Piano teaching

Should our own tastes in music influence our students’ choices of repertoire?

The simple answer to this question is “no”.

But the recent, rather heated discussion around the inclusion of pieces by Ludovico Einaudi in the new ABRSM piano syllabus revealed that some teachers feel it is their duty to steer their students to music which aligns more closely with their own tastes. A number suggested that Einaudi’s music was “cheap pop piano”, and therefore “bad” music, and that they would not allow their students to learn it.

Some commentators also suggested that because the ABRSM is “looked upon as a benchmark of quality and entrusted by millions of learners globally”, it has a responsibility to “familiarise youngsters with the gems of piano literature”. The inference was also that if the ABRSM thinks certain repertoire is worthy of inclusion, it must be “good” music. The inclusion of music by Einaudi suggests, for some people, that the ABRSM’s high standards are slipping, because this music is not sufficiently rigorous, nor of appropriate merit to be included in an exam syllabus.

I’ll take the second point first.

I would hope that the ABRSM does not regard itself primarily as an “influencer” of musical taste; rather that it is trying to create exam syllabi which respond to the requirements of music teachers and students in the 21st century. The exam boards are not the gatekeepers of “quality music”, nor the arbiters of taste. Nor do they seek to tell teachers and students what is “good” music and what is not – that is for teachers and students to judge themselves, based on personal preference, taste, experience etc. The pieces selected for an exam syllabus must meet a specific set of criteria (technical, musical, artistic) while also providing a broad range of music to appeal to learners of all ages and demographics. Creating an exam syllabus which meets these criteria is no easy task (as I discovered when I was involved in the planning and selection of repertoire for new piano syllabi for all three main exams boards in the UK).

These days, the broad selection of music in exam syllabi, encompassing everything from the core canon to arrangements of jazz standards, favourites numbers from musicals, pop songs, TV theme tunes, and contemporary classical music (sometimes specially commissioned for the syllabus), should ensure that there is sufficient music to suit teachers’ and students’ tastes. Rather than the teacher allowing their personal taste to influence what their students learn, I would suggest it is far better that the teacher guides students to making repertoire selections. I know from my own experience of chilhood piano lessons that there is no greater disincentive to practising than having to play music you simply don’t like!

Here’s a rather troubling account from a member of my online piano teaching forum:

I was so embarrassed as a teenager when I brought a book of Einaudi’s music to my lesson, and my teacher went on this big lengthy sneer about how awful Einaudi’s music is etc. I got so embarrassed, I never played his music again. Instead of naturally outgrowing it with time and experience, I was shamed for my developing musical maturity instead of being encouraged to keep trying things and growing. I learned to be nervous about telling anyone what music I liked and felt it had to be pre-approved, not for difficulty level, but for being “the right taste”.

I was so sad to read this – and it’s not the first time I’ve encountered a sneering attitude to music by composers such as Ludovico Einaudi, Yann Tiersen, and the like. The world of classical music is still riven with often outdated, overly reverential attitudes to what constitutes good and bad music, composer-worship and “sacred values” regarding performance practice, teaching methods etc. (read more about this here). As teachers, we need to remain open minded and receptive.

In the day-to-day teaching environment, it is inevitable that our own taste may conflict with that of our students. Many of us have faced the dilemma when a student brings a piece they want to learn which we may not like it, nor consider to be “good” music. Our skill as teachers is to balance our preferences with those of our students so as not to dent their enthusiasm, nor unwittingly impose our own criteria or preferences on theirs. I experienced this quite strongly some years ago when a teenage student wanted to learn Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’. She arrived with a score downloaded from the internet which was the piano accompaniment, minus the song line. I groaned inwardly because 1) I’m not a great fan of Adele’s music; and 2) the music was very repetitive and not a particularly good transcription. However, I kept quiet about my concerns, instead choosing to help my student find her way into the music. In fact, it proved quite a useful exercise as there were a number of technical and artistic challenges to explore, including rotary and lateral arm movement, and how to bring greater colour and interest to repeating motifs. Additionally, my student enjoyed playing a piece which her friends recognised at our annual student concert. And on the strength of all those repeating broken chords, I pointed her to Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis series which she also enjoyed.

Our role as teachers should be to encourage students to explore as wide a range of music as possible – whether it is pure ‘classical’ music (in fact, a very broad term which encompasses music from the Renaissance to the present day) or a mixture of classical, jazz, world or pop music. But I wouldn’t dream of dismissing a piece of music a student had, for example, discovered and learnt by themselves just because I didn’t like it or thought it was “bad” music.

Our musical taste is shaped by our upbringing, our exposure to and experience of music, life experience and a whole host of other factors – from mixtapes from a boy- or girlfriend at university to our first proper rock concert or grand opera. Most of us don’t like music because we are told we should like it, nor do we stop liking it because we’re told shouldn’t like it!

As piano teachers, our role is to guide and support our students and to foster a love of music, in all its variety. Our own tastes should not really come into this, though they inevitably do, but we do our students, and ourselves, a disservice by limiting their musical choices to only the music we like or wish to teach.

 

 

 

 

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