For those of us who had piano lessons as children, I’m sure we can all remember our first teacher. Mine was Mrs Scott, in Sutton Coldfield, who seemed ancient to me, and really quite scary, with her big grand piano, her elegantly manicured and scarlet-painted nails, her pearls (jewellery, not wisdom!). I learnt dull pieces, and early Czerny and Clementi studies and sonatinas. I took an exam a year. I recall being quite bored by my lessons.

One friend of mine remembers, with a shudder, the teacher who rapped her knuckles with a ruler and, on occasion, dropped the lid of the piano on her fingers (this was in the 1970s, not the 1870s!). Another has never forgotten the teacher’s withering words about his playing – and his parents’ insistence that he keep taking lessons (he didn’t – but started learning with me a year ago).

My music teacher at secondary school was enthusiastic and inspirational (I can still hear him, when I say to my students “pretend you’re a trumpet/cello/clarinet”), and the piano teacher, recommended by him, was energetic and motivating. I learnt quickly with her, always the sign of good teaching, in my book, because she encouraged me, and engaged my interest and excitement in the music I was studying. I was very sorry to leave her when I went to university.

When I decided to resume piano lessons in my mid-40s, I was fortunate to study with several respected and highly-skilled teachers, who were themselves taught by some of the greatest pianists and pianist-teachers of the twentieth century.

Alfred Cortot with Jacques Thibaud

This connection to earlier teachers and pianists interests me: one of my teachers’ teachers, Vlado Perlemuter, studied with Maurice Ravel, and was a student of Alfred Cortot who was a student of Descombes who was, possibly, a student of Chopin. Thus, I could, albeit somewhat tenuously, claim to be a great-great-great-grand-pupil of Chopin! Students of British pianist Phyllis Sellick (1911-2007) can trace a direct lineage back to Chopin via Isidor Philipp and Georges Mathias. Another of my teachers’ teachers, Guido Agosti, was a student of Busoni. Yet another, Maria Curcio, studied with Artur Schnabel, who was a student of Theodor Leschetizky.

A good teacher is like a doorway, a connector to earlier teachers and mentors, and, most importantly perhaps, to the music. One feels a tremendous sense of continuity through these generational connections, and such musical ‘provenance’ is invaluable and inspiring when one is learning. A teacher can act as a spy on the past, if you will, passing on ‘secrets’ handed down from earlier teachers, and enriching one’s experience of previous performers and performances. This musical genealogy also enables a good teacher to be eloquent and articulate about what makes a good performance – and what makes a really great one.

When learning at an advanced level, a good teacher is less a didactic tutor, more a guide and a mentor, and, ultimately, a colleague. It always excites me when my teacher asks me what I thought of something, why I played this or that passage in a particular way, or how I might translate an aspect of technique to suit my most junior students. Such exchanges prove that teaching is an ongoing learning process in itself: the best teachers are often the most receptive too, and engage in continuing professional development to ensure they remain in touch with current practices and theories. Mix this with that wonderful heritage of past teachers, an ability to communicate well, patience and empathy, and a positive attitude, and you should have a truly great piano teacher.

More on teachers and mentors here

If I read all these books while I’m in France, I’ll consider it a thoroughly good holiday! There is, after all, no telly in the chalet, and limited internet, and it is quite probable that the weather will be uncertain…. If the weather is really appalling, we have a contingency plan to visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

The Very Thought of You – Rosie Alison

Solar – Ian McEwan

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

This Thing of Darkness – Harry Thompson

Liszt – Sacheverell Sitwell. (Haven’t got time to read three-volume life by Alan Walker.)

And on my iPod:

Mazurkas, Opus 50 – Karol Szymanowski. I’m learning the first two at the moment. Might as well listen to the rest of ’em!

Director’s Cut – Kate Bush. Reworkings of tracks from Kate’s 1990s albums, The Red Shoes and This Sensual World

The Best of Arvo Part – useful reference listening for refining the Messiaen I am working on currently. Very beautiful, ethereal, meditative music.

Piano Works – Takemitsu. More useful reference for Messiaen.

Flight of the Concords – this is required listening for holidays, especially when there are long car journeys to be completed. We know all the lyrics and will happily sing our way down the autoroute to Geneva. Hugely entertaining and very clever, my favourite track is ‘Inner City Pressure’, a parody of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’.

Legende, S 175, St Francis of Paola walking on the water, Fantasia and Fugue on the theme of B-A-C-H, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, Venezia e Napoli – Franz Liszt. I’m going to hear these pieces in a late-night Prom the day after I return from holiday, so I should probably familiarise myself with them ahead of the concert.

Road Movies – John Adams

Complete Piano Music – Ravel (Anne Queffelec)

On my Ipad….

I keep meaning to test all the music/piano-related apps I’ve downloaded so that I can recommended them to others (or delete the really useless ones).


Key Wiz


Sightread Lite


Music for Little Mozarts

Note Goal Pro



iAnnotate PDF


My keen adult student, Andy, came for his lesson today, the first in nearly a month (he’s been away filming at various music festivals), and we worked on Petit Mystère, a charming, Debussy-esque piece by French composer (and contemporary of Claude Debussy) Simone Plé. This is one of those deceptively simple pieces which requires great control and balance, and a strong affinity for impressionistic music, to create the right mood. It forms part of the current syllabus for the Trinity Guildhall Grade 2 exam.

I’ve recently switched to Trinity Guildhall, after three years teaching the ABRSM syllabus. My main motivation for trying a new exam board is that I have had a couple of run-ins with ABRSM this year, and have found the syllabus requirements very rigorous and unbending. Many early/young students find the scale and sight-reading requirements onerous and uninteresting – and in a couple of instances, downright scary. In the Trinity Guildhall syllabus, students are required to learn only a handful of very pertinent scales and arpeggios, and instead present three short studies to demonstrate technique such as tone, balance, voicing, touch. And instead of sight-reading, at least up to Grade 5, students may opt instead for the Musical Knowledge test. To me, this is a really useful and relevant component of a music exam, and my recent experiences with a new student, and a couple of non-piano students who came to me for aural training who seemed completely unaware of the different genres and styles of music, nor the context in which it was created, have made me even more fervent about ensuring that all my students (and indeed those of others!) have a good, basic grounding of the history of classical music, musical terms and signs, lives of the great composers etc.

These days, with easy-to-access music programmes such as Spotify and LastFM there really is no excuse for broadening one’s musical tastes and interests. Equally, there is a great variety of music available on the radio: tune in to Breakfast on Radio 3 from 7 to 10 am, and you can hear all sorts of interesting music – and not just pure classical either! I quite often make playlists on Spotify to share with my students to give them some “further listening” to help them with their pieces.

For Andy’s study of Petit Mystère, I’ve suggested Debussy’s Prélude à l’après Midi d’un faune, The Little Shepherd and Hommage à Rameau, plus the first Mazurka from the Opus 50 by Karol Syzmanowski (a piece I am learning myself at the moment). Hopefully, this will give Andy a greater “feel” for the music he is learning, and will also set it in context for him.

Meanwhile, for him and the rest of my students, I’ve prepared a brief overview of basic musical analysis, something I do with all my students whenever we start work on a new piece. This is a crucial exercise, which should be incorporated into a regular practice regime, before you have played a single note. I do it, usually away from the keyboard, with a pencil behind my ear for annotations.  You can view my helpsheet ANATOMY OF A PIECE. Next term, I will be asking all of my students to prepare a similar basic analysis of one of their pieces. I will publish the best/most imaginative/amusing ones here.

Another opportunity to see Alan Yentob’s superbly insightful and myth-dispelling programme about the tortures and the triumphs of making it as a concert pianist. With contributions from Benjamin Grosvenor (aged 12), Stephen Hough, Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Joanna Macgregor, Lang Lang, and rare interviews by Arthur Rubenstein. Available via the BBC iPlayer here…….and a taster from YouTube