I always enjoy hearing the piano played well, and this morning I had the particular pleasure of hearing young people (aged c15-17) perform in a masterclass led by renowned pianist and teacher Andrew Ball. I was there at the invitation of Andrew Matthews-Owen who teaches at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire.

The Masterclass format offers a powerful tool for learning and teaching. For the performer, it is an opportunity to play for other people, including the teacher leading the class, in a more formal performance setting (in this instance, the beautiful Peacock Room at Trinity) and to have one’s playing critiqued by someone other than one’s regular teacher, which often leads to new insights and ideas about the music, how to shape it, communicate it and bring greater expression and imagination to one’s performance. For observers, it’s a chance to hear complete pieces in performance, and for a teacher, there is much to be gained in watching someone else teaching, and to share their wisdom.

Andrew Ball is a most sympathetic, kind and encouraging teacher. Where once the masterclass was an ordeal for the participants, putting their music before an opinionated master teacher, under the auspices of a generous, understanding teacher, the class becomes an exchange of ideas and a positive experience for all involved.

Six teenagers performed music by Chopin, Ravel, Prokofiev, Sculthorpe, McCabe and Burrell. The intention of this particular class was to reveal connections between 20th century and contemporary piano music and to demystify contemporary music, which is too often regarded as esoteric, inaccessible, atonal or “difficult” (for player and audience). The choice of music was impressive – the pieces selected by the young people themselves – and demonstrated a deliberate move away from the strict confines of exam repertoire. In fact, all these young people were playing advanced/post-Grade 8/Diploma level repertoire, and they all played with poise, quiet confidence, musicality and individuality. They were unselfconscious, with no hint of trying to imitate a particular professional performer, and they played without pretensions or affectation. Their naivety (and I use the word in the best possible sense) allowed them to approach their music with a freshness, free of any preconceptions, interpreting what was given to them on the page, and with Andrew’s gentle guidance, they were encouraged to project their personal musical imagination to the audience with colour and expression.

In addition to Andrew’s inspirational teaching, I was particularly impressed by the sophisticated choice of repertoire (see below for full list) by these young people and the care with which they had prepared their pieces.

Music performed:

Chopin – Nocturne Op 27/2

Ravel – Oiseaux Tristes from Miroirs

Prokofiev – Sonata No. 3

Sculthorpe – selection from Night Pieces

McCabe – Bagatelles 1 & 2

Burrell – Constellations 1 & 2


Junior Trinity

Another term is over and as my students depart for their summer holidays, I have time to pause and reflect as my piano teaching studio approaches its 10th birthday.

I never intended to be a piano teacher. I worked for ten years in art and academic publishing after leaving university and I continued to freelance in this sector, with occasional stints for a PR company, when I stopped full-time work to have my son. But as my son started to grow up and become more independent, I began to consider a change of direction but it had to be one which could accommodate the school day and looking after my son during the school holidays. One day, during the chat that takes places between mums in the school playground while they wait to collect their children, a friend asked me if I might teach her daughter to play the piano. “But I’m not a piano teacher!” I said. The friend suggested that I try piano lessons with her daughter “as an experiment, to see if you you both like it. Rosie can be your trial student“.

And so in September 2006 I started teaching Rosie, and quickly acquired more students whose parents had heard about me via Rosie’s mum. I have never been taught how to teach and had no clear “method” at the time, only that I was determined to make piano lessons interesting and fun for the children, the absolute antithesis of my own childhood lessons, which had seemed dull and interminable and driven by an exam treadmill. I was pretty sure I could articulate all this in a way that would appeal to children.

My teaching studio grew rapidly and by the end of the first year I had nearly 20 students, most of whom had come to me via my son’s primary school. People would come up to me in the playground and say “you’re the piano teacher, aren’t you?“. And indeed by about 18 months into the job, I felt qualified to call myself “the piano teacher”.
I found the first couple of years quite tough. My son was less than happy about other people’s children coming to the house and taking up my time, but I felt it was important for him, as an only child and a boy, to see his mother working and to understand that working from home is still working.

At that time, when I was a fledgling piano teacher, I took anyone. I didn’t interview prospective students or their parents, because I knew most of them via the primary school anyway. But after a couple of instances where I and the child or parent simply did not get on, I grew more discerning and careful about whom I took on. And after a parent persistently messed me around over dates and times of lessons, cancelling them at short notice and demanding that I reschedule, I introduced a formal contract which put everyone on an equal footing and enabled me to run the studio in a more formal/businesslike way.

And that perhaps was the first most important lesson I learnt about running my own teaching studio – that one needs to formalise arrangements to ensure people treat you with respect. This is not a “hobby job” but a professional role which I take very seriously.

A few years ago, by which time my studio had grown to 25 students and I had two performance diplomas successfully under my belt, I decided to make some significant changes to the way I organised my teaching: I “let go” the students who were simply coasting, not practising and not really taking their piano lessons particularly seriously; I rebranded myself as a serious teacher of classical music (no more Adele songs!) who carefully selects students via an interview and trial lesson; and I put my fees up. Within weeks of making these changes, I had more enquiries than ever and I began to enjoy real job satisfaction too.

Second lesson: as a freelancer, don’t be afraid of making changes to your working life to suit you and which gives you job satisfaction. A happy teacher is more likely to be a successful teacher.

In terms of the actual teaching, I based much of it on my own very positive experiences with my music teacher at secondary school, rather than on my childhood and teenage private piano lessons. My music teacher was endlessly inventive and enthusiastic and it was his enthusiasm that, more than anything else, I tried to incorporate into my own teaching. I felt – rightly – that children and young people, adults too, would be enthused and excited by music if I was enthused by it, and I made sure everyone learnt and played music which they enjoyed, rather than which might be “good for them”. When, in 2008, I started having lessons myself again after a break of nearly 25 years, I was able to distill what I was learning into easily understandable nuggets for my students (something my piano teacher actively encouraged), and I quickly saw the benefit of my own lessons in my students’ playing as well as my own. In addition, I started attending courses and workshops to enhance my professional development, and began to connect with more piano teachers too.

Third lesson: good teachers never stop learning themselves

Now, as my studio approaches its tenth anniversary, my teaching style and approach has settled into one which is relaxed and flexible. There is no “one size fits all” in teaching because all children – and adults too – are individuals and deserve to be treated as such. I know each student’s strengths and weaknesses, what music they particularly enjoy, and how much or little they like to be pushed by teacher. Some want to take exams, others are content to learn music which they simply enjoying playing. I’ve always been a natural communicator and it’s not in my nature to be overly didactic: I want to empower students by giving them the tools, and confidence, which encourages self-discovery and independent learning. I have a couple of very musical and talented students, and supporting them with issues such as perfectionism, performance anxiety and the psychology of performance present their own interesting challenges and force me to think outside the box as their teacher and confront my own issues in these areas. All my students are hardworking and enthusiastic, who are taking lessons because they want to, not because a parent has insisted on it.

In addition to my regular private teaching, I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of adult pianists, both individually and in group workshops and masterclasses which include aspects such as building confidence, coping with performance anxiety and preparing for performance diplomas.

I no longer teach young children or beginners. My students are aged between 11 and nearly 17 and are all early intermediate (Grade 3) to advanced level (Grade 8) players. They are bright and engaged, unafraid to question or challenge me or work things out on their own, which is great because I never want to be the teacher who simply “tells”. For me, teaching is an exchange of ideas, a process of showing, demonstrating, explaining, confirming, questioning….. An inquisitive student is likely to learn more, and more quickly. I encourage my students to find their own individual voice in their music making and to use their developing musical knowledge to help them make judgements about aspects such as interpretation and presentation.I don’t use a set “method” or particular range of tutor books. My teaching is instinctive, responding to each student’s needs and wishes rather than imposing my own opinion and way of doing things on them, and I encourage excellence rather than perfection. My own regular studies with two master teachers, in addition to encounters with other renowned teachers and pianists via courses and masterclasses, has undoubtedly informed my teaching, and will continue to do so.

avatars-000208691703-0he3lq-t500x500Teaching has taught me far more than I ever would have imagined about being a musician as I constantly refocus and re-examine what I do and how I approach my own music making. And I think my students are intrigued by the fact that their teacher continues to study and have lessons herself. Perhaps the most significant thing I have learnt over the past ten years is that learning is a continuous, ever-changing process. It is satisfying, occasionally frustrating, and deeply fulfilling to watch students develop, find their musical voice and tastes and, above all, to gain pleasure and enjoyment from their music making.

For further information about my teaching studio please visit www.franceswilson.co.uk

Further reading

The Performing Teacher

Thoughts on teachers and pupils

c30ce6cf83f8001725853cc16de3bf33Music is the only field of study that requires regular and extended one-on-one interaction between student and teacher. The student-teacher relationship is a very special one, based on mutual trust and respect. Young students are often hungry for knowledge and experience: they turn to their teachers for support and advice, they share their insecurities and emotions. Music is all about expressing emotions, plumbing the depths of the soul or soaring in ecstasy, and a certain vulnerability and emotional intelligence is essential if the musician is going to communicate with honesty and passion. Good teachers know this – they encourage their students to know this too, enabling them to let go and free their spirit to play with feeling and musical colour.

For many students and teachers the relationship can be long-lasting: some of my students came to me when I first started my teaching practice 10 years’ ago and they are still with me now. I have watched them grow up, move on to senior school, develop as musicians and young people. I will miss them when they leave – to go to university or into a career – and I hope they won’t forget me…… Musicians who studied with some of the great pianist-teachers of the last century remember them with fondness – and profound respect – and carry with them their teacher’s unique wisdom and approach to music making, passing it on to the next generation of musicians.

Former students continually relate how her pragmatic and positive approach to problem solving remains with them in their daily lives. Her ability to demonstrate the simplest and most potent interpretation of any phrase was infallible and her emphasis was always on providing the pupil with the means to continue independent development. In addition to her ability to articulate what would be of most use to the student…..

(Obituary of highly respected teacher Phyllis Sellick, who died in 2007)

It is important that we like our students – and vice versa – regardless of their musical abilities. Such mutual regard enables us to work better together because we demonstrate that we value our students as human beings and recognise that each one is different. In doing so, we can tailor our teaching to suit each student individually: there is no “one size fits all” approach to music teaching (though, sadly, I still come across teachers who believe that there is). Creating “bespoke” lessons for each student, which demonstrate our understanding of their particular strengths and weaknesses, their musical tastes and character, will enable us to teach them better and for them to feel supported and valued. This virtuous circle means that students feel motivated and progress more quickly because they feel confident that they have their teacher’s support.

The relationship is so special that sometimes certain students will place the teacher on a pedestal and take what they say as gospel or confide in the teacher about matters which are not directly related to musical study. As a teaching colleague of mine remarked, “they take what we say very seriously and we need to be extremely careful how we phrase our comments and advice”. Of course, it may be flattering that our students feel sufficiently comfortable in our presence that they can confide in us, but in such instances the teacher should be mindful not to step over the teacher-pupil boundary, nor say things which may conflict with the student’s parents (if the student is a child or young person). Where one is concerned about a student, it is of course crucial to discuss one’s concerns with the parents as well. Then both student and parent know that the teacher has the student’s best interests in mind.

When the relationship becomes unbalanced and the teacher seems to wield an unhealthy control or power over the student, a student may feel demeaned or threatened by the need to please the teacher at every lesson in order to win praise. In such instances, progress may stall and the student may become anxious or even afraid of the teacher. At this point, the student should consider moving to a new teacher.

It can be hard to leave a teacher whom you like and respect, but sometimes it becomes necessary when the relationship has run its course or the student feels they need a different approach to provide new stimulation and inspiration. A number of adult pianists whom I know like to see several teachers, taking from each one the advice they feel will benefit them the most. Recognising that no one teacher has the answer to everything is an important stage in a musician’s development – and teachers themselves need to be respectful of this too. By the same token, making the decision to be independent of a teacher is also an important stage in the musician’s journey.

A good teacher also appreciates that they are not “always right about everything” and will encourage their students to challenge and question them. I enjoy such interactions with my students, and actively encourage them to question me: it keeps my alert and reminds me that my own learning journey is continuous.

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 “Because I love the piano!”.

And for the student, when they meet the right teacher, everything seems to click into place. They look forward to their lessons and can see noticeable progress and improvement, thus inspiring them to go on studying (hopefully!).

 

More on teachers and pupils

Teachers and Mentors

Exploring your music teacher heritage

This beautiful and instructive letter was sent by pianist Dinu Lipatti to one of his students. I particularly like his advice that one should “discover the complete emotional content by playing it a great deal in various different ways….” This is sound advice for pianists of all levels, amateur and professional. Too often there is a tendency to focus first on the technical aspects of a piece, without considering the emotional content. I firmly believe that technique should serve the music, enabling us to play with greater expression and emotional depth: playing which exhibits only high-facility technique can be lifeless and mechanical.

Lipatti is considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th-century. He died tragically prematurely from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 33 in December 1950, leaving behind little more than three and a half hours of recordings for EMI’s Columbia label. His long-standing international fame is due almost entirely to the widespread distribution of his recorded output: in the words of his producer Walter Legge, “small in output but of the purest gold.” Pianists today still revere Lipatti and many continue to pay tribute to him in recitals and other homages.

“What can I tell you about interpretation? I really ought to talk to you about it rather than write, as I should need thirty pages. In a very imperfect manner I could recapitulate the method which in stages guides us, as I believe, to the truth.

First, one should try to discover the complete emotional content of a work by playing it a great deal in various different ways before ever starting to play it ‘technically’. When saying ‘playing it a great deal’ I think above all of playing ‘mentally,’ as the work would be played by the most perfect of interpreters. Having lodged in one’s mind an impression of perfect beauty given by this imaginary interpretation — an impression constantly renewed and revivified by repetition of the performance in the silence of the night — we can go on to actual technical work by dissecting each difficulty into a thousand pieces in order to eliminate every physical and technical obstacle; and this process of dissection must not be of the whole work played right through but of every detail taken separately. The work should be done with a clear head and one should beware of injecting any sentiment.

Finally comes the last phase, when the piece, mastered technically throughout, must be built up architecturally into its overall lines and played right through so that it may be viewed from a distance. And the cold, clear-headed and insensitive being who presided over the whole of the preceding work on the material of which the music is made, takes part in this eventual performance as well as the artist full of emotion, of spirit, of life and warmth who has recreated it in his mind and has now discovered a new and greater power of expression.

Forgive me for expressing myself so badly about something so solemn. I hope it will not seem incomprehensible to you.”

Dinu Lipatti

Source: http://www.musicandhealth.co.uk/articles/Lipatti.html

This year my annual student concert was held at the 1901 Arts Club, a beautiful, intimate venue in a former schoolmaster’s house (built in 1901) close to London’s Waterloo Station. The venue boasts a lovely Steinway C grand piano and an informal, convivial atmosphere, thanks in no small part to the very welcoming personalities of the people who run it. I use the venue for the South London Concert Series, an innovative series of concerts which I organise and co-host with my friend and piano teaching colleague, Lorraine Liyanage. I felt the small size of the venue (it seats just 45 people in a gold and red salon redolent of a 19th-century European drawing room) would enable the young performers to feel less anxious and to relax into the special atmosphere of the place.

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club
The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

I cannot stress too highly the importance of performing, at whatever level one plays, and I have written extensively on this subject on this blog, my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and in my column for Pianist magazine. Music was written to be shared – whether in the home or the salons of other people’s houses, or in recital rooms or concert halls. But on another more important level performing builds confidence, not just in the sphere of music but in many other walks of life, and equips people (of all ages) with an important life-skill.

When I was the age of my students (9-14) I had few opportunities to perform for others. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, not even small-scale events in her home, and as a pianist at school I was always rather sidelined (a solo instrument being deemed the epitome of showing off!), so my only real performance experience was either in the orchestra (where I played the clarinet) or in the choir, both instances where one’s performance anxiety is tempered by performing with others. One of the many decisions I took about my piano teaching when I established my practice in 2006 was that I would give my students performance opportunities. And so from little house concerts (with obligatory tea parties!) to the event this week at the 1901 Arts Club, the annual student concert has become an integral part of my studio’s activities.

Preparations begin many months before the actual date – and I know from my own experience as someone who has come relatively late to performing (in my late 40s) that preparation is everything. Being well-prepared is one of the best insurance policies against nerves and will enable one to pull off a convincing, enjoyable and polished performance on the day. Good preparation, including practising performing in less stressful situations, also means that any slips or errors in the performance on the day can usually be skimmed over and will not upset the flow of the performance.

DSC_4266

Many of my students chose to perform exam pieces – music which they had already played in an exam situation and with which they were therefore very comfortable. It’s always interesting to play exam repertoire after one has put it before the critical ears of the examiner: when I revisit my Diploma pieces (as I am now, in preparation for a concert in January) I notice a distinct sense of relaxation in the music – and my students have commented on this about their own pieces too. Some selected new pieces, and we also had solo clarinet and saxophone performances (it is so gratifying that a number of my students play other instruments – saxophone, trumpet, clarinet and cello – or sing in school choirs).

I always perform at my students’ concerts as well. I think it is important for them to see their teacher performing and to understand that I do my practising and preparation just as they do; also that I am also engaged in ongoing learning of new repertoire or revising previously-learnt music.

DSC_4287

The event at the 1901 Arts Club was really lovely. The young performers all played beautifully (no visible nerves whatsoever, though a number did say to me afterwards that they were really nervous!) and we had a lovely range of music from Arvo Pärt and Einaudi to Bartok and ragtime. Despite knowing my students pretty well now (some have been learning with me almost as long as I have been teaching), I am always amazed at the way they step up to perform with such poise. I don’t know what I do, but maybe by assuring them that their performance will be wonderful, they learn to trust me and this gives them confidence. Each performance was greeted with much enthusiastic applause by family and friends, and at the end of the event another piano teaching friend, Rebecca Singerman-Knight, awarded prizes for Star Performer (Tom Driver) and Most Enjoyable Performance (Eli Hughes). The children were presented with boxes of chocolate grand pianos (which I doubt lasted the homeward journey!). I have had some lovely feedback, from students and parents, and I think the general consensus is that this was a really enjoyable and inspiring event. I certainly felt so!

More about the benefits of performing:

On performing

Performing in a safe circle

Going into the zone

Strategies for coping with performance anxiety