The Impartial Teacher

I believe that our personal musical tastes should not influence the way we teach, and that we should try not to impose our preferences or prejudices on our students. Our role as teachers should be encourage students to explore as wide a range of music as possible – whether it is purely ‘classical’ music (in fact, a very broad term which encompasses music from the Renaissance to the present day) or a mixture of classical music, jazz, world or pop. This is not to say that I do not enthuse to my students about the kind of music which interests and excites me, and the “what is your favourite composer/piece of music?” conversation takes place regularly in my piano studio. But I wouldn’t dream of dismissing a piece of music a student had, for example, discovered and learnt by themselves just because I didn’t like it or thought it was “bad” music.

As a teacher, it is very interesting to find out what kind of repertoire makes students tick and what music appeals to specific students. For example, I find that boys tend to prefer lively, rhythmic, jazzy music. One of my teenage boy students has developed a real fondness for the music of Kabalevsky, while another, the older brother of this student in fact, is showing remarkable sensitivity towards a piece by Chopin which he is learning for Grade 6 (and I admit I was surprised when he selected this piece to learn). Other students like music with clear melodic lines and opportunities for expressive playing. I encourage my students to develop their musical taste by exploring a variety of repertoire and suggesting music for them to listen to as well (easy to do since many of them like to use YouTube or music streaming services), but I also urge them to learn music which is outside their normal comfort zone to enable them to explore different technical and musical challenges. Of course, if they really dislike a piece there is no point in continuing with it as there is no pleasure or usefulness to be gained from playing music you don’t enjoy.

Interpretation is a far more complex area, and more advanced/mature students and adults often have firm ideas about interpretation, either based on their own musical experience or their listening, knowledge and appreciation of music. Sadly, I have come across teachers who try to impose their own interpretation on students, sometimes to the extant that they seem to want the student to sound like they do: in such instances, this, to me, seems to be nothing more than an exercise in self-aggrandisement. It serves no real pedagogical purpose, nor does it allow the student to develop their own musical voice. (As the pianist Stephen Hough said in one of his blog posts, he would be worried if he listened in on a class of students at a conservatoire to discover that they all sounded identical to their teacher.)

The majority of my students are now intermediate and early advanced level players who are beginning to be able to make their own judgements about interpretation in their pieces based on their ongoing musical development and knowledge. In this case, I feel my role is to guide them into making decisions about interpretation which are stylistically in keeping with the genre and period of the music, faithful to the score, and tasteful. However, I would not dismiss a more romantic reading of the music of Bach or Scarlatti, for example, provided the interpretation offered is both consistent and convincing.

I am fortunate to be working with a teacher who does not impose his interpretation on me, but who sets the bar for me to explain and justify every interpretative decision I make in the music. Nearly all of this is based on detailed examination of the score, rather than preconceived ideas about how the music should sound or any attempt to imitate great/famous performers (which could lead to an insincere and inauthentic version). He allows the music making to be my business and encourages me to take ownership of the music and make it mine (more on taking ownership here). Thus, I feel I am offering a reading which is both personal and also faithful to the score.

Fundamentally, our teaching should be about imparting our musical values rather than our preferences, and encouraging our students to be curious, open-minded and non-judgmental. In addition to offering them a wide variety of repertoire, we should also be encouraging “listening around” the music they are studying to familiarise themselves with, for example, the very distinct soundworld of Chopin, as well as what I call “lateral listening” – a case of “if you like this, why not try?”, which I use a lot with students who enjoy the music of Ludovico Einaudi (I encourage them to sample the minimalist music of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman). Thus students can develop their own individual tastes and opinions about the music they are playing and enjoying.



  1. Utterly agree! When I was little, my piano teacher (an Elgar, Parry, Stanford fan) even let me bring in Elton John and Neil Sedaka (their music, not personally…) – as well as works then beyond my capabilities, which I’d heard my mum (lots of Chopin and Bridge) or older sister (a couple of grades above me) play. He also was happy for interpretation to be personal – although would always discuss the whys and wherefores…. It’s that sort of openness, and willingness to get involved, I think, that has helped me develop my appreciation of a wide range of arts (and styles) – and not just in music. Thank you.

  2. I have great fun introducing my students to post-tonal music, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Glass and the like. They all tell me they’ve never heard anything like it before in their lives (always glad to broaden their horizons).

  3. Couldn’t agree more Frances. Even certain widely revered teachers given a group platform demonstrate rigidity and narrow mindedness if they say slag off Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, Cage, even beloved Shostakovich, complex rhythmic patterns, high contrasts of reverberance and intensely difficult passages, against the lightest of touch, dusting the keys as dissonant, or are they actually betraying their belief that these composers are dissident, or political. Now I would argue that there are deeply political passages in Chopin and that composers like Ravel or Stravinsky can’t be lifted out of their political context, or their love and respect ignored, for the brilliance of Jazz, African and Latin cross rhythms, the intellectual music and soul of survival, the coded complex of signification, messages of identification and subversion. Clearly teachers, priests politicians want to convey what they know, what they understand and what they believe and some are cleverer at it and more persuasive than others, like the practice in documentary film-making, or courts of appearing impartial by presenting the case for and against and appearing to give every soul a voice, to make every choice available, to cater for every taste. Of course this in itself is a communication device. You want the case you are making to win, even the case for impartiality and context against slushy 19th century drawing room sentimentalism, forgetting that Chopin was about to join the resistance fighters against the Russian occupation when he was despatched to Paris and was forever torn by that choice (in my view the source of rending harmonies and embedded dissonances). I believe that teachers should actively encourage analysis and musical thinking, investigation of causality and meaning in the same way that I would encourage visual thinking in the analysis and understanding of avant-garde film, assemblages in time without words. I doubt whether I could suppress my dislike for Philip Glass, his appalling film sound tracks, his fine art drone commercialism whereas I worship Xenakis and am positively reeling at Prokovieff’s compositions and music/vocal direction in Eisenstein’s IVAN the terrible and these guys all knew about
    dance, ballet, folk dance, song, mime, montage, mise en scene, drawn upon and used as a whole. Just saw this first part on 35mm, on the weekend and got glued to the box late last night watching the doc about Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony and the Leningrad siege presented by Tom Service and the
    music being smuggled out on microfilm negatives, via Iran and Egypt to the BBC in London, so the voice of
    difficult music was transmitted.

  4. Another excellent point. My teacher too does not impose her interpretation. She talks about the options and I have to decide! I have found this to really increase my confidence in my playing and sense of ownership of my performance.

Comments are closed.