Tag Archives: piano teaching

New piano publications from Trinity College London

It’s good to see Trinity College London extending its publishing programme to include more books for pianists, including collections of pieces from beginner to advanced level, and a compilation of piano exercises, selected from past exam syllabuses, all of which offer excellent resources for teachers and students alike.

Raise the Bar is a new series of graded pieces from Initial to Grade 8 showcasing favourite repertoire from past Trinity exam syllabuses. Edited by acclaimed teacher, pianist and writer Graham Fitch, each book contains an attractive selection of pieces in a range of styles and periods. Teaching notes for each piece are included, highlighting aspects such as technical challenges, structure, rhythm and expression, and each book contains a summary at the back containing the composer, title, key, time signature, tempo markings and characteristics of each piece. There is a good range of music to suit all tastes and the teaching notes can be used as a springboard for further discussion between teacher and student or a basic starting point for independent study. These books provide useful additional repertoire for students preparing for exams or simply for playing for pleasure and broadening one’s repertoire and knowledge of different style of music.


Piano Dreams is an attractively-designed series of books containing pieces for beginner and early intermediate pianists composed by Anne Terzibaschitsch. The pieces will particularly appeal to younger children with their imaginative titles and fun illustrations. Programmatic text weaves elements of story-telling into the pieces to stimulate the player’s imagination and encourage more expressive and colourful playing. There are notes on each piece highlighting aspects of technique or expression. In addition to the solo pieces, there are two books of piano duets in the same format.

I am a big fan of Trinity’s Piano Exercises which students learn as part of their grade exams. The exercises are designed to develop particular aspects of piano technique and many directly relate to pieces in the exam syllabus, offering the teacher the opportunity to introduce students to the concept of the ‘Etude’ or Study.  This new compilation of selected exercises ranges from Initial to Grade 8 and each has a descriptive title to inspire students to interpret the music imaginatively (thus reinforcing the idea behind Etudes by Chopin and Liszt – that pieces should be both challenging and musical, testing technique and musicality). These exercises provide a useful resource for developing secure technique and can be used alongside repertoire to inform and extend students’ technical and musical capabilities.

More information about Trinity College London music publications here

Piano Day in Hitchin

Last weekend I ran a masterclass for members of the Hitchin Piano Club who are taught by a teaching friend of mine. It was the first time I’d taught adults in this format and I found the experience hugely enjoyable and stimulating – and I think the participants did too. In addition to one-to-one coaching while the others observed, we covered warm up exercises away from the piano, managing performance anxiety and finished the day with a listening game in which participants were asked to try to identify nationality, period and style of a selection of pieces chosen from Spotify. The day ended with me giving my friend a brief lesson, which was interesting for both of us and an important test of mutual respect and trust.

The commonest issue with adult amateur pianists tends to be performance anxiety – by which I don’t mean the fear of playing in an actual concert, but simply playing in front of other people. This anxiety has its roots in a number of places, including negative musical experiences in childhood and the simple, and entirely understandable, fear of making mistakes and feeling a fool in front of one’s peers. Whenever I discuss performance anxiety with any student, I stress that such feelings of anxiety are normal, natural and common – even amongst top-class professional musicians. Until fairly recently, performance anxiety – like injury – was not discussed amongst professionals. It was considered taboo to mention it for fear of admitting to a weakness, but recent projects such as Charlotte Tomlinson’s Beyond Stage Fright and interviews with leading musicians who have revealed their own anxieties and how they deal with them, has led to greater openness. Personally, I find a state of acceptance about the symptoms of performance anxiety, coupled with solid preparation of one’s music, can lead to greater confidence in performance, whether this involves playing in someone’s living room on a Sunday afternoon, as at our Piano Day, or in a formal concert.

The participants in Sunday’s piano day had not been taught in a masterclass format before and I tried to ensure that even while I was giving individual coaching, everyone found something useful in what I was saying and doing with the other student. In fact, the masterclass format can be one of the most useful and inspiring ways of being taught – one can learn a great deal by listening and observing, and I encouraged the others to comment on one another’s playing, including differences in sound and touch. We covered a number of technical aspects, such as rotary motion and lateral arm movement to help certain players release tension in their hands and arms, and to help them achieve the kind of sound they envisaged.

My main aim when teaching is to help students to achieve the sound and emotional content they desire in their music and to enable them to play with colour, expression and confidence. To achieve this, I use visualisation techniques in my teaching, asking students to explain what they like about the music they are playing, to describe the character of the music and ascribe a narrative or mental picture to it to help them create a vivid portrayal in their playing. Technique, such as a cantabile legato or particular type of staccato, gives us the tools to create timbre, mood and emotional impact in music, and technique must always be seen as something with a clear musical purpose. Combine solid technique with imagination and the rather elusive “artistic vision”, and one can create wonderful music, and play with confidence and authority.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable and very stimulating day and a pleasure to work with a group of such engaged and receptive students.

Repertoire played:

Mozart – Fantasy in D minor, K.397

Philip Glass – Metamorphosis 3

Beethoven – Sonata in F minor, Opus 2, No. 2 & Sonata in D, Opus 10, No. 3

 

Further reading

Masterclasses without tears

More than hobbyists – the world of amateur pianism

 

A special relationship

Thoughts on teachers and pupils

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

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

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

(James Lisney, obituary of his teacher Phyllis Sellick, who died in 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

Above all, a good teacher will convey his/her passion and enthusiasm for the piano and its literature: this is my main motivation for being a piano teacher, and if I had to distill my mission statement into a snappy one-liner, I think it would probably say “Because I love the piano!”.

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

 

More on teachers and pupils

Teachers and Mentors

Exploring your music teacher heritage

The More I Learn the Less I Seem to Know

Impostor syndrome (also spelled imposter syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a term coined in the 1970s by psychologists and researchers to informally describe people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women, although some studies indicate that both genders may be affected in equal numbers. (Source: Wikipedia)
There’s a wealth of knowledge out there to be explored, absorbed, considered and acted upon. Sometimes it can fee like a whole lifetime would never be enough to take in a tiny fraction of the information which is flung at us every second of the day.
As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.
Albert Einstein

I have days when I think I don’t know anything, or when I feel that I will soon be “found out”, revealed as a fraud and impostor, that I am not really a pianist or piano teacher, just someone acting out the role.

Such feelings of inadequacy are very common – and understandable,  given the way we are bombarded with messages about how we should develop, be smarter, be more attractive, have more and better sex, be slimmer, eat the right food, take more exercise, be confident, have self-belief. Is it any wonder that sometimes we feel totally overwhelmed by information? Sifting through all these conflicting messages to find the ones which are relevant to us can be a Sisyphean task. Then there are peers, friends and colleagues who urge us to do this, see that, try this, think that…. Some days I just want to withdraw and become a “piano hermit”, to shut out all the noise.

At every turn, there is some kind of resource which could be useful or beneficial to our development. These may be books and journals, websites or online groups and forums where people can meet to exchange ideas. I have enjoyed lively exchanges in such online groups (notably on Facebook) and I enjoy the fact that people are willing to share information and knowledge via this medium. But I have also found such groups detrimental: observing what others are doing, or comparing oneself to others is not the best way to assess one’s abilities, progress and development, especially if these groups become a vehicle for some else to parade students’ exam successes, or seek endorsement from group members for their own achievements. Such parading of egos or mutual appreciation can make others feel inadequate.

A healthy way to move on from such feelings of inadequacy is to accept that one is at the tip of the iceberg in terms of knowledge. This should not be regarded as something negative, but rather the spur to encourage one to be inquisitive, questioning and always open to new ideas. Learning requires and encourages humility: one should be willing to accept there are different ways of doing things, or alternative ways to develop the same skills. Many teachers, myself included, engage in continuing professional development (CPD) as a more formal way of enhancing and broadening our knowledge. This may involve attending courses or workshops, being mentored by another teacher, reading, studying and interacting with others in the profession. I don’t believe we should ever stand still as teachers, or rest on the laurels of students’ achievements such as exam successes, for this attitude can breed complacency. By all means look at what others are doing, consider suggestions and ideas which are put to us and choose to embrace or reject them as we see fit.

Fundamentally, I know I am good at what I do and that I deserve to be respected (and paid appropriately) for my knowledge and skill. I do not need to measure my own success against other people’s achievements because I have confidence and self-belief in my own abilities. My students return each week for lessons which they seem to enjoy. I see them progressing and I show them ways to measure their own success (and I don’t mean through exam results, which can be useful benchmarks, nothing more). Over the decade in which I have been teaching, I’ve realised that confidently carving one’s own course leads to a greater sense of personal fulfilment and job satisfaction. In recent years, I’ve made significant changes to my teaching studio, including reducing the number of students I teach (to allow me more time to pursue my own musical studies), being selective about which students I take (I do not teach beginners or very young children, for example), and setting my fees at a rate which I feel reflects my experience. Consequently, I enjoy my teaching a great deal more and I am sure that this benefits my students too. I also find I am treated with more respect by clients, prospective clients and colleagues. I do not believe we should shy away from this kind of “self care” to enable us to do our job well, with passion and commitment.

Here’s a comment on this subject from another teaching colleague:

Despite the fact that I’ve undertaken much professional development over the past few years, I feel more aware of my shortcomings as a teacher than ever before.  Rationally, I know that not to be true – my students enjoy their lessons, play well and do well in exams.  But the more I learn the more I really do realise how much I still have to learn and how vast the area of knowledge is in relation to piano teaching.  I find the internet a really double-edged world in all of this.  On one hand it is a fantastic source of support and inspiration and I have met many wonderful colleagues online and learnt loads from them.  On the other hand, scrolling through various piano teaching forums can lead me to a pit of despair as it seems as if everyone else is more experienced, knowledgeable and creative than me!   So I find it’s important to keep a balanced view, be specific and targetted about my use of online forums and continue to remind myself that I’m doing my best, learning all the time and – most importantly – my students are happy and keep coming back!!

****
As a practicing musician, feelings of inadequacy always lurk at the fringes of my consciousness – and my many conversations and interviews with other musicians confirm that I am absolutely not alone in feeling this. Despite the physical proof of my abilities (two performance diplomas in quick succession and positive endorsements from pianist colleagues and mentors), I often feel a fraud. In fact, I think this feeling is helpful, for it enables me to remain humble, an important attribute for a musician, in my opinion.
Awhile ago, I stumbled across this list, which seemed to me to encapsulate many of the things that can create and fuel feelings of inadequacy:
miserable
Turn each of these points around, and one has a manifesto by which to work and develop as a musician which is both realistic and achievable, and ensures the necessary self-compassion to allow us to flourish within our own comfort zone.
Of course whenever we open a new score, the sense of how little one knows, at that point (regardless of one’s knowledge of the composer or genre of the piece), is palpable, and when one truly cares about something, one’s standards are set very high.
The pianist Adele Marcus once said “The older I get the more I disdain the intellect.” As a colleague of mine stated, “I think that means that we become closer to the music instinctively, rather than by how we think it should sound based on knowledge of the music, the composers and history” (JB). Such a state of being can be hard won, and may take many years of study, hard graft and living with the music. Humility before the music and the composer is important; also a sense of continual striving, that one is on a journey. Sure, read the books, do the research, understand the social and historical context in which the music was created, but there must also come a point where we step away from the intellectual and the academic and liberate our personal creative impulse to “make music”
Further reading:

Learning Curve

Two of my students, siblings as it happens, are working on pieces which include a continuously moving left hand, scored in triplets. One is a Rondo by Diabelli, the other a Sonatina by Clementi. I am also working on a movement of a Schubert sonata which includes the same figure. The other day, during a lesson with one of these students, I showed her the Rondo from Schubert’s D959 and said, “look, I’m working on something similar”. Her eyes opened very wide and she looked absolutely astonished, as if she couldn’t believe that there could be two pieces of music which were so similar. “I’ve encountered some similar technical issues with this,” I said to her, meaning that I too had had to work on forearm lateral movement (a “polishing” movement in the wrist and forearm) to achieve evenness in the notes, and to prevent my hand and arm becoming tired (also an issue for the student).

This episode highlights two important aspects for me: first, that students should never study music in a vacuum; and secondly, that I think it’s helpful for students to know that their teacher is also studying.

Dealing with my second point first, I firmly believe it is crucial for teachers to continue to study, whether this is independently of a teacher or mentor or by continuing to take formal lessons, and through attending seminars, workshops and courses for continuing professional development (CPD). Learning new repertoire, revising previously-learnt repertoire – no matter how easy or difficult it is – sharpens and informs our teaching skills and enables us to reference such music within the context of simpler repertoire when working with our students. And just because our repertoire may be “harder”, I do not see why we should not share it with our students, to demonstrate aspects as described above, to highlight scale and arpeggio patterns or other technical issues, or simply to share music with our students. Sadly, in my experience, many young people who learn a musical instrument have very little exposure to classical music outside of their lessons: they do not go to public concerts and have limited contact with music in school (and this is not going to improve with continual government attacks on the arts in the UK state education system). I believe one of the crucial roles of the music teacher is to broaden students’ cultural horizons by encouraging them to explore as much music as possible – whatever the genre. I also believe that by demonstrating to my students that I am also studying, there is the sense of a shared experience, that I understand how to practise properly, or prepare for a performance or exam. And for me as a teacher to be taught myself by a master teacher is incredibly useful as I draw on my own teacher’s vast knowledge and experience, and distil his wisdom into easily comprehensible nuggets for my students. And a good teacher will teach in such a way that seemingly complex concepts or technical issues can be simplified for students of any level.

Music should never be studied in a vacuum. And yet I come across students I have inherited from other teachers who have not been taught the context in which the music was created. They may be playing music from the Baroque period, but they have no idea what this means: for them, the music is simply a collection of dots on the page. Some students go right through to Grade 8 having learnt only exam repertoire (a total of 24 pieces) and come out of the process with a limited understanding of the very broad canon of classical music and its historical context. Giving students the opportunity to explore a broader range of repertoire outside the narrow confines of the exam syllabus allows them to experience different styles and genres but also to reference and put into practice technical and artistic aspects learned from their other pieces. Thus their learning – and mine – becomes a continuous process, a learning curve.

Piano Dao: the way of piano

Pianist and teacher Andrew Eales introduces his new blog:

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Pianodao is my new blog site launching Saturday 1st August 2015.

Built around the metaphor of piano playing as a lifetime journey, the site will focus on our musical and creative development as well as on our personal well-being: mind, body and spirit.

Pianists usually find that self-evaluation is crucial to their progress and musical development. When I started teaching piano I quickly also realised that one of the best ways I can improve is to continuously reflect on my teaching practice and student response. Pianodao takes this basic principle and places that process of reflection and evaluation within a much broader context – our journey through life.

When teaching I continue to observe that many of the problems and issues that I and my students grapple with have very little to do with our pianism and musical understanding, and far more to do with our physical limitations, tension, mental state and internal beliefs.

We all have a life outside of our piano playing, and it is clearly worthwhile considering the connections between our experience of life and our ongoing musical development. But where do we start? When it comes to considering those connections, I believe that the wisdom teachings of Dao (or “Taoism”) can offer a uniquely powerful and insightful approach.

Pianodao will have five main sections:

The Pianist’s Path focuses on specifics of how we learn, play, teach and help others develop as pianists. I hope to explore what it means to be a pianist in today’s world. There will also be articles about developing our creativity and performing with confidence and enjoyment.

The Pianist’s Well-being takes a broader look at our lives – our inner beliefs, physical health, and general lifestyle. This section will consider powerful quotes from great musicians past and present, as well as the teachings of wise thinkers ancient and modern.

Piano Qigong will offer suggestions for applying qigong practice to the needs of piano players, developing into a free resource offering simple breathing and stretching movements and exercises suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels. This part of the site will go live sometime before Christmas this year.

Interviews with pianists about their journey as players will focus on the obstacles they have faced and overcome in order to move forward on their path.

Music & Reviews complete the site, providing a space to share news and comment about resources that will hopefully be of interest to readers.

Pianodao is ultimately a record of my own journey, but I hope that in sharing I will encourage others. Making connections between my experiences as a pianist and teacher, my practice of qigong and interest in the wisdom of Dao, I hope to offer insights which will bring clarity to your own “Way of Piano”.

Please take a moment to visit www.pianodao.com and “follow” the blog. Thanks!

Teaching our students to teach themselves

Following on from my earlier post about the notion of the “self-taught pianist”, I would like to explore further how teachers can – and should – enable their students to teach themselves.

The word “teach” comes from the Old English tǣcan which means “to show, present, point out”. This for me, (and having studied Old English at university), gives a big clue to how teachers should approach their teaching. We should not be telling our students how to learn, but showing and guiding them.

My personal stated aim as a piano teacher, in addition to encouraging a love of all things piano in my students, is to enable them to become independent learners – to show them how to teach themselves. Based on my own piano studies as a teenager and as an “adult returner”, there is nothing more satisfying than discovering that it is possible to explore, learn and enjoy music without constantly running back to teacher for support.

Sadly, it strikes me that due to the way children are taught in primary and secondary school in the UK, they are being robbed of the ability to think and work independently, instead relying on teachers to spoon-feed them information to enable them to pass tests and exams, and to meet targets set higher up the educational hierarchy. I have observed this unwillingness to think and act independently in a number of my students, and I try to encourage them to instead take a leap of faith and rely on their musical knowledge and experience gained during their lessons with me.

There is a lot of mystique surrounding music teachers, particularly those who teach at a high level in conservatoire and specialist music school. Students may compete to be assigned to a “top” or “famous” teacher, and there can be huge advantages, real or imagined, in studying with these teachers, for they have been taught by the great teacher-pianists of an earlier generation and can pass down “secrets” from these teachers to their own students. This heritage can be very important – I have studied with high-level teachers/concert pianists who in turn have studied with such pianistic luminaries as Peter Feuchtwanger, Maria Curcio, Guido Agosti, Phyllis Sellick, Peter Wallfisch, Nina Svetlanova and Andras Schiff – but I think it is also important for students not to be too much in awe of these teachers, and to learn how to take from their current teacher what they need to enable them to play and progress to their best of their ability.

To quote from Leon Whitesell, a US pianist and teacher, At best, we as teachers, must become like a wonderful cafeteria, where the pupil chooses and takes, as well as applies, whatever he/ she desires. We really can’t ” teach” anything, but pupils may take from our offerings that which they choose!”

In order for our students to select from our teacherly “cafeteria”, we first need to equip them with the necessary tools to learn independently. This may include:

  • notation
  • rhythm
  • sight-reading
  • technique and an understanding of how it serves the music
  • structure
  • an understanding of keys and key relationships
  • musical terms and signs
  • historical context
  • performance practice and stagecraft

In addition, the teacher’s role is to build self-esteem to enable the student to play with poise, expression and musicality. A good teacher supports the student to find their own musical voice and personality, will guide the student to find an appropriate and tasteful interpretation of their music, and encourages the student to be a musical explorer, to discover music outside of the repertoire under study for regular lessons. A sympathetic teacher tailors lessons to suit each student individually, is adaptable and flexible, and is able to identify what the student needs at that moment. In fact, the best teacher to teach students to teach themselves is one who is also engaged in ongoing study, who remains open and receptive to new ideas, and who is also willing to learn from their own students.

In contrast, an egotistical and/or possessive teacher wants to produce students in their own image whose sound reproduces that of the teacher, and whose students feel enthralled to their teacher. This approach does little more than boost the teacher’s ego, and makes students anxious

Adult students can present different challenges for the teacher as they often self-teach before seeking regular lessons, or enjoy exploring and studying outside of their lessons and may bite off more than they can chew and then become discouraged. I find that some adults, while being voracious learners, can lack confidence when it comes to trusting the musical instinct which enables them to work independently, and much of my work with adults, both as private students and via my piano group, is building self-esteem, encouraging them to let go of negative experiences with previous teachers (as both child and adult), learning to be wary of comparing themselves to others, and understanding how to practise effectively and intelligently in order to prepare music properly.

Adults also often like to seek feedback and advice from others aside from their regular teacher, through workshops, masterclasses and piano courses. I have met adult students who have attended so many courses and masterclasses they they have become confused by the myriad suggestions and signals given by different teachers. From my own experience attending courses and masterclasses, I would stress that it is important to take from these sessions only what you feel you need at the time (that notion of the “cafeteria” again!).

I encourage all my students to be questioning, to challenge me, and to set off on a path of musical self-discovery. I regard my teaching style as flexible, open-minded and sympathetic, and I tend to teach by asking questions of my students, or making suggestions, rather than saying “this is how to do it!” or “do it my way”. My own study currently involves two teachers/mentors who hold me to account for what I am attempting and who set the bar for my technical preparation through detailed study and knowledge of the score (Schubert Sonata D959). They do not impose their interpretation but allow the music-making to be my business, thus encouraging me to develop my own musical voice and to take ownership of the music.

One of the best aspects of my job is when a student arrives having resolved an issue which was proving problematic in an earlier lesson. Or the student who has selected a piece to learn on their own initiative and who simply needs some guidance from me to enable them to progress. Hearing my students perform in their end of term concert, as I did last weekend, was a wonderful indication of how much they are developing as young musicians, each with their own individual sound and style.

At the Piano with……Jenny Walker

11540907_1014642958549022_1294551780_oWhat is your first memory of the piano?

I think I was born to play the piano. I was lucky enough to have an upright piano in our dining room. I was always in school choirs and from the age of 5 would arrive home and play the songs we had sung during the day. It was my aunt that mentioned I should have piano lessons and the seed was planted. My mother, although not a musician, sang in the home and often had classical music playing, and I myself had an extensive collection of recordings. Both parents have always encouraged me to continue my love for music and their support has been unwavering. I was taken to many classical music concerts and regularly heard the likes of John Lill and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. At secondary school I took up the violin and joined orchestras, but my main love remained the piano and I considered myself a pianist.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I studied music at the University of North Wales, Bangor. There, I had a rich and varied musical life, taking part in two orchestras, singing in the choral society and continuing with my piano and violin lessons. I went onto study at Bretton Hall to gain a PGCE qualification with a view to teaching in schools and whilst I was there I had a request to teach a boy in the village. I enjoyed this and it whetted my appetite. We also had a visit from a practising piano teacher talking about her profession and it seemed a good career to consider. I trained as a music teacher and, not finding a job, went into secretarial work and computer programming. I vowed never to give up my music and joined a choral society and played in orchestras. I decided to teach on Saturdays, cycled to student’s houses and acquired a few home pupils.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

My first teacher was fine up to a point, but had a terrible memory, and that meant I could hoodwink her as to how far I’d reached and still gain a reward toffee. I had one who gave me thirty minutes practical and an hour of theory; needless to say, this didn’t work. My greatest teacher was a Gertrude Tomlinson who I stayed with for some twelve years. We played Beethoven Symphonies as duets, she was an avid fan of Southampton Music Festival and encouraged me to enter every year. She continued to encourage me and later on I was one of two students who remained with her. It was thanks to her that I acquired my performance diploma before going to university.

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

The most important influence was Mrs Tomlinson: there was a great emphasis on sight reading and I became very good at it. We often played together and I also had a regular duet partner of my own age. She became more of an aunt later on, and lived with my duet partner’s family after her husband died. Nowadays my influences are: my students (their enthusiasm, ideas and different needs), Beethoven and Debussy (composers I like to introduce students to as part of their repertoire), social media (awareness of books and resources from other piano teachers and pianists), my own experience in different genres (swing bands, soul bands, theatre bands, orchestras) and my piano tuition at university (with an emphasis on finger technique).

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

This is a difficult one … there are many teaching experiences, mostly good. Recently a student has acquired a place with the junior department at the Guildhall School of Music and she told me that it was thanks to me that she decided her second study was to be piano. I’ve also received a gift and note from a young student, something made by her and her sister. Last year I had a student who, against all the odds, gained a good pass at a recent examination, is getting a piano and is now determined to practice vehemently. My older students give me great pleasure too: I have taught two ladies who love to play duets together and a seventy-three-year-old lady obtained her grade three examination from scratch.

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

Adults are usually very keen students. There have been a few who have, for one reason or another, decided it really isn’t for them but the long stayers have a determination to catch up on what they’ve missed out on. One of the biggest challenges is when a student has studied piano before and had a long break; the technique they had may need modifying and with the onset of arthritis and other matters we may have to have alternative strategies for note reaching and speed. Some are keen to do examinations whilst others just want to acquire a bank of pieces to play. We have to find appropriate tutor books for adults for many are geared to younger players and we have used the Smallwood tutor a fair amount, and we often change the names of the ‘quaint’ titles. Adults are often surprised at what they can achieve and I take this as a great compliment.

What do you expect from your students?

“Practice makes progress” is a phrase we use and “no practice, no point”. Most are willing to practice adequately and come with a guilt complex if they have not done this. I like to think I’m not a scary teacher but they do seem to feel bad if they’ve been unable or forgetful. I expect students to be my partner during the lesson …. for instance, sometimes I’ll take the top part of a piece whilst they take the bottom, or we use rhythm cups together, or we play a duet. They like the fact that we both take part and it relieves the feeling that they’re just being watched. I expect them to converse and tell me about any difficulties in their playing and I expect them to be on time. At the same time, they expect me to inspire, direct and encourage them, which I very much hope I do.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I wish my students had more time for competitions and festivals but they often have so many other activities. A few do enter our local festival but I don’t tend to press them for anything else. Examinations are useful markers for students and parents but there is no need for them to enter every single one, and we often take a longer time to ‘skip’ to a higher grade. Some adults are keen to do examinations and, having persuaded them that they too can enter, they bite the bullet and are surprised at how welcome they feel at the venue and at how much they can achieve. I encourage students to help each other, especially if they’re learning the same examination pieces, and by playing duets. If they can collaborate on something in the school concerts, this is a really good experience. The bottom line is that I want my students to enjoy learning the piano and not to see it as an added burden.

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

For beginning students, they need to know that they too can achieve as much as the person they’ve just heard next door who they perceive is playing brilliantly. My job is to convince them that they’ll get as much as they put in. They need achievable goals. Emphasis on slow, accurate playing rather than the opposite is something I tell all students, beginners or advanced. Advanced students need to be aware that there is always something else they can do to improve their playing and that perfection is something that concert pianists are still trying to acquire. In short, all students should do their best, and that is all anyone can do. I do expect students to respect other people’s abilities for there is nothing worse than feeling inferior.

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

I consider myself a pianist and piano teacher. Teaching something can make you realise certain faults in your own playing you didn’t notice before. But it also inspires your students if you can play something advanced in front of them. For me, the fact that I’ve won a first and third in the EPTA composition competition last year and this, has encouraged some to consider composition themselves. Leading by example is always a good thing and many people don’t have the exposure to professional piano performances, and it’s good for them to see what can be achieved (even if I’m not quite to the standard of Lang Lang).

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

I ask them the question “Do you think most of those people watching you could do this?” and the answer is invariably “no”. We agree that nerves are a good thing for making you perform better and that the piano doesn’t present any danger if you make a mistake. I do have a couple of students who do not wish to do examinations for that involves playing in front of a strangers but occasionally I’ll get them to play for a teacher or another student. Any opportunity for them to play is a good thing, whether it’s in a school concert, music festival or in front of me and a few students.

It’s important for the students to realise that I too get nervous and I tell them about my own experiences, such as when my nose starts to run whilst I’m playing or I panic about a page turn. I stress that live performances involve risks and that audiences are usually very forgiving and indeed some events, such as a collapsing music stand, can be amusing ice-breakers.

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

John Lill, Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy are amongst my favourite pianists. I love their combination of rage and sensitivity. Going back to the issue of anxiety and the fact that performance involves risks, I remember an incident at Southampton Guildhall where the sustaining pedal came off. John Lill saw the funny side and showed his professionalism by merely restarting the piece. My tutor at university was William Mathias, a Welsh pianist and composer, and we had a visit from Ashkenazy who played Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. I have recently had the pleasure of meeting many pianist-teachers through the European Piano Teachers’ Association and believe it’s a very necessary part of our profession.

Jenny was raised in Southampton and studied the piano from the age of 7. As a teenager she obtained her grade 6 violin, and after leaving school she worked at a bank for a year and achieved a Licentiate in Piano Performance from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She went on to gain a BA (Hons) in Music Arts from the University College of North Wales in Bangor, and a PGCE from Bretton Hall.

She married, moved to Oxfordshire and had children. Unable to find a teaching job, she took office work and during that time acquired a computing certificate at Oxford University (External Studies), acquiring work Oxford University Computing Services and ABB Simcon. She eventually acquired a teaching position (Music, ICT and French), managing to reduce this to ICT at the Mary Hare School for the Deaf in Newbury where she gained a diploma in special education. After a permanent move to Grantham in 2001, she taught ICT until her post was made redundant.

Jenny has always had piano students and when her job was declared redundant, that was the spur to make it her main career. She is now a private piano teacher at Kesteven and Grantham Girls School in Grantham and has students at home. An accomplished pianist and musician, she is in demand as an accompanist. She is Musical Director for Grantham Operatic and has overseen productions of Sweeney Todd, The Mikado and Fiddler on the Roof. She also deputises for the keyboard player in Grantham Rhythm and Blues Band and has played in the theatre for several productions.

She has sung with choral societies in the Beethoven Halle in Bonn, The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and Oxford Town Hall. She has played the violin in Sankt Augustin Musukschule (German), Harlaxton Manor and Grantham (Lincolnshire Strings Celebration). She has performed piano solos at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, Didcot Civic Hall, Harlaxton Manor, Belvoir Castle, St Wulfram’s Church in Grantham and Warwick University. She is the proud winner of a first prize in the 2014 National Composition Competition organised by the European Piano Teachers Association, of which she is a professional member. She has also learned that she has won a third prize in the 2015 competition.

Jenny loves to teach and considers her wide-ranging experience an advantage when deal with different personalities, abilities and aspirations. Many students want to take examinations but some prefer a more relaxed approach. As long as they enjoy the lessons and have some sort of goal, Jenny is happy.

For more information about Jenny please visit her website at www.jswmusic.co.uk

 

 

 

At the Piano With…… Diane Durbin

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

At the Piano with……Natalie Tsaldarakis

What is your first memory of the piano?

I saw and played a piano when we were visiting one of my father’s colleagues at his family home. It was a long visit, and I had time to explore: I fell in love with it at first sight and although I was around 4 years old, I remember I sat and tried to play using my fingers. I was glued, and although my parents looked a bit embarrassed I had taken over somebody’s possession, they were clearly impressed. Apparently our hostess tried to impress on my parents I should start lessons.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

My piano teacher in Greece, the well-known concert pianist and pedagogue D. Toufexis, a Julliard graduate and former Lateiner pupil along with concert pianist Danae Kara, both staff at The American College of Greece, inspired me to maintain a portfolio career. I loved how I could go see them perform at major venues and festivals and then have the privilege of private conversations and lessons with them.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The teacher who inspired me to become a musician was the head teacher of a large, state primary school in a well-to-do leafy suburb of Athens. He was himself a frustrated violinist with real passion for music education. His class produced three concert pianists (me included), one musical theatre singer-actress, and a musicologist. Yet the school was an ordinary non-selective state one.

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

I finished my studies at the conservatoire in Greece, yet I knew that I could not trust myself to teach. When I came back from my Master of Music studies in the US at West Chester University of Pennsylvania (1994), I felt I could tackle anything: intensive courses in piano pedagogy were compulsory and included teaching practicums under supervision. At the end of my studies, my teachers were very eager to impress on me the need for certain books which became my bibles, especially the Denes Agay books on Teaching Piano, and were packed in my already impossibly heavy suitcases. Greece at the time felt quite cut off in many ways, and I still remember sending and receiving letters to the US which took about a couple of months: this was the era before Internet and Amazon!

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Despite having taught at all levels for at least 20 years, I still remember being 10 or 11 and helping my friend practice her sonatina. After about 20 minutes her mum couldn’t help herself anymore and stormed in with my mum to stop me from what she thought was merely distracting my friend. My friend whispered “thank you”, as I had helped her to repeat sections rather than play through mindlessly. Years after, when we met again, the first thing she remembered was how grateful she was for helping her practice that one time. I’m sure her mum is still not convinced, but I know it was the earliest confirmation that I could actually be of real help, and is certainly my fondest memory.

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

I’ve been teaching adults almost from the beginning of my career. Challenges, except for time constraints, include self-imposed limitations, mainly arising from clashes with self-image, and definitions of achievement and prospects. That’s why my best adult student to date is a hard working dad of three who is totally committed to his lessons because he sees it as personal growth.

What do you expect from your students?

A certain level of commitment: I can inspire, demonstrate and explain, but I can’t force them to practice. There needs to be an initial interest, and in the case of younger students, there has to be parental support.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams and festivals can be great motivators while providing benchmarks of attainment. Competitions are both exciting and a necessary evil: as long as there are transparent selection processes they have a place in one’s development. I think it is important for a musician to enter any form of competition trying to achieve playing their personal best (rather than focusing on being better than the other competitors). At the same time it is important to come into contact with one’s peers. What I do not like is the message that one has to comply with what’s expected – and certainly there are pianists who are unhappy at the suggestion of modifying their affinities for certain repertoire. I also do not condone excessive emphasis on performativity at younger ages: young children and teenagers should not be criticised for being their awkward selves on stage, especially if this does not interfere with projecting the music.

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

Smart practice, healthy posture-technique, and fingering, along with reading notation and counting are all concepts presented from the very first lessons and reinforced throughout the studies. Style and phrasing, along with pedalling, however, take a lot of exposure to repertoire and are more gradually introduced.

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

My preference is for teachers who teach by example, as I found it most exciting to watch my own teachers perform. I am therefore a performer who teaches pupils how to perform on the piano, rather than how to play the piano. To perform is more than just pressing keys as instructed through notation: it is to communicate without the burden of words. The process of learning to perform is a complicated one of empathy with the perceived intention of the composer, and of enculturation.

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

Martha Argerich is a firm favourite for her transcendental technique, as are the Labeque sisters. I saw the Labeque sisters perform live in Greece and their communication and poise were simply amazing. From my own teachers, Dimitri Toufexis taught me a lot about projecting phrasing through physical gestures, Danae Kara stepped in as my mentor at the early stages of my career and pushed for a totality of conception in extended works. Dr. Bedford introduced me to Alexander Technique and Tai Chi to focus the mind, and my dearest Dr McHugh taught me how to control my hands and the piano keys in what she termed “slow key-depression”. Martino Tirimo and Elena Riu will always occupy a special place for being so flattering and incisive as duet coaches.

 

Natalie Tsaldarakis is a concert pianist and member of the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble. Natalie has also been active as a lecturer, piano teacher and examiner since the 1990s.

In 1994 Natalie was invited to membership by the American National Music Honour Society Pi Kappa Lambda for excellence in performance and she has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including first and second place winners in piano competitions in the US, and Greece (MTNA Wurlitzer Collegiate Competition, West Chester State University Concerto Competition, the Pottstown Orchestra Competition, Deree College Faculty Development Award, WCU Graduate Development Award etc.).

Since 2005 Natalie has been based in London, UK. Between 1995 and until 2005, Natalie was artist teacher in residence at the American College of Greece as well as piano professor and examiner for Greek conservatoires of music including the National Conservatory of Greece.

Natalie has performed extensively at various venues and festivals in the UK and abroad, including the Southbank Centre, St John’s Smith Square, Oxford University, St-Martin-in-the-Fields, Glasgow City Halls, Sibelius Academy, Athens Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls, Winchester Cathedral.

Natalie has recorded both solo and with the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble for the National Greek Radio (ERA-1, ERA-3), and has appeared on Greek television, and UK’s Resonance FM 104.4. The duo’s CD “Romantic Dance Music for Piano Duet” was requested by the Archive for Greek Music and Musicians (Lilian Voudouris Library, Athens Concert Hall) and hailed as an important musical event of international standing by the Greek specialist press.

http://natalie6784.wix.com/ivoryduopiano

https://m.youtube.com/Ntsaldaraki

http://www.twitter.com/Ntsaldaraki