Trinity College of London new piano syllabus – an overview

In July 2014 the new Trinity College of London (TCL) piano grade exam syllabus was released. I have enjoyed teaching the TCL syllabus and my students have enjoyed learning the pieces: some highlights of the previous syllabus include Fanfare for the Common Cold (Grade 2), Allegro Non Troppo (Grade 2), Song of Twilight (Grade 3) and Tapping Heels (Grade 4). To assist in my preparation to teaching the new syllabus, I recently attended a presentation for piano teachers given by Peter Wild, Associate Chief Examiner, and Govind Kharbanda.

One of my main reasons for switching from ABRSM to TCL for graded exams is that TCL focusses on the individual, and the exam structure offers flexibility and choice to enable students to play to their strengths. Part of my teaching philosophy is to encourage students to play with expression and confidence, and I am keen to help them develop performance skills. Performance is at the heart of the TCL graded exams, and the pieces carry a maximum of 66% of the marks available in the exam.

Pieces

Unlike ABRSM exams where students must select a piece from A, B and C sections (traditionally divided approximately into Baroque/Early Classical, Classical/Romantic and Modern/Jazz/Pop), TCL offers students up to Grade 3 free choice to select pieces which suit their individual strengths and allow students and teachers to create an interesting programme. This helps students understand how to build a contrasting concert programme and is particularly useful for students who wish to study for a Diploma at post-Grade 8 level. All the pieces offer contrasting moods, tempi, character and technical demands, and the syllabus combines well-known works and composers with music by lesser-known composers. There are always pieces with a Jazz-leaning and also some contemporary classical pieces. Arrangements of well-known jazz standards and songs, for example, are always good-quality arrangements. Right from the earliest grade, the pieces offer plenty of opportunities to explore aspects such as dynamics, tone quality, articulation and expression, and the pieces are chosen to encourage further listening and “listening around” the pieces to give students a broader frame of reference and set the music in context. In TCL the emphasis is very much on performance and students are encouraged to consider aspects such as stage craft and presentation. A duet option is also available in the early grades.

In marking the pieces, the marks awarded are subdivided into three areas:

  1. Accuracy & notational fluency – or “me and the music”
  2. Technique – “me and the instrument”
  3. Communication and interpretation – “me and the audience”

Supporting tests

There is also a choice of supporting tests and up to Grade 4 students may select two of the following:

  • Sight-reading
  • Aural
  • Improvisation
  • Musical Knowledge

I have found that many early and younger students find sight-reading at Grade1/2 level very daunting and I prefer to teach it within the context of learning new music, allowing students to develop their sight-reading skills at their own pace.

Musical Knowledge is a useful option and gives the student the opportunity to learn some music theory within the context of the pieces they are playing, thus making the theory relevant.

Many students, particularly boys, find singing in aural tests excruciating, and so in Trinity aural tests there is no singing (except at Grade 1). The test is designed to explore musical understanding, awareness and perception.

Technical work and exercises

Technical requirements in TCL exams are less onerous than in the ABRSM syllabus. Scales and arpeggios are relevant to the pieces, and TCL encourages students to take a musical approach to scales, demonstrating that they can play with fluency, accuracy and good tone. From Grade 4 students must play scales and arpeggios legato and staccato, forte or piano, and from Grade 5 students play scales in major thirds, and arpeggios of the dominant and diminished 7th. In my experience, most young people who want to learn the piano simply want to be able to play well and enjoy playing the piano. For the more serious pianist, the technical requirements in the ABRSM syllabus, where by Grade 5 the student will have learnt scales in all the major and minor keys, is more useful.

For each TCL exam, the student must prepare three short technical exercises. The exercises focus on aspects of technique such as balance, tone, voicing, coordination, and finger and wrist strength and flexibility. The exercises related to various pieces in the syllabus: for example, A Lucky Find (3a, Grade 6) is useful in enabling the student to shape a good cantabile line in Chopin’s Cantabile in B-flat and practises playing chords as an accompaniment. Music lies at the foundation of all the TCL technical requirements, and indeed the entire exam.

Exam report and results

All candidates receive useful feedback on each element of the exam, and results are released quickly, usually within a week of the exam date (certificates take somewhat longer).

I know some teachers hold strong views about the usefulness of exams, and the individual exam boards. At the end of the day, I feel it’s important to find pieces and technical exercises/supporting tests which allow the student to explore a varied range of repertoire and techniques and, above all, to enjoy playing the piano.

Resources

Trinity College London – syllabus support

Trinity College YouTube channel – includes an introduction to the grade exams and sample exams to show how the actual exam is conducted

 

Small people at the piano – a student concert

Learning PianoThis weekend I had the great pleasure of attending a concert given by students of my friend and piano teaching colleague Rebecca Singerman-Knight. Based, like me, in Teddington, SW London, Rebecca specialises in early years’ piano tuition, as well as children and adult beginners and returners. Most of the children performing in her concert were very young and some had only been learning the piano for a few months. However, each child stepped up to play with confidence and evident enjoyment, and each performance was received with enthusiastic applause by parents, grandparents, siblings and friends. Rebecca’s cheerful, smiling and encouraging manner ensured the atmosphere in the church hall was friendly and supportive. In addition to solo performances, some children played duets, with Rebecca and with other students, and at the end of the concert Rebecca herself played two Visions Fugitives by Prokofiev. Contrasting in mood and character, before she played she asked her students to think of titles for the pieces, thus involving the children and encouraging them to listen carefully.

I cannot stress too highly the importance of encouraging children to perform, no matter what their age or level of ability. Performing breeds confidence, an important life skill, and endorses all the hours spent practising and studying. For students, parents and teachers, performing demonstrates that piano lessons lead to real, noticeable achievement, and hearing other students perform different pieces is inspiring and exciting. Above all, performing reminds us that music was written to be shared. It is also very important that teachers perform: by doing so, we show our students that we know how to practise properly, that there is a difference between practising and performing, that we can manage our performance anxiety, and that our study of the piano doesn’t stop when we become teachers.

All in all, it was a lovely occasion, which I felt privileged to attend. I very much look forward to seeing how Rebecca’s students develop as young pianists at future events.

More on the value of performing here

Piano with Rebecca Singerman-Knight

Professionalism in Private Piano Teaching – a presentation for The Oxford Piano Group

I was delighted to be invited to contribute to a very interesting and stimulating discussion on the subject of professionalism in piano teaching at the The Oxford Piano Group  on 29th October 2014. Other contributors to this important debate were Nigel Scaife (Syllabus Director, ABRSM), Lucinda Mackworth-Young and Sharon Mark-Teggart (Evoco) who each gave presentations which explored the many facets of professionalism, including proper accreditation, good business practice, membership of professional bodies and minimum standards of qualifications for piano teachers. After the presentations, there was a round table discussion about professionalism, which touched on other important aspects, including the setting of fees.

My own presentation was based on my personal views on this subject, discussions with friends and colleagues in the profession, and the results of my recent survey Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers.  The slides which I used as a starting point for my presentation and discussion are below, and you can read the text on which I based my presentation here: OPG presentation (click to download the PDF file)

 

Arvo Pärt at 80 – a special Set Pieces class at the Dulwich Piano Festival 2015

The 2015 Dulwich Piano Festival is celebrating the 80th birthday of composer Arvo Pärt with the inclusion of his piece “Für Anna Maria” for solo piano. 

Arvo Pärt is a composer whose creative output has significantly changed the way we understand the nature of music.

To honour the composer in his 80th year of life, Universal Edition will be collecting performance dates, reviews, CD releases and more on a dedicated blog. The Dulwich Piano Festival is paying tribute to Arvo Pärt by including his beautiful piano piece, Für Anna Maria, on its syllabus. The class is open to pianists playing at a novice/intermediate level – all ages welcome. The class is not suitable for pianists who have progressed beyond Grade 5 level.

Entries are now open via the online entry form:
dulwichpianofestival.co.uk

The class will be adjudicated by pianist, piano teacher and blogger Frances Wilson. Here, Frances discusses the piece and why we have chosen this piece for the festival.

At the Piano with……. Nadine Andre

What is your first memory of the piano?

My parents moved from Hammersmith to Surrey when I was 3 years old, and the house they bought came with an old grand piano that was left behind! I remember being fascinated by the keyboard and what went on behind the lid. I had my first lesson when I was 5, and remember my response to my father asking me if I wanted lessons being “yes, but will I have to practise?” The rest is history.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I studied with Judith Burton for a decade until I went to the Royal Northern College of Music in 2000. She was so dedicated, and her devotion to every one of her students filled me with admiration. She has certainly been my biggest influence with regards to teaching; I always used to think, “if I can spend my time doing what Judith does, I’ll be happy.”

My path hasn’t always been that clear. I struggled with my relationship to music in my later years at music college, and despite achieving an MMus degree, I left feeling convinced that I would convert to law! After speaking to many people about it, the woman who helped me to see the wood for the trees was my piano teacher at the time, Carole Presland, who said, “if you say you love to work with people, what more privileged position can you be in, than to teach students on a one-to-one basis, where you really get the chance to make a difference?”. That was enough to help me back onto my path and I’ve never looked back.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

They are all memorable and significant!

Judith Burton I have already mentioned. We are still good friends, and she was my biggest influence and guide when I was young.

At the RNCM, I studied with Kathryn Stott for 2 years, then Carole Presland for 3 years.

After graduating, two teachers have really helped me in different ways:

Vera Müllerová is a Czech teacher and concert pianist who I met while teaching on a Summer residential course. She showed me some finger exercises that, in one session, solved technical problems I’d been having with trilling in 3rds for years! I now visit her in Plzen once or twice a year to take lessons.

On the same summer course, I met a jazz teacher, who persuaded me to join his student trio for 15 minutes one evening to learn a blues. I had never played by ear and was terrified! In 5 minutes, he had me playing “Sunny Moon for Two”, improvising round it, and taking solos with the band. I was elated, and it felt like the first time I’d really had fun while playing the piano. His name is Paul Cavaciuti, and he is now my husband!

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

This is a difficult question to answer!

My own state of mind is my biggest influence on my teaching. As a professional musician, it is easy for our music-making to become something we MUST do, and this can become tiresome. Also, finding a good balance between teaching and playing is not easy and needs constant adjustment. I put a lot of time and energy into maintaining my own love of music, feeling inspired, and ensuring that what I pass on to my students, predominantly, is a love of music and playing the piano. My husband is wonderful and helps me a lot with this. His expertise is in helping people rediscover their love of music and also helping with stage fright. I’m so lucky to have him available to me 24/7!

Other influences, among my own teachers, are Horowitz, Dr. John Diamond (an educator in the US who has created his own system which involves using the arts therapeutically), and our record collection. We have thousands of LPs, most of which are jazz and classical, and every time I listen to one, I’m immediately drawn to the piano to play, or come up with ideas for my students! I’m sure it has something to do with the analogue sound production. I never feel the same when listening to digital.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Every teaching experience is significant, and sometimes we have to trust that what we show our students now, may not sink in until much later on in life. My most rewarding experiences are when I take on a student who has been traumatised by the grade exams, or is about to quit, and within weeks they have found a new approach to playing, and realised that they do, in fact, love music after all. It brings me such joy!

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

One of the most challenging aspects is that many adults have pre-conceived ideas of things, so often they want a detailed explanation of why I’m asking them to do something, rather than just rolling with it and seeing where it takes them. I don’t see it as a negative – it’s natural that adults want to understand first and experience afterwards – however it’s not always the best way to learn.

The most exciting thing is seeing adults enjoying themselves through music, and doing something meaningful with their time. In today’s society, many parents offer the opportunity to learn music to their children, but secretly long to play or sing for themselves. I feel so excited when a parent comes to me and says, “can I have a lesson?” Being an adult brings with it so many responsibilities of the “must” kind. It’s great therapy to commit to something (especially something creative) for the love of it. If I can assist with that, I am delighted to.

What do you expect from your students?

Application. That’s it.

I’m not concerned with achievement or standards. Nor do I mind if their attitude isn’t positive for a while. We all have our struggles, and if I can find a way to use music to help them through troubled times, then my work is done.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Firstly, the term festival is misused. A festival is a celebration of something, and we use the term to describe competitions. Lose the competitive element, (but keep the constructive, positive adjudications) and I think they would be fantastic occasions!

I think exams and competitions are a disaster. I won’t blither on for too long about this (that’s for a future blog!), but developed societies are obsessed with assessment and quantifying ability. This has absolutely no place in the arts, especially in music, and the rise of grade exams and competitions has contributed to:

  • an increase in competitiveness among musicians and parents, (e.g. children in the playground saying “what grade are you on” instead of “fancy a play sometime?”)
  • an increase in performance anxiety and even stage fright.
  • a focus on skill acquisition without a true understanding of music being a language, and to the detriment of having something to say through playing or singing.
  • in the words of Horowitz, “standardisation”. Everything is now the same, instead of people playing as individuals. The idea of playing correctly and incorrectly shouldn’t be at the forefront of a musician’s mind, and it is only with note-reading that it’s an issue at all.
  • a feeling of self-worth being attributed to achievement. Musicians who receive distinctions in exams are often the ones who won’t play in restaurants, at parties or among friends. I think that’s tragic.

I could go on, but I should probably stop there. As a teacher, I want to spend my time convincing people that learning music for the sake of the music, and bringing people together, is enough. Benchmarks are not necessary to become a great musician!

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

To both beginner and advanced students, to love playing music. Another important concept is to realise is that the music comes from the person, not the instrument. The instrument is there to help release the music (though some instruments are more of a hindrance!)

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

I think they are very complimentary; however I think the importance of their connection differs depending on whether the musician has been professionally trained or not.

A musician who has trained to perform professionally, should perform. There are too many teachers who have stopped playing in public, and project bitterness and envy onto their students. This is the most destructive thing a teacher can do, therefore maintaining a balance, in my eyes, is essential. (I’m not suggesting we should all be playing at Wigmore, but some kind of performance is important – like nourishment!)

The advantage of having performed is the advice that can be imparted from the experience of having done so. Performing does feel quite different to playing to the four walls and the dog.

An amateur musician who teaches because they love to teach, but has never really performed, or had the opportunity to perform publicly, is unlikely to pass any such negativity onto their students. Their relationship to music is probably quite different and unaffected by the rigours and strains of the profession. For this reason, it isn’t important that they perform.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

I’ve been through the mill with performing-techniques. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. The one thing that has helped me more than anything, and that I do to this day, is sing along internally while I play. I do lots of singing aloud at home (and ask all my students to do the same), then on stage, whatever state I’m in, singing under my breath grounds me, helps me to concentrate without thinking too much, and regulates my breathing perfectly – consequently releasing tension. The ceiling could fall in or Jack Bauer could walk past, and I’d stay focused. It really is the best thing, and I learnt it from my husband!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

My favourite classical pianist has to be Horowitz. Every time I listen to him or watch him on Youtube, I sit at the piano for ages afterwards. He’s so inspiring.

For years, my idol was Alfred Brendel. He has an incredible mind, and a wicked sense of humour. He’s a real artist – I’ve been to many of his concerts, and he played differently every time. On a bad day he was great, on a good day, he was sublime. (I went to his final retiring concert at the RFH, and shed tears on and off all the way home!)

In the jazz world, I adore Art Hodes. He was playing in the US in the 30s and 40s, and had the most incredible groove. The amazing thing about him is that his music is often in the spaces between the sounds. He isn’t flashy or a show-off, but boy does he make you want to tap your foot!

Lastly, (I suppose this counts as he was a pianist and a teacher), it has to be Beethoven. Whoever composes music and says, “Music is the mediator between the life of the senses and the life of the spirit” knows his purpose as a musician, and to elevate others to something higher, is a wonderful purpose.

Nadine’s biography

Nadine André’s website

For the Love of Playing – Nadine’s blog

Nadine on Facebook

Follow Nadine on Twitter

Nadine’s contemporary trio, Trifarious

And on Facebook and Twitter

Classical Babies

An image crisis in independent piano teaching?

This article first appeared on my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist

I recently ran a survey, Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers, as part of some research for a paper I am writing to present at the Oxford Piano Group meeting at the end of this month. Originally intended to offer some insight into whether private and independent piano teachers regard themselves as “professionals”, the survey revealed some interesting and unsettling thoughts on how independent piano teachers perceive themselves generally, and how people outside the profession view them. The majority of respondents were independent/private piano teachers and it was their response to the question When you think of the typical private piano teacher, who teaches at home, what image immediately comes to mind?  which gave me significant pause for thought. See more on this below….

One of my ongoing issues is people not regarding what I do as a “professional” role, despite the fact that I adhere to many of the perceived definitions of the word “professional”: I am paid for my work, I hold professional qualifications, and I belong to several professional bodies. I also run my studio in an efficient and businesslike manner with clear terms and conditions regarding payment of fees etc, I market my studio effectively (website and social media), I participate in regular ongoing professional development, and know how to communicate and interact with my “clients” (my students and their parents). Discussions with friends and colleagues in the profession indicate I am not alone in this, and indeed this is one of the main aspects about which music teachers and musicians in general feel so denigrated: because we enjoy our work and (often) work from home, it is not perceived as “a proper job”, and as such, we are often undervalued, expected to work for low or no pay, and our job is regarded as some kind of eccentric hobby. Nevermind that many of us have undergone a long and specialist training, or have years of experience and an impressive track record of success.

One of the major problems of private piano teaching is that it is unregulated. This means anyone can set up as a piano teacher and recruit a few students. Other professionals – doctors, lawyers, accountants for instance – have their own professional/regulatory bodies, with professional exams, code of ethics, and so forth, which lends proper accreditation and gravitas to their role. Piano teachers can opt to join professional organisations such as the European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA) or the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), but membership is not compulsory and these bodies do not “regulate” nor inspect; they offer support, legal advice, continuing professional development, public liability insurance, busaries etc.

I would like to share the results of my survey, in the hope that this may encourage all independent piano teachers to consider how the profession is regarded and to support me in raising the profile of the private piano teacher.

Qualifications
What has the average piano teacher studied to teach in an independent studio?

Piano to grade 8 – 78%

Music theory to grade 8 – 37%

A-level music (or equivalent) – 45%

Music degree – 50%

Teaching diplomas – 46%

Performance diplomas – 43%

Piano pedagogy – 30%

These results interest me because I frequently come across the view that the private piano teacher should have attended music college or taken a degree in music, as a minimum qualification to teach. While I accept that a BMus or MMus (or equivalent international qualification) would be desirable, it is worth pointing out that not all conservatoire or university music courses offer a separate and/or specialist course in piano pedagogy; the main focus tends to be on performance, and music theory and history. Now, you might be the most talented, internationally-renowned pianist, but if you can’t communicate in both words and actions how to do it, you are not going to cut it as a teacher. Many professional musicians teach because they have to; but they are not necessarily the best teachers just because they have undergone a conservatoire training.

As an unregulated profession, there is no minimum standard qualification for independent piano teachers. Personally, I would like to see Grade 8 piano set as a minimum standard together with some other accreditation required and recognised by a body such as the ISM or EPTA.

Here is a teaching colleague of mine on the thorny issue of qualifications:

There is huge range of qualifications on offer, some of which test different things to others. I think in my experience, the usual thing, ‘qualifications do not necessarily a good teacher make’ stands true. All the qualifications I’ve done, I’ve done because they enhance and enrich my teaching rather than that they somehow make me look a better teacher. I’ve never once, in 13 years been asked about them anyway, and I find this quite common. Having worked with quite a few teaching diploma candidates, for example, it is clear which of them are using the qualification as a means to reflect on and evaluate their teaching skills, and those who want the piece of paper (and for the latter, the act of doing the qualification will have had little or no impact upon their actual teaching ability).

What are the main duties and responsibilities of an independent piano teacher?

100% of respondents stated that “teaching piano” is the main duty/responsibility of the independent piano teacher.

Preparing lessons – 87%

Collecting fees – 59%

Scheduling lessons – 73%

Preparing students for exams – 80%

Writing student reports/appraisals – 34%

Marketing the studio – 41%

Administration and recording keeping – 61%

Encouraging students – 91%

Keeping up with one’s professional development – 81%

I was interested to note that “collecting fees” did not receive a higher response, since conversations with colleagues, and my own experience, suggest that this is one of the more time-consuming (and irritating) aspects of the private piano teacher’s role, along with other general admin. Additional comments in response to this question included: dealing with parental expectations, keeping abreast of the current writing/thinking in piano teaching and pedagogy, taking lessons and playing/performing oneself, learning the music that students choose to play, informing students of interesting/relevant concerts and encouraging them to listen to music.

What non-musical skills do you think an independent piano teacher should have in order to teach successfully in a home studio?

Administration and organisational skills – 87%

Computer skills – 53%

Business skills – 57%

Knowledge of learning styles and how to accommodate them – 86%

People skills – 95%

An ability to challenge and motivate students – 96%

Patience – 96%

A sense of humour – 84%

Communication and writing skills – 71%

The responses to these three questions above suggest that independent piano teachers have a clear idea of what the job entails, and what skills are necessary in order to fulfil the role.

In response to the question Do you consider private piano teaching to be a “profession”?  91% agreed with this statement, while 7% did not. 2% responded “Don’t know”. When asked to qualify their responses, the following comments were made:

It’s a hobby, even if a full-time living, and never feels like a ‘real’ job. It’s up to the teacher to be self-motivated and conscientious if he/she wants to do a good job of it, though, but it’s increasingly a peripheral and quaint thing to do in life.

No [it’s not a “profession”], in that there are no recognised entry qualifications, no regulation and no career progression.

It doesn’t command any respect, people think it’s a hobby, not a vocation.

Depends on qualifications

What attributes and/or qualifications do you think define a private piano teacher as a “professional”?

Qualifications (e.g. music degree, education degree, performance or teaching diplomas) – 95%

Experience – 80%

A career as a professional performing musician – 25%

Ongoing professional development – 71%

Self-motivation – 50%

Good business skills – 36%

Additional comments in response to this question:

Success in motivating, teaching and helping students grow – not just musically, but personally, as well

I am constantly baffled as to why some piano teachers are not part of a union or professional body

Understanding of child development and basic psychology (we teach adults too)

A ‘professional’ attitude to practicalities such as studio policy, having insurance. Planning lessons

An ability and willingness to perform up to something resembling professional levels, but not necessarily having a professional performance career.

When you think of the typical private piano teacher, who teaches at home, what image immediately comes to mind?

It is the largely negative responses to this question which have given me most pause for thought. Remember, the majority of respondents are independent piano teachers – these comments are their view of how our profession is perceived by others:

Probably an older, rather eccentric female

Someone who is probably not properly qualified

Old lady next door, cardigan, cats, musical erasers

Someone who is not really up to the job- who isn’t fully trained or a professional musician and has realised they can make a quick buck teaching piano. Someone who is kind and nice to the children and parents but ultimately unaware that they are teaching bad technique often and not aware of the rigours of quality music-making

Not a profession but a religion!

Someone who is keen to develop people in their creativity and understanding of music. They love what they do, and teach it because they themselves love to play and be creative.

A mum who used to play…..has kids and needs a bit of extra money

I divide it into two types: Those that live and breathe the piano, and those for which it is a “nice little hobby”.

Someone who has Grade 8 or Diploma in performance. Teaches pupils for the exam they are working on, leaving ear training and background knowledge until the week before the exam. May be a great performer.

It used to be a woman in her 40s or 50s sitting, slightly seriously, beside a wide-eyed child at an upright piano. Things have moved on now and I know teachers across a wide demographic.

Interestingly, when I asked two professional pianists who also teach (one privately, one in a university music department) how they are perceived by their students and parents of their students, I received the following replies:

I find that my students and parents treat me as ‘highly professional’ due to the calibre of my performing engagements. This is completely unrelated, however, to any ability I might or might not possess as a teacher. The latter comes from studying and working in the field for over thirty years, from discussions with psychologists and other instrumental teachers – and trial and error.

I find that generally (with a few exceptions) teaching within an establishment [a British university] one does get the appropriate respect and indeed, as instrumental teachers, most of the students treat us as being on a par with the other academic staff. The only private teaching that I do (at the moment) is on a consultation basis, so people (generally parents of talented late teenagers or sometimes young professionals themselves) approach me because of what I’ve done or because they’ve actually heard me in concert. I guess that generally means that one has already overcome the hurdle of being respected and the people involved do therefore treat one as ‘professional’. But this is less about qualifications/prizes won….

Do you have any memorable anecdotes about the perception your students, their parents, or someone outside the profession has had about the independent piano teacher or the job of teaching from a private home studio?

Parents of new students think often of piano teaching as a simple, stress free and lucrative job. Parents of older students realize it’s a profession, that requires knowledge, competence and constant learning on the part of the teacher.

Thinking I’m a part-timer. – Believing I deserve less professional respect. For instance: paying me late, assuming I want to babysit their kids, wanting to switch times when a plumber/electrician wouldn’t put up with their crap. This might be a bit controversial, but I think part of the problem lies in the fact that as a profession, there are very little “benchmarks” or “guidelines” to guide absolutely everybody in a uniform fashion, even within unions and professional bodies. For instance, there are some piano teachers who may put up with late payment because they feel they don’t have a choice, or other teachers who allow pupils to switch times and cancel at the very last minute. This makes others believe all piano teachers are the same. I think this freedom and flexibility to operate is a positive, but if you compare to say, the GMC (General Medical Council) or BMA (British Medical Association), they are a lot more stringent and dogmatic about what their members should and should not do as professionals.

“What do you do for a living?” (Parent couldn’t believe this was my job)

Once a mother pulled her son out of lessons because I was getting too skilled and teaching too much and she just wanted him to read notes. I told her I was allowed to grow too

As organizer of a local piano competition and representative of a teaching union, I sat down to check a piano was in tune and the stool was at the right height at the start of the competition day, only for a parent to ask “so you actually play the piano then? Like properly!” Made me smile for hours.

One piano parent asked me and my colleague Claire “So what do you want to be when you are older?” whilst she was sat in my private piano teaching practice which I rent and run as a business.

I am troubled by these largely negative comments and the recurrence of the word “hobby” in relation to piano teaching. The perception, expressed by teachers themselves, that the role is not valued nor regarded as a proper professional job is very evident in these responses. While the stereotypical view of the private piano teacher as a little old lady down the road is fading, there is a still a strong perception that the private piano teacher is doing the job for “pin money”, or because they can’t get a “better” job. I find this view deeply depressing: I take my job very seriously and adopt a professional attitude to every aspect of my work (the fact that I also enjoy it a great deal is an added bonus). How do we change this attitude into a positive perception of piano teachers as highly skilled and professional people? I believe that the impetus must come from within the profession, from piano teachers themselves, and from professional bodies such as EPTA and ISM, who should be actively promoting private piano teaching as a recognised and respected profession.

I would like to thank everyone who took part in my survey and also those pianist and piano teaching friends and colleagues who responded to more specific enquiries from me.

In a later post, I will explore professionalism in private piano teaching in more detail.

Please feel free to leave comments or to contact me directly via the Contact page of this site.

Less is More

One of my students, Harrison, arrived for his lesson last week and confessed he had not had much time to practise. He told me he had “loads of homework!” and extra-curricular activities every day after school, apart from Thursday, the day of his piano lesson (“this is my only day off!” he sighed). In addition to homework and sports activities, he also has to fit in choir rehearsals and trumpet practise.

This is not an uncommon scenario for many of the young people whom I teach: all my students have now moved up to senior school, and many are finding the volume of work and activities associated with school quite burdensome. Fitting in piano practise amongst homework, after-school clubs and sport can be hard, especially if students feel obligated to practise for a set amount of time every day.

I am an advocate of regular and consistent practising, and making time to practise every day is an important habit, one which I instil in my students from the first lesson, and one which I observe myself (usually practising daily from 8am and notching up 2-3 hours over the course of the day). Practising at the same time each day can be helpful in developing good practise habits and routine, but sometimes this simply isn’t possible. Some students also find the prospect of having to practise for a set period of time daunting, especially in the early weeks of learning.

I suggested to my student Harrison that he could develop ways of practising a little at a time, aiming for thoughtful, quality practise, rather than simply note-bashing, or “going through the motions”. The phrase “less is more” seemed appropriate to this conversation and I told Harrison that it was often associated with the German modernist architect and designer Mies van der Rohe, used to describe his designs which combine functionality with simplicity and beauty. We both agreed this was a rather useful phrase to describe focused practising and Harrison declared that “less is more” would be his “motto” for his practising over the forthcoming weeks.

Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Barcelona’ chair and footstool

The idea of the pianist pounding away at the piano for hours on end to ensure he/she never plays a wrong note has less currency these days as musicians and teachers realise that quality rather than quantity leads to music which is learnt properly and carefully. After about three hours, the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in, one’s concentration will start to flag and one will be feeling physically and mentally tired. At this point, one stops doing meaningful work and it’s probably time to stop for a break.

At the other end of the scale, it’s amazing what can be achieved in as little as 10 minutes – if one knows what one should be practising.

When Harrison came for his lesson this week, I asked him how he had got on with the “less is more” approach and he told me that he had “more enthusiasm” for his practising – and when he played, it was clear the new approach was paying off.

Of course it is important when taking this approach to know exactly what one should be practising. Playing the piece from start to finish, in an unfocused and unthinking way, means mistakes will remain as mistakes and the opening of the piece will always tend to sound better than the rest of it. I will use the piece Harrison is working on as an example of how we are taking the “less is more” approach to practising:

Nurse’s Tale (Aleksandr Grechaninov, Trinity Grade 3 piano)

Nurse's Tale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bars 1-2 (and 5-6)

  • RH – Practise melody (minus the thumb on D), taking note of the slurs
  • LH – Practise the chord change, taking note of the slurs

Bars 3-4

  • RH – Practise the semiquavers, taking careful note of the slurs and fingering
  • LH – Note change to treble clef, and practise the octave jump

Since these bars take only moments to play, a great deal can be achieved in just 10 minutes work. And, as Harrison himself noted, bars 16 – end are an exact repeat of bars 5-8.

I will be repeating this exercise with other students. At each lesson, the student and I will decide which sections of a piece/s need this kind of attention and we will note down what needs to be done in practising at home. Gradually, I hope students will become better at identifying themselves what they should be focusing on in their practising. I also hope that students will find their practising more rewarding and enjoyable as they see noticeable improvements in their learning and playing. (At the other end of the spectrum, I am applying a similar approach to my learning of Ravel’s Sonatine, a tricky piece, not least for the “hand choreography” required.)

Here are some quick tips for effective “less is more” practising:

  • Know which areas need the most attention – keep a note in a practise notebook
  • Always start with the most difficult areas when your mind and fingers are fresh
  • Practise for a set amount of time (set a stopwatch if that helps)
  • Don’t deviate from the set task
  • At the end of the set time, move onto the next area which needs attention
  • Write notes on what you have achieved and think about what you need to do in your next practise session
  • Always practise carefully and thoughtfully

An interesting article from the Bulletproof Musician blog on best practising strategies

 

Dulwich Piano Festival 2015

I am delighted to be involved in the 2015 Dulwich Piano Festival once again, adjudicating the junior recital classes.

The festival was established in 2012 by East Dulwich piano teacher and harpsichordist Lorraine Liyanage and it offers a lively and enjoyable opportunity for amateur pianists of all levels to perform before an audience and receive positive feedback from invited adjudicators who are amongst the foremost piano teachers in the UK (including Graham Fitch and Penelope Roskell). When I adjudicated the beginners and junior classes in 2013, I was really impressed by the standard of playing and the enthusiasm of the competitors.

Online entries are now open for the 2015 festival and full details about the syllabus and everything else you need to know to participate in and enjoy Dulwich Piano Festival can be found at www.dulwichmusicfestival.co.uk

Mastering the Piano with Lang Lang

Lang Lang approved image“The piano is my passion. Through the Lang Lang Piano Academy I hope to inspire today’s kids to explore the piano and celebrate the wonderful world of music. There are no short cuts to learning the piano and playing it well, but the journey along the way should be imaginative and rewarding as well as challenging. My aim in this series is to develop a more creative way to study the piano that appeals to the next generation of pianists – wherever they are in the world!”

LANG LANG

 

Superstar Chinese pianist Lang Lang is credited with inspiring some 40 million children in China to take up the piano and is a passionate advocate of the instrument and education. His sold out concerts captivate and inspire audiences of all ages, and he has now turned his charisma and passion to a new series of piano tutor books, designed to encourage the next generation of pianists.

Published by Faber Music, the books range from established elementary to intermediate (Levels 1-5 equate broadly to exam system Grades 1-5), and feature masterpieces by composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Schumann, as well as more familiar tutor book fare by Heller, Burgmuller and Le Couppey. The books also feature a selection of characterful world music, with arrangements hailing from around the globe including Europe, Africa, Asia and America, reflecting Lang Lang’s assertion that music is for everyone, everywhere.

Each book contains:

  • 8 units that develop key aspects of piano technique
  • Specially devised exercises and core studies focussing on each technical area
  • A diverse selection of piano repertoire including Lang Lang’s best-loved works
  • Beautiful arrangements of music from around the world
  • Inspirational commentary and guidance from Lang Lang himself
  • Stunning photo section of the pianist and examples of art that has inspired his own playing
  • Additional supporting materials will be available to download from the website, in addition to exclusive audio and video content.

The books also contain personal messages and hints and tips written by Lang Lang himself to accompany the sheet music, as he shares the secrets of his piano technique, along with exclusive photos of Lang Lang demonstrating at the piano. These suggestions are in place to encourage and inspire, as well as to present a more informal approach to studying the piano:

“For me, phrasing is like having a conversation. Each phrase is a sentence in that conversation – sometimes you include a comma because you have more to add and sometimes you finish the sentence.” Lang Lang

He also uses imagery to explain aspects of piano technique: for example, for good staccato he encourages the student to “think about a beautiful, very light, very naughty cat!”, and for legato he suggests imagining a gecko, whose feet are really connected to the keys. The books are well-designed with a clear, accessible layout and easy to read scores and text.

LANG LANG PIANO ACADEMY: MASTERING THE PIANO
Published by Faber Music, Levels 1, 2 and 3 (September 2014, £8.99), Levels 4 and 5 (October 2014, £9.99).

Further details at

http://www.fabermusic.com

http://www.langlangpianoacademy.com

http://www.langlang.com