Being professional – the characteristics of a professional

Many people regard piano teaching as a vocation rather than a profession, including some who are active practitioners, and I have encountered many people outside of the profession of piano teaching who regard the role as some kind of superannuated “hobby”: on one occasion the parent of one of my (former) students actually said to me: “You’re so lucky to be able to do your hobby as a job”, thus totally overlooking the fact that I take my job as a piano teacher very seriously, and regard myself as a professional within the sphere of piano teaching.

Sally Cathcart, a musician, educator, researcher and director of the Oxford Piano Group, has been exploring the issue of professionalism and piano teaching in a series of posts on her blog The Curious Piano Teacher, and she poses some interesting questions about the definition of a professional:

The characteristics that make an occupation a profession have been the subject of much research and debate and in many respects what I am presenting here and attempting to relate to piano teachers is rather simplified and is, of course, from my own perspective. Hopefully, it does provide a more rigorous context for the debate to take place within.

Heisler (1995), having reviewed much of the literature, identifies five commonly applied traits denoting an occupation with professional status. He argues that a professional group has:

  • a specialised body of knowledge and technique
  • training courses that pass on specialist knowledge
  • exams and tests that provide certification for practice
  • monopoly to work by those with certification
  • autonomy of practice for those with certification

Read the full text of Sally Cathcart’s article here

Links to Sally’s previous articles:

Being Professional – the beliefs and attitudes of UK piano teachers

Two Stories about Piano Teachers

A new kind of practice notebook


Encouraging piano students to practice can be the bane of the piano teacher’s life and teachers regular seek new ways to encourage students to practice creatively, thoughtfully and intelligently. The practice notebook is usually the means by which the teacher records what he or she would like student to focus on in the intervening days between lessons, but I know I am not alone in wondering how many of my students (and even some parents!) actually read which I write in their notebooks from lesson to lesson.

The Music Me Piano Practice Workbook offers teacher, student and parent a new kind of practice notebook in an accessible and attractively-designed format. A spiral-bound A4 book, the practice workbook has pages in which to schedule practice and practicing goals, record practice notes, and cover aspects of technique and theory alongside practical piano study. In addition to weekly practice charts (which include sections on scales and arpeggios, sight playing, theory and general musicianship), a comprehensive reference section gives the student the opportunity to practice away from the piano and study aspects of theory (Circle of Fifths, degrees of the scale, note values, scale fingerings etc) which have a relevance in day-to-day practicing and weekly lessons.

The Music Me Piano Practice Workbook was created by Roberta Wolff, a Surrey-based piano teacher. In 2013 her students participated in the CLIC Sargent Practice-a-thon which encouraged her to think more closely about tailored individual practice schedules for her students, which would motivate and encourage them to practice every day to complete the Practice-a-thon challenge. The result is different to the standard A5 practice notebook such as the one produced by the ABRSM: it is a colourful, spaciously laid out book with charming illustrations by Claire Holgate. There is even a section where students can write their own notes about the form and style of pieces they have learnt, and plenty of blank manuscript pages to record exercises or even compose their own pieces.

ExpertLevelPerformanceStudents often don’t refer to their practice notebooks simply because the design of the notebook is rather dry and unappealing, and there simply isn’t enough space on an A5 page for the teacher to note down the key things on which the student needs to focus in their practising. The Music Me Piano practice workbook’s clear design, with its appealing Enjoyillustrations and cheerful, motivating comments at the foot of each page, will encourage students to be proactive in planning and recording practicing with the support of teacher and parents, and the format is such that students can plot progress throughout the course of a year of lessons (there is also a longer 42-page book).

What the book contains:

  • Set termly Targets.
  • Assess whether your student is on track at half term. Make weekly practice notes.
  • Make weekly practice plans.
  • Have parents check practice plans.
  • Create Scale and Arpeggio practice charts.
  • Draw Scale patterns onto keyboards to visualise scales.
  • Find Scale and Arpeggio fingering charts.
  • Log the scales which have been learnt on a blank Circle of 5ths.
  • Fill in intervals of the major and minor Scales and Arpeggios.
  • Chart the rhythmic patterns students have used.
  • Make use of manuscript paper and note pages.
  • Have students create their own Foreign Terms pages.
  • List Student’s Repertoire.
  • Support your teaching with short notes on The Art of Practice.
  • Use The Stages in Learning to structure practice.
  • Find helpful hints on using the book for teacher, pianist and parent.
  • Find fun and thought provoking images on high quality practice.

Sample pages









For further information about the Music Me Piano Practice Workbook and to order copies, please visit

Summer holiday homework – music appreciation

Listen to the music extracts below and select one to write about. Answer the following questions about the music:

1. What is the mood/character of this music?

2. Is it major or minor?

3. Why did you choose this piece and what do you like about it?

4. Do you think this piece is Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Contemporary or Jazz? What particular features in the music make you think this?

5. Would you like to hear more music by this composer, or from this period in music history? Give your reasons why (or why not).

For help with question 4, please read my blog posts on music history:





Extract 1


Extract 2


Extract 3


Extract 4


Extract 5


Extract 6


Students’ Concert at the 1901 Arts Club

This year my annual student concert was held at the 1901 Arts Club, a beautiful, intimate venue in a former schoolmaster’s house (built in 1901) close to London’s Waterloo Station. The venue boasts a lovely Steinway C grand piano and an informal, convivial atmosphere, thanks in no small part to the very welcoming personalities of the people who run it. I use the venue for the South London Concert Series, an innovative series of concerts which I organise and co-host with my friend and piano teaching colleague, Lorraine Liyanage. I felt the small size of the venue (it seats just 45 people in a gold and red salon redolent of a 19th-century European drawing room) would enable the young performers to feel less anxious and to relax into the special atmosphere of the place.

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

I cannot stress too highly the importance of performing, at whatever level one plays, and I have written extensively on this subject on this blog, my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and in my column for Pianist magazine. Music was written to be shared – whether in the home or the salons of other people’s houses, or in recital rooms or concert halls. But on another more important level performing builds confidence, not just in the sphere of music but in many other walks of life, and equips people (of all ages) with an important life-skill.

When I was the age of my students (9-14) I had few opportunities to perform for others. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, not even small-scale events in her home, and as a pianist at school I was always rather sidelined (a solo instrument being deemed the epitome of showing off!), so my only real performance experience was either in the orchestra (where I played the clarinet) or in the choir, both instances where one’s performance anxiety is tempered by performing with others. One of the many decisions I took about my piano teaching when I established my practice in 2006 was that I would give my students performance opportunities. And so from little house concerts (with obligatory tea parties!) to the event this week at the 1901 Arts Club, the annual student concert has become an integral part of my studio’s activities.

Preparations begin many months before the actual date – and I know from my own experience as someone who has come relatively late to performing (in my late 40s) that preparation is everything. Being well-prepared is one of the best insurance policies against nerves and will enable one to pull off a convincing, enjoyable and polished performance on the day. Good preparation, including practising performing in less stressful situations, also means that any slips or errors in the performance on the day can usually be skimmed over and will not upset the flow of the performance.


Many of my students chose to perform exam pieces – music which they had already played in an exam situation and with which they were therefore very comfortable. It’s always interesting to play exam repertoire after one has put it before the critical ears of the examiner: when I revisit my Diploma pieces (as I am now, in preparation for a concert in January) I notice a distinct sense of relaxation in the music – and my students have commented on this about their own pieces too. Some selected new pieces, and we also had solo clarinet and saxophone performances (it is so gratifying that a number of my students play other instruments – saxophone, trumpet, clarinet and cello – or sing in school choirs).

I always perform at my students’ concerts as well. I think it is important for them to see their teacher performing and to understand that I do my practising and preparation just as they do; also that I am also engaged in ongoing learning of new repertoire or revising previously-learnt music.


The event at the 1901 Arts Club was really lovely. The young performers all played beautifully (no visible nerves whatsoever, though a number did say to me afterwards that they were really nervous!) and we had a lovely range of music from Arvo Pärt and Einaudi to Bartok and ragtime. Despite knowing my students pretty well now (some have been learning with me almost as long as I have been teaching), I am always amazed at the way they step up to perform with such poise. I don’t know what I do, but maybe by assuring them that their performance will be wonderful, they learn to trust me and this gives them confidence. Each performance was greeted with much enthusiastic applause by family and friends, and at the end of the event another piano teaching friend, Rebecca Singerman-Knight, awarded prizes for Star Performer (Tom Driver) and Most Enjoyable Performance (Eli Hughes). The children were presented with boxes of chocolate grand pianos (which I doubt lasted the homeward journey!). I have had some lovely feedback, from students and parents, and I think the general consensus is that this was a really enjoyable and inspiring event. I certainly felt so!

More about the benefits of performing:

On performing

Performing in a safe circle

Going into the zone

Strategies for coping with performance anxiety

Piano lessons are good for you and your brain!

Ask any piano teacher, and they’ll tell you their lessons involve more than music. Dedication, discipline and critical thinking are all part of learning to play the piano. Communicating these other benefits to students and parents can renew their interest in the instrument and give a greater sense of purpose to lessons. This helpful infographic shows the many ways in which piano lessons train your brain:


What Are Piano Lessons For?

This is a very personal manifesto about the purpose of piano lessons. You may not agree. You may disagree vehemently. But what you (as a piano teacher or as a parent of a piano student or as a piano student) believe piano lessons are for will affect your level of satisfaction with the piano lessons you are giving, or you or your child is receiving. Elissa Milne

What Are Piano Lessons For?.