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.
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