Long read guest post by Dr Michael Low

Regardless of where you stand (or perhaps more appropriately, sit, as that is our general default position when it comes to using electronic devices such as tablets, chrome books and laptops) on the subject of social media, there is no doubt that websites and applications such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter play a huge part in our everyday lives. Apart from the countless hilarious sports memes, adorable pet videos, spiritual (and lifestyle) citations, cooking tips, political news bulletins, relationship status updates and narcissistic selfies, they also provides the ideal podium for a talented artist or an upcoming entrepreneur to showcase their ability. Furthermore, even if these aspiring individuals don’t have the ability to ‘make the cut’, there is a certain sense of satisfaction when one’s social media post generates hundreds and thousands of views and ‘likes’. Perhaps it says something about the world that we live in that being noticed counts just as much as having the ability to do something unique.

However, social media can also be a very unforgiving and ugly platform where humanity’s flaws and imperfections are ridiculed and unfairly judged. Someone recently likened social media to that of the cyber age colosseum, its members the mob, often out for blood and entertainment. A similar parallel can be drawn from the words of Derek Jacobi’s Gracchus in Gladiator (2000) directed by Ridley Scott:

The beating heart of Rome, is not the marvel of the senate, but the sound of the colosseum. He [Ceasar] will bring them death, and they will love him for it.

There is something very distasteful and perverse about that part of human nature where we want to see those directly in competition with us crash and burn. Perhaps this is one the (many) reasons behind the success of prime-time television shows such as Idols, Dragon’s Den and The Weakest Link, where members of the jury (or in Anne Robinson’s case, juror) are known for their ability to outrightly dismiss the contestant with cutting remarks.

Just as an aside, the Hong Kong version of The Weakest Link sets out to replicate the British series in all its full glory. However, the Chinese viewers did not understand or appreciate Carol Cheng’s imitation of Anne Robinson (let’s face it, who can?) and soon vent their anger at broadcast company, resulting in Cheng’s much changed and likeable demeanour. Which I thought completely missed the point: the reason why audiences tune into The Weakest Link is for Anne Robinson sarcasm and her trademark parting shot: ‘You are the weakest link – goodbye! Furthermore, it is also known that (as well as the prize money) some contestants go on the show because they are keen to experience what it is like to be dismissed by Robinson on television. The shift in Hong Kong’s presentation perhaps owes more to what the East perceived as acceptable behaviour on television as the Orientals are not known for their sarcasm and dry sense of humour.

As a golf enthusiast, it saddens me to say that the 1999 Open Championship in Carnoustie will always be remembered for Jean van de Velde’s implosion on the final hole, rather than Paul Lawrie’s performance during the playoff. (Van de Velde’s entourage will point to the fact that he got what is arguably one of the most bizarre ricochets in sports when his second shot bounced off the railing of the grandstand, onto the top of the stonewall before nesting itself in the deep rough. At the same time, critics will argue that it was Frenchman’s combination of flair and dire decision-making that resulted in his precarious second shot). Tennis fans will recall Jana Novotna’s unfortunate collapse (and her tears on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder) rather than Steffi Graf’s heroic comeback during the 1993 Wimbledon Ladies Final. The 2013-14 English Premier League football season will forever be synonymous with the image of Steven Gerard’s slip which handed the initiative back to Manchester City, who became the eventual champions. Finally, we all knew what happened in the most recent US Open Ladies final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.

One of the subjects that generates the most interest on social media is that of the musical prodigy: an infant with the technical ability and (at times) musical maturity equal to an adult musician. However, before I proceed with the rest of this article I just want to clarify the following points:

  • The article is a based upon my own experience as a human being, an educator and a musician.
  • This is Not (notice the capital N) Dr Michael Low’s How Not to be An @rs3hole Piano Teacher or D1ckhead Parent 101.
  • I am not a parent.

There is a general (and much overstated) adage that behind every successful child prodigy stands (at least) one Tiger Parent – an overbearing individual who set the highest standard of achievement for their children by authoritarian means. The term Tiger Mother or Tiger Mom (老虎妈妈) is synonymous with Amy Chua’s controversial 2011 Memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where the author detailed her stringent and at times ferocious parenting regime. Though it is not explicit, the book also argues in favour of such parental methodology as well as the superiority of Chinese as opposed to Western culture.

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Amy Chua watches her daughter Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld practise the piano in her home in New Haven, Connecticut

I know a number of parents who have read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and hated every single paragraph, as it goes against what they believe to be good parenting. On the other hand, I interpreted the book as an outright parody of the Chinese culture (much like Jon Chu’s movie adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians) and found the author’s writing immensely entertaining (I read the entire book – given to me as a Christmas present by the parent of a student – en route to London and it actually made me love my mum [herself also a Tiger Mom during her heyday] even more when I saw her). Regardless of what you think of Amy Chua, there is one thing that is clear: no matter how badly a parent wants a child to succeed, the final application has to come from the child him/herself. Chua openly confesses that despite her intense style of parenting (which bore fruit with her eldest daughter, Sophia), she has to admit defeat and eat a considerable portion of humble pie when her youngest daughter, Lulu, refuses to emulate Sophia’s musical achievement. Of all the very talented children I have had the privilege to have worked with, and there are just about (at least) two or three in every corner of Asia, none of them gave me the impression that they are playing the piano for their parents (the counter-argument here is that the less musically interested child would not have to seek out another teacher’s opinion in the first place). The feeling I get from working with these talented youngsters is that they would not achieved such a level of technical attainment if they do not firstly, believe in themselves (needless to say, this is supported unwaveringly by their parents and teacher) and secondly, enjoy what they do. Critics of Tiger parenting often point out that one run the risk of forsaking one’s soul if you ‘demand a child to practise an instrument until they hate it’ – presumably seeing practising as the outdated, dry, and monotonous act which is often associate with strict parenting. Being an avid practiser myself, I can tell you that I won’t even last five minutes, let alone four hours, doing this sort of practising! However, if a child can be taught how to practise intelligently, creatively and at the same time being able to enjoy the process of slowly working through a new piece of music before eventually having the satisfaction of playing the composition up to speed, why shouldn’t they practise for hours on end? Some may argue that musical intensity at this young age will come at the expense of the infant’s childhood, leaving the individual susceptible to various psychological and emotional scars later on in life. But then again, just how many of us are actually ‘normal’ in every sense of the word? We seek an expression in art (and especially music) because part of us (for whatever reason) is looking for an alternate form of human expression. And in today’s world, the only way for one to have any chance of success in music, be in performance or otherwise, is to really love what we do. The eminent piano pedagogue Maria Curcio recalled that her teacher, Artur Schnabel, once told her that in art, there is no such thing as a compromise. This is a statement that resonates with me on most levels (notice I say most, not all), because I have always maintained that the best people are those who can maintain a sense of balance and perspective in their life (which is not often easy when you are a child or a teenager, as there is a tendency to be impatient wanting to live for the moment).

It is the lack of social distraction, coupled with the ever-rapid ability to grasp the basic, along with many hours of discipline, that propels a musically talented child into the status of a prodigy. Universally admired by their peers, lauded by parents and immortalised by social media, the prodigy is much like a meteor or a ‘shooting star’, incandescence on their journey and leaving behind a streak of light in their quest for world recognition. Unfortunately, meteors also have the tendency to fall back down to earth: with every advancing year, the musical prodigy relinquishes a certain amount of his/hers prodigious status. I would argue that it is the technical ability – much more than the interpretive vision – that is the contributing factor behind the prodigy’s success (a certain Wow factor such as: ‘Did you see that six-year-old with such tiny hands play the Hammerklavier Sonata?’). And when a musical prodigy reaches the awkward age of the late teens and early twenties, no longer will he/she be judged on their technical prowess (which is now taken for granted) but their artistic vision. I use the term ‘awkward’ because this is the alleged stage when a musician ‘comes of age’ (which is absolutely nonsense in my not so humble opinion because studying music is a lifetime of work, and every artist matures at a different age). This, along with the human propensity to always be looking for the next best thing, meant that the prodigy has a life-span akin to that of a sportsman, although the former probably doesn’t earn as much. Conversely, I would imagine that if a child is used to performing in front of a packed house, as well as to an audience who is easily wowed by the performer’s technical prowess, he or she will probably find it very difficult to settle for anything less later on in life. These are some of the contributing factors towards why many musical prodigies have not catapulted themselves onto a successful musical career despite their remarkable promise.

It is the teacher’s job to see the best in our student, and with that, help them to realise their potential. In our line of work, we often work very closely with the parents of our students, and this has both its advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately for us, we also live in a results-driven culture where marks and validation on a piece of paper counts more than anything else, and this is especially evident in some of the more driven, first-world countries in the East. In such cultures, it is not unusual for the parents to have Tiger-like tendencies: imagine being part of a lifestyle similar to that of a fast-moving train, in a society where every parent will do anything (within reasons and financial means) to hurl their own children on board in the fear that they will either come second or miss out. In these societies, it must be very difficult not to get caught up with what everyone else is doing. Even if there are parents who feel that being part of such a competitive environment is not entirely suitable for their children, are they willing to jeopardise their child’s future by not participating? The question becomes infinitely more complicated when the child exhibits potential or show glimpses of ability to attain – and in some cases exceed – the standard set by his/hers teachers and peers. Realistically, how many parents have the financial means as well as the mind-set to even consider the possibility of emigration and starting life in a different country?

While we are on the subject of achievement, it is my humble opinion that parents have every right to feel proud when their child produces a brilliant musical performance, and the same can be said for us teachers. Let’s not be coy for a second here, there is always a tremendous sense of satisfaction and reward when one of our students perform well in either an exam, festival or competition (and sometimes all three!). As a teenager, I recall attending my sister’s ABRSM High Scorer’s Concert (which took place in the RAM’s Duke’s Hall) and said to myself, ‘It must be such an honour for any teacher and their student to take part in these occasions.’ Such feelings became reality a few years ago when one of my Grade 8 piano student was invited to perform in such a concert here in Cape Town. However, I have also seen the CV of several high-profile piano teachers (this is much more apparent in the East, where piano playing is seen as an achievement rather than an artistic expression), who littered their website with names of prize-winners whom they have taught or worked with (the irony here is that most, if not all of these competitions are relatively unknown, or perhaps I am just not that knowledgeable when it comes to competitions). While the business part of me understands such a marketing ploy, the cynical side of me seems to have other reservations. Afterall, I have always believed that the greatest teachers are those who let their students do the talking, or playing, in this case.

In the perfect world, no piano teacher would have to sit through their student’s mediocre performance, nor should we have to deal with tears and disappointment when exam marks and competition juries don’t see eye to eye with our candidate. One of the hardest thing for any teacher to endure is to allow our student to make their own mistake knowing full well this is the only way they will learn their lesson. I will never forget teaching a very talented student who, despite her tremendous musical temperament and ability, didn’t quite have the patience or mindset to practise slowly (for this student it is the case of ‘playing through’ a piece of music hoping that it will eventually come right). In spite my best efforts in trying to reason, encourage, and motivate her to be more disciplined in her practising, she was adamant that things will continue as they were. Afterall, why should anything change? She has gotten to where she is by doing what comes naturally to her (the superstitious side of me tells me that this is karma at its bitchiest best, the perfect payback for all those times in the past when I did not listen to my piano teachers). Heartless though it may seem, I eventually realised that the only way forward is to let her play the exam on her own terms, and this lead to the following afterwards: ‘Dr Low, I am so sorry… I fu(k3d up so badly…I have let you down…’ followed by loud sobs (for those interested, this student actually ended up passing her exam, despite the assumption that she ‘fu(k3d up’ her own performance). This incident made me realise one thing: if allowing your student to play out her own mistake isn’t heartbreakingly enough, it must be (at least) twenty times worse for a parent to let their child do the same (I can say with a degree of certainty that no parents want to see their children hurt, physically or emotionally). Unfortunately such is life that sometimes the only way for a child to grow is for them to make their own mistake, and this is in spite of their parent’s best intervention – conversely, interventions can sometimes end up pushing the child further away from their parents. It is not often easy to develop a sense of objectivity when we work closely with our student. However, I strongly believe that not every single piano teacher is completely responsible for how their student performs, just as not every parent is entirely liable for the adult their children become.

Parenting is perhaps the hardest job in the world. Children are conceived not only for the purpose of genetic immortality, but also to provide an opportunity for a parent to play the all-important role in shaping an infant’s life. I have often heard the following numerous times: ‘Michael, I don’t want my son to give up the piano because it was a decision that I regret taking when I was his age.’ To which I answer: ‘It is never too late for you to start having lessons again.’ Interesting that this is often followed by: ‘I just want him (the child) to be able to sit down and play!’ As teachers and musicians, all of us recognise that ‘to be able to sit down and play’ is far from straightforward, as it requires not only many hours of practising, but also a considerable amount of performing experience. Imagine just ‘chilling out’ playing the Rachmaninoff D minor Piano Concerto or Bach’s Goldberg Variations! I will never forget almost incurring the wrath of one of my piano teachers when I asked him to perform Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata during one of our lessons! (I did ask nicely just in case any of you guys are wondering!) It is my humble opinion that no parent raises their children with the intention of deliberately messing them up (psychologically or otherwise). Parents will always make the decisions based on what they know best when a situation arises, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see things), hindsight is such a beautiful thing and will always have the last word. I do not believe that there is a right or a wrong way to bring up a child; parents are human beings after all, and no matter which approach a parent decides to take, whether it is the Tiger Mother/Dragon Father combination, or the converse, Mother Hen/Father Owl mindset, somewhere down the line, mistakes will occur, and the child will be better or worse off because of that. No self-respecting parent raises their children hoping that they will become billionaire owners of football clubs, along with their corrupt Russian Oligarch associates. Nor do any parents wish their kids to turn into some sort of pathological animal lovers who give candy bars to golden retriever pups. I can say (with a degree of confidence) that every parents raises their children in the hope that they will one day become courageous, compassionate, intelligent and respectable human beings; to be able see the beauty in this cold and (at times) objective world that we live in, to love another whole-heartedly, to live a life of integrity and perhaps, just perhaps, also be able to find the extraordinary in our ordinary life. Similarly, a piano teacher should not harbour the unrealistic expectation in hoping that our student will be the next celebrity performer akin to Khatia Buniatishvilli, Lang Lang, Ivo Pogorelich or Wang Yuja. We teach piano and because we want to convey the passion and love of music to our students, and in learning a musical instrument, a student will hopefully be able to grasp a set of important life skills and ethics such as discipline, integrity, honesty, hard work and communication. At the end of the day, if any of my students can apply to their life what they have learnt from their piano lessons, then I will be quite content.


As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke. An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of South Africa’s greatest living composer, Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.

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The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has launched a new performance diploma, the ARSM, designed as “a bridge between Grade 8 and the DipABRSM”. The new Diploma, ARSM (Associate of the Royal Schools of Music), is different to both Grade 8 and the DipABRSM in that it includes no supporting tests (technical work, sight-reading/quick study, viva (for DipABRSM) or programme notes). The repertoire list is taken from the DipABRSM syllabus, though much reduced, and candidates may include 10 minutes of own-choice repertoire of Grade 8 or above standard to create a recital programme lasting 30 minute in total. To all intents and purposes this “diploma” looks very much like a reinvented version of the Advanced Certificate or Trinity’s Advanced Performance Certificate.

Concerns about the new ARSM have been expressed by piano teachers via Piano Network UK, a large and very active Facebook group comprising piano teachers, pianists (professional and amateur) and piano lovers, of which I am co-administrator. I would like to share some of these views here. My colleague and friend Andrew Eales, who writes the excellent Piano Dao blog, will be publishing a more considered response to the ARSM, together with an interview with Penny Millsom of the ABRSM in which he hopes to clarify some of the issues raised below. 

Please note that any views expressed here are independent and my publishing them does not necessarily mean Andrew and I support or endorse them. They are drawn from a diverse range of British piano teachers of differing ages and experience. My own comments and views about the ARSM diploma are in italics.

Level of attainment, marking and assessment criteria

  • I find the fact that Distinction is set at 45/50 interesting (in comparison to 70/100 for the dip/Licentiate levels) – though I have yet to decide what this actually means, if anything, about the marking, relative standards required, contributions of the viva and quick study…
  • In my view, it is simply Grade 9. Something on easy terms just to get letters after people’s names. 
  • Any old examiner, presumably no requirement for them to be a specialist in your instrument. So the exercise itself is kind of worthless, and the marking will be pretty irrelevant. But here, have a qualification…

Is it really a “Diploma”?

  • It’s essentially a composite of other products/services that ABRSM already offer – an examiner who is already there to examine Grade 1 players, a repertoire list that already exists… from a business point of view it seems like a great idea because ABRSM don’t seem to have needed to do much at all to add this to their overall offer, but the market could be quite large.
  • I don’t understand why it is marketed at associate level
  • Doesn’t this just devalue the DipABRSM in performance? By all means have the equivalent of the Trinity Advanced Certificate but don’t call it a diploma when it so clearly isn’t!
  • Same repertoire as the DipABRSM. So like a diploma, minus the bits people complain about. So, not particularly educational. 
  • I just don’t think it is sufficiently rigorous to be called a Diploma
  • It claims “associate” status, but simply isn’t on that level. So it devalues genuine associate diplomas as a whole, and is misleading to potential students/parents.
  • By calling it a “diploma” ABRSM have blurred the boundaries between the graded amateur exams and the higher professional diplomas. And very few people, if any, outside the profession (parents of students for example) will appreciate the difference. My concern is that it may devalue the higher diplomas and lead to further dumbing down across all exams. I’m afraid I feel it is primarily driven by commercial interests on the part of ABRSM. 
  • One of the main purposes of a professional qualification – and especially having letters after one’s name – is so that prospective clients are reassured that we are properly qualified. 
  • Hard to believe that this will confer diploma status, and entitle the holders to put letters after their name. To the general public, there will be little difference between an ARSM and a FRSM, or anything in between
  • This is really just a money-spinner. I cannot understand the logic in it being marked out of 50, or am I missing something?! It doesn’t appear to be accredited at a particular level, and I agree with others that it shouldn’t really confer diploma status. 

Who it is for?

I can see this new Diploma suiting some of my more talented teenage students who would like to improve their performing skills and/or want a different challenge post-Grade 8. A number of adult amateur pianists whom I know have also commented that they would like to take this diploma because the format encourages one to “enjoy playing”. 

A couple of teachers who are keen to improve their performance skills have expressed an interest in taking the ARSM as a form of continuing professional development:

  • …to me it is simply about skill refreshing. I do appreciate others’ concerns but perhaps for piano teachers who haven’t done any serious practice in a while it could be a good thing?

If you have views on the new ARSM diploma please feel free to leave comments below or use the contact page to get in touch.

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

2720374What is your first memory of the piano?

I had a plastic red toy with keys on it that looked like the keys on a piano.  I enjoyed playing on this and so my parents asked me if I would like to learn to play the piano and once I started having lessons and had my own piano I really enjoyed it.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

It was almost by chance. When I studied at Birmingham Conservatoire my landlady was also a pianist and piano teacher.  She had a request from a prospective student and luckily she forwarded it to me and I found that I liked teaching very much.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

They were all memorable and significant.  I am so grateful to them for all they taught me and for all the inspiration they gave.  In my native country Sweden Irmeline and Irma Ericsson helped me develop sight-reading skills by giving me three new pieces to learn every week (compare with three new pieces per year in the exam syllabi!).  Christina Lindwall inspired me to go into music professionally with her great musical ideas.  At the beginning of my professional studies at a music college in Sweden Anders Peterson was a wonderful teacher with very careful musical work who organised numerous concerts and study trips in Sweden and abroad for me and my fellow students, giving me a first taste of performing and inspiring me to do more.  Hans Leygraf demonstrated incomparably methodical practice techniques during a Masterclass in Darmstadt.  Gordon Fergus-Thomson provided advice on very detailed score reading.  Peter Feuchtwanger taught me a natural approach to piano playing, which I instantly admired and which has influenced my thinking of the physical aspects of performing.  He has also inspired me greatly musically and helped me always to remember the cantabile qualities of the piano playing.

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

Experiencing arts in its different forms; visiting museums, art galleries, the ballet (I also work with ballet as one of my employments as a pianist at Elmhurst School for Dance) attending concerts and going to the opera are all examples of pursuits which influence both my teaching and performing, as are travelling and meeting interesting people.  It is a privilege to be able to draw on a vast number of experiences and to pass that on to students and audiences.

What do you expect from your students?

To love music.

What are your views on piano exams, festivals and competitions?

They are good sometimes as goals to work towards.  More beneficial still are masterclasses and concerts which is why I organise these regularly for my students.  Last summer I took my students to Sweden where I gave a masterclass and they then performed in a Grieg concert.

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

This pursuit of beauty that piano studies constitute, which encompasses intensely intellectual, spiritual and emotional aspects.  This applies to both categories of students.

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

It is a wonderful advantage to be able to draw on past and present experiences of performing when teaching performance-related issues such as stage presence, stage conduct, memorising and stage fright.  Also all musical aspects of the piano teaching will be enhanced from having a performance background since every piece of music improves enormously during a public performance.  And it is also worth keeping in mind (my students point this out to me regularly) that every piano lesson is a miniature performance with all that it entails.

Tell us why you decided to develop a series of piano exercises and how do you feel these will benefit pianists?

I wanted to pass on my ideas on the physical approach to piano playing.  Following my studies with Peter Feuchtwanger, I teach my students various exercises where the focus is on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’.  So the movements, relaxation of certain muscles and tension of others are all important, while the notes in this case are almost incidental. I therefore  encourage the students not to be overly concerned with accuracy but instead to learn a new movement and degree of relaxation that can then be incorporated into the repertoire.  There is a great advantage to having this one aspect in isolation since when performing a piano work there are so many musical elements to consider.  Technique and teaching of movements at the keyboard is often neglected until the teaching becomes quite involved, by which stage bad habits have often set in and are hard to correct.  The DVD may be used to learn the exercises from scratch in which case it is paramount to try copying the movements demonstrated as closely as possible.  In the case of my own students the DVD is used as a reminder of the exercises and to support the information I give in the lessons.  Closely related to these exercises are fingerings which are chosen to encourage a particular movement when working on repertoire.  The traditional ‘five finger position’ is not present; in fact there is rarely a position but always a movement which gives much more suppleness and freedom at the keyboard.

Mikael Pettersson’s DVD of piano exercises is available to order from his website or as a download

Swedish concert pianist Mikael Pettersson obtained a B Mus (Hons) degree at Birmingham Conservatoire in the year 2000.  He has also attended  Masterclasses with Prof. Hans Leygraf and has studied with Prof. Peter Feuchtwanger.

Mikael Pettersson has taught piano for several years, mainly for the higher grades and at Diploma level and has competition prize-winners amongst his students.  He is also Head of Keyboard Studies for Undergraduate and Postgraduate students completing a Music Degree at the University of Wolverhampton.  He regularly organizes Masterclasses and concerts for pianists.

He received a Diploma in the summer 2007 for his attendance at a Masterclass at Universität Mozarteum, Salzburg, Austria where he also performed in concert.  In December 2010 Mikael Pettersson performed in Florida, USA, with mezzo soprano Virginia Alonso, who has appeared in performances together with Placido Domingo.   Recently Mikael Pettersson released his second CD featuring Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte.  

In 2012 Mikael Pettersson was a semi-finalist in the International Adilia Alieva Piano Competition which took place near Geneva.

www.mikaelpettersson.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never thought I’d write an article on “note bashing”. In general it’s not something I advocate – mindless repetitive practise, thoughtlessly hammering away at the same phrase or group of notes. However, during my work on one of Schubert’s late piano sonatas I discovered that note bashing really does have a purpose in practising.

Every piece we learn will have its tricky or hard-to-master sections – that finger-twisting little passage, that scalic run which never feels comfortable under the hand, those hand-filling chords which are just a little bit too hard to reach accurately. For me it was arpeggios, a weakness in my technique which was making it more difficult for me to play the (many) arpeggios in the Schubert sonata precisely and fluently. My teacher worked with me on both good fingering schemes and some useful wrist rotation technique but what I knew I needed to do was to be able to play the passages automatically without the need to think about what was going on in the fingers and hands.

Musicians endlessly talk about training the “muscle memory”. Of course our muscles don’t really have memory, and the correct term for this is in fact “procedural memory”. This is part of our long-term memory that is responsible for knowing how to do things (also known as “motor skills”). Procedural memory retains information on how to perform certain procedures, such as walking, talking and riding a bike – and playing the piano. Procedural memory is created through “procedural learning” – repeating a complex activity over and over again until all of the relevant neural systems work together to automatically produce the activity. This is why as musicians we should be engaging in a hefty amount of repetitive practise, for it is these repetitions which fix the music in head and hands. Forget “practise makes perfect” – the real reasons why we do repetitive practise is because practise makes PERMANENT.

I was away from my own piano at the time when the arpeggios in the Schubert needed the most work, but as luck would have it, I had access to a digital piano which belonged to my husband’s niece. No matter that the keys were covered in a rather unpleasant sticky residue due to repeated use by small children: for three days I worked solely on arpeggios, focusing only on learning the correct sequence of notes and fingering. I did not consider the tone or quality of sound, or any of the more esoteric/artistic aspects of playing these sections; I simply concentrated on repeating the passages over and over and over again…… Back home to my piano and the exercise continued for a further week, by which time my husband, who also works from home, was beginning to develop a deep aversion to those particular sections of the Schubert sonata. “When are you going to practise something else?” he asked me. “When I’ve learnt this bit” I replied.

The “note-bashing” exercise served its purpose: at the end of 10 days the sections were well-learnt and my attitude to them virtually intuitive. I no longer approached them with a feeling of unease, concerned that I was going to fumble the arpeggios, and I have subsequently used this approach to memorise and/or make secure other sections of the Sonata – and indeed other pieces of music. With such security comes confidence and the ability to play without physical tension or anxiety.

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Of course my practising wasn’t really note-bashing because all the time I was playing I was taking notice of what I was doing to ensure that notes and fingering were correct, that I was employing the right amount of rotation to move smoothly up and down the arpeggios, that the tempo and pulse were accurate and so forth.

There are stories of pianists doing repetitive exercises or 100 repetitions of the same passage while reading a newspaper or reading aloud from a book. In these cases, one is training the procedural memory while testing one’s ability to divide one’s attention between several different tasks. I do this exercise with students, getting them to repeat a section and once the repetitions begin to feel comfortable and well-known, I might ask them what they are having for dinner or what they are doing at the weekend. Given the amount of multi-tasking that is required in piano playing, this can be a very useful exercise.

If you are simply note-bashing for the sake of it, it is perhaps time to stand back a little from your playing, consider the sound you are making and return to your practising with thought and care.

 

(photo by James Eppy)

 

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