Tag Archives: piano teaching

Piano teachers express their views on the new ABRSM Diploma (‘ARSM’)

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.

Reflections on ten years as a piano teacher 

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

At the Piano with Mikael Pettersson

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note-bashing

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.

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)

 

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!!

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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!