This time last year I moved away from London and my thriving popular piano teaching practice, which I established in 2006, closed. An enforced sabbatical from teaching while I was between houses allowed some useful time to pause and reflect and when or if I might return to teaching. During that time I also visited the Summer School for Pianists at Chethams School for the first time, which gave me some very useful insights into how – and how not – to teach adult amateur pianists. My first student, an adult who has a degree in music and whose first instrument is the flute, arrived in the late autumn, and after our first lesson, I realised I had missed teaching and that special buzz that comes from hearing the music change and develop as the student gains great control, command and confidence.
A quiet space to work and teach
In my new home in Portland, Dorset, my grand piano occupies its own space, where formerly it resided in the living room of my London home, which made my teaching rather intrusive for the rest of the family since most of my students came for lessons after school. Now I have a dedicated quiet room at the bottom of the house which is my office and music room. There is a front door on the same level and so students come in without needing to access any other part of the house.
I appreciate that not everyone has the luxury of a separate teaching studio, but it is possible to make any space conducive to teaching and study if you want to, and I think it is important to differentiate between a family space and a teaching/work space.
Supporting and encouraging students to be independent learners
A committed auto-didact, I am a largely self-taught piano teacher, and my approach to teaching has been shaped by the way I was taught as a child and teenager, and latterly as an adult piano student. The best teachers, in my opinion, are the ones who empower their students to become confident, independent, enabled individuals rather than clones of the teacher. This is very much my approach, based on my experiences as an adult pianist returning to lessons after a 25-year absence and studying with a number of highly experienced master teachers and concert pianists through regular lessons, masterclasses and one-to-one mentoring.
Debunking the notion of a ‘Right Way’
Many students, and especially adults, come to lessons with the firm notion that there is a “right” or “standard” way to play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy et al (I was also taught this as a child). Such entrenched ideas are often inculcated in students by other teachers whose dogmatic approach is both narrow-minded and egocentric. It does not encourage or support a student, nor allow them to develop musically to their full potential or gain ownership of their music. Unfortunately, many students lack the confidence and/or musical knowledge/experience to challenge a teacher’s viewpoint and simply suck up what they are told without question.
Music is a journey of discovery and experimentation, and students should be encouraged to both explore and experiment, through deep engagement with music itself via the score and also by setting the music in context through regular “listening around” the music one is studying, to gain insights into the composer’s distinct soundworld and to hear other musicians’ approaches (not to imitate, but to give one ideas about aspects such as phrasing articulation, dynamics, breathing space, gesture and presentation).
Much of my teaching now seems to be focused on steering students away from a pre-conceived Right Way onto the path of Your Own Way. But to do this it takes a leap of faith on the part of the student and quite a lot of sympathetic encouragement from the teacher, and a student lacking in confidence needs plenty of support to convince them that it really is ok for them to have their own view of how a particular passage should be shaped.
Asking questions, finding solutions – together
Much of my teaching is also driven by asking questions – “what do you think this music is about?” or “what do you think the composer is trying to say/convey here?“ – and challenging a student’s interpretative decisions, as I was when I was being mentored for my diplomas, to test their conviction about their chosen approach. This gets us both thinking about the music, the interpretation of the composer’s intentions and our own personal musical vision. I do not think such an approach should only be confined to advanced students, and indeed I’ve gained some intriguing insights into interpreting repertoire from my intermediate students.
I have mentioned before that I want my students to become confident, independent learners but in order for them to do this, they need the tools to enable them to practice productively, solve problems and make their own decisions about their music. Thus, when presented with a tricky section in the score, we will together work out a solution or form a practice strategy, and I never recommend something to a student that I would not do myself. I am also honest about my limitations – as a teacher, I do not “know it all”, and I find a collaborative rather than a didactic approach is more rewarding and beneficial for the student and for myself.
The pleasure of the piano and the joy of music
I have always loved music and I adore the piano. Teaching allows me to share my passion and, I hope, to encourage a similar enthusiasm in my students. Fundamentally, the piano journey should be about enjoyment and self-fulfilment. Giving students permission to be less than perfect, liberating them from old-fashioned or limiting attitudes to learning music, and enabling them to play with confidence, poise and a personal musical voice are my chief aims.
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