Mark Tanner

What is your first memory of the piano? 

Having a lovely time in my first piano lessons (but usually improvising when I was supposed to be practising), and nudging my mum off the piano stool so that I could take my turn. Also, listening to my father’s collection of jazz recordings – pianists such as Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and Jacques Loussier: in fact, it was while sitting on stage right next to Loussier at one of his ‘Play Bach’ concerts at Bristol’s Colston Hall that I first woke up to the possibility of Classical music and jazz functioning plausibly together. Not too long after that, I had my own opportunity to play on that same piano as part of Fairfield Grammar School’s annual concerts, put together by the ever-energetic Bob Latham (whom incidentally I still rub shoulders with from time to time – we both adjudicate music festivals). I’ll never forget the feeling of smallness on that vast stage, surrounded by a sea of faces, nor the uproarious sound of the applause; it all seemed rather improbable to me at the time. At roughly the same time I appeared on a BBC TV piano competition as semi-finalist, and vividly remember having to improvise live on the programme in front of Sir David Willcocks in response to a video of a fire station amid full action-stations…

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? 

Teaching the piano, for me, seemed an inevitable adjunct to playing. I ‘fell into’ teaching I suppose, initially taking on an occasional youngster for a few quid while I was a first year student at college, and then getting rather more serious about it a little later on, with the taking of teaching diplomas and so on. I’ve always felt that teaching and playing are flip-sides of the same coin, and indeed that the crossover points are sometimes so hazy that it can be difficult to know who is gaining the most from the experience. I certainly never considered piano teaching to be a second-best option.

We all know that teachers regularly learn from their pupils (there’s nothing new in that, of course), and yet it strikes me that this is a crucial part of keeping going as a teacher. We hear constantly about how important our pupils are – well of course they are – but so is the mental health of their teachers! It’s worth bearing in mind that if teachers are insufficiently nourished by their daily experience, they may become jaded, semi-functioning box-tickers with one eye on the clock; not a recipe for happy piano lessons. Resisting this is easier said than done of course, and I have known of a number of perfectly good piano teachers who were simply not able to withstand the tide of fatigue and frustration that their jobs entailed. This is a real shame, and yet we shouldn’t be too quick to judge teachers who cave in under the strain of what is a tremendously tiring and responsible job.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

I’ve been really blessed. Mrs Dean (I now realise that I never actually knew her first name), then Gwyn Pritchard – both as a boy in my hometown of Bristol – followed by Geoffrey Buckley, Philip Martin and Richard McMahon. I was given composition lessons by Richard Roderick-Jones and Andrew Downes and was fortunate enough to play in quite a number of masterclasses too, with John Ogdon, Peter Donohoe, John Lill and many more. Peter Johnson was my PhD supervisor at the Birmingham Conservatoire – he is a terrifically resourceful academic who never ran dry of suggestions or alternative ways of thinking about things; I owe him a great deal.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching? 

Well, inevitably all of the above people! Interestingly, my interactions with concert pianists quickly revealed to me that they operate quite differently, prioritise differently and hence directed me differently. To my thinking, the biggest challenge, from the perspective of a fragile music college student, is coming to terms with seemingly conflicting views. At first, it can all bubble up like a melting pot in one’s head, and one can end up feeling utterly rudderless and confused – until, that is, one wakes up to the startlingly obvious reality that one has to take one’s own view when it comes to matter of performance, and that often all one is really grappling with is a difference in emphasis.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

I suppose there are many individuals whom I feel I have been able to support along the way, and a number of these are ‘out there’ today, operating very comfortably within the music profession, as performers, teachers etc, even the odd rock star. It seems a bit ridiculous to single people out really, but I’ve often thought it remarkable that the very first piano lesson I ever gave as Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset (arriving straight from a fairly harrowing PGCE course, I might add, where crowd-management seemed all too prevalent a feature), was to a lad who would turn out to be the most accomplished musician to come my way in sixteen years of teaching there. Each lesson was, in reality, a trawl through the great piano concertos – we’d hack our way through Rach. 3, the Grieg, anything I happened to have a copy of to hand, and his sight-reading was at least as good as mine, even then. (He is now much in demand internationally as a freelance organist and writer). School teaching was a very enriching experience for me, on the whole, and I certainly feel I learned a lot about aspects of music I’d never really come into contact with before, such as choral music and music technology. I also had the chance to do bits of conducting from time to time and to gain experience playing nearly all of the brass instruments that were lying about ownerless in the music school. During this time I was lucky enough to have both a head of department and a headmaster who were willing to let me off the leash, as it were, to perform all over the place and indeed to undertake research for my PhD, which involved day-release to Birmingham over a period of four years. Running concurrently with my school career, I did a fair amount of lecturing up and down the country, but notably at Dillington House and then at Jackdaws in Somerset; I feel an especial connection with Jackdaws to this day, generally running a couple of courses each year – notably a popular Summer School for Pianists. Jackdaws serves as a constant reminder to me that the learning process never stops, either for me or for the endless stream of people (many of a ‘certain’ age), who can amaze me with what they are doing at the piano. Incidentally, if you’ve not yet experienced Jackdaws, I’d suggest there’s a hole in your life that you’d better set about fixing straight away; it’s not necessarily because of the standard of playing (though there are some excellent players who attend the courses), more the level of human being.

At the same time, it’s good to remember that sometimes progress is measured in inches, not miles. Success for one person might constitute a complete disaster for the next, so ultimately the only person worth comparing yourself with is you. That way, you keep nudging your way forward, at whatever rate you are capable of, mindful of the fact that any distance travelled down the road of progress is better than none (even if it happens to be a tad less impressive than people half your age). I say this because I can call to mind a number of ex pupils who were less than remarkable as younger players, but who found their legs later, and it is so gratifying to learn that something you said or did as a teacher helped to bring about a eureka moment, maybe decades later. The dedication angle usually turns out to be absolutely crucial to succeeding in music – in my view diligence is at least as important as natural ‘talent’ (and let’s face it, could you ever find two people who could agree what talent actually is?)

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Adults are not big children (and therefore, it goes without saying, children are not small adults). To treat either as such is to misunderstand them, and it’s only a short step from here to underestimating them, patronising them and losing sight of what playing the piano actually means for them: experiencing enjoyment and fulfilment. In 95% of cases our adult pupils hanker after personal enrichment and a sense of engagement with something tactile and beautiful – and all of this is perfectly achievable without becoming a serial devourer of grades, diplomas or other gongs (helpful though these can undeniably be, though in a relatively small number of cases in my opinion).

Adults tend to talk rather a lot in lessons, I’ve noticed! This used to bother me – after all, surely it’s taking money under false pretences if much of the time is not spent ‘on the job’…then, one day quite a few years ago, it came to me in a flash…we all need different things from our piano lessons. Confidence-building can take many forms, and we don’t all need bolstering to the same extent or in quite the same way. I no longer feel guilty about having a cup of tea and a chat during a lesson…

Adults often lack an awareness of where they are at, both technically and musically, especially if they are not working under the auspices of a regular teacher; hence, they might turn up wearing a beaming smile, brandishing hopelessly unrealistic volumes of late Beethoven Sonatas, or whatever, and within two bars of stumbling about, I know this will end in tears, particularly if the student in question has already committed him/herself to an exam of some kind for which they are wholly unsuited. Related to this, is that I find adults frequently don’t seem to know what they don’t know, if you see what I mean, and hence, left to their own devices, they fixate on unreachable goals such as attaining a higher diploma, a qualification which is really designed to meet the needs of aspiring professionals, not amateurs. I’m all for working towards something a little way off, but in extreme cases only the most strong-willed teacher can succeed in imposing a restraining order.

Nevertheless, while the risks may sometimes be greater with adults, arguably the gains can be greater also. After all, unlike many children, adults know what their lessons are costing them in time, money, conflicting family pressures and so on, and hence in many cases it matters more to them. The adult learner is often a ‘returner’ – I can’t help noticing that the world seems to be full of grade 3 pianists who ‘gave up’ thirty-odd years ago. Things change, and life can overtake us, causing us to bid a reluctant farewell to the piano for a while, and yet thankfully, most people cherish the prospect of coming back to playing some day when the children are married off, they can afford a decent instrument and they rediscover that elusive bit of ‘quality time’. It can be terrifically rewarding as a teacher to help returners, but it certainly helps if they bring a measure of realism and common sense to their approach and are prepared to be guided.

What do you expect from your students? 

I suspect I’m rather untypical. As an examiner and trainer for ABRSM you might imagine that I spend much of my time ‘selling’ the Board’s wares…actually, I’ve always been a little slack in this area, to be frank. I generally wait for students to mention exams, and then I respond in the way I feel is right, but rarely do I initiate such discussion. I’ve known parents to be a little problematic if they carry with them personal ‘baggage’ (such as wanting their child to have the opportunities they didn’t, etc.) and this might mean that the teacher feels cajoled into entertaining the next exam before the time is ripe. I suppose I expect students to take their playing seriously, not to waste my time (or their own), and to aim to make the most of their attributes, be they great or small. In return, I try to be a cheerful motivator and to have a positive influence on the course they have chosen to undertake.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

Interestingly, I notice that the question deliberately groups together exams, festivals and competitions as if they all amount to virtually the same thing. To my mind they are all very different; festivals may well be the right way to go for musicians who are more interested in participation than direct attainment, or for the musician who simply can’t get to grips with all of the supporting tests that are expected for the various grade syllabi. Here too though, teachers and parents all too often get the wrong end of the stick, and the poor child is frogmarched onto the stage, quivering like a jelly, with little hope of acquitting him/herself positively. I have adjudicated dozens of festivals up and down the country, and although overall I do feel they have an important basis for helping amateurs to evolve, I privately worry about the impact on the more fragile contestants who end up proving to themselves what they’d suspected was true along; a real pity. Following on from my comments in relation to the previous question, I feel that exams can play an important role, but only when all of the circumstances are right; they’re a double-edged sword. I deplore the sausage-machine approach (the minute grade 3 has been achieved, a spanking new copy of the grade 4 pieces is magically prised out, like a rabbit from a hat, with no time for consolidation, reflection, fun…).

Competitions are a rather different ballgame – these are for your more go-getter types who have probably already shown considerable aptitude in grades and/or festivals, and are now looking for something with a bit more ‘edge’ to keep them on their toes. But, with every winner there will be, by necessity, a whole bunch who did not win (or are ‘working towards’, to borrow a more politically correct term). Teachers ought to guard against exposing their pupils to less than positive experiences, and they should be continually guarded to the less than helpful influence parents can unwittingly bring to the situation. Whereas few parents would attempt to influence the strategy of, say, an A level maths teacher, some feel qualified to steer the piano teacher down avenues they’d rather not go, resulting in a less than happy outcome. All of this adds to the teacher’s lot, I’m afraid; ultimately, it’s about maintaining diplomacy and compassion, while keeping the pupil at the heart of it all.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students? 

For beginners, I feel lessons ought to be about helping them to fall in love with the sound of the piano – its vast range of effects, colours, idioms and styles. For this reason, I am a fan of demonstrating a lot in lessons – it’s not really showing off, so much as showing the instrument in the best possible light, to help them to recognise good playing when they hear it and to want to move towards that in their own playing. I’m not too fussed about introducing notation, not for quite a bit longer into the process than is seen as conventional. I believe that learning to read music is, especially for younger beginners, a big, unnecessary distraction that could easily wait until it is properly needed – in other words, I advocate the learning of notation on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis. After all, learning to play and learning to read are two quite separate things, notwithstanding the collision course that eventually occurs once they are properly up and running. I’d draw the line at an overly Suzuki approach however – the minute reading music shows the potential to become more of a help than a hindrance, it ought to find its way into the teaching. After all, we learn to speak years before we learn to write, and we learn to enjoy food years before we learn how to follow a recipe, so what’s the big rush with learning to read music?

With advanced students, I reckon there is generally still too much emphasis on whizzy-fingered playing. Technique is relatively easy to teach, in the scheme of things, and so teachers may be tempted to place undue emphasis on it, even when it ought to be clear there are more important musical issues still to resolve. My maxim is: come to an understanding of what you wish to achieve musically, and only then get to work on the technical procedures needed to make these achievable. The ‘notes-per-minute’ card can become a distraction from what I call ‘grown up’ piano playing, by which I mean things like chord-voicing (how many pianists, even at diploma level, know what that is?) and acquiring an understanding of what makes the music ‘tick’. There seems to be a prevailing confusion that pianists play, composers compose and analysts analyse, but I believe this to be too simplistic and ultimately somewhat limiting. A pianist who is really able to get to the soul of a piece has, perhaps instinctively, come pretty close to feeling what the composer felt when s/he wrote it. There has to be a measure of structural awareness therefore underpinning the playing, even if there is a shortfall in the ability to articulate it. It annoys me when people derive pleasure from referring to certain jazz pianists as non-readers, as though this in some way absolves them of the need to acquire high-level reading/analytical skills. (Besides, although Oscar Peterson didn’t read music, he understood it more profoundly than most).

Furthermore, only rarely do advanced students seem to be the ‘complete’ musician. Your average grade eight pianist wouldn’t be capable of playing a simple Christmas carol by ear in the key of B major without several minutes grappling and swearing, which I think means we as teachers must be overlooking this type of skill in favour of a more one-dimensional approach. I wish, too, that advanced players were more regularly encouraged by their teachers to measure their accomplishments in relation to the quality of what they are producing, rather than the self-evident complexity of the dots scattered over the paper. If a teacher were to suggest to a teenage boy that, despite having already gained his grade seven he might consider performing a grade five piece in public, I suspect a typical reaction would be that this is some kind of insult to his manliness, or at any rate, an inferred retrograde step. Surely, advanced players are so because they bring a heightened musical intelligence, stylistic awareness and flexibility of technique to their playing, and this should at all costs not be confused with being able to race through a piece at top speed with hurdles tumbling at every stride.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching? 

I’m guessing you are asking whether it is possible to teach the art of performance? If so – yes! (…and no…). I reckon it’s the case that teachers can only hope to tease out what is already there to be brought out. By the same token, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Having said that, I once had a pupil who gained a distinction in her grade 8 piano exam (mind you, it took her over a year to prepare the pieces) and only by applying every single nuance, tenuto, pedal effect that I handed to her on a plate. Left to her own devices, she demonstrated an alarming incapacity for artistry, but because she was bright, an attentive observer and a hard worker, she acquitted herself very well in the exam, and I remember feeling that she deserved her success. (I can’t help feeling, however, that if I’d handed her three similar pieces and put her on a desert island for another year without any help, she would revert to type: a grade 8 pianist going on grade 5).

With pupils on the cusp of giving recitals in public, I spend quite a bit of time on ‘owning the moment’, i.e. how long to wait before taking the first bow, how to create the right atmosphere before the first note is played, how fast to walk on and off the stage, etc. The theatrical element is, after all, an integral part of what goes into creating an impression with an audience, and even with very polished players it all needs properly tackling until it begins to feel natural. I also spend quite a bit of time working on memorising, programme building, developing sufficient stamina and generally getting to grips with the finer details that go into making a memorable performance.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

Among my favourite pianists would have to be Ivo Pogorelich, Murray Perahia and Howard Shelley. All three place artistry and finesse high up the agenda, but (certainly in the case of Pogorelich) in rather different ways. Technical aspects are so thoroughly embedded into their playing that one barely notices things like notes, just the larger musical gestures that add up to a persuasive personal account. I generally dislike players who possess an overly heavy foot (no names!) – after all, we play the piano with our fingers, not our feet, and that the sustain pedal is as likely to contaminate the sound as to assist it (ditto vibrato for singers, incidentally – and, rather like chilli powder, a little goes a long way). I also find it difficult to enjoy piano playing when it seems overly encumbered by exaggerated body movements in order to justify a massive rubato, especially when, in a recording, the visual element is no longer there to help us understand what on earth is happening.

Mark Tanner will be teaching at the following summer schools in 2013:

Chetham’s International Summer School for Pianists: 20th-26th August

Mark Tanner was born in Bristol in 1963. His first tentative solo appearance at Bristol’s Colston Hall, aptly described as “intrepid” by the Bristol Evening Post, came at the tender age of 13, and shortly after he appeared on BBC TV, playing Liszt. Studying piano with Philip Martin, Richard McMahon and Geoffrey Buckley, Mark gained his PhD from the Birmingham Conservatoire; he was awarded their honorary degree in 2009. He has appeared in many of Britain’s most celebrated recital halls, including five consecutive appearances at Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and St John’s Smith Square in London, as well as a number of prominent educational establishments including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, RWCMD, Birmingham Conservatoire and Chethams International Summer School for Pianists. With duo partner Allan Schiller, Mark appeared at St George’s Bristol as part of the Mozart 250 celebrations; he has appeared there on many other occasions besides. He is a popular recitalist onboard cruise liners around the globe, including the entire Cunard, P&O and SAGA fleets, having now given several hundred recitals at sea, many of which have been with flautist partner Gillian Poznansky; the duo’s recording of music by Graham Lynch was chosen as an ‘Outstanding’ disc of the month in International Record Review and is broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 3. Together they have premiered several important new works at Wigmore Hall and elsewhere, with recent recitals at festivals in Spain and Denmark. Mark has broadcast several premières live on BBC Radio 3, and his many recordings have attracted consistently high critical acclaim. Of his York Bowen double-disc, Bryce Morrison wrote:

“Tanner’s performances are magnificent. Most pianists would give an arm and a leg, or at least a finger, to achieve his sumptuous sonority and seamless legato…such enviable breadth and poetic commitment.”
­­GRAMOPHONE

Mark has contributed hundreds of reviews and articles for International Record Review, Classical Music, Musical Opinion, International Piano and Piano Professional. He has also published scholarly articles in the USA and UK, including 19th Century Music and the Liszt Society Journal, and edited several contemporary scores for Peters Edition and Europa Edition. For Spartan Press he has published thirty albums of original music and a piano-friendly edition of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book in a much lauded new graded series. As a trainer and international examiner of grades and diplomas for ABRSM, Mark has undertaken tours to all five continents; he adjudicates festivals for the British and International Federation of Festivals and on three occasions judged the EPTA Piano Competition; he has given numerous lectures on a diverse range of subjects, as well as masterclasses in the UK, Europe and mainland China.

For sixteen years Mark was Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset; he has now been active in music education for some 30 years and is currently a visiting lecturer of piano and composition at University College, Falmouth. He also enjoys preparing students for diplomas, college entry and recitals from his homes in Cornwall and Somerset. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of Mensa, and his first novel, Life on Mars? A Catinel’s Chance was published by Llama Press; with it he undertook a successful book-signing tour of Waterstone’s stores.

Mark Tanner’s website

David Nelson

***The inaugural Hebden Bridge Piano Festival, conceived by David Nelson, takes place from 19-21 April.

Further information and tickets here***

What is your first memory of the piano?

Age 5 picking out tunes on a neighbour’s piano. She encouraged my parents to get me an instrument. To this day I’m not sure whether she recognised my innate talent -or whether she just needed me to make that row in my own home!

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? Nothing really: I just wondered whether I could do it. Made a start and found that I could.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? My current teacher, concert pianist Paul Roberts. Also Katerina Wolpe at Morley College.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

Probably all the other musical things I do in addition to playing Classical music. So…jazz, pop, world music, playing guitar and bass, singing, writing music and lots more. All these things  help explain music differently and sometimes better than more formal routes, and add  vibrancy and colour to lessons (and to the music too)

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

The moment a student plays beautifully for the first time – in their piece, or in their lives perhaps. That’s when you know it’s all been worthwhile!

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Keeping them going! They often demotivate when other aspects of their lives get tough. Musically: bridging the gap between what their highly formed musical minds know the music should go like –  and what their fingers are actually able to do!

What do you expect from your students?

Their best.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? I don’t really have a view on these things. I have a view as to whether they might benefit or be detrimental to the progress of each individual student which is based on their own needs, wishes and abilities.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Perhaps the holistic nature of the intervallic relationship between notes. We read, see, hear, and (at the piano) feel them too. Oh, and rhythm obviously. I think these things might be the same regardless of the ability of the student.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

It’s all good: I love it! Worst thing is when good students leave (for whatever reason)

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

Those who are inspirational, with a good sense of humour and infinite patience! Their ability to go deeper into the heart of the music, but into the microcosmic detail too

David Nelson has been teaching piano for over 25 years, giving lessons to hundreds of students/pianists both in London and in West Yorkshire. A sizeable number of these have gone on to become professional performers or teachers, whilst others have become influential in jazz and popular music. Many others have continued to play long after their lessons had ceased and value the life-enhancing qualities of such activity.

More about David Nelson at www.piano40.co.uk

 

What is your first memory of the piano?

I don’t think I’d really come across the piano seriously until I started school. I was very lucky to go to schools where music was a valued and important part, not just of the curriculum, but of the life of the school. At the infant school I attended, the headmistress was musical, and the deputy head played the piano; after I’d seen her play, I was hooked! I started lessons shortly after, and nearly 25 years on, I’m still in touch with that teacher; I’m always pleased to be able to go back to her and say “You’re the one who started it all off…”

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Like many teachers, I ‘fell’ into teaching almost by accident. When I was in the 6th Form at school, I was asked by a friend at church who knew I played whether I’d be willing to teach her daughter. Reluctantly, I agreed, and within a couple of years, several other pupils had come via the same route. Initially, I didn’t see teaching as a job, or even a career; the inspiration for teaching didn’t come until several years later when I no doubt concluded that maybe it was a good idea! Although it’s had many ‘ups and downs’, I’m glad I made the decision to continue, and I still thoroughly enjoy it. I was lucky to have had good teachers at all the schools I attended and I suppose that my inspiration would rest with several of them.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

There have been so many… As I mentioned earlier, I attended schools where music was seen as important; whether the teachers were musical or not was largely irrelevant as they all supported and encouraged us, whatever we chose to do. The larger-than-life music teacher at the grammar school I attended certainly proved a lot about the value of music. In the days before any sorts of government initiatives, he found no problems in organizing school concerts several times a year; 90% of the boys, right through from Years 7 to 13 took part in the choirs who sung. Although I had some misgivings about the academic side of his teaching, there was no denying his passion for music and I feel very grateful for having experienced such an inspiring foundation to my musical studies.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

It has to be the pupils themselves; without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Their enthusiasm, commitment and enjoyment have shaped my teaching over the past 11 years, and I’m enormously grateful for the support they’ve given me.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I have always been concerned that learning an instrument should be about more than the weekly one-to-one lesson. Some of my most memorable experiences have come from events such as concerts and workshops in which pupils have had the chance to work with and share their music with other pupils. In addition to these, there will also be particular pupils who’ve been both significant and memorable (not always for the right reasons!). It might have been their personalities (giving the sight-singing test back to examiner and saying “I don’t like this one, can I have another one” must surely rank high on the list!) or their individual achievements.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Whilst I know not all teachers feel the same, I thoroughly enjoy teaching adults; currently, around 80% of my pupils are adult learners. They do present their own particular challenges and it’s often necessary to take a different approach to the one you might take when teaching children. I’m always very conscious that as well as the time and financial outlay required for learning an instrument, there’s an enormous emotional investment to be made too. Many adults, particularly those coming to it later in life, have already been successful in their chosen careers; starting again learning something from scratch requires an almost infinite amount of patience (also on the part of the teacher too!). It can be very frustrating, and as a teacher, you have to strike the balance between enjoyment, encouragement and progress.

What do you expect from your students?

Above all, to get anywhere with learning an instrument, you have to be committed; there is no denying that enjoyment and progress will be lacking for those whose music doesn’t feature regularly in their everyday lives. I’m keen that all pupils take some responsibility for their learning; after all, for most, the lesson itself accounts for a tiny percentage of the time in each week. Overall, I want to ensure that pupils remain adaptable, that they’re open to new ideas and that they retain a willingness to experiment.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Generally, not all pupils wish to take exams and I entirely respect their decision. That said, and without me exerting any pressure, I’ve come across very few who don’t wish for an independent assessment of their ability at some stage or another. We are very lucky that there are so many options out there in terms of external assessments. While a large number of pupils still follow traditional graded exams, many have opted for other assessments such as the LCM Leisure Play exams and the ABRSM’s Performance Assessment. I want any exam taken to be as positive an experience as possible, and therefore it’s very important to match the requirements of the pupil to the exam most suited to them. I am very clear though that I do not teach to exams; where required, I use exams along the way as a benchmark for progress, but they do not form the basis for my teaching.

For me, I have never seen music in a competitive sense and so I have mixed feelings about festivals and competitions. As a child learning the piano, these weren’t things I was exposed to and consequently, they’re not something I’ve explored with my own pupils. Unfortunately, even when I’ve sought to look into these options further, I heard too many negative stories which only went to further put me off! I’m sure there are some fantastic festivals and competitions out there… For me, music is a sharing activity, whether that is playing in an exam, performing in a concert or simply entertaining family and friends.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

For me, above all, the most important concept, whatever the level, is that the learning should be enjoyable. That’s not to say that it’s always going to be easy and that we’re only going do the things the pupil wants to do, but that we should never lose sight of the wider enjoyment of not just our chosen instrument, but of music in a much more general sense.

I am particularly concerned that beginners need a good grounding in basic musicianship. The ability to understand, explain and experience such basic concepts as pitch, pulse and rhythm is hugely important and paves the way for far quicker progress in the future. I’m particularly interested in the way in which Dalcroze and Kodaly principles can be introduced into the individual lesson, and whilst I don’t advocate any one method over another, I feel that they have an important role to play. In terms of the piano itself, a solid technical foundation is important; this is what I lacked when I had lessons. Such basic concepts as posture, hand shape and arm weight will provide the pupil with a real solid basis for future progress.

When it comes to more advanced students, this becomes a harder question to answer. The important concepts which need to be imparted will largely depend on their own particular needs at that time. Generally, as pupils progress there is likely to be a greater emphasis placed on interpretation and musicality. There’s still a lot of technical work to cover, and as the pieces become more demanding, the more pupils need a solid technical foundation to support and underpin their playing.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

The most satisfying part of the job has to be seeing pupils achieve things which they didn’t think were possible. This is particularly the case for adult learners where the littlest step forward is often a huge milestone. I have always been concerned that above all, pupils should be enabled to reach their potential: for some it will be that elusive Grade 8 distinction, and for others it might be simply playing a piece in front of other people.

Teaching isn’t as rosy as perhaps people think it might be! Private teaching is a lonely business, and this combined with the inevitably unsociable hours means that it’s hard to maintain any kind of work-life balance. People often tell me how wonderful it must be to be able to do something I love, to be able to work from home, and to be able to pick and choose my work as if choosing from a menu…I doubt that many have experienced the world of self-employment. The uncertainty and lack of stability which this brings can be overwhelming. For 99% of pupils, music lessons are a luxury, and when money’s tight, it’s often the first thing to fall by the wayside. As a teacher, you have to attempt to be everything to everybody; you’re not just a teacher, but also an accountant, marketing specialist, record-keeper, researcher, mediator and a whole host of other things too…it’s hard work!

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

I suppose that in a very twee sort of way, I enjoy teaching music which inspires pupils. I want them to enjoy the pieces they’re learning and I want to ensure that each piece presents something with which they can engage with. In terms of my own playing, I enjoy a whole host of things; if I like a piece, I’ll probably learn it but very rarely do I get fixated on having to play all the works of one single composer. For many years I was led to believe that you weren’t a ‘proper’ pianist if you didn’t play ‘this’ sort of music, or music by ‘that’ composer. Now I enjoy the music for what it is and am not in the slightest bit bothered about whether I’m considered a ‘proper’ pianist! At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying the piano music of Ernest Moeran which is much-neglected!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

I suspect it’s a generation thing, but I don’t really have favourites. I’m probably more interested in the music, and will simply look for a recording which I like. I rarely buy recordings because it’s a particularly artist. Come to think of it, I’m the same with concerts; I look first at what’s being played, then at who’s playing it! I’ve seen many pianists over the years, but for me, the versatility and sensitivity of Imogen Cooper stands out.


David Barton runs a busy private studio in Lichfield, Staffordshire where he has taught flute, piano and singing for the past 11 years. In addition, he is a piano accompanist and composer, with music published in the UK, USA and Canada. More information about David’s work can be found at www.davidbartonmusic.co.uk

The first in an occasional series of interviews with piano teachers – and I am delighted to launch this new series with an interview with acclaimed pianist and teacher Philip Fowke.

Philip Fowke

What is your first memory of the piano?

My first memory of the piano was when my parents bought an upright for my sister Alison who was beginning to learn the piano. I can recall it coming into the house quite clearly and I must have been about 4 years old. I was fascinated by it from the start and its grinning mouth of keys. At my first school, Milford, in Gerrards Cross, the headmistress, Miss France, used to play the piano for hymns and music classes. I can remember watching her hands and the way the keys went down. It is a vivid memory and it was Miss France who first encouraged me to play and gave me my first lessons. Initially, I did everything by ear and taught myself simple harmonisations of well known tunes like ‘The British Grenadiers’. I remember playing this during break to all the other children as we had our regulation bottle of milk.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

Miss France, whom I mentioned above, was my first encounter with a piano teacher and she set me on the road. However, she felt I needed a more qualified teacher and she arranged for me to have an audition with Marjorie Withers who also lived in Gerrards Cross. She was an outstanding musician and teacher and I went to her when I was seven. It was she who really inspired me and had a gift for giving me pieces which really excited me. She also encouraged my playing popular tunes and improvising. I was heavily into Russ Conway, Winifred Atwell and Joe Henderson in those days and could do a passing imitation of them. At Downside School, where I boarded from 1964 to 1967, I also had remarkable teachers in Roger Bevan, the Director of Music, Lionel Calvert and Peter Matthews

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching? 

I have mentioned the teachers I had as a boy and they all had influences on me, most notably Marjorie Withers. It was really she who laid the foundations of such technique as I may have, and who instilled in me the discipline of practice and ways in which to make it creative and effective. She was also a fine pianist herself and was well able to demonstrate, quite dazzlingly as it seemed to me, Chopin Studies, bits of Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Grieg, and numerous other composers. Her attitude, her sense of fun and celebration of the music deeply influenced me

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

Initially the pressures of having to earn a few pennies was quite an incentive to start giving lessons to local children and one or two adults. However, I do recall helping a friend at school, of no particular pianistic talent, to play a piece he was struggling with. I remember feeling a strong desire to help him conquer what seemed to be insurmountable difficulties! However, it was Gordon Green at the Royal Academy of Music who was the chief musical and pianistic inspiration and who continues to exert an extraordinary influence on me and many others who had the good fortune to study with him.  His philosophy was to allow young people to develop at their own pace in their own time. Not for him the pressures of competitions, rushed learning and the resulting stress and misery which can follow. He used to say that his concern was not how you played today, but how you would play in ten years’ time. His wisdom, gentleness and encouragement enabled many of his students to go on to achieve considerable success. He was neither possessive nor ambitious except in the sense of wishing students to be balanced, fulfilled human beings who happened to play an instrument.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

There are many issues but one is the tendency to choose too challenging a repertoire. Also nerves and confidence. Then there is physical condition, i.e. muscular flexibility. This can be very variable. In general my approach is always to build positively on whatever the situation presents. It is all too easy to be inadvertently discouraging and negative. Always be upbeat and positive. Quite often there have been bad, even traumatic experiences with past teachers and this can result in a general crisis of confidence which has never been fully addressed. Inevitably there is a tremendous legacy of vulnerability which must be handled with sensitivity and gentleness. The early lessons need to be a form of therapy with a bit of piano occasionally thrown in with no strings attached preferably! I often start with a course of simple exercises which involve the entire keyboard….a kind of embrace and bonding with the keys. It is also important do some simple pre-keyboard exercises, standing, bending stretching and relaxed breathing. It is also good to be aware of the prevalent danger of “wishful listening”. This is very common and accounts for attempting to play pieces before they have been sufficiently prepared and studied. The trouble is, a habit forms whereby the student doesn’t hear what’s actually being played, but hears an imaginary and vastly edited version which sounds, to their ears, acceptable…only it isn’t!

What do you expect from your students? 

Expectations vary especially between college students and amateur adults. Inevitably more is expected from a young person embarking on a professional life of a musician. In the case of adult amateurs, those doing it for pleasure in such time as they have available, different expectations arise. I take each person as they are, as circumstances allow, and work within those parameters. However, I do always work at simple strategies which, if followed closely, can save endless hours of needless repetition…..which unfortunately so much so called “practice” can often be. An issue which often arises is the one of that dreaded word “tension”. I make a point of never using the word preferring to ask whether the students feels “comfortable” in a particular passage. Invariably the answer is uncomfortable, so I suggest that together we find a more comfortable way of doing it. This, in itself, reduces tightness and anxiety. To simply say ”that looks tense” exacerbates the problem and is, in my view,  poor teaching psychology. I have found that many tension issues have not been addressed simply because the symptoms have been treated and not the cause. A tight wrist can be the result of weak fingers or an impractical fingering. It’s amazing what an unconventional fingering or a cunning redistribution can achieve…let alone the discreet omission of troublesome notes which can barely be heard. I rather hear fewer notes comfortably and confidently played than more, scrambled!

Another issue is the release of notes, usually caused by the notion that everything must be legato fingering. The horror of letting go and allowing the pedal to help in appropriate situations, is a real psychological and physical difficulty. The traditional tyranny has taught that not doing legato fingering is a mortal sin. There are ways of achieving legato other than holding on to notes in distorted and twisted ways which make a horrid sound and cause great discomfort. In saying this, I do not wish to mean that legato fingering is of no importance…. it is essential, but a realistic balance needs to be found and allowed for. Too often I encounter “off the peg” fingering – one size fits all. Only it doesn’t!

In general I find with adults, as with the younger generation, stretch and extension exercises have not been addressed. Fingers operate in isolation with one another. I encourage a dialogue between all the fingers so that they can get to know one another. Coordination exercises also can be of great benefit. So often fingers are complete strangers to one another, and rather hostile ones at that! Explore movement; find the slip roads on to the motorway. Ski, fly, grope the keys. When fingering, explore options, be daring. Give the fingers a choice. Within a very short time they will make their own decision….. and a good one provided they have the initial choice. Let the miserable, bald battery fingers out of their cages to roam free, grow feathers and lay big fat brown eggs. They’ll make a better sound. I call it Fowke’s Free Range Fingering. Your fingers will smile in gratitude and relief scuttling off into pastures new and sunlit glades.

Don’t get stuck on slow practice. Practice above tempo in short bursts, strong beat to strong beat to learn movements and gestures which can help the keyboard choreography. Practising slowly, though essential at all stages, does need an antidote. There can be a danger of practising to play slowly. Similarly with hands separate practice.

Practice pianissimo, or on the surface of the keys. Too much practice is too loud and too fast. Listen in your head. A good maxim, though not invariable,  is to practice loud passages pianissimo, and piano passages forte. Similarly, practice slow movements quickly and quick movements slowly. Play in different registers, crossed hands, even in different keys. Muck about. Practising can be like a kitten teasing a ball of wool. I always remember Shura Cherkassky saying to me that if I heard him practice, I wouldn’t think he could play the piano. This made an indelible impression on me at the time and beautifully describes real practice…. a craft that has to be carefully honed. Learn to dismantle a piece down to the tiniest component

We press keys down, but do we consider the release? Same with the pedal. Practice the sustaining pedal with the left foot. Concentrates the mind and ear wonderfully!

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

Very mixed. They all have their place but in my view far too much emphasis is put on the competitive element and too little on the musical and artistic elements. Performing in public has become an international sport and the list of sporting casualties and injuries grows proportionately. We need to review the number and regularity of some of these major competitions…..and the way the media promotes them. As to exams, again they have their place, but it is noteworthy that countries where the graded system does not exist produces playing of a singularly and consistently high order from an early age.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students? 

This is difficult to condense into a few simple sentences. If I have one thing to say it is that so many pianists of whatever age, ability and experience have little concept of the keyboard. They have never been encouraged to explore it, to improvise, to be allowed to make nasty noises eventually leading to rather more beautiful sounds. An intrinsic fear lies at the core of so much playing; fear of wrong notes, fear of going wrong. All this is caused by a basic lack of harmonic awareness, a hazy knowledge of scales and arpeggios, and an inability to busk and improvise. Teachers pass on their own fear as they themselves were never encouraged to improvise to play with the keyboard rather than on it. The tyrannical pull of middle C reigns supreme I fear!

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job? 

I’m not sure I can answer this. Teaching is not exactly a job for me, more a mission. I simply want to explode myths, to enable and to explore, to reveal the keyboard as more than an extension of middle C

What is your favourite music to teach? To play? 

Well, of course it is always a pleasure to work on familiar core repertoire. However, I do enjoy the challenge of unfamiliar scores which nobody has issues with, received opinions and which no one has ever heard before!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

This is dangerous territory and one I have consistently tried to avoid!

Is there a link between teaching and performing? 

It has been said that performers don’t make good teachers. Well, this is true in some cases but certainly not all. Equally I know of some good teachers who don’t, and never have to any significant degree, performed in public. However, having said that, the experience of performing, the physical and psychological act, does possibly lend one’s teaching an element of realism and practicality. Knowledge and respect for the score is well and good, but how to deliver it? What I describe as health and safety editions with their plethora of notes and commentaries, foot and note disease, can be daunting. Nothing is left to chance and this can inhibit performance rather than inform it. Performing in public can give a teacher the insight into that which is to be aspired to, that which is feasible, and the experience to make the choice.

Philip Fowke, known for his many BBC Promenade Concert appearances, numerous recordings and broad range of repertoire performed worldwide, is currently Senior Fellow of Keyboard at Trinity College of Music.

He is also known for his teaching, coaching and tutoring in which he enjoys exploring students’ potential, encouraging them to develop their own individuality. He is a regular tutor at the International Shrewsbury Summer School as well as at Chethams Summer School.

Conductors with whom he has worked include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Rudolf Barshai, Tadaaki Otaka, Sir Simon Rattle, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Yuri Temirkanov and the late Klaus Tennstedt. He will shortly be recording piano works by Antony Hopkins CBE in celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday.

In addition to Philip Fowke’s many invitations to tutor at festivals, summer schools, and numerous lecture recitals, he will be appearing with The Prince Consort, a group founded by his former student Alisdair Hogarth. Their recent recording for Linn Records featuring works by Brahms and Stephen Hough, has received outstanding acclaim, and was nominated CD of the month by Gramophone Magazine. Future appearances include the Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, Cheltenham Festival and the Concertgebouw Amsterdam.