I would like to offer what support I can via this blog and my social media networks to musician friends and colleagues, music teachers and others in the profession who are going to find the next months very challenging indeed.

Here is what I would like to do:

  1. Share details of forthcoming CD releases, and other material.
  2. Share videos and audio clips
  3. Share articles and other resources which others in our community may find helpful and supportive
  4. Stay connected with the musical community via my social networks

Separately, over on my piano teaching blog, I’m launching a forum called Coffee Shop Conversations. This was inspired by a friend of mine, an adult amateur pianist to whom I give occasional piano lessons and who always has plenty of queries for me surrounding repertoire, practising, piano exams and more.

Please feel free to contact me here or via Twitter to submit material for inclusion.

More support for musicians from my friend and fellow blogger Adrian ‘Specs’ here

Meanwhile, stay well everyone and let’s keep in touch.

img_2281Fran The Cross-Eyed Pianist

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

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

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

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

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

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

….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.