The expression “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” does a great disservice to teachers everywhere. In the sphere of music, teaching is often regarded as a “second best” option for those who have trained as performers, yet for anyone who has encountered a great music teacher, it is evident that this is a highly-skilled profession, requiring many hours of training and commitment.

The sad thing is that so many young musicians go through the conservatoire or music college training, being taught how to be performers, yet very few of them will be able to make a living solely by performing and concertising. Concert fees hardly take into account the many hours of preparation, and only those at the very top of the profession can command the highest fees. Nor do positions in orchestras pay particularly well. Thus, many musicians turn to teaching as a way of securing a regular income.

A common misconception is that if you are a great performing artist, you must, by default, also be a great teacher, but the two things do not necessarily go hand in hand. While both activities are about communication, teaching is about communicating the techniques and artistry of playing music largely through the medium of the spoken word and physical demonstration. The best teachers can articulate the complexities of playing an instrument in simple terms, demystifying aspects of technique, for example, through the use of metaphor or imagery. Good teachers are also highly adaptable for they appreciate that there is no “one size fits all” approach and that each student must be treated as an individual.

Those fortunate enough to study with some of the great teacher-pianists, who have themselves studied with great teacher-pianists of another era, enjoy a special connection to these earlier teachers and mentors. These generational connections create a tremendous sense of continuity, and this musical ‘provenance’ is invaluable and inspiring when one is learning. Several of my colleagues (both international concert pianists) studied with the acclaimed British pianist and teacher Phyllis Sellick, whose “musical ancestry” included Isidor Philipp, who himself was taught by Georges Mathias, a pupil of Chopin and Kalkbrenner. Such teachers can act as a link to the past, passing on the wisdom handed down from these earlier, great teachers, and enriching one’s experience of previous performers and performances.

Sadly, private music teaching is too often regarded by those outside the profession as “not a proper job”, or a “hobby job” by people who do not appreciate the many hours of preparation and dedication required to teach music. In addition to time spent with students, teachers must plan lessons and take care of the admin of running a teaching practice, including setting and collecting fees, and engaging in ongoing professional development to ensure one remains in touch with current practices and theories.

Teaching is an ongoing learning process in itself: the best teachers are often the most receptive too, and their relationships with their students is less didactic tutor, more mentor and guide. The best teachers are respectful and unselfish, appreciating that students do move on, perhaps to further study at music college or into a professional career, or simply to another teacher to gain a different perspective on their musical studies. Above all, the best teachers care deeply about music and want to encourage and share this love with their students.

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