Piano teaching

Pedagogues and Demigods

….never had I had a piano teacher so demanding and tyrannical

– Leonard Bernstein on Isabelle Vengerova

The composer Philip Glass described her as somewhere “between intimidating and terrifying” whose lessons invariably left students “shaken and silent”, while Virgil Thomson wrote that she had a “no-nonsense approach to musical skills and a no-fooling-around treatment of anyone’s talent or vocation”. But the great teacher Nadia Boulanger was comfortable with her mixed reputation. For her, musical training without rigour had no value, and she was not alone in her attitude.

550gary-graffman-and-isabelle-vengerova
Isabelle Vengerova teaching a young Gary Graffman (Curtis Institute Archives)

Vengerova and Boulanger fit the traditional image of the master-teacher – didactic, autocratic, rigorous – and they were not the only teacher who struck awe, fear and reverence in the hearts of their students. Such teachers were – and continue to be – conferred with an almost god-like status.

Vengerova was insistent on a complete adherence to her approach.  For two years I was not allowed to touch a piece of music…..she changed my life, physically at the piano and musically at the same time, without my knowing it was taking place. She was the most profound influence on my life, a remarkable woman.

– Anthony di Bonaventura, pianist

She yelled, she threw things, she reproached (often colorfully), and she insisted students learn her way, without exception. In short, she terrified her pupils.

– Curtis Institute Archive

But there’s a misconception here – that teachers of classical musicians have, or should have, very severe personalities, and that they must be scarily formidable to be successful and, more importantly, to enable their students to be successful. Ritual humiliation in lessons and masterclasses or rapping the knuckles of a student with a ruler whenever they played a wrong note are, fortunately, largely outdated teaching practices which would not be tolerated today where a greater understanding of the psychology of learning and modern pedagogical methods has resulted in a more enlightened approach to teaching and students.

So what is the ‘purpose’ of a music teacher? The obvious response is to instruct, educate and train a student in the skills required to succeed as musician.

The word “teach” derives from the Old English word tæcan which means “to show” or “guide”, and a good teacher will provide guidance/instruction, encouragement, and constructive feedback to their students to enable them to practice and progress. An extension of this is the idea of “guiding” the student in their learning by opening doors, encouraging the student to see the bigger picture beyond the narrow confines of the musical score, and to foster inquisitiveness, confidence, self-determination and independent learning. In order to transfer their skills and knowledge, a teacher must explain, demonstrate and inspire.

Conversely, a didactic or autocratic teacher who demands that the student adheres to “my way and no other way” can constrict, confuse and ultimately dismotivate. Unfortunately, impressionable or naive students can be taken in by the “famous” teacher who declares “Look at me, I’m a great player. I’m the great teacher”, and hero worship can cloud a student’s focus while also massaging the teacher’s ego and, sadly in some instances, leave the student vulnerable. Such teachers can do lasting damage to a student’s confidence.

Lang-Lang-and-Graffman-300x266
Lang Lang with his teacher Gary Graffman

Open-mindedness, generosity, empathy, respect and humility, the knowledge that, as a teacher, one does not “know everything”  and that one is prepared to acknowledge one’s own limitations are all facets of a truly great teacher.

the great teacher always gave the complete view in music toward the student — not of alternatives, not just one way of doing it…..He gave you the whole picture of many different worlds, many different possibilities…

– Lang Lang on his teacher Gary Graffman

The revered teacher Gordon Green (who taught concert pianist Stephen Hough, amongst others) said that the aim of the teacher is to make him- or herself  “dispensable” to the student. Ultimately, a good teacher should become redundant by enabling their students to become confident, independent learners.

There are of course great, highly revered teachers on whom the title “demigod” can be justly conferred. These include the great pianist-teachers of an earlier age – Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Perlemuter, Kentner, Tureck – whose methods, wisdom and values have been passed down through their pupils, grand-pupils, and great-grand pupils. Such teachers appreciate that a significant aspect of the art of teaching is to create independent, enabled individuals rather than “soundalike” clones of themselves.


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