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On self-teaching and the continuous learning curve

A “self-taught” pianist (Lucas Debargue) who made it through to the final of this year’s prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition, has been exercising journalists, commentators and bloggers in the immediate aftermath of the competition. Debargue is unusual in the highly competitive and often cut-throat world of international pianism as he came relatively late to his craft: he started to play aged 11, gave up at 17 and worked in a Paris supermarket before he started again and played so brilliantly that he was put in touch with a hot-shot Russian teacher. He was praised by two of the judges on the panel, pianists Dmitri Bashkirov and Boris Berezovsky, was awarded the Moscow music critics’ prize, and was invited by Valery Gergiev, no less, to play in the winners’ gala recital in the presence of Vladimir Putin. In addition to much positing and pondering about the notion of a “self taught” pianist making it to the final of such a major competition (one which has launched the careers of many “greats” of the piano world today, including Peter Donohoe, one of this year’s judges, John Lill, Barry Douglas and Daniil Trifonov, to name but a few), there has also discussion about what constitutes a “proper” musical training. These days, most of us understand “musical training” as study at conservatoire, music college or a specialist music school. In the rarefied hot-house atmosphere of such institutions the talents of tomorrow are carefully nurtured, ready to launch into a professional career when they graduate, and the “three C’s” – Conservatoire, Concerto, Competition – are regarded by many as the holy grail of a musical training leading to assured success and a slew of international bookings. The notion of someone who is “self-taught” reaching these dizzying heights, specifically the final of the Tchaikovsky Competition, seems alien, and yet perhaps the best students are those who realise that studying extends beyond the confines of conservatoire, music college or private lessons with a teacher or mentor.

In fact, it is inaccurate to state that Debargue is “self-taught” (but of course the mainstream media have latched onto this and sensationalised it). In reality, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire (CNSMDP) from the age of 20, and is currently taking instruction at the Ecole Normale de Musique Alfred Cortot in Paris under Prof. Rena Shereshevskaya. In 2014 he won the 9th International Adilia Alieva Piano Competition in Gaillard (France). He is pursuing a “proper” musical training, albeit somewhat later than some of his contemporaries. As Jessica Duchen says in her intelligent article on this subject, it is “dangerous to overplay the “self-taught” card because, sad to say, a large part of the British public thinks music happens by magic. That it’s something for “fun”. That it doesn’t take hard work to be good at it…………They seem to believe, too, that if you by-pass all the traditional channels but follow your dream in any case, you’ll be bound to come out as some kind of genius. That traditional studies are somehow bad and the inspiration of the moment is good, indeed is everything.”

To describe Debargue as “self-taught” devalues the amount of effort and hard work he has put in to get to where he is now. As a teacher myself, my aim is to encourage my students to become “self-teachers” – by which I mean to encourage them, through my guidance and support, to become independent learners, to explore, be curious, questioning, ambitious…… As one of my students said recently “I want to be able to open a book of music and play anything I want to”. My role, as teacher, is to equip him and my other students with the tools to do that. And as a mature student myself, I hope I can demonstrate to my students (and others) that one’s studies do not end when one has completed graded exams, for example, or left university; that learning is an ongoing process and one which can – and should – be undertaken independently.

Self-taught” is not the panacea you think – Jessica Duchen’s article

The self-taught French pianist who wowed the Tchaikovsky competition – article in The Spectator

3 thoughts on “On self-teaching and the continuous learning curve”

  1. Absolutely great, interesting and very important comments about “self-teaching and the continuous learning curve”. Congratulations!

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