Guest post by Katrina Fox
The pandemic has been a huge challenge for piano teachers, not least in the inherent isolation of learning the piano being exacerbated by the lack of opportunities for group work, duets in lessons, and of course live performance. However, necessity being the mother of invention, many of us have latched onto live digital performances and performance recordings as a way of creating performing opportunities and encouraging performance. This has become a permanent part of most teachers’ offerings.
Digital exams – love them or loathe them – are here to stay, and have incontrovertible benefits such as being accessible to all pupils, including nervous adults, those living in remote areas without easy access to an exam centre, and those who simply don’t ever want to endure a live examination experience but nonetheless value the feedback. Digital festivals and events have also provided pupils with a greater breadth of musical experiences from the awesome Compose Yourself! created by Alison Matthews and Lindsey Berwin, to June Armstrong’s Play for the Composer.
So what are the benefits to pupils and teachers of a carefully thought out programme of performance opportunities throughout the year?
- Motivation to practise FOR something – and for something perhaps more meaningful than an exam. These experiences allow pupils greater choice in what they play, but still provide a goal to work towards. The fact that this goal is not a summative assessment – a pass/merit/distinction that despite being a mere snapshot can come to be worn as a proverbial badge of honour or dunce hat – makes it all the more valuable. Constructive criticism without a numerical mark or grading is perhaps more likely to be received without invoking defensive feelings and therefore internalised and acted upon.
- A feeling of community. Within most teaching studios most pupils never or rarely meet each other. Everyone taking part in the same event – be it digital or live – can build a sense of community and common enterprise. During the lockdowns I hosted monthly Zoom concerts. Whilst the quality was not always ideal, there was a clear motivational and social benefit. Themed sessions such as “bring your pet”, “wear your PJs” etc, built a sense of fun and allowed pupils to see each other, albeit on screen.
- A sense of shared responsibility. This year will be my second year doing an Advent “virtual busk”. Everyone records a Christmas song which we post every day of Advent to raise money for the local homeless hostel. (Last year we raised over £1500.) All pupils know they are expected to perform well for this; there is a sense of responsibility for everyone playing their part in this event. Yes, it is a small amount of pressure, but everyone is given plenty of time, and I feel a small amount of responsibility for ensuring they are all up to scratch is a positive thing and engenders a sense of responsibility.
So if all these benefits can be drawn from digital events, which are probably more easily accessible to teachers and pupils, then why bother with live events? One important benefit of live performance springs to mind:
Taking risks. With live performance, more so in front of an audience than in front of an examiner, the sense of personal risk is an important part of the experience. My personal experience is that pupils have become increasingly risk-averse over the last few years. The reasons are probably outside the scope of this article, but perhaps reside in our education system and its focus on testing, results and “success”. I find many pupils are inclined to avoid trying rather than to risk making a mistake, especially in public. This affects their ability to communicate through their music and invest it with their own personal involvement. I’m sure we can all agree that this is not a healthy or happy mindset. Live performance in festivals seems to be a varied experience with some finding the atmosphere friendly, while others find it very competitive – perhaps not the ideal place for nervous, or dare I say it “average” performers?
It is this last point that has been bothered me sufficiently to galvanise me into action. Certainly, where I live on the south coast of England there is not a wealth of local, accessible music festivals and performance events for pupils to participate in. There is also a real lack of suitable venues with decent instruments that are affordable and available at appropriate times. All my pupil “concerts” thus far have been very tiny occasions hosted in my home for a small handful of pupils at a time. Larger, less local occasions tend not to appeal to any but the most serious students.
Hence the creation of Play Piano South – one of a handful of local piano groups that has sprung up in recent months, each with its own character, aims and events that are suited to its local profile. My vision for Play Piano South is local informal live events that pupils can participate in regularly such that performing becomes a natural and non-threatening part of their piano education. Removing any form of competition, grading and adjudication makes everything easier to administrate. It also removes the threat of judgement, allowing young pianists the freedom to focus purely on the performance experience itself, without any formal “outcome”. Mistakes due to nerves, or any other reason, can be left behind without consequence and processed appropriately and proportionately with a view to improving the experience, without the pressure to improve a grading or mark.
The Play Piano South Facebook group acts as a meeting place for teachers in the region to share their events – either for other teacher’s pupils to attend, or just to showcase their events for others to learn from. Collaborative events allow teachers to share the burden of organising and hosting an event and can make a decent venue with a good instrument more feasible as more pupils can attend and share the cost of hire. Such a model also allows a regular performance schedule to grow that is very local and easy for pupils to attend. I believe this regularity and sense of community will make performing become a natural and integral part of learning the piano for all pupils – not just the most gifted or well-resourced.
In my own studio, my pupils will continue to benefit from the many new and wonderful digital performance initiatives that have developed during the pandemic. These will be complemented by a regular programme of informal concerts which will be open to the pupils of any other teachers who wish to participate.
Do check out the Play Piano South Facebook group and get involved!
Katrina Fox is a piano teacher in Bournemouth (bhpiano.co.uk), and the founder of Piano Hub South