What is your first memory of the piano?
I think I was about 6 or 7 when I first played a piano. I remember my mother taking my younger sister and me to visit one of our great aunts; there was a ‘piano in the parlour’ – the kind where the music stand appeared out of the lid at the top. There was treasure trove in the piano stool – full of old volumes of folk tunes and hymn books. These had tonic sol-fa written over the top; with a bit of help, I cracked the code, added some broken chord accompaniment by ear and away I went. We adopted the piano and more formal lessons followed.
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
A love for learning. After I left school I went into the banking sector and sat financial exams while attending other arts evening classes. I suppose I have always wanted to be involved in education and to put something back. I qualified as a primary practitioner some twenty years ago with responsibility for leading music and literacy, which go together very well, but decided that I would leave full-time school teaching early to concentrate on piano and theory teaching. Teaching itself provides the opportunity to learn. I had already taken up piano lessons seriously again as an adult and the diploma studies began.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
Probably the first teacher who had a big influence on me was my high school teacher, Margaret Hemingway. She had high expectations in terms of practice and preparation. When I was preparing for the Advanced Certificate and LRSM, I had lessons with my daughter’s first teacher, Beverley Clark. As I was teaching full time while studying for these, she was very supportive; it felt more like a mentoring relationship. The late Bernard Roberts stands out for me too. He remarked on the positive before going on to say, “Now let’s see if we can just…” Exploring ways of producing the precise tone you wanted to hear was something he passed on to me. He had a wonderful laugh – “Ha! Yes! That’s it!”
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
Watching professional performances plays an important role, but I would say that students have the most influence, because they shape your approaches according to what they need. Apart from my own teachers, there are those I have met over the years with whom I have shared experiences and ideas. Conferences and courses are always good for such meetings and for opportunities to gather notes and resources; I try to attend something every year at least. Piano teaching can be an isolated profession, so it’s good to get out there and meet like-minded people so that your teaching can evolve. Now we have social media, the learning net is cast even wider…
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
It’s difficult to choose, because every week brings something special, but I suppose they would have to include:
- When a beaming student comes to the next lesson, saying their practice went really well;
- Helping a student to find a way around a persistent issue, be it fingerings, note accuracy or a tricky rhythm;
- A great lesson with a student who has special educational needs;
- The 75 year-old who was finally confident enough to be able to play the Rachmaninov Prelude and Brahms Intermezzo he’d always wanted to perform for his family
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?
Adults aren’t necessarily driven to pass exams and qualify like younger students – they want to be the best they can and as such are highly motivated. Experienced players appreciate new ways of practising and will discuss issues of interpretation, sometimes challenging you. Some beginners have high expectations because they are adults, and want things to be perfect; conversely some arrive with self-imposed limitations and are really pleased to discover what they can achieve. Having to fit in practice with family and work commitments is something I empathise with. Some of my most rewarding lessons have been with adult learners who rediscover the joy of playing.
What do you expect from your students?
Commitment to the lesson and to practising regularly – if necessary I mention the 10,050 minutes in a week that they aren’t with me. I ask them how they organise their practice time around everything else so they see that it can be done if they manage time well – it’s an important life skill anyway. I want them to talk to me about ‘ups and downs’ so we know how to progress. I expect them to listen when required in the lesson and to every sound they make when practising. I want to develop all-round musicianship skills, so engaging in learning activities other than ‘fingers on the keys’, for example aural work and creating tableaux, is a must. I like to involve parents where students are very young. In general, it’s important that all show a willingness to take part in music events outside the lesson, be it a performance of their own or a visit to one.
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
Exams can be a great incentive to achieve high standards and are a useful way to obtain feedback. Some students work best when they have such structure in their timetables, too. However, they’re not the ‘be-all and end-all’, and we only embark on an exam syllabus if the student wants to. All three platforms give a student the opportunity to perform and develop confidence. Uncompetitive festivals with friendly audiences and performing in front of peers at school or as part of extended lessons are great occasions in which to develop artistry. Competitive festivals can be a bit of a hot potato, depending on which side of the winning post you’re on. I’ve experienced elation and disappointment myself, as a performer, as a teacher and a parent. I was awarded a piano scholarship at high school in the sixth form, and it’s great when you ‘win’ and your hard effort is rewarded, but winning seems such an odd concept in art; subjectivity always plays a part in adjudications. Explaining to a youngster how they’ve missed out on a trophy by a narrow margin of marks can be quite hard, even with the ‘it’s all about the taking part’ platitude in advance. But it’s horses for courses – if a student is really serious about a performing career, then they are important, and just as time management is a life skill, so is dealing with competitive situations.
What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginner students, and to advanced students?
For beginners, developing a sense of pulse first, rhythmic subdivisions, independent fingers, wrist/arm alignment and posture. Lessons should be fun and varied. The ‘Experience, Language, Pictures, Symbols’ progression that I learned as a primary practitioner still holds good on a 1:1 basis for instrumental beginners. Pedalling techniques come in when they can be reached comfortably and this can be quite early on. More advanced students hopefully have a sound technique on which to develop communication of the music and a sense of style. We sing a lot in lessons at all levels – the ability to breathe with the music is so important for phrasing, I think.
What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?
You have to practise what you preach to a certain degree, without doubt. Even if you’re not a regular on the concert platform, then attending summer schools and other courses, where a performance element is included, is vital to your ability to teach aspects of it. I have enjoyed masterclasses and performing ‘in turn’ during tutorial groups. Also, if teachers experience any nerves, it helps them empathise with students and it can be a useful discussion topic. These days, my ‘public’ performances are mainly accompaniments and I enjoy the feeling of performing ‘with’ others immensely. I think that imparting enthusiasm for the playing the piano beautifully, whatever the situation, is one of the most important things a teacher does.
Who are your favourite pianists and why?
Such a difficult one to answer! I love to watch Paul Lewis play – he has such a relaxed yet thoughtful style and makes controlling the whole playing mechanism look effortless. I could watch his performances of the Beethoven Concertos in the 2010 Prom season over and over… I do admire Angela Hewitt’s Bach interpretations and listen to her playing before and during practice. As for modern pianists, Stephen Hough plays my favourite Rach 2 and Keith Jarrett’s piano improvisations are amazing – total commitment evident in both performers.
Diane Durbin BA (Hons) LRSM CTABRSM PGCE is a private piano and music theory teacher and accompanist based in Lincolnshire. After qualifying with a degree in English from the University of Nottingham, she went into primary teaching where she led music and literacy. She gained the CTABRSM in 2000 and the LRSM (Piano Teaching) in 2002. She also sings with Lincoln Cathedral Consort, The Hungate Singers and The Lincoln Chorale. You can find more information at: