Piano teaching

Inspiration comes from unusual places


Meet Ant Middleton – the rather formidable-looking 37-year-old Special Forces veteran (he has served tours in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan, and time in the Marines), presenter of TV shows SAS: Who Dares Wins, Mutiny and Escape. Why on earth might I draw inspiration from this former soldier whose life and work seem very far divorced from that of a musician and piano teacher?

Well, maybe try and catch some episodes of the aforementioned tv shows on replay or YouTube and see Ant in action. In fact, he’s not your archetypal gung-ho “action man”. I first encountered his particular style of leadership in the Channel 4 series Mutiny, in which he led a group of men on a two month voyage at sea, recreating an epic 4,000 mile expedition in which he took the role of Captain William Bligh, who was forced out onto a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1789 after a mutiny on his ship HMS Bounty. Such a tough and dangerous undertaking required clear-headed, highly focused, strong leadership in order to keep the rest of the crew safe and fully committed to the task in hand. It was an extreme physical and psychological challenge and it made for fascinating viewing. What struck me most about Ant’s leadership style was that although he was nominally “in charge” of the boat, he was not autocratic nor dictatorial. Tasks were delegated to each member of the crew, and each man enjoyed a degree of personal autonomy and responsibility while also remaining part of the team. Ant’s approach was fair and reasonable and he was always willing to listen to someone else’s point of view or suggestions. Those who suffered physical or emotional difficulties were spoken to firmly yet kindly by Ant, and he rarely raised his voice, nor used words like “stupid” or “wrong”. He created a sense of individual and collective empowerment which was palpable and very potent. One observed individual crew members growing stronger, physically and psychologically, during the course of the journey as they constantly tested their capabilities and extended and honed their skills, both physical and mental. I found it compelling and inspiring viewing.

I like to be constantly tested, and I think it’s good

Ant Middleton

I had no formal training as a piano teacher, learning “on the job” while basing my teaching style and approach on what I had learned – and not learned – from lessons as a child and a teenager, and latterly as an adult (studying with high-level teachers), and my observations of and interactions with other teachers (and not just piano teachers). One thing I was determined to do from the outset was teach in a way that made students feel encouraged and supported, as I believe this approach inspires an ongoing will to learn with noticeable progress as the tangible reward for one’s efforts. I try to avoid words like “wrong” or “difficult” (preferring to substitute “challenging”), and I am not the type of autocratic teacher who breaks down a student’s confidence or dominates them with my method or point of view about how music should be learned and studied. Nor am I a teacher who egotistically wants to turn out students who are sound-alikes of me (as Stephen Hough once observed in an interview “If I walk down a corridor in a conservatoire and all the students sound the same, I’d be worried“). I do not “tell”, but rather see the activity of teaching as a way of guiding a student along a learning path that will enable them to fulfil their personal musical goals. I still recall being told by my music teacher at secondary school that I was “not good enough” to audition for conservatoire: it shattered my self-esteem as a musician and it has taken 35 years and two performance diplomas for me to overcome that loss of confidence. I was determined never to allow any of my students to feel like that and to always encourage them in their musical endeavours and dreams.

With 11 years of teaching experience, I have learnt that by giving students a sense of personal autonomy and independent thinking/learning they are more likely to set to the task of learning and practising – and stick at it. In order to encourage autonomy in my students, I challenge them (in the nicest possible way) to make their own discoveries about the music they are learning. Together we explore the score and typical questions in my lessons include: “What do you think this music is about?“, “What might the composer being trying to say here by using this kind of articulation/expression/dynamic?“, “How would you approach this section?“, and “How might you practise this passage?“. This removes the sense of a teacher “telling” the student (and by the way, the word “teach” comes from the Old English word tǣcan which means to “show, present, point out”) and in part passes the responsibility for learning to the student. I also encourage students to challenge and question me, reminding them (and me!) that in music there are often a range of responses and that there is no “right way” nor “one size fits all” approach to learning and teaching.

I would say that 90% of my teaching is actually showing students of all ages how to practise, and the remainder involves the more artistic or creative aspects of piano playing. By giving students a “practising toolkit”, they can practise productively between lessons, confident that they have the necessary knowledge and skills to work out issues and problem-solve for themselves. This kind of practising also ensures that skills become far more quickly “embedded” or internalised within the student, so that aspects of technique, interpretation and artistry become intuitive and a student learns to adapt skills to suit different pieces of music. Above all, it creates a sense of empowerment so that the student develops the confidence to learn without constant guidance from teacher. For me, some of the best moments in my teaching are when a student comes with a piece they have learnt entirely on their own, with no input from me. As one of my former students once said “I want to be able to open a book of music and play anything I like” – and I would hope that my approach enables students to achieve this.

Sometimes it’s good to step back into the shadows to see exactly where the light is & in what direction you need to travel!

– Ant Middleton


1 thought on “Inspiration comes from unusual places”

  1. I have been teaching for many years, 45, and a number of years playing professionally in piano bars and fronting bands. Now I play only improv and am recording piano music as a soundtrack for a book I’m writing. One thing I implement early with a student is creating music. I don’t want them to just be able to pick up a book and play anything – someone else wrote. I want them to play the music they hear in their head that is an expression of who they are. It’s hard to do that without learning how to read, with all the scales and theory and exercises to go with it. There is a fear created when playing has to be precise and only follow the markings for how to play it in order to create emotion. I spoke with a piano teacher in her 80’s who had been teaching her entire adult life. I asked her if she could just play. No music. Not memorized. Just play. Her response was, “Oh, no.” All those years of only playing what someone else wrote, because she had never learned how.


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