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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A “self-taught” pianist (Lucas Debargue) who made it through to the final of this year’s prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition, has been exercising journalists, commentators and bloggers in the immediate aftermath of the competition. Debargue is unusual in the highly competitive and often cut-throat world of international pianism as he came relatively late to his craft: he started to play aged 11, gave up at 17 and worked in a Paris supermarket before he started again and played so brilliantly that he was put in touch with a hot-shot Russian teacher. He was praised by two of the judges on the panel, pianists Dmitri Bashkirov and Boris Berezovsky, was awarded the Moscow music critics’ prize, and was invited by Valery Gergiev, no less, to play in the winners’ gala recital in the presence of Vladimir Putin. In addition to much positing and pondering about the notion of a “self taught” pianist making it to the final of such a major competition (one which has launched the careers of many “greats” of the piano world today, including Peter Donohoe, one of this year’s judges, John Lill, Barry Douglas and Daniil Trifonov, to name but a few), there has also discussion about what constitutes a “proper” musical training. These days, most of us understand “musical training” as study at conservatoire, music college or a specialist music school. In the rarefied hot-house atmosphere of such institutions the talents of tomorrow are carefully nurtured, ready to launch into a professional career when they graduate, and the “three C’s” – Conservatoire, Concerto, Competition – are regarded by many as the holy grail of a musical training leading to assured success and a slew of international bookings. The notion of someone who is “self-taught” reaching these dizzying heights, specifically the final of the Tchaikovsky Competition, seems alien, and yet perhaps the best students are those who realise that studying extends beyond the confines of conservatoire, music college or private lessons with a teacher or mentor.

In fact, it is inaccurate to state that Debargue is “self-taught” (but of course the mainstream media have latched onto this and sensationalised it). In reality, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire (CNSMDP) from the age of 20, and is currently taking instruction at the Ecole Normale de Musique Alfred Cortot in Paris under Prof. Rena Shereshevskaya. In 2014 he won the 9th International Adilia Alieva Piano Competition in Gaillard (France). He is pursuing a “proper” musical training, albeit somewhat later than some of his contemporaries. As Jessica Duchen says in her intelligent article on this subject, it is “dangerous to overplay the “self-taught” card because, sad to say, a large part of the British public thinks music happens by magic. That it’s something for “fun”. That it doesn’t take hard work to be good at it…………They seem to believe, too, that if you by-pass all the traditional channels but follow your dream in any case, you’ll be bound to come out as some kind of genius. That traditional studies are somehow bad and the inspiration of the moment is good, indeed is everything.”

To describe Debargue as “self-taught” devalues the amount of effort and hard work he has put in to get to where he is now. As a teacher myself, my aim is to encourage my students to become “self-teachers” – by which I mean to encourage them, through my guidance and support, to become independent learners, to explore, be curious, questioning, ambitious…… As one of my students said recently “I want to be able to open a book of music and play anything I want to”. My role, as teacher, is to equip him and my other students with the tools to do that. And as a mature student myself, I hope I can demonstrate to my students (and others) that one’s studies do not end when one has completed graded exams, for example, or left university; that learning is an ongoing process and one which can – and should – be undertaken independently.

Self-taught” is not the panacea you think – Jessica Duchen’s article

The self-taught French pianist who wowed the Tchaikovsky competition – article in The Spectator