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

– Leonard Bernstein on Isabelle Vengerova

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

550gary-graffman-and-isabelle-vengerova
Isabelle Vengerova teaching a young Gary Graffman (Curtis Institute Archives)
Vengerova and Boulanger fit the traditional image of the master-teacher – didactic, autocratic, rigorous – and they were not the only teacher who struck awe, fear and reverence in the hearts of their students. Such teachers were – and continue to be – conferred with an almost god-like status.

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

– Anthony di Bonaventura, pianist

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

– Curtis Institute Archive

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or rapping the knuckles of a student with a ruler whenever they played a wrong note are, fortunately, largely outdated teaching practices which would not be tolerated today where a greater understanding of the psychology of learning and modern pedagogical methods has resulted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

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

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

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

Lang-Lang-and-Graffman-300x266
Lang Lang with his teacher Gary Graffman
Open-mindedness, generosity, empathy, respect and humility, the knowledge that, as a teacher, one does not “know everything”  and that one is prepared to acknowledge one’s own limitations are all facets of a truly great teacher.

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

– Lang Lang on his teacher Gary Graffman

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

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


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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

What is your first memory of the piano? 

I think I was about 6 or 7 when I first played a piano. I remember my mother taking my younger sister and me to visit one of our great aunts; there was a ‘piano in the parlour’ – the kind where the music stand appeared out of the lid at the top.  There was treasure trove in the piano stool – full of old volumes of folk tunes and hymn books.  These had tonic sol-fa written over the top; with a bit of help, I cracked the code, added some broken chord accompaniment by ear and away I went.  We adopted the piano and more formal lessons followed.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? 

A love for learning.  After I left school I went into the banking sector and sat financial exams while attending other arts evening classes.  I suppose I have always wanted to be involved in education and to put something back.  I qualified as a primary practitioner some twenty years ago with responsibility for leading music and literacy, which go together very well, but decided that I would leave full-time school teaching early to concentrate on piano and theory teaching.  Teaching itself provides the opportunity to learn. I had already taken up piano lessons seriously again as an adult and the diploma studies began.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Probably the first teacher who had a big influence on me was my high school teacher, Margaret Hemingway.  She had high expectations in terms of practice and preparation.  When I was preparing for the Advanced Certificate and LRSM, I had lessons with my daughter’s first teacher, Beverley Clark.  As I was teaching full time while studying for these, she was very supportive; it felt more like a mentoring relationship.   The late Bernard Roberts stands out for me too.  He remarked on the positive before going on to say, “Now let’s see if we can just…”  Exploring ways of producing the precise tone you wanted to hear was something he passed on to me.  He had a wonderful laugh – “Ha! Yes! That’s it!”

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

Watching professional performances plays an important role, but I would say that students have the most influence, because they shape your approaches according to what they need. Apart from my own teachers, there are those I have met over the years with whom I have shared experiences and ideas.  Conferences and courses are always good for such meetings and for opportunities to gather notes and resources; I try to attend something every year at least. Piano teaching can be an isolated profession, so it’s good to get out there and meet like-minded people so that your teaching can evolve.  Now we have social media, the learning net is cast even wider…

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

It’s difficult to choose, because every week brings something special, but I suppose they would have to include:

  • When a beaming student comes to the next lesson, saying their practice went really well;
  • Helping a student to find a way around a persistent issue, be it fingerings, note accuracy or a tricky rhythm;
  • A great lesson with a student who has special educational needs;
  • The 75 year-old who was finally confident enough to be able to play the Rachmaninov Prelude and Brahms Intermezzo he’d always wanted to perform for his family

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

Adults aren’t necessarily driven to pass exams and qualify like younger students – they want to be the best they can and as such are highly motivated.  Experienced players appreciate new ways of practising and will discuss issues of interpretation, sometimes challenging you.  Some beginners have high expectations because they are adults, and want things to be perfect; conversely some arrive with self-imposed limitations and are really pleased to discover what they can achieve.  Having to fit in practice with family and work commitments is something I empathise with.  Some of my most rewarding lessons have been with adult learners who rediscover the joy of playing.

What do you expect from your students? 

Commitment to the lesson and to practising regularly – if necessary I mention the 10,050 minutes in a week that they aren’t with me.  I ask them how they organise their practice time around everything else so they see that it can be done if they manage time well – it’s an important life skill anyway. I want them to talk to me about ‘ups and downs’ so we know how to progress.  I expect them to listen when required in the lesson and to every sound they make when practising.  I want to develop all-round musicianship skills, so engaging in learning activities other than ‘fingers on the keys’, for example aural work and creating tableaux, is a must.  I like to involve parents where students are very young.  In general, it’s important that all show a willingness to take part in music events outside the lesson, be it a performance of their own or a visit to one.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams can be a great incentive to achieve high standards and are a useful way to obtain feedback.  Some students work best when they have such structure in their timetables, too.  However, they’re not the ‘be-all and end-all’, and we only embark on an exam syllabus if the student wants to. All three platforms give a student the opportunity to perform and develop confidence.  Uncompetitive festivals with friendly audiences and performing in front of peers at school or as part of extended lessons are great occasions in which to develop artistry.  Competitive festivals can be a bit of a hot potato, depending on which side of the winning post you’re on. I’ve experienced elation and disappointment myself, as a performer, as a teacher and a parent.  I was awarded a piano scholarship at high school in the sixth form, and it’s great when you ‘win’ and your hard effort is rewarded, but winning seems such an odd concept in art; subjectivity always plays a part in adjudications.  Explaining to a youngster how they’ve missed out on a trophy by a narrow margin of marks can be quite hard, even with the ‘it’s all about the taking part’ platitude in advance. But it’s horses for courses – if a student is really serious about a performing career, then they are important, and just as time management is a life skill, so is dealing with competitive situations.

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

For beginners, developing a sense of pulse first, rhythmic subdivisions, independent fingers, wrist/arm alignment and posture.  Lessons should be fun and varied. The ‘Experience, Language, Pictures, Symbols’ progression that I learned as a primary practitioner still holds good on a 1:1 basis for instrumental beginners.  Pedalling techniques come in when they can be reached comfortably and this can be quite early on. More advanced students hopefully have a sound technique on which to develop communication of the music and a sense of style.  We sing a lot in lessons at all levels – the ability to breathe with the music is so important for phrasing, I think.

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

You have to practise what you preach to a certain degree, without doubt.  Even if you’re not a regular on the concert platform, then attending summer schools and other courses, where a performance element is included, is vital to your ability to teach aspects of it.  I have enjoyed masterclasses and performing ‘in turn’ during tutorial groups.  Also, if teachers experience any nerves, it helps them empathise with students and it can be a useful discussion topic.  These days, my ‘public’ performances are mainly accompaniments and I enjoy the feeling of performing ‘with’ others immensely.  I think that imparting enthusiasm for the playing the piano beautifully, whatever the situation, is one of the most important things a teacher does.

Who are your favourite pianists and why? 

Such a difficult one to answer!  I love to watch Paul Lewis play – he has such a relaxed yet thoughtful style and makes controlling the whole playing mechanism look effortless.  I could watch his performances of the Beethoven Concertos in the 2010 Prom season over and over…  I do admire Angela Hewitt’s Bach interpretations and listen to her playing before and during practice. As for modern pianists, Stephen Hough plays my favourite Rach 2 and Keith Jarrett’s piano improvisations are amazing – total commitment evident in both performers.

Diane Durbin BA (Hons) LRSM CTABRSM PGCE  is a private piano and music theory teacher and accompanist based in Lincolnshire.  After qualifying with a degree in English from the University of Nottingham, she went into primary teaching where she led music and literacy.  She gained the CTABRSM in 2000 and the LRSM (Piano Teaching) in 2002.  She also sings with Lincoln Cathedral Consort, The Hungate Singers and The Lincoln Chorale. You can find more information at:

http://www.dianedurbin.com

http://www.epta-uk.org

http://www.music-link.org/teachers

http://www.musicteachers.co.uk

http://www.twitter.com/DianePDurbin

As a follow up to my article An Image Crisis in Independent Piano Teaching?, in which I revealed the somewhat alarming results of my survey Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers, I would now like to explore ways in which independent piano teachers can improve the overall image of the profession. This will also tie in with a presentation I am giving at the Oxford Piano Group meeting at the end of the month at which we will be exploring ideas of “professionalism” within the field of piano teaching.

Music teaching in the UK has had a very bad press in recent years, with the disturbing revelations about child abuse, physical and emotional, in some of the top music schools and conservatoires. But even before the activities of certain teachers were brought to public attention, private instrumental teachers have suffered from negative stereotypes (“little old lady down the road”, “eccentric person with cats and cardigans”, and worse). The interesting thing about my survey was that the majority of respondents were independent piano teachers and it was they themselves who revealed these negative perceptions of the profession.  And yet many of the piano teachers I know are normal people, who run their teaching practices in an efficient and professional manner. As is usual in all walks of life, it is the minority of poor teachers who give the whole profession a bad name.

Rather than me write a long article in which I outline ways in which I think the profession can improve its image, I would very much welcome contributions from readers. Please feel free to leave comments below, or if you would prefer to respond privately, use the Contact page to get in touch with me. All responses will be treated in the strictest confidence.

Thank you in advance for your help.

I recently ran a survey, Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers, as part of some research for a paper I am writing to present at the Oxford Piano Group meeting at the end of this month. Originally intended to offer some insight into whether private and independent piano teachers regard themselves as “professionals”, the survey revealed some interesting and unsettling thoughts on how independent piano teachers perceive themselves generally, and how people outside the profession view them. The majority of respondents were independent/private piano teachers and it was their response to the question When you think of the typical private piano teacher, who teaches at home, what image immediately comes to mind?  which gave me significant pause for thought. See more on this below….

One of my ongoing issues is people not regarding what I do as a “professional” role, despite the fact that I adhere to many of the perceived definitions of the word “professional”: I am paid for my work, I hold professional qualifications, and I belong to several professional bodies. I also run my studio in an efficient and businesslike manner with clear terms and conditions regarding payment of fees etc, I market my studio effectively (website and social media), I participate in regular ongoing professional development, and know how to communicate and interact with my “clients” (my students and their parents). Discussions with friends and colleagues in the profession indicate I am not alone in this, and indeed this is one of the main aspects about which music teachers and musicians in general feel so denigrated: because we enjoy our work and (often) work from home, it is not perceived as “a proper job”, and as such, we are often undervalued, expected to work for low or no pay, and our job is regarded as some kind of eccentric hobby. Nevermind that many of us have undergone a long and specialist training, or have years of experience and an impressive track record of success.

One of the major problems of private piano teaching is that it is unregulated. This means anyone can set up as a piano teacher and recruit a few students. Other professionals – doctors, lawyers, accountants for instance – have their own professional/regulatory bodies, with professional exams, code of ethics, and so forth, which lends proper accreditation and gravitas to their role. Piano teachers can opt to join professional organisations such as the European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA) or the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), but membership is not compulsory and these bodies do not “regulate” nor inspect; they offer support, legal advice, continuing professional development, public liability insurance, busaries etc.

I would like to share the results of my survey, in the hope that this may encourage all independent piano teachers to consider how the profession is regarded and to support me in raising the profile of the private piano teacher.

Qualifications
What has the average piano teacher studied to teach in an independent studio?

Piano to grade 8 – 78%

Music theory to grade 8 – 37%

A-level music (or equivalent) – 45%

Music degree – 50%

Teaching diplomas – 46%

Performance diplomas – 43%

Piano pedagogy – 30%

These results interest me because I frequently come across the view that the private piano teacher should have attended music college or taken a degree in music, as a minimum qualification to teach. While I accept that a BMus or MMus (or equivalent international qualification) would be desirable, it is worth pointing out that not all conservatoire or university music courses offer a separate and/or specialist course in piano pedagogy; the main focus tends to be on performance, and music theory and history. Now, you might be the most talented, internationally-renowned pianist, but if you can’t communicate in both words and actions how to do it, you are not going to cut it as a teacher. Many professional musicians teach because they have to; but they are not necessarily the best teachers just because they have undergone a conservatoire training.

As an unregulated profession, there is no minimum standard qualification for independent piano teachers. Personally, I would like to see Grade 8 piano set as a minimum standard together with some other accreditation required and recognised by a body such as the ISM or EPTA.

Here is a teaching colleague of mine on the thorny issue of qualifications:

There is huge range of qualifications on offer, some of which test different things to others. I think in my experience, the usual thing, ‘qualifications do not necessarily a good teacher make’ stands true. All the qualifications I’ve done, I’ve done because they enhance and enrich my teaching rather than that they somehow make me look a better teacher. I’ve never once, in 13 years been asked about them anyway, and I find this quite common. Having worked with quite a few teaching diploma candidates, for example, it is clear which of them are using the qualification as a means to reflect on and evaluate their teaching skills, and those who want the piece of paper (and for the latter, the act of doing the qualification will have had little or no impact upon their actual teaching ability).

What are the main duties and responsibilities of an independent piano teacher?

100% of respondents stated that “teaching piano” is the main duty/responsibility of the independent piano teacher.

Preparing lessons – 87%

Collecting fees – 59%

Scheduling lessons – 73%

Preparing students for exams – 80%

Writing student reports/appraisals – 34%

Marketing the studio – 41%

Administration and recording keeping – 61%

Encouraging students – 91%

Keeping up with one’s professional development – 81%

I was interested to note that “collecting fees” did not receive a higher response, since conversations with colleagues, and my own experience, suggest that this is one of the more time-consuming (and irritating) aspects of the private piano teacher’s role, along with other general admin. Additional comments in response to this question included: dealing with parental expectations, keeping abreast of the current writing/thinking in piano teaching and pedagogy, taking lessons and playing/performing oneself, learning the music that students choose to play, informing students of interesting/relevant concerts and encouraging them to listen to music.

What non-musical skills do you think an independent piano teacher should have in order to teach successfully in a home studio?

Administration and organisational skills – 87%

Computer skills – 53%

Business skills – 57%

Knowledge of learning styles and how to accommodate them – 86%

People skills – 95%

An ability to challenge and motivate students – 96%

Patience – 96%

A sense of humour – 84%

Communication and writing skills – 71%

The responses to these three questions above suggest that independent piano teachers have a clear idea of what the job entails, and what skills are necessary in order to fulfil the role.

In response to the question Do you consider private piano teaching to be a “profession”?  91% agreed with this statement, while 7% did not. 2% responded “Don’t know”. When asked to qualify their responses, the following comments were made:

It’s a hobby, even if a full-time living, and never feels like a ‘real’ job. It’s up to the teacher to be self-motivated and conscientious if he/she wants to do a good job of it, though, but it’s increasingly a peripheral and quaint thing to do in life.

No [it’s not a “profession”], in that there are no recognised entry qualifications, no regulation and no career progression.

It doesn’t command any respect, people think it’s a hobby, not a vocation.

Depends on qualifications

What attributes and/or qualifications do you think define a private piano teacher as a “professional”?

Qualifications (e.g. music degree, education degree, performance or teaching diplomas) – 95%

Experience – 80%

A career as a professional performing musician – 25%

Ongoing professional development – 71%

Self-motivation – 50%

Good business skills – 36%

Additional comments in response to this question:

Success in motivating, teaching and helping students grow – not just musically, but personally, as well

I am constantly baffled as to why some piano teachers are not part of a union or professional body

Understanding of child development and basic psychology (we teach adults too)

A ‘professional’ attitude to practicalities such as studio policy, having insurance. Planning lessons

An ability and willingness to perform up to something resembling professional levels, but not necessarily having a professional performance career.

When you think of the typical private piano teacher, who teaches at home, what image immediately comes to mind?

It is the largely negative responses to this question which have given me most pause for thought. Remember, the majority of respondents are independent piano teachers – these comments are their view of how our profession is perceived by others:

Probably an older, rather eccentric female

Someone who is probably not properly qualified

Old lady next door, cardigan, cats, musical erasers

Someone who is not really up to the job- who isn’t fully trained or a professional musician and has realised they can make a quick buck teaching piano. Someone who is kind and nice to the children and parents but ultimately unaware that they are teaching bad technique often and not aware of the rigours of quality music-making

Not a profession but a religion!

Someone who is keen to develop people in their creativity and understanding of music. They love what they do, and teach it because they themselves love to play and be creative.

A mum who used to play…..has kids and needs a bit of extra money

I divide it into two types: Those that live and breathe the piano, and those for which it is a “nice little hobby”.

Someone who has Grade 8 or Diploma in performance. Teaches pupils for the exam they are working on, leaving ear training and background knowledge until the week before the exam. May be a great performer.

It used to be a woman in her 40s or 50s sitting, slightly seriously, beside a wide-eyed child at an upright piano. Things have moved on now and I know teachers across a wide demographic.

Interestingly, when I asked two professional pianists who also teach (one privately, one in a university music department) how they are perceived by their students and parents of their students, I received the following replies:

I find that my students and parents treat me as ‘highly professional’ due to the calibre of my performing engagements. This is completely unrelated, however, to any ability I might or might not possess as a teacher. The latter comes from studying and working in the field for over thirty years, from discussions with psychologists and other instrumental teachers – and trial and error.

I find that generally (with a few exceptions) teaching within an establishment [a British university] one does get the appropriate respect and indeed, as instrumental teachers, most of the students treat us as being on a par with the other academic staff. The only private teaching that I do (at the moment) is on a consultation basis, so people (generally parents of talented late teenagers or sometimes young professionals themselves) approach me because of what I’ve done or because they’ve actually heard me in concert. I guess that generally means that one has already overcome the hurdle of being respected and the people involved do therefore treat one as ‘professional’. But this is less about qualifications/prizes won….

Do you have any memorable anecdotes about the perception your students, their parents, or someone outside the profession has had about the independent piano teacher or the job of teaching from a private home studio?

Parents of new students think often of piano teaching as a simple, stress free and lucrative job. Parents of older students realize it’s a profession, that requires knowledge, competence and constant learning on the part of the teacher.

Thinking I’m a part-timer. – Believing I deserve less professional respect. For instance: paying me late, assuming I want to babysit their kids, wanting to switch times when a plumber/electrician wouldn’t put up with their crap. This might be a bit controversial, but I think part of the problem lies in the fact that as a profession, there are very little “benchmarks” or “guidelines” to guide absolutely everybody in a uniform fashion, even within unions and professional bodies. For instance, there are some piano teachers who may put up with late payment because they feel they don’t have a choice, or other teachers who allow pupils to switch times and cancel at the very last minute. This makes others believe all piano teachers are the same. I think this freedom and flexibility to operate is a positive, but if you compare to say, the GMC (General Medical Council) or BMA (British Medical Association), they are a lot more stringent and dogmatic about what their members should and should not do as professionals.

“What do you do for a living?” (Parent couldn’t believe this was my job)

Once a mother pulled her son out of lessons because I was getting too skilled and teaching too much and she just wanted him to read notes. I told her I was allowed to grow too

As organizer of a local piano competition and representative of a teaching union, I sat down to check a piano was in tune and the stool was at the right height at the start of the competition day, only for a parent to ask “so you actually play the piano then? Like properly!” Made me smile for hours.

One piano parent asked me and my colleague Claire “So what do you want to be when you are older?” whilst she was sat in my private piano teaching practice which I rent and run as a business.

I am troubled by these largely negative comments and the recurrence of the word “hobby” in relation to piano teaching. The perception, expressed by teachers themselves, that the role is not valued nor regarded as a proper professional job is very evident in these responses. While the stereotypical view of the private piano teacher as a little old lady down the road is fading, there is a still a strong perception that the private piano teacher is doing the job for “pin money”, or because they can’t get a “better” job. I find this view deeply depressing: I take my job very seriously and adopt a professional attitude to every aspect of my work (the fact that I also enjoy it a great deal is an added bonus). How do we change this attitude into a positive perception of piano teachers as highly skilled and professional people? I believe that the impetus must come from within the profession, from piano teachers themselves, and from professional bodies such as EPTA and ISM, who should be actively promoting private piano teaching as a recognised and respected profession.

I would like to thank everyone who took part in my survey and also those pianist and piano teaching friends and colleagues who responded to more specific enquiries from me.

In a later post, I will explore professionalism in private piano teaching in more detail.

Please feel free to leave comments or to contact me directly via the Contact page of this site.

What is your first memory of the piano?

My first memory of the piano is hearing it rather than seeing it or playing it. Until I was about five years old my family lived two doors down from my first piano teacher, Fiona Matthison, and I used to hear her piano being played every time I passed her house. I also remember my father playing it for birthday party games in our living room! I can’t remember starting to play myself.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

In all honesty, I needed the money. A fellow student asked if I was interested in teaching a friend of hers, who was a local academic in her thirties returning to the piano having learnt as a child. I was nervous at first but we got on well and I learnt as much if not more from her than she did from me. I gradually realised how much I enjoyed explaining practising methods, working as a team to overcome technical issues and create an interpretation, and how much this conscious and thoughtful process was helping my own playing and learning processes too by making me analyse what I was trying to achieve. I’m a rational and business-minded type of person so I started to actively acquire more students, and pursue teaching as a part of my career.

I’ve always been socially and politically aware, so teaching and sharing my expertise is a way for me to help classical music blossom in quality and quantity in the UK. I really want to do my bit to ensure that the professional musicians of the future have a chance to receive a great musical education, and equally importantly that the music-lovers and audiences of the future do too! I think it’s very important to nurture music from an early stage in education.

I continue to teach not just because I genuinely adore it, but also from a practical perspective as a musician; teaching for three or four days a week gives me the financial freedom to be able to pursue performance projects that I may not realistically be able to afford to do otherwise, and allows me to be able to turn down gigs that I feel won’t enhance my career or fulfil me creatively. It’s a tricky balancing act but I’d personally rather be teaching a Chopin Ballade or coaching a Beethoven Piano Trio than accompanying another Grade 1 exam or a ballet class.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I’ve had wonderful teachers. My first teacher Fiona Matthison set me up in a way for which I am forever grateful. At the Junior RCM I had the honour of studying with John Barstow who was the first person (besides my mother) who unreservedly supported my dream of becoming a professional musician and set into motion serious and pragmatic approaches to making that happen. He was also someone who blew open my musical world, by taking me to concerts and persuading me to be brave in my repertoire choices. At the same time I was a real thorn in the side of the composer Julian Grant who was my A-level teacher at school. I have a lot of sympathy for him, as at the age of sixteen I was a good pianist but very stubborn, and with no knowledge or interest in any music after 1915! I am now very grateful he carted me kicking and screaming into the 20th century, and forced me to consider my theoretical understanding. Without his help I wouldn’t have survived my degrees and I’d be a completely unbearable and ignorant person.

As an undergraduate I was beyond fortunate to have Hilary Coates, who remains one of my best friends and is one of the first people I turn to for advice on any topic! She taught me the art of true preparation- how to inject music with style and substance. Hilary’s energy is unrivalled, and her students all know how much she believes in them. After a further two years with Carole Presland, as a postgraduate at RAM, I felt I was finally able to take my passion for the piano and craft any score into exactly the way I wanted it to sound. Carole showed me the physical tools to tackle just about anything and be comfortable with it, and critically, how to do it quickly.

If I tried to name the numerous musicians who have taught and inspired me over the years it would fill a whole book. I had many wonderful experiences as a teenager in chamber groups, youth orchestras, and as a violinist and violist too, and was so lucky to have the support of many professionals helping me along then and during my degrees. They all taught me a lot about music but also about how important it is to have mentors who are good people and care about the whole person.

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

It sounds clichéd, but the most important influences are definitely my students themselves, and how they react, both short-term and long-term. It’s crucial they’re happy and comfortable with what we are doing at the piano. They must be progressing too, or something isn’t right! Sometimes it takes patience to see results, or to realise that something isn’t working. I’m constantly shaping and rethinking my teaching to adapt to how my students are reacting, and I keep up my own professional development as a teacher by attending courses and searching out articles and books about classical music, child psychology and different learning theories. I also try to keep developing as a musician and pianist myself; learning new repertoire, reading up on performance practice, attending concerts and listening to recordings.

My own teachers of course influenced my teaching, mainly those I have mentioned above. There are of course teachers who will remain nameless who gave me a very good idea of how I didn’t want to teach!- I have come across people who I think are too complacent, or lazy, or even abusive in their treatment of students. To my mind it is so important always to nurture, as what a student is offering, at any level, is such a precious part of themselves, and a direct dismissal of their music-making can be very hurtful. I find the writings of teachers from generations past interesting, particularly the advice of people like Dr Suzuki, Kodaly and Joan Last and their ideas on developing the talent, voice, and instrumental capacity of small children. I also feel when reading Susan Tomes’s books and blog that someone has put into words absolutely everything I exactly felt about all issues, musical and otherwise!

The colleagues I work with now constantly inspire and influence my teaching, particularly on Pro Corda courses where the staff are so committed and such fun. I’ve been surrounded by experts in Dalcroze, improvisation and conducting, and I try to observe their lessons and approaches, and learn from what they do. Likewise, seeing the music staff in the wonderful departments I teach in being so committed to their students, the students repaying the commitment, and both parties reaping the reward is just brilliant. It’s great to have time to share ideas with a whole range of specialist instrumental and music teachers and I’m very lucky to have that opportunity most days of my year; it’s one of the big reasons I chose to work in schools and departments rather than teach privately.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

I always love hearing my students perform, as it gives me a chance to sit back and appreciate how far they have come, and enjoy the music! It’s also nice when students gain music places at good schools, achieve a good mark in an exam, or win a festival prize. Achievements like that make me feel as though I’m on the right track with how and what I’m teaching. I’ll never forget getting the phone call offering me my first teaching job in a school, nor the subsequent similar phone calls, especially the one for my job at Junior Guildhall as I’d always dreamt of teaching at a junior conservatoire and never imagined it would happen when I was only twenty-five years old.

During the actual teaching process, I love seeing the ‘eureka’ moment happen with a student, when something just ‘clicks’ technically for them. Whether that’s the first time they get their fingers to coordinate in a piece or scale, or finally understanding how a theoretical concept such as key signatures works, or overcoming a nasty bit in the cadenza of the Grieg Concerto and realising they will be able to play it after all… all of those are great and they happen many times a day, so I’m very privileged. I sometimes suspect I enjoy teaching primary age children so much because these moments come so often. They’re almost addictive!

There have been some lovely musical moments too. On the Pro Corda Adult Piano Course a gentleman in his mid-eighties introduced me (a teacher on the course) to the music of York Bowen, and we performed one of his rollicking duets in a concert. The same gentleman went on to perform a French Suite by Bach so touchingly and with such wisdom it was extraordinary. He wrote afterwards to tell me that my enthusiasm was infectious and my playing really lovely and I returned the sentiments. On the opposite end of the scale, three of my girls who had only been learning the piano one year performed two tiny six-hand pieces flawlessly last June and had such fun even though one of the six arms was in a sling; the student in question was determined not to let anyone down or miss the concert. I’ve recently returned from Pro Corda North where the standard of playing was exceptional, and I coached three seventeen/eighteen-year-old boys on the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s C minor Trio which they performed with incredible maturity… nothing beats experiences like these, and tellingly they often occur in chamber music.

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

I enjoy that they very often have quite a well-formed idea of their own musical self. I encourage adults and older teenagers to lead their own repertoire choices, and enjoy discussing advanced technical and musical issues at an adult and artistic level.

Older students (in my experience from about the age of twelve upwards) often come with the challenge of managing expectations (to put it bluntly!) and balancing the speed at which students think with the speed (fast) at which they can physically complete tasks (not so fast). I tend to find that adults expect a lot from themselves at the piano, especially when they fully understand (from a theoretical perspective) what they are being asked to do, and can become frustrated when results are instantaneous. They can also experience nerves more than children, and tend to compare themselves against other musicians or their own expectations, meaning they don’t congratulate themselves enough on their achievements enough and instead live in a perpetual state of struggle and disappointment, which can be very harmful to the delicate psyche after long periods.

What do you expect from your students?

Firstly, that they are doing their best. It is so easy to tell when this isn’t the case; I don’t think some students realise how transparent this is! I personally expect my students to practise every day, at whatever age or level. I expect them to prepare well, which to me means that they come well-equipped to a lesson with not just all their materials, but also questions or issues about the work that they have been set. I will often ask “What do you need help with?” and expect that they can readily answer this. All my students play at a high standard regardless of level; I might have a student at Grade 1 or 2 playing a Bach or Mozart Minuet but they will do it with exquisite phrasing, articulation and dynamics. We don’t cut any corners.

I expect my students to love music, love the piano, and to love learning, and I expect them to really want to progress and not to be reluctant to work hard or to shy away from a battle- everyone struggles at some point. I expect them to have their own aims and ambitions at the instrument, whether these are to pursue a musical career or not. After a certain age or level I expect students to lead their own repertoire choices, to have musical interests surrounding the piano, to listen to live and recorded performances, to study theory to the appropriate level and to have a knowledge of other instruments and the history of music.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I think they suit some students very well, and others not at all. I think exams are not necessary, and part of me sympathises with the character in Jessica Duchen’s novel Alicia’s Gift who states that they help: “…amateur children to impress amateur parents. They play nicely to the dinner guests and sometimes they play for school assembly and everybody claps… The British view music as a diversion, an amusement, something it’s not quite cricket to be too good at… We [true artists] have something profound to say about life, why we’re alive, what it means to be human. We don’t jump through hoops to show out parents’ friends how talented out parents’ offspring are”. I think to just base a teaching or learning method around exams can be limiting, and can result in a student learning only three pieces a year, and gaining no real repertoire or knowledge outside the exam syllabus. It is my understanding that the exam boards were not set up for this purpose, but sadly (in my opinion) the emphasis on exams when teaching an instrument is huge. I never took any grade exams myself, although I auditioned for schools and courses and performed regularly in concerts and festivals. However, I do understand why many students want to take exams, and I think for many they can be a good yardstick or motivator. It really does depend on the student, their ambitions, and their reasons for learning and playing. I would however, never condone a student going from exam to exam without thought or question as to the motives, nor would I want a student to take exams for mistaken or false reasons.

Likewise, festivals and competitions can be brilliant platforms when considered on an individual basis for the student. I tend to suggest these events to those I feel might gain from the experience, but in general let the student lead the decision. I prefer non-competitive concert situations for most students, though again there will always be some who thrive on the competitive element and want to push for it. In my experience, those who gain a lot from the experience in the long-term tend to be in the minority, and my instinct and own experience tells me that there is plenty of time to compete when skills are more honed, hands have finished growing, musical interpretations have been fully-formed and are personal, with plenty of context and life experience behind them, and ambitions for life are clearer. But individual circumstances merit different approaches.

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

Beginner students must learn two almost opposing elements, in my opinion; joy and discipline. The most successful are those who quickly realise (or already know) that the two are actually intertwined, and that joy comes from discipline. I encounter a few students who harbour vague hopes that one day they may just sit down and be able to produce Fur Elise from nowhere. To have a beginner student who gains a lot of joy from working very hard at a tiny little aspect or piece and is inspired by their own hard work makes me confident and happy for their future.

For this reason I feel it is best for students to start young so they digest the concept of discipline from an early age. If you tell a four-year-old they must brush their teeth every day, they must wear a school uniform, they must practise the piano, and most importantly you don’t just tell them these things but you set in place a system that doesn’t allow them not to, then they grow up with this unconscious but very valuable discipline which will reap rewards later in life. That sounds harsh but too many parents sit back and hope their child will practice because they love music. That’s just not a reality for most small children or even teenagers with many demands on their time and other temptations. Why practise the piano (which seems to progress so slowly and give comparatively so little satisfaction) when you can play with friends?

An advanced student is someone who already appreciates discipline, but I think the joy still needs to be nurtured. Sometimes music-making at a high level can become mechanical, and so I’d encourage an advanced student to focus on bringing music to life. I think chamber music is so valuable in that respect and I’d urge everyone who can to make music with friends. Advanced students need to continue to work hard to improve, as everyone has something left to learn. But always remember why you love music, and what is at the heart of it.

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

I get irritated by the assumption that musicians are either great players or great teachers. It is patently not true and it makes a mockery of the wonderful work many musicians are doing. I think we’re all familiar with the false premise that many who teach only do so because they can’t play and I hope that is something that is gradually losing its clout. However, I still come up against the idea that because a person trained to a high level as a concert pianist at an elite conservatoire, it automatically means they are a selfish diva who doesn’t understand children, or doesn’t have the time or patience for beginners and amateurs.

To teach well and professionally at any level demands a certain level of musical training, and the more professional the training, the more the teacher has to draw on when imparting advice to others. I believe teachers who perform, and performers who teach both have a lot to share with audiences and students alike, and I’d love to see a greater acceptance that these two strands of musical communication are not so far apart. It irks me to meet performers who claim to not be able to ‘communicate’ in a teaching studio, just as much as teachers who claim not to be able to perform on their instrument. Both these methods of communication take practice, confidence and skill, and I don’t see how you can do one without the other. I’d urge all budding musicians to take time to hone as many types of communication as possible through which to share their music.

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

I love musicians who communicate with passion, and so my favourite pianists are probably Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim. I respect Barenboim’s fearlessness in being politically involved as well, and the fact that he takes risks in his professional life and on stage. I also have some favourite recordings by Richter, Gavrilov, Sudbin, Imogen Cooper, Mitsuko Uchida, Kissin, Bernard Roberts for Beethoven- an odd bunch probably… I once travelled to Berlin for the evening just to hear a recital given by Sokolov, once I’d realized he probably would never return to the UK in my lifetime. I think I listen for energy and vigour above finesse, and hopefully that’s what I put across in my own playing and teaching too.

British pianist Alice Pinto has appeared as concerto soloist with the Cheltenham and Cambridge Graduate orchestras, and recent recital highlights have included concerts at St. John’s Smith Square, Kings Place, and a live broadcast on Icelandic national radio. Alice performs regularly nationwide at festivals including Two Moors, Cambridge Summer Music, Lake District, Vid Djúpið and Malcolm Arnold. Praised particularly for her interpretation of repertoire from the Classical period and neglected British works, Alice is also in demand as an ensemble musician, and currently holds a Leverhulme Fellowship with Pro Corda. 

Alice gained her MMus degree in Piano Performance and Research from the Royal Academy of Music in 2012, where she held a Richard Carne Scholarship and was shortlisted for the Jacob Barnes Scholarship. She was awarded the Anthony Lindsay Prize 2007, the Jaques Samuels Manager’s Discretion Prize 2008, and was keyboard finalist for the Isabelle Bond Gold Medal in 2010. Alice previously held the Else and Leonard Cross Memorial Scholarship at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and Nora Day Scholarship at St. Paul’s Girls’ School. She currently teaches Piano and Chamber Music at Junior Guildhall, Dame Alice Owen’s School and Bute House Preparatory School. 

Alice’s upcoming concerts include for Leeds Lunchtime Chamber Music Series (8th October), St Lawrence Jewry London (13th October) and the Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton (18th October).