Learning Curve

Two of my students, siblings as it happens, are working on pieces which include a continuously moving left hand, scored in triplets. One is a Rondo by Diabelli, the other a Sonatina by Clementi. I am also working on a movement of a Schubert sonata which includes the same figure. The other day, during a lesson with one of these students, I showed her the Rondo from Schubert’s D959 and said, “look, I’m working on something similar”. Her eyes opened very wide and she looked absolutely astonished, as if she couldn’t believe that there could be two pieces of music which were so similar. “I’ve encountered some similar technical issues with this,” I said to her, meaning that I too had had to work on forearm lateral movement (a “polishing” movement in the wrist and forearm) to achieve evenness in the notes, and to prevent my hand and arm becoming tired (also an issue for the student).

This episode highlights two important aspects for me: first, that students should never study music in a vacuum; and secondly, that I think it’s helpful for students to know that their teacher is also studying.

Dealing with my second point first, I firmly believe it is crucial for teachers to continue to study, whether this is independently of a teacher or mentor or by continuing to take formal lessons, and through attending seminars, workshops and courses for continuing professional development (CPD). Learning new repertoire, revising previously-learnt repertoire – no matter how easy or difficult it is – sharpens and informs our teaching skills and enables us to reference such music within the context of simpler repertoire when working with our students. And just because our repertoire may be “harder”, I do not see why we should not share it with our students, to demonstrate aspects as described above, to highlight scale and arpeggio patterns or other technical issues, or simply to share music with our students. Sadly, in my experience, many young people who learn a musical instrument have very little exposure to classical music outside of their lessons: they do not go to public concerts and have limited contact with music in school (and this is not going to improve with continual government attacks on the arts in the UK state education system). I believe one of the crucial roles of the music teacher is to broaden students’ cultural horizons by encouraging them to explore as much music as possible – whatever the genre. I also believe that by demonstrating to my students that I am also studying, there is the sense of a shared experience, that I understand how to practise properly, or prepare for a performance or exam. And for me as a teacher to be taught myself by a master teacher is incredibly useful as I draw on my own teacher’s vast knowledge and experience, and distil his wisdom into easily comprehensible nuggets for my students. And a good teacher will teach in such a way that seemingly complex concepts or technical issues can be simplified for students of any level.

Music should never be studied in a vacuum. And yet I come across students I have inherited from other teachers who have not been taught the context in which the music was created. They may be playing music from the Baroque period, but they have no idea what this means: for them, the music is simply a collection of dots on the page. Some students go right through to Grade 8 having learnt only exam repertoire (a total of 24 pieces) and come out of the process with a limited understanding of the very broad canon of classical music and its historical context. Giving students the opportunity to explore a broader range of repertoire outside the narrow confines of the exam syllabus allows them to experience different styles and genres but also to reference and put into practice technical and artistic aspects learned from their other pieces. Thus their learning – and mine – becomes a continuous process, a learning curve.


  1. Am trying to get my students learning lots of music, as against just what we do in class..I’ve started by practising and playing for them once in a month, and I think its motivating them. I’m practising now to catch up with the playing skills I lost during the past years when hand problems and family commitments left me no time to practise. It’s those years that brought me skills in talking to my students and parents, that I did not have before..and now I’m working to better my playing, catch up where I left and hopefully get better..I totally agree with you….teachers need to practise.

  2. Brilliant and alive as ever. If only all teachers had this commitment and openness to the continuous process of learning until we drop, not only broadening repertoire but awakening an interest in contemporary music of all kinds and the possibility of invention, composition. Just re-listening to a radio piece I recorded of Alejandro Viñao, who incorporated looped text and delays in a programme introducing his music on Radio 3, to illustrate and explain his absorption in avant garde practice of looping and repetition whilst fielding his indebtedness to the complex Latin/African American dance and folk rhythms of his Argentinian forbears such as Astor Piazzolla where 2/3, 4/3 cross rhythms are physically internalised as soon as an infant starts to kick, gurgle and crawl. I despair at the reluctance of classically trained musicians who have their heads buried in 17th – 19th century scores and are so enslaved by convention that they can’t sway or sing or dance for toffee. I have a wonderful recording of two small boys, 6 and 8 years old, who found me crawling through the undergrowth to record the sound of a goat. They performed a little song, the older boy taking the lead and singing Hey Baby, don’t you wanna come dance wi’ me ? and the little one swaying and shushing in harmony in an intricate tripping skiffle rhythm. The child is father to the man.

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