….never had I had a piano teacher so demanding and tyrannical

– Leonard Bernstein on Isabelle Vengerova

The composer Philip Glass described her as somewhere “between intimidating and terrifying” whose lessons invariably left students “shaken and silent”, while Virgil Thomson wrote that she had a “no-nonsense approach to musical skills and a no-fooling-around treatment of anyone’s talent or vocation”. But the great teacher Nadia Boulanger was comfortable with her mixed reputation. For her, musical training without rigour had no value, and she was not alone in her attitude.

Isabelle Vengerova teaching a young Gary Graffman (Curtis Institute Archives)
Vengerova and Boulanger fit the traditional image of the master-teacher – didactic, autocratic, rigorous – and they were not the only teacher who struck awe, fear and reverence in the hearts of their students. Such teachers were – and continue to be – conferred with an almost god-like status.

Vengerova was insistent on a complete adherence to her approach.  For two years I was not allowed to touch a piece of music…..she changed my life, physically at the piano and musically at the same time, without my knowing it was taking place. She was the most profound influence on my life, a remarkable woman.

– Anthony di Bonaventura, pianist

She yelled, she threw things, she reproached (often colorfully), and she insisted students learn her way, without exception. In short, she terrified her pupils.

– Curtis Institute Archive

But there’s a misconception here – that teachers of classical musicians have, or should have, very severe personalities, and that they must be scarily formidable to be successful and, more importantly, to enable their students to be successful. Ritual humiliation in lessons and masterclasses or rapping the knuckles of a student with a ruler whenever they played a wrong note are, fortunately, largely outdated teaching practices which would not be tolerated today where a greater understanding of the psychology of learning and modern pedagogical methods has resulted in a more enlightened approach to teaching and students.

So what is the ‘purpose’ of a music teacher? The obvious response is to instruct, educate and train a student in the skills required to succeed as musician.

The word “teach” derives from the Old English word tæcan which means “to show” or “guide”, and a good teacher will provide guidance/instruction, encouragement, and constructive feedback to their students to enable them to practice and progress. An extension of this is the idea of “guiding” the student in their learning by opening doors, encouraging the student to see the bigger picture beyond the narrow confines of the musical score, and to foster inquisitiveness, confidence, self-determination and independent learning. In order to transfer their skills and knowledge, a teacher must explain, demonstrate and inspire.

Conversely, a didactic or autocratic teacher who demands that the student adheres to “my way and no other way” can constrict, confuse and ultimately dismotivate. Unfortunately, impressionable or naive students can be taken in by the “famous” teacher who declares “Look at me, I’m a great player. I’m the great teacher”, and hero worship can cloud a student’s focus while also massaging the teacher’s ego and, sadly in some instances, leave the student vulnerable. Such teachers can do lasting damage to a student’s confidence.

Lang Lang with his teacher Gary Graffman
Open-mindedness, generosity, empathy, respect and humility, the knowledge that, as a teacher, one does not “know everything”  and that one is prepared to acknowledge one’s own limitations are all facets of a truly great teacher.

the great teacher always gave the complete view in music toward the student — not of alternatives, not just one way of doing it…..He gave you the whole picture of many different worlds, many different possibilities…

– Lang Lang on his teacher Gary Graffman

The revered teacher Gordon Green (who taught concert pianist Stephen Hough, amongst others) said that the aim of the teacher is to make him- or herself  “dispensable” to the student. Ultimately, a good teacher should become redundant by enabling their students to become confident, independent learners.

There are of course great, highly revered teachers on whom the title “demigod” can be justly conferred. These include the great pianist-teachers of an earlier age – Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Perlemuter, Kentner, Tureck – whose methods, wisdom and values have been passed down through their pupils, grand-pupils, and great-grand pupils. Such teachers appreciate that a significant aspect of the art of teaching is to create independent, enabled individuals rather than “soundalike” clones of themselves.

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Pianist, composer and teacher Peter Feuchtwanger has died. I never met Peter, though I wanted to, but I felt a connection to him and his wisdom via my teachers who studied with him, and also via pianist friends and colleagues who were taught by him and spoke of his inspirational, sympathetic and experimental approach to piano technique and piano playing.

In addition to his own piano studies with Gerti Rainer (a pupil of Emil von Sauer), Max Egger, Edwin Fischer and Walter Gieseking, Peter Feuchtwanger also studied composition with Hans Heimler (a pupil of Alban Berg, Heinrich Schenker and Felix Weingartner) and Lennox Berkeley, as well as Indian and Arabic music and philosophy. His Studies in an Eastern Idiom (Tariqas) and Variations on an Eastern Folk Tune are inspired by Eastern folk and art music and demonstrate inventive use of the piano’s sonority, texture and pedal effects to suggest Arabic, Indian and other Eastern instruments, styles and motifs.

Largely self-taught, he formed his personal conclusions about technique through experimentation that was free from the dogma or narrow approach of “schools” of piano teaching or formal musical training. As a consequence, he was regarded by some within the profession with suspicion, while those who studied with him and absorbed his wisdom are full of praise for his ability to think outside the box of traditional piano technique and talk of the transformative power of his teaching.

Most people are slaves to technique. But technique is not about playing mechanically and quickly, it is also about tone-balance, colours…. – Peter Feuchtwanger

His piano exercises were developed to relax the hand without making it completely powerless. The specified fingerings encourage the smooth, elliptical, natural choreography of the hands and fingers, and allow the instrument to be played with the greatest relaxation of the body, resulting in tension-free playing and a beautiful sound.

Touching tributes from some of his former pupils

I will never forget the kindness shown me by Peter Feuchtwanger……..without his guidance and generosity of soul I doubt I would be a musician today. He criticised perpetually (with characteristic vibrancy and charm), strove to make me realise my finest self, instinctively understood me, was a considerate listener, was a fountain of naughty jokes, never doubted me and proved to be far more than merely my piano teacher.

You haven’t died, Peter; your legacy lives with the vitality of every string set into vibration by the many pianists who’s lives you touched.

….his vast knowledge of styles of playing, along with his unique technical approach, have been incredible for my development, and I’m constantly amazed at his generosity, and commitment to teaching. (DR)

He brought out the absolute best in his pupils by his unquestioning faith in his pupils’ abilities, and his loyal support and generosity of time. The universal truth in his technique will live on in his many hundreds of students. (WMS)

Great teachers never die: their wisdom and enduring legacy is passed down to their students, and continues through successive generations of pianists.

Bel Canto on a percussion instrument – article by Peter Feuchtwanger

I have recently taken on a new student, a boy of 11 who is preparing for his ABRSM Grade 2 exam in mid-July. He’s been having lessons at school (in a group lesson with another child) but his mother felt he would benefit from regular one-to-one tuition with me. A few days after the first lesson, the mother wrote to me:

“He came home with a ‘that’s the best piano lesson I’ve ever had’ and a fantastic great big grin on his face!”

Showing appreciation for your piano teacher is important, and while I enjoy the support of a wonderful group of parents to my students, a personal thank you like this means a great deal.

Pianist and writer Melanie Spanswick offered an appreciation of the piano teacher on her blog recently, highlighting the important role of the piano teacher in a student’s success or failure. A good teacher knows how to encourage and support his/her students, to get the best of out them, and to help them develop into rounded musicians, with a proper appreciation of the piano and its literature, rather than inexpressive “typists”.

Many parents, and students, and others, fail to appreciate just how much a piano teacher does, not only in lessons, but in all the time spent preparing for lessons, submitting exam entries, organising extra-curricular events to stimulate and interest students, and generally managing a teaching practice and all the admin this entails. These activities are not, generally, included in the teaching fee – just as all the lonely hours of practice a professional concert pianist puts in are not covered by the recital fee. But we have to do these things to ensure we run an efficient studio and to offer our students the best possible learning experience. Not all teachers put in this kind of effort, and it always upsets me when I come across a teacher who does not feel these additional aspects of the job are important or beneficial.

Sadly, the profession of piano teaching is not regulated, and there are charlatans out there: I know, because I have met one or two, both as an adult student and a teacher. As Melanie stresses in her blog article, it is very important to choose the right teacher, and while personality counts for a lot, proper qualifications and experience are crucial. In my opinion, simply having Grade 8 piano does not qualify one to teach advanced repertoire. Conversely, the best concert pianist in the world may not be the best teacher: some of the finest performers are not natural teachers/communicators. However, a good piano teacher should have performed at some point in their career: a teacher who performs, whether professionally or in an informal capacity, will be able to tutor his/her students in the art of performing and how to deal with performance anxiety, important skills for success in exams, festivals and competitions. An ability to communicate, at all levels, from young children to adults, flexibility, good humour, and endless patience are all key skills too. Above all, a good teacher will convey his/her passion and enthusiasm for the piano and its literature: this is my main motivation for being a piano teacher, and if I had to distill my mission statement into a snappy one-liner, I think it would probably say “I love the piano!”.

Good teachers don’t rest on their laurels and their exam successes, and devote time in their busy schedules to ongoing professional development – honing their craft by attending courses, lectures, and masterclasses, and keeping abreast with the new thinking and writing in piano pedagogy (and with the wide availability of such material online, there is really no excuse for not doing this).

So, the next time you meet a piano teacher, either as a student or parent of a student, spare a thought for the huge amount the best teachers put in outside of their teaching hours, to ensure their students get the best out of their lessons.

Just as a post-script, I would like to mention some of the people with whom I have had the very good fortune to study. Apart from my own regular teacher, Penelope Roskell, who studied with Giudo Agosti, Maria Curcio, Vlado Perlemuter and Peter Feuchtwanger, amongst others, I have also studied with former students of Peter Wallfisch, Nina Svetlanova, Leon Fleischer, John Barstow and Phyllis Sellick. For more about the benefits of studying with teachers at this level, please see my earlier post on Teachers and Mentors.