Teaching our students to teach themselves

Following on from my earlier post about the notion of the “self-taught pianist”, I would like to explore further how teachers can – and should – enable their students to teach themselves.

The word “teach” comes from the Old English tǣcan which means “to show, present, point out”. This for me, (and having studied Old English at university), gives a big clue to how teachers should approach their teaching. We should not be telling our students how to learn, but showing and guiding them.

My personal stated aim as a piano teacher, in addition to encouraging a love of all things piano in my students, is to enable them to become independent learners – to show them how to teach themselves. Based on my own piano studies as a teenager and as an “adult returner”, there is nothing more satisfying than discovering that it is possible to explore, learn and enjoy music without constantly running back to teacher for support.

Sadly, it strikes me that due to the way children are taught in primary and secondary school in the UK, they are being robbed of the ability to think and work independently, instead relying on teachers to spoon-feed them information to enable them to pass tests and exams, and to meet targets set higher up the educational hierarchy. I have observed this unwillingness to think and act independently in a number of my students, and I try to encourage them to instead take a leap of faith and rely on their musical knowledge and experience gained during their lessons with me.

There is a lot of mystique surrounding music teachers, particularly those who teach at a high level in conservatoire and specialist music school. Students may compete to be assigned to a “top” or “famous” teacher, and there can be huge advantages, real or imagined, in studying with these teachers, for they have been taught by the great teacher-pianists of an earlier generation and can pass down “secrets” from these teachers to their own students. This heritage can be very important – I have studied with high-level teachers/concert pianists who in turn have studied with such pianistic luminaries as Peter Feuchtwanger, Maria Curcio, Guido Agosti, Phyllis Sellick, Peter Wallfisch, Nina Svetlanova and Andras Schiff – but I think it is also important for students not to be too much in awe of these teachers, and to learn how to take from their current teacher what they need to enable them to play and progress to their best of their ability.

To quote from Leon Whitesell, a US pianist and teacher, At best, we as teachers, must become like a wonderful cafeteria, where the pupil chooses and takes, as well as applies, whatever he/ she desires. We really can’t ” teach” anything, but pupils may take from our offerings that which they choose!”

In order for our students to select from our teacherly “cafeteria”, we first need to equip them with the necessary tools to learn independently. This may include:

  • notation
  • rhythm
  • sight-reading
  • technique and an understanding of how it serves the music
  • structure
  • an understanding of keys and key relationships
  • musical terms and signs
  • historical context
  • performance practice and stagecraft

In addition, the teacher’s role is to build self-esteem to enable the student to play with poise, expression and musicality. A good teacher supports the student to find their own musical voice and personality, will guide the student to find an appropriate and tasteful interpretation of their music, and encourages the student to be a musical explorer, to discover music outside of the repertoire under study for regular lessons. A sympathetic teacher tailors lessons to suit each student individually, is adaptable and flexible, and is able to identify what the student needs at that moment. In fact, the best teacher to teach students to teach themselves is one who is also engaged in ongoing study, who remains open and receptive to new ideas, and who is also willing to learn from their own students.

In contrast, an egotistical and/or possessive teacher wants to produce students in their own image whose sound reproduces that of the teacher, and whose students feel enthralled to their teacher. This approach does little more than boost the teacher’s ego, and makes students anxious

Adult students can present different challenges for the teacher as they often self-teach before seeking regular lessons, or enjoy exploring and studying outside of their lessons and may bite off more than they can chew and then become discouraged. I find that some adults, while being voracious learners, can lack confidence when it comes to trusting the musical instinct which enables them to work independently, and much of my work with adults, both as private students and via my piano group, is building self-esteem, encouraging them to let go of negative experiences with previous teachers (as both child and adult), learning to be wary of comparing themselves to others, and understanding how to practise effectively and intelligently in order to prepare music properly.

Adults also often like to seek feedback and advice from others aside from their regular teacher, through workshops, masterclasses and piano courses. I have met adult students who have attended so many courses and masterclasses they they have become confused by the myriad suggestions and signals given by different teachers. From my own experience attending courses and masterclasses, I would stress that it is important to take from these sessions only what you feel you need at the time (that notion of the “cafeteria” again!).

I encourage all my students to be questioning, to challenge me, and to set off on a path of musical self-discovery. I regard my teaching style as flexible, open-minded and sympathetic, and I tend to teach by asking questions of my students, or making suggestions, rather than saying “this is how to do it!” or “do it my way”. My own study currently involves two teachers/mentors who hold me to account for what I am attempting and who set the bar for my technical preparation through detailed study and knowledge of the score (Schubert Sonata D959). They do not impose their interpretation but allow the music-making to be my business, thus encouraging me to develop my own musical voice and to take ownership of the music.

One of the best aspects of my job is when a student arrives having resolved an issue which was proving problematic in an earlier lesson. Or the student who has selected a piece to learn on their own initiative and who simply needs some guidance from me to enable them to progress. Hearing my students perform in their end of term concert, as I did last weekend, was a wonderful indication of how much they are developing as young musicians, each with their own individual sound and style.

3 thoughts on “Teaching our students to teach themselves”

  1. Great post!

    Further to your definition of teaching, I love the word “educe”, which is if course where we get “education” from.

    It actually means to “bring out or develop (something latent or potential).”

    If only all education was devoted to that!

  2. Amazing! So many explanations, so many elucidations about how to teach, how to let students study and how to help them. No doubt Frances, you are certainly a very good teacher. And your quotation from Leon Whitesell…, fantastic! Thank you so much for such a great article.

  3. Hi, I’ve recently started following your blog as I am about to embark on seriously preparing myself to take a piano diploma, hopefully in just over a year. I have been lucky to have had a variety of ‘cafeteria’ teachers that never led me to feel discouraged about my piano playing because they did what they could with how I turned up every lesson, studied or not. Although some would view my progress as slow, I have been able to study the piano in-depth, with a lot of reflection, which I think helped in developing my higher level thinking and reasoning skills at a young age. This type of study would never have been possible if I’d only studied for age-related school exama such as GCSE’s or A-levels. I’m thankful for my private lessons that provided me with the time and space to really understand a theory and a practice together, rather than just having one or the other. If you know any ‘cafeteria’ teachers in Milan that could help me prepare for my diploma, then let me know😉

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