In this guest post, pianist and teacher Helen Reid outlines her approach to teaching and the creation and ethos of her new online piano courses for advanced pianists.
The route towards creating this course – primarily during lockdown, though the idea has been in my mind for some time – has been a fascinating one. Many people have talked about lockdown being a time of creativity, and social media has seen no shortage of incredible video montages and moving living room performances. For many, however, that hasn’t been the case, and indeed the very proliferation of musical offerings on social media platforms has been confusing. Many musicians have felt the uncertainty of the next performance date putting them off playing their instruments altogether. For some, financial fears have far outweighed the desire or ability to think creatively. I found myself falling somewhere in the middle. I struggled to play the piano for myself, but the shift to online teaching, despite the crazily quick need to adapt, also inspired me to expand my teaching skills and techniques. In addition, having to find different ways to motivate students who were no longer going to perform their end of year recitals was a very interesting and important challenge, and I found that no two student routes were the same.
For some students, being released from the pressure to take the exams has allowed more time to work on technical issues around the pieces they were playing. We have explored the musical context in more depth and looked at issues of mental practice and preparation. Other students were excited about their performances and we have had to look at ways of adapting emotionally to the disappointment, devising alternative performance plans, both during and post-lockdown. I have considered this such an important responsibility to my students, to respond to each situation individually, and of course this is what we should aim for continually as teachers.
For many years, I have loved the idea of creating courses which place solo piano at the core and yet encompass many different facets. Just as we talk about portfolio careers, students (both young and old!) can benefit from a ‘portfolio course’. There are so many different skills needed to succeed as a musician. One has to be sensitive to produce beauty in performance, yet have an armoury to deal with the different types of rejection which might occur as a result of auditions, competitions and so on. Musicians must spend many hours in isolation, and yet also be happy in company, travelling to play concerts in varying locations, with different musicians and new audiences. Marketing and networking skills are important; teaching skills will more often than not be needed – the list continues. Lockdown encouraged me to put my thoughts into action, and to take time to create something which I hope can continue when normal life returns.
As Course Leader of the Professional Studies course, delivered to all the first years at the Guildhall School, I am acutely aware of how we must respond to the current situation in the content of what we offer our young musicians. We must give them the skills to help them on their way to a successful career at what is a very challenging period for music making. I am determined to address this with a sense of excitement and potential.
At the Guildhall School, I also work as a mentor on the PGCert in Performance Teaching. In 2014 I created an early years’ curriculum for 3.5 to 7 year olds, building a musical foundation in a holistic manner (www.blackbirdeym.com). I have contributed and led several research projects, primarily around the health of musicians. For the last six years, I have taught piano and accompanied recitals at Bristol University, as well as working privately with advanced students. I wanted to create a course which could combine all these aspects, and respond to some of the issues which arise frequently among my piano students.
The new online courses I have devised consist of focused one-to-one lessons, working on whatever the student wishes to bring. These are complemented by webinars, looking at issues such as structuring practice and other practice techniques, fulfilling potential in performance, keeping our body and mind healthy as musicians and considering how we communicate through our music performance. The webinars are also influenced by questions posed by the students during the course, so that we gain the benefit of exploration as a learning community. In addition, Dr Jonathan James delivers webinars looking at the wider musical context – exploring Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues and Beethoven’s Sonatas, for example. Jonathan is a fine speaker and I know he will bring an extra dimension to the courses. The students receive ongoing email support, so that they can ask advice or make suggestions as things occur to them during the course.
The first course takes place in June and is for Advanced Adult Pianists. The following two courses for advanced pianists will start in July and September, with the September course running all the way until Christmas. I was initially sceptical about online teaching, as I think perhaps we all were, and I was very nervous about how the first few lessons might go. However, given a reliable connection, I have found that it has enabled me to build more creativity into my teaching. This has been an exciting personal development and beneficial to my students. The current situation is a challenge for all artists, but the potential is there to connect with people all around the world, and expand our skills and understanding.
For more information on the courses, please visit helenreidpiano.com or email email@example.com
Helen Reid first came to public attention when she appeared on BBC2 in the National Keyboard Finals of the BBC Young Musician competition in 1998. In 2000 she won first prize in the Karic International Piano Competition. In 2006 she was hailed as a ‘rising star’ in The Independent magazine.
Helen has given recitals all around in England, at venues including the Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, Fairfield Halls and Blackheath Halls, London, St. George’s, Bristol, Cheltenham, the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester and the Aldeburgh and Buxton Festivals. She has performed in Spain, Slovakia, Hungary, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. Concerto performances have included Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto with the Westmoreland Orchestra and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Aurelian Ensemble at Blackheath Halls and the world premiere of David Matthews’ Piano Concerto, at Dartington International Summer School. Helen has played a wide range of chamber music, with artists such as Paul Archibald – trumpet, John Kenny – trombone, Sheida Davis – cello, and Fenella Humphreys – violin.
Helen studied at Chetham’s School, Royal Holloway University and Cologne Music College, completing a Master’s Degree at City University and the Guildhall School of Music. She is currently professor of piano at Bristol University; runs the Professiona Studies course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and has been invited to give masterclasses at Gdansk Conservatoire, Wells Cathedral School; The Universities of Bath, Royal Holloway and Hull, Dartington International Summer School and Pro Corda.
Future plans include an exciting new solo programme – Visions of Night, featuring music by Poulenc, Martin Butler, Michael Berkeley, Faure and Schumann. Currently booking for 2020-22.
I would like to offer what support I can via this blog and my social media networks to musician friends and colleagues, music teachers and others in the profession who are going to find the next months very challenging indeed.
Here is what I would like to do:
Share details of forthcoming CD releases, and other material.
Share videos and audio clips
Share articles and other resources which others in our community may find helpful and supportive
Stay connected with the musical community via my social networks
Separately, over on my piano teaching blog, I’m launching a forum called Coffee Shop Conversations. This was inspired by a friend of mine, an adult amateur pianist to whom I give occasional piano lessons and who always has plenty of queries for me surrounding repertoire, practising, piano exams and more.
Not so long ago a book as comprehensive and user-friendly as this would not be possible. It would require essential supplementary materials – DVDs and CDs – to cover all the ground. But with ease of access to the internet and smart phone technology at one’s fingertips, The Complete Pianist is exactly what it says it is: a comprehensive, generous guide to playing and teaching the piano, and one of the most significant volumes on piano technique to appear in recent decades. The benefit of technology means that pianists, whether professional or amateur, teachers and students can access some 300 video demonstrations via QR codes within the text, all of which have been recorded by Penelope Roskell herself to demonstrate a specific exercise, aspect of technique or musical point described in the pages of the book.
The Complete Pianist is the result of a lifetime of piano playing, teaching and research, and in it Penelope Roskell, renowned pedagogue and concert pianist, aims to help pianists of all levels improve their playing from the very earliest stages of learning a piece, through all the technical challenges and interpretative decisions to finding inspiration in the act of performance itself. Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on healthy technique and playing without tension, and Penelope continually reiterates that technique should serve the music, that it is a means to enable the player, whatever their level of expertise, to play with expression, vibrant colour and confidence.
Penelope Roskell’s approach to technique grew out of personal experience. As young pianist she experienced unpleasant physical symptoms while practising Liszt’s second piano concerto, and found that physical tension adversely affected her sound. She set out on a lifelong mission to develop a healthier approach to piano playing, drawing on yoga, Alexander Technique, Tai Chi and Feldenkrais, an understanding of anatomy, and her own research, often trying out exercises and techniques with her students to establish what worked or was most beneficial, both to the physical body of the pianist and the production of expressive sound.
Anyone who has studied with Penelope Roskell will be familiar with her technical and musical exercises, such as Empty Sleeves or The Hot Air Balloon and Parachute Touch, which aim to balance and relax the body or simplify and explain the physical movements required to create a particular sound or effect on the piano. Such descriptive, easily understood exercises can be particularly appealing to young people or early students who may find visual cues more helpful than verbal explanations. In addition, many of the exercises which Penelope advocates are based on the naturally flowing bodily movements we use in everyday life, thus making them relevant and more easily put into practice at the piano. The Complete Pianist contains 250 exercises, newly-devised by the author.
This comprehensive book covers all aspects of piano technique including posture, finger touch and tone production, chords, octaves, rotation, and lateral movements. There are also sections on mental preparation, effective practice, sight reading, memorisation, phrasing, rhythm, articulation, sound production, pedalling, injury prevention and understanding and managing performance anxiety.
The emphasis on preventing and managing injury is particularly important: until fairly recently, musicians’ health and wellbeing were rarely discussed and hardly touched upon in their teaching and training. Injury was regarded as a taboo subject, not to be mentioned for fear of revealing a weakness that may lead to loss of work, and musicians tended not to seek specialist help for health issues such as RSI or tendonitis. As the UK’s foremost piano teacher specialising in pianists’ injuries, and Piano Advisor for the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine ((BAPAM), Penelope Roskell offers highly informed, but straightforward and pragmatic advice for pianists of all ages and levels to encourage healthy technique. The Complete Pianist includes sections on injury recovery, rehabilitation and prevention, developing hand and finger strength, and hypermobility (double-jointedness) and specific issues relating to this for the pianist. In addition, section 22 (The Inspired Pianist) debunks many of the myths and obstacles of piano playing and performance, and offers intelligent suggestions to encourage motivation, set realistic goals and build confidence to maintain one’s interest in and enthusiasm for the piano. There is also a lengthy section on understanding anxiety, a significant issue for many pianists, professional and amateur. Once again, Penelope offers sensible, sympathetic advice – from understanding the physiology of anxiety and the effects of the release of adrenaline to dealing with perfectionism and negative thinking.
In addition to the many videos throughout the book, which range from simple piano pieces to concert repertoire, there are detailed appendices on anatomy and a glossary of terms which occur in the text.
In sum, The Complete Pianist is a remarkable achievement, a comprehensive manual for pianists and teachers, packed with invaluable accumulated wisdom and intelligent advice, and excellent supporting materials. Penelope Roskell simplifies the craft and art of piano playing, without ever devaluing musical ability, talent and artistry, and provides pianists with the tools to practice and work independently, yet with the sense of a supportive, sympathetic teacher always at one’s side, encouraging one to continually develop one’s artistic skill.
The Complete Pianist is published by Edition Peters UK and retails at £44.95
I took private lessons with Penelope Roskell for six years from 2008, a few years after I had returned to playing the piano seriously after an absence of some 20 years. I went to her initially with a hand injury – tenosynovitis which had developed as a result of attempting to play the octave passages in Schubert’s first Klavierstück, D946, too quickly, too loudly and with poor technique. In the space of 6 months, she had transformed my technique, filling in the gaps which were missing from my piano studies as a teenager, and built my confidence to such an extent that I felt able to attempt a professional performance diploma, which I passed with distinction in 2011 (I subsequently took my licentiate diploma just 14 months later, with Penelope’s encouragement, also achieving a pass with Distinction).
Returning to the piano as an adult was not easy, but Penelope’s intelligent, sympathetic and respectful approach made a huge difference, not only to my own playing but also to my fledgling teaching career. She was always generous with her advice and suggestions, urging me to try her exercises with my own students and report back to her. Her weekend piano courses were stimulating events and through them I discovered new repertoire and met other pianists, a number of whom have become close friends.
Her new book is a comprehensive and inspiring distillation of her experience and wisdom.
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I was brought up in a small seaside town, and was extremely lucky to find there an excellent teacher, who had studied with Tobias Matthay at the Royal College of Music. I loved piano playing from day one. Later, I joined the junior college at the Royal Northern College of Music, and it was then that I decided to pursue a playing career.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Each of my teachers has influenced me in their own way. Sir William Glock (a Schnabel student) worked a lot on phrasing. George Hadjinikos was a very philosophical musician and Guido Agosti was the pinnacle of refinement. Perlemuter gave me a direct line to Ravel (he studied all Ravel’s works with the composer himself). I have also learnt a great deal from working with other instrumentalists and singers.
I am also very grateful to some key musicians who have helped shape my career, for instance Carola Grindea who encouraged me to become involved with EPTA (the European Piano Teachers Association), and BAPAM (British Association for Performing Arts Medicine) where I now advise injured musicians.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
There were two main turning points in my career. As a young pianist, I thought I was invincible. I was working with a teacher who pushed me very hard technically, and in my third year at music college, I developed tenosynovitis (severe pain in my right thumb). This forced me to reconsider my whole approach to technique, and led to my life-long research into healthy piano playing.
I continued focussing primarily on performance for many years, until I had several years of bad health, followed by the birth of my children. This resulted in a second change of direction, in which I reduced my touring and focused more on teaching, which I have found very fulfilling.
I keep having to remind students who have major challenges or setbacks of one kind or another, that if one door closes, we can look for a different door.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Impossible to say! I love performing and have been fortunate to play in both major concert venues and very intimate settings – I enjoy both. Sometimes one plays one’s best in the least expected places. When I was in my twenties, I played a lot of concerts abroad for the British Council, sometimes playing to audiences who had rarely heard classical music played live before. In those circumstances, I felt a huge responsibility to bring across the music’s message very strongly, over and above any technical concerns. This proved very liberating and I think that it is very valuable training for any young pianist to gain experience of a wide range of audiences and venues – it also helps you develop resilience and adaptability.
In addition to performing, you have a distinguished career as a teacher. Who or what inspired to you start teaching?
I started teaching while still at school, teaching some of my fellow students and helping them prepare for their piano exams. I partly funded myself through college by teaching, and then was lucky to be offered a teaching post at Keele University in my postgraduate year. I am eternally grateful to Sir William Glock for recommending me to the post at Keele which later led to conservatoire teaching posts. I have been teaching at Trinity Laban (formerly Trinity College of Music) for twenty years now, alongside work at other colleges and a private practice.
Who/what have been the most significant influences on your teaching?
I was fortunate to experience a range of dedicated and inspiring teachers from an early age. Each had a very different approach, (and at times I even worked with two very contradictory teachers simultaneously). This worked well for me as the contradictions stimulated me to question everything and to try to work out the best solutions for myself. However, I do not recommend this for everyone – I think every pianist needs a regular, committed teacher who can oversee their longer-term development.
My experience of other movement techniques including yoga, Tai Chi and Alexander technique, my collaboration with an osteopath, and my research into anatomy have also been invaluable. However, it took many years of research and experimentation before I could work out how to apply all this knowledge directly to piano playing.
Having come across many pianists who missed out on a thorough grounding in their early years, I feel passionate about the need to train a new generation of enthusiastic, committed and knowledgeable teachers. Music colleges still tend to focus predominantly on performance, yet so many pianists would enjoy teaching more if they knew how to do it really well. Confident and knowledgeable teachers nurture enthusiastic students, who in turn inspire the teacher’s work further. There are some good piano teaching courses available, but in order to fill a perceived gap in the understanding of teaching technique, I am starting up a teacher training course next winter, in which teachers can explore new methods of teaching technique, based on the exercises in The Complete Pianist.
What are your views on music exams, festivals and competitions?
I think this depends very much on the individual. Some thrive and feel motivated by exams and competitions, others prefer to play concerts, or just to play piano for their own pleasure. I think there is a role for everyone in music. As a young pianist, I much preferred playing concerts to competitions, as I played better in front of a real audience. Having said which, I now very much enjoy being a member of competition juries, especially those that support and nurture young musicians. It’s a major challenge and a huge responsibility to have to judge one talented student against another.
Your new book ‘The Complete Pianist’ is published on 20 February. Tell us more about the motivation for producing this and what you hope pianists will gain from it.
Over my lifetime, I have acquired an enormous amount of experience and understanding on all aspects of playing and teaching, and about fifteen years ago, I finally decided that I was ready to share this for the benefit of future generations. I started by writing magazine articles, mainly in Piano Professional magazine, which I always intended to build into a book eventually. A friend introduced me to Peters Edition, who said they ‘had been looking for this book for ten years’ so it was an ideal match! They encouraged me to be more and more ambitious, and once we had settled on the title of ‘The Complete Pianist’, it became clear that the book had to be as comprehensive as possible. (It now includes more than 500 pages of text, 250 exercises of my own devising and access to 300 videos in which I demonstrate all the main points myself). This posed an interesting challenge: it forced me to think in depth about some aspects of playing that I had not yet fully clarified in my own mind (a process which has, incidentally, also greatly enhanced my own teaching.) Several years on, the book is finally finished.
I think The Complete Pianist has much to offer every pianist, whether professional or amateur, teacher or student, and I have included musical examples which range from elementary to concert repertoire. I have also tried to recognise and address the differing needs of a wide range of pianists (for instance, I may recommend different exercises for pianists with weak hands to those with strong but rather inflexible hands). I think it is true to say that it’s one of the few major books on piano playing which has seriously addressed the additional challenges that pianists with smaller-than-average hands face.
For me, it is never enough just to tell a student what to do – I feel that it is incumbent on me as a teacher to explain very precisely and simply how to achieve that pianistically. In the book, therefore, each new aspect of playing is addressed through a series of practical exercises which guide the readers step-by-step towards healthy, inspired playing. The book covers all aspects of playing, from a whole-body approach, through every aspect of piano technique to informed interpretation. I also delve into the way we think about music: from mental preparation, effective practising and motivation to developing confidence for inspired performance.
I have tested all the exercises repeatedly on my own students. Many of my students are teachers themselves who have also used the exercises for their own students at different levels and given very valuable feedback.
I hope that the book will help many pianists overcome obstacles and realise their full potential at the piano.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Good question – what is success? I think success is doing whatever you do with absolute commitment and to the best of your abilities. There is still a tendency amongst musicians to relate success to prestigious venues, fame and money. It is quite natural for young pianists to aspire to that, but that kind of celebrity status only comes to a small number of pianists per generation. I think that success, and achieving a real sense of job satisfaction, is much more complex than that. Although external appreciation is encouraging, it can be fickle, and it is unwise to build our self-esteem mainly on the recognition of other people. Ultimately it is the knowledge that you are doing good work that is the most important thing. Musicians should take pride in their own and their students’ successes, whether that be playing a major concerto or just encouraging a new student to play a simple piece beautifully. Success is about genuine sharing of music making in a way that touches others, through playing or through teaching.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
That the music comes first! Still I hear of many pianists who have been taught to focus on technical ability above all else. This suppresses natural artistry and is more, not less, likely to lead to injury and disillusion. Cultivate your imagination and your humanity and it will shine through in your music and sustain you through a lifetime of playing.
The Complete Pianist: from healthy technique to natural artistry by Penelope Roskell is published on 20 February by Edition Peters and is available from shops and online: www.editionpeters/roskell
Penelope Roskellis Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. As a soloist she has played in major concert halls in more than thirty countries. She is the leading UK specialist in healthy piano playing, and Piano Advisor to the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, where she holds a clinic for pianists with tension or injuries.
The expression “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” does a great disservice to teachers everywhere. In the sphere of music, teaching is often regarded as a “second best” option for those who have trained as performers, yet for anyone who has encountered a great music teacher, it is evident that this is a highly-skilled profession, requiring many hours of training and commitment.
The sad thing is that so many young musicians go through the conservatoire or music college training, being taught how to be performers, yet very few of them will be able to make a living solely by performing and concertising. Concert fees hardly take into account the many hours of preparation, and only those at the very top of the profession can command the highest fees. Nor do positions in orchestras pay particularly well. Thus, many musicians turn to teaching as a way of securing a regular income.
A common misconception is that if you are a great performing artist, you must, by default, also be a great teacher, but the two things do not necessarily go hand in hand. While both activities are about communication, teaching is about communicating the techniques and artistry of playing music largely through the medium of the spoken word and physical demonstration. The best teachers can articulate the complexities of playing an instrument in simple terms, demystifying aspects of technique, for example, through the use of metaphor or imagery. Good teachers are also highly adaptable for they appreciate that there is no “one size fits all” approach and that each student must be treated as an individual.
Those fortunate enough to study with some of the great teacher-pianists, who have themselves studied with great teacher-pianists of another era, enjoy a special connection to these earlier teachers and mentors. These generational connections create a tremendous sense of continuity, and this musical ‘provenance’ is invaluable and inspiring when one is learning. Several of my colleagues (both international concert pianists) studied with the acclaimed British pianist and teacher Phyllis Sellick, whose “musical ancestry” included Isidor Philipp, who himself was taught by Georges Mathias, a pupil of Chopin and Kalkbrenner. Such teachers can act as a link to the past, passing on the wisdom handed down from these earlier, great teachers, and enriching one’s experience of previous performers and performances.
Sadly, private music teaching is too often regarded by those outside the profession as “not a proper job”, or a “hobby job” by people who do not appreciate the many hours of preparation and dedication required to teach music. In addition to time spent with students, teachers must plan lessons and take care of the admin of running a teaching practice, including setting and collecting fees, and engaging in ongoing professional development to ensure one remains in touch with current practices and theories.
Teaching is an ongoing learning process in itself: the best teachers are often the most receptive too, and their relationships with their students is less didactic tutor, more mentor and guide. The best teachers are respectful and unselfish, appreciating that students do move on, perhaps to further study at music college or into a professional career, or simply to another teacher to gain a different perspective on their musical studies. Above all, the best teachers care deeply about music and want to encourage and share this love with their students.
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.
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.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain.
If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site