fanny Waterman, co-founder, chair and artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition and grand elder stateswoman of piano teaching, has been in the news this week as she has announced that she will be standing down from the prestigious piano competition after next year’s event.

Dame Fanny is “a living institution of British music” (source: The Guardian) and her views and opinions command much respect in the piano world and music education community in the UK and beyond. In today’s Observer, she expresses her fears for the future of pianism in the UK. I read her article with interest and have enjoyed a lively discussion in response to it with members of my own pianistic and piano teaching community on social networks. Based on these discussions, I would like to offer some points in response to Dame Fanny’s view:

Electric pianos and keyboards

I don’t like these instruments either. They are not a patch on a “real” acoustic piano, upright or grand, but they do offer an affordable alternative and for beginning students, child or adult, I would not hesitate to recommend a digital piano. There are some excellent models on the market at the moment. Many people simply do not have the income nor the space to purchase an acoustic piano for their children when starting piano lessons. (And I have seen some truly awful pianos in the homes of some of music students – out of tune and badly maintained.) One of my students has recently acquired a piano, having been studying with me for c4 years. Her parents took the decision to upgrade to a proper instrument because they could see she was committed to her piano studies and they appreciate that a real piano will enable her to develop as a young pianist.

Starting young?

Some children show aptitude for a musical instrument from a very early age, some later. And some come to music in adulthood. What is important here is encouraging and supporting an interest in music. Sure, there are kids out there who “are capable of “amazing” performances aged just four”, but delve a little deeper and I think most of these proto-Lang Langs display exceptional technical facility without any proper insight or musical understanding. This comes with maturity, time spent with the  music, understanding the context in which the music was created, and listening around the music – and much more besides….

There are no great British pianists today?

Dame Fanny, I beg to differ. They may not be well known on the international circuit (yet), but I have encountered some extraordinarily talented British pianists through my concert reviewing and interviews on this blog. What about Benjamin Grosvenor, a young British artist who already shows tremendous maturity, beyond his tender years? Other artists I would cite include Danny Driver, Daniel Grimwood, Clare Hammond, Richard Uttley, Lara Melda, Cordelia Williams, Daniel Tong. There is a terrible tendency, especially amongst more senior members of our society, to continually hark back to an earlier “golden age”. But we should look to the future and nurture and encourage the talent we have.

British pianists are not entering the Leeds competition

As one contributor to the discussion on Facebook said, one needs a hefty amount of wherewithal to enter international competitions. Music is notoriously badly paid in the UK, and not many people have the financial support (including parents who will fund such ventures) to consider the risk of entering a competition. It’s not because British pianists aren’t good enough; it’s because many of them simply can’t afford it!

And competitions should never been seen as the be all and end all. Sure, winning a prestigious competition can launch one on a successful international career, but it’s not a dead cert.

Students today lack “a grounding in the instrument’s complexities”

Here I agree with Dame Fanny. In my experience as a regular concert-goer and reviewer, I come across too many young artists (of all nationalities) whose sound has become “dumbed down”, if you will. They aim for  middle of the road expression and dynamics which they believe will please audiences and critics, and (some) teachers. I think part of this is due to bad teaching – the teachers themselves do not understand the complexities of the instrument – and also the fault of exceptionally high-quality recordings whose sound artists feel they should replicate in live performances.

Young pianists have too narrow a repertoire

In fact, I think many young artists have too wide a repertoire, as they feel they must have the big warhorses of the standard piano repertoire in their fingers by a certain point in their career in order to gain recognition and respect. This goes back to my earlier point about maturity. But I agree with Dame Fanny’s point that piano students today do not spend enough time studying a composer’s complete oeuvre: one cannot study one piece in isolation. I teach context from the get go, encouraging students to understand where the music they are learning comes from and suggesting “further listening” and study to offer a broader picture.

Young people lack the discipline to study the piano seriously

In addition to the discipline that is required to practise and apply oneself to musical study, students also need encouragement and support from family and teachers. Parents also need to understand that genuine musical talent comes from day-in-day-out commitment – and on this point I agree with Dame Fanny. But children should not be pushed to the extent that they lose their childhood in the process.

Music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off

With poor provision for music education and instrumental teaching in many of our state schools, sadly, private music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off.  The cost of learning an instrument is a major barrier for many. Only a relatively small sector of our society can afford to put students into specialist music schools or offer the necessary funding for their study, both at school and beyond.

Initiatives such as James Rhodes’ ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ are laudable, but I think a major shift in attitude towards music and the arts in general needs to take place, from the Department of Education down, in order for music education to be respected and accepted as a necessary part of our children’s education. My own recent research into attitudes towards private piano teaching in the UK reveal an alarming viewpoint: that music is regarded as a “soft”  subject, or simply a “hobby”. This view extends into the world of professional music making, where musicians are not properly valued and receive poor or no pay, because they are perceived as doing a job they love, or that music is not regarded as “a proper job”. This is part of a wider discussion, but it is touched upon in Dame Fanny’s article.

Another related aspect is the British attitude towards “achievement” and that peculiarly British dislike of “show offs”. Achievement and excellence have become dirty words in this country, and this dumbing down begins in primary school (at least in the state sector) where, for example, sports day has become some bland running about pointlessly with teachers cheering kids on and saying anodyne things like “everyone’s a winner!”. Culture, excellence and personal achievement need to be supported, nourished and encouraged. 

Future of piano playing in UK is in peril, veteran teacher warns

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion via my Facebook thread.

I was also interviewed by LBC in response to Dame Fanny’s article. Listen here


  1. Is it not possible – or even likely – that it is not so much that standards have declined in UK, but that they are rising in other parts of the world? This would obviously account for the lower number of British entrants to competitions.

    In regard to keyboards, I think they are a great, fun introduction to the world of music, that can stimulate interest and the imagination with their amazing range of sounds. Some pupils will go no further, but I think boredom is likely to set in at a later stage than in the days when we had to work our way though all those elementary exercises, studies and nondescript pieces on sub-standard, bashed-up and out-of-tune pianos. A good teacher will spot the ones who can be led to the next, more challenging stage – and the financial commitment – of acquiring a good instrument, and inspire them with the urge to master “the real thing”.

  2. Thank you for bringing this interesting debate to my attention. Here are some of my comments on some of the issues:.
    1. The Observer article talks about ‘electric keyboards’ . Much of the debate on this point in the newspaper seems to focus on digital pianos and in her reply Frances rightly uses the phrase ‘Electric pianos and keyboards’. I feel that it may be useful to treat electric keyboards and digital pianos separately (see http://www.roland.co.uk/blog/digital-pianos-faqs/). Electric keyboards are keyboard instruments but they are not pianos. If you use and electric keyboard to practise the piano, you may be able to learn the keyboard layout but you risk developing habits that will interfere with your piano playing. From my experience, this is less of a problem with digital pianos because of the size of the keys and the way they respond. Playing a piece that you learnt on a digital piano on an acoustic piano will require some adjustment but you need to adjust also when you move from one acoustic piano to another. In any case, practising on an acoustic piano does not guarantee that the learner won’t develop bad habits. It just makes them easier to spot and correct.
    Digital pianos have their limitations but also have their advantages. They do not require much space, they work with headphones so you can play at night without disturbing others, they are not likely to go out of tune in a warm room, they are relatively cheap and they are easy to move from one place to another. Some (but not all) of them come with an inbuilt metronome, they may allow you to adjust the touch (light, medium or heavy) and you may be able to record your performance and play it back so that you can mark passages that need further attention. I have both an acoustic piano and a digital piano. I enjoy playing my acoustic piano but I find my digital piano very useful.

    2. On competitions, great pianists and wunderkinder
    Personally, I don’t like competitions. I feel that they focus too much on the performer and not enough on music. I wonder also how many people were put off music by bad experiences at competitions. The trouble is that competitions are very popular. They are not a new phenomenon – I seem to remember reading about a competition between Handel and Scarlatti that ended up in a draw. Lipatti, however, was not quite so lucky. He came second in a competition in Vienna in 1933 and Cortot resigned in protest. How would the great pianists from the past fare in competitions today?
    Anyway, people who want to compete will continue to compete but in my view competitions are just a publicity stunt.
    With regard to the question of the age of starting to play the piano, is there any hard evidence that there is an advantage to starting earlier? Does it matter whether the child is self-motivated or has pushy parents? What percentage of the child prodigies grow up to become happy people and good musicians?
    I heard Sir Clifford Curzon in the Usher Hall many years ago and I heard Benjamin Grosvenor’s recital at the Proms last summer. There is plenty of excellent piano music around.

  3. It is a shame that interest in playing the piano is waning. In the US, students who study music have better reading and writing skills and score better on standardized tests. I believe we should keep encouraging others to play the piano. Thanks to Dame Fannie for her important contributions to the world of music.

  4. Nice response.

    I think the thing that is most worrying for our country’s musical life is the combination of “Music is notoriously badly paid in the UK” and “sadly, private music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off”.

    If only those from well-off backgrounds can afford to learn, but the profession they would then enter is poorly-paid…well, it’s not really a recipe for a sustainable musical future is it?

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