Respect

It’s that time of year again. The start of the new academic year and a new teaching term for private piano teachers. Many of us are organising our teaching diaries, planning lessons and welcoming students back to regular lessons, hoping that some if not all have done some practising over the summer holiday…..

Sadly, some of us are also chasing unpaid lesson fees.

Despite clear terms and conditions and reminders via email, there are always late payers. I’ve been freelance since 1998 (and a self-employed piano teacher since 2006); chasing unpaid invoices is the sad lot of the freelancer and is the most disagreeable part of the job. I send out invoices for my teaching fees at least a month in advance of the start of term, with clear reminders of when the fees need to be paid (“in advance of the start of term which is on…..”) etc. The majority of my pupils’ parents pay promptly, but there are always a couple who have to be nudged several times. I don’t like writing payment reminder emails, but I do need to be paid for what I do, and I feel late payment is discourteous and disrespectful to me as a professional person. And where I live, in the very affluent leafy suburbs of SW London, where parents are used to paying for a whole host of extra-curricular activities from Kumon maths to tennis lessons or French language classes, there is no excuse for late payment of piano lesson fees.

Sadly, some parents regard piano lessons as a commodity – a view which is very eloquently and intelligently explained by respected cellist, teacher and examiner Alison Moncrieff-Kelly in her article for Music Teacher magazine (March 2017). For certain parents, piano lessons are just another activity to enhance their children’s CV, and the piano teacher is treated like a “service provider” rather than a skilled/specially-trained professional. Some parents may take this even further by questioning or criticising the teacher’s abilities and judgement (specifically with regard to a child’s readiness to take a grade exam, in my experience), undermining the teacher’s authority by deriding their skills, or “reteaching” the child between lessons (something else I have experienced). Because they are paying for piano lessons as a service, some parents think they are entitled to behave in this way, because “the customer is always right”, and the piano teacher (“service provider”) should submit to the customer’s view/demands. These types of parents tend to be very demanding, requesting changes to lesson times at short notice, make-up lessons, and refunds. They are also often the first to complain if their child is not making progress, yet they may not be willing to support or encourage their child to practise between lessons. In short, they lack respect.

Parents pay, but the teacher must provide everything from the talent to the practice, with a neatly packaged end product……The problem with the Aspirant Parent is that they not only criticise and question the teacher every step of the way, but also deride the very skills they say they want you to instill.

– Alison Moncrieff-Kelly (Music Teacher magazine, March 2017)

Any parent (or indeed adult student) who takes this attitude fails to fully appreciate what piano lessons are really about, which can seriously damage the relationship between parent (client) and teacher.

Respect is a crucial part of teaching – mutual respect between teacher and pupil, and also between teacher and parent/the person paying the teacher’s invoices. From my side of the bargain, respect towards my students and their parents includes:

  • Providing a pleasant, comfortable and welcoming space in my home for lessons to take place
  • Being kind and courteous to my students and their families
  • Supporting and encouraging my students in their pianistic endeavours
  • Being sympathetic if they have not been able to practise as much as they would like due to illness, school or other commitments
  • Ensuring my timetable runs smoothly so that lessons do not overrun
  • Being available by email or phone between lessons to answer queries
  • Providing additional advice or material to help parents support their children in their practising
  • Ensuring exam entries are made correctly and on time.

In exchange I expect students and parents to

  • Arrive on time for lessons with music and other materials
  • Respect my piano, my teaching space and my home
  • Be respectful to me and my experience/judgement, but to feel confident about discussing issues with me such as difficulties encountered in practising, exam readiness, performance anxiety and so forth.
  • Ensure my invoices are paid on time and in full

When mutual respect exists everyone thrives.

Clear terms and conditions can ensure mutual understanding on all sides, but sometimes even the most explicit T&Cs are meaningless to the pushy or disrespectful parent, and when such an impasse is reached, it may be the moment to call time on the lessons. It’s a great shame when this happens, for the student may be happy and progressing (despite the parent’s lack of input), but the dealings between parent and teacher may have become intolerable – and as a self-employed person, one owes it to oneself to create a working environment which is pleasant and conducive to success, if at all possible.


Further reading

Piano Lessons – More than a Commodity

 

 

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The Psychology of Piano Technique – Murray McLachlan

130bad77-b230-4f95-b01e-c0a12b4d2371This, the third book by Murray McLachlan’s for Faber Music on piano technique, takes a more leftfield approach to piano playing and piano technique, tackling esoteric, psychological and philosophical issues such as visualisation techniques, inspiration, musicians’ health and well-being (including dealing with performance anxiety), career development, and encouraging independent learning and interpretative decision-making. This non-traditional approach is underpinned by the premise that we should love the piano and its literature, and always seek joy and creativity in our practising and learning. If this sounds like a New Age self-help book for pianists, be assured it is not: McLachlan, an internationally-renowned pianist and teacher, writes with intelligence and authority based on his own experience as a performer and teacher and many years spent in the industry, and his approach is pragmatic and practical, offering wisdom for pianists, whether professional or amateur, students and teachers.

I particularly liked the chapters on finding flow in practising, visualisation techniques (something I use in my own teaching and playing), avoiding dogmatism (in teaching and interpretation) and stepping beyond urtext editions to find one’s personal voice at the piano. The book does not need to be read straight through and indeed I have enjoyed dipping in and out of random chapters. The text is eminently readable with clearly-presented musical extracts.

Recommended.

 

Publisher: Faber Music

ISBN: 0571540317

£12.99

A question of touch

It cannot have escaped the notice of many of those inside the piano teaching profession that a noisy and at times acrimonious debate is raging, once again, over the sensitive issue of touching students, specifically children, as a pedagogical device in the course of piano lessons. I am not going to go into the specific details of one particular discussion thread – those of you who use Facebook are probably already familiar with it. Nor am I going to discuss the opposing views expressed in this thread; I am simply offering some thoughts on this difficult area based on my own teaching practice and discussion with a number of piano teaching colleagues.
There is a wealth of published research demonstrating the value of touch in human interaction. Touch defines relationships between human beings from the moment a baby is born, and positive touch continues to be important to a child’s development throughout the early years. For instrumental teachers, and indeed singing, dance and sports teachers as well, touch can help improve a student’s technique, how to hold or play an instrument correctly, how to breathe, use the correct posture and protect against tension or injury. In its own guidelines the UK Government describes touch as a “necessary” activity in instrumental teaching.

Now, largely in response to the online debate, the European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA) has issued a revised Safeguarding Code of Practice regarding child protection which runs somewhat counter to the Government guidelines:

“Any physical contact with pupils can be potentially subject to misinterpretation or even malicious allegations. The best advice is to avoid touching your pupils and to develop strategies for teaching through demonstration and modelling. If a teacher feels that touching is essential to their pedagogic style, they are to obtain prior permission in writing from the parent and pupil, and will encourage a parent/guardian to attend the lessons. However, it is not appropriate to touch a child on the trunk of the body unless there is a justifiable reason (eg to administer first aid).”

European Piano Teachers’ Association, 24 July 2017

There are a number of problems with this statement, on which a colleague of mine, with many more years of experience than I, makes the following, considered response:

We have a revised policy from EPTA, which keeps the sensible advice of obtaining written agreement and encouraging parental attendance/involvement, but which precedes it with an ill-advised statement that can only be described as fear-mongering, rather than fact. The idea that the teacher who gently corrects a dangerous wrist position, with permission, with proper explanation, and with the parent present, could be mistaken by the child or parent for an abuser is simply bizarre. Has this happened, ever? In 25 years of teaching, training and observing other teachers on three continents, I’ve certainly never heard of such a thing happening.

There are two problems:

1. These statements stigmatise ordinary piano teachers who are doing a wonderful job – the very people that EPTA should be supporting

2. And secondly, conflating these issues, in my view, rather trivialises the experiences of those traumatised by genuine abuse. How disappointing that EPTA now writes policies predicated on fear rather than fact. They are very out-of-step with the Department of Education at this point, and I rather feel they have seriously let down the piano teaching profession on this occasion.

Private music teachers already suffer a hefty degree of suspicion in the light of the abuse scandals at specialist music schools and colleges, and so we must do our utmost to demonstrate that we work with transparency and good practice at all times. This may be through seeking formal written permission to use touch in lessons from the parents of our students (which could be incorporated into one’s studio terms and conditions) or by discussing the issue of touching for pedagogical reasons with parents and students in advance. For the record, I don’t touch students in the course of my teaching. Never have, and probably never will. It is just my policy and while it is not ideal, I manage by using clear instructions and demonstration (I might occasionally ask the student to feel my hand or arm to understand arm weight). 

In our hyper-aware, hyper-sensitive times, following the deeply unpleasant revelations of the abuse that has taken place in specialist music schools and conservatoires, we are of course more concerned than ever to protect the children to whom we have a duty of care as teachers. But to infer, as certain commentators in the online debate have, that any teacher who touches a student in the course of a lesson is a potential groomer or child-abuser, is deeply insulting to the profession and the very many highly professional teachers working within it. The vast majority of teachers do not harbour perverse feelings towards children, and most children, even quite young children, are able to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touching. And do such guidelines actually stop those teachers who have genuinely bad intentions towards their students? EPTA’s statement also ignores the fact that teachers can perpetrate abuse through words or gesture: for example, the teacher who regularly reduces a student to tears or who humiliates a student in front of others in a group lesson.

The sad outcome of this latest debate is that trust and confidence in the teaching profession seem to be the real victim here, rather and, as is often the way in such scenarios, the actions of a few have created a difficult environment for the many to operate in.  It strikes me that teachers are now more vulnerable than the children they seek to protect, and in an effort to avoid risk, teachers may become less effective educators.


Further reading:

A policy for touch

The Use of Touch for Facilitate Learning in Music Education

Drawing the line with student–teacher relationships

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Say it Play it

Much of my teaching is based on visualisation, a technique I learnt from my first teacher as an adult pianist and one which I use daily with my students and my own practising and playing as a way of engaging and stimulating the imagination to produce music which is expressive, vibrant and personal. (Read more about visualisation techniques here)

Of course, it’s all very well being able to visualise the sound or movements one wants to make at the piano, but sometimes – often! – you may think you know what you want to do in your head, but it may not be that evident in your playing.  A way to make this more explicit is the ability to articulate our intention for a certain phrase or section or entire piece by describing it out loud.

This can work very well with students where the teacher poses the question and the student articulates his or her thoughts about the music. I do this a lot in my teaching, asking students to explain what they feel the music is about (for them) and what they want to say in it. It works for both children (regardless of age) and adults, and the results are surprisingly positive and often quite colourful. For example, I was working with an adult student the other day who was having some trouble with the semi-quaver runs in the final movement of Beethoven’s Op 14/1. She said she felt they were uneven and that she wanted the notes to “trickle” down the keyboard. After she had said this, she played the same run and it was transformed: immediately the notes were more even and there was a distinct sense of them trickling down the keyboard towards where I was sitting. And in a lesson with a teenage student, who is working on a very atmospheric impressionistic piece, I first asked her to describe to me what she felt the piece was about and to then try and put that description into the music. The results were impressive: her verbal description was very detailed, not only focusing on the broad narrative of the music but the details of individual sections, such as the rising quaver triplets which she felt were “the rolling waves” and the sustained notes in the bass which were “a foghorn or far away tolling bell” (you can hear the piece she was describing at the end of this article). It seems that the more detailed the description, the more vibrant the resulting music.

Psychologists have known for some time that words help us make abstract or fuzzy concepts clearer and the act of describing the action, sound or image out loud seems to make our ideas more concrete and fix them in our working memory. The action is also useful if you are having trouble finding a note, or landing on the correct note in a jump. Anticipate the note in advance by saying it out loud – “I need to land on E”, for example. Or for a tricky fingering scheme, say the finger numbers out loud just before your fingers land on the keys. It also works for rhythmic issues (count out loud) and harmonic progressions. These are all aids to memorisation too.

In addition to reinforcing memory, articulating our intentions and thoughts forces us to slow down, stop, and think through the important elements of the task in front of us more carefully and consciously. Putting our thoughts into words thus becomes a powerful tool to aid productive practising.

Sometimes we can act like our own teacher or coach, encouraging us as we play. I admit to doing this quite a lot! Practising the piano can be a lonely activity and being able to encourage yourself through verbal feedback is a very useful activity. So if I play a passage well, I might say to myself (out loud of course), “Yes I liked that” and examine why and what I liked about the passage (also stated out loud). We can also act like our own personal conductor, encouraging the “orchestra” (oneself at the instrument) to “crescendo here”, “pull back here”, “big orchestral sound now” and so forth. Conversely, one can tackle the inner critic with a conversation out loud: I berate myself when I play badly (“Oh that was dreadful! What did you do that for?”) and then examine what happened and how I can put it right (“try playing that slower/more quietly/louder” etc). This turns the negative self-talk into a positive learning tool, thus making practising more enjoyable and productive.

Creative approaches to practising

Routine or “autopilot” practising can kill one’s enjoyment and productivity at the piano. Practice can become strained or monotonous because it’s too often primarily directed by a preconceived idea and too exclusively goal- or result-oriented. This can lead to frustration and a feeling that you are not progressing as rapidly as you would like to.

Here are some suggestions on how to bring creativity and variety to your practising, to keep your interest and help you progress:

Variety is the spice of life

Vary your approach – if you always begin with scales, try something different, such a deliberately slow practise or beginning your practise session with some studies.

Change the warm up pattern

If you always warm up with scales and exercises at the piano, think about trying some simple yoga-inspired exercises away from the piano, such as arm swinging, neck roles and shoulder and wrist stretches. These simple exercises get the blood flowing to arms and fingers and allow you to focus on the task ahead away from the piano

We’re jamming

If your practise routine begins very formally (see above), try some simple improvisation or doodling on the keyboard. You don’t need any special skills to be able to do this – take the inspiration from a handful of notes from one of the pieces you are working on. Experiment with rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tone

Mix it up

If you find concentrating on one specifica area of practising difficult, mix it up and alternate between exercises or scales/arpeggios and sections from your pieces. Throw some listening into the mix, away from the piano, to hear how other pianists approach the repertoire you are working on.

Write it down

If you use a practise notebook to record what needs to be practise, try instead recording what you did in your practise, what you liked and disliked about it, what you felt you achieved. This allows you to focus on what needs to be done next and can be a useful path into your next lesson, if you see a teacher regularly.

Sing along

Singing phrases can be invaluable in helping us shape the music, find breathing space within it and observe nuances such as dynamic shading, articulation, intonation, and tone colour

Hear it live

Going to a concert to hear music you are working on can be really inspiring, and hearing music created “in the moment” of a live performance can offer ideas about how to create drama and nuance within the music.

Be prepared! Ensuring students are exam-ready for success

When I was a child and teenager taking my piano exams, my teachers never talked to me about aspects like performance anxiety or stagecraft/presentation. I went to the exam centre on the allotted day/time, took the exam and went home to await the results. I don’t recall ever being that nervous, perhaps because no teacher ever discussed the anxiety of performance with me…..

In supporting my students as they approach their grade exams, I have a number of tried and tested strategies to ensure they go into the exam room feeling confident, poised and, above all, well-prepared.

The late great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a performance. This is an important mantra: knowing one is well-prepared for an exam or other performance is a crucial aspect of exam preparation and can go a long way in alleviating anxiety, allowing one to play with confidence and musical vibrancy.

For students (with the support of their teacher) this means ensuring pieces are well-learnt and finessed. I encourage my students to think about the individual characters of their exam pieces (and we always try to select a “mini programme” of contrasting styles and moods to allow the student to demonstrate a broad range of technical and musical skills) and how they would like to highlight these characteristics in performance. At least a month ahead of the exam date, I expect students’ pieces to be “concert ready” and we do practise performances in lessons to focus on stagecraft and presentation. Occasionally, a piano teaching friend will come and listen to my students (and vice versa): this is a useful activity as it sets the bar slightly higher for the student by having another person/listener in the room.

In practising technical work (scales/arpeggios and exercises) I encourage accuracy, fluency and musicality. Easy marks can be picked up if technical work is well-learnt and played with good quality of sound and rhythmic cadence (I’m sure examiners would rather hear “musical” scales than monotonous, robotic scales).

I ensure that the other aspects of the exam – aural, sight-reading, musical knowledge – are all well-known and practised well in advance of the exam date.

All these things build confidence, but despite the best efforts of a sympathetic and well-organised teacher, many students feel consumed with anxiety when approaching their music exams. Perfectionist attitudes, issues with confidence and self-esteem, the feeling of being “on show”, exposed on stage or in the exam room, parental pressure, and an understandable wish to do one’s best all contribute to feelings of anxiety. In addition, a previous unhappy exam or performance experience can trigger feelings of inadequacy or nervousness.

When I taught younger children, I tried to make the exam experience feel like an adventure, something exciting and different, and a chance to “show off what you can do”. For all students, I urge them to treat the exam as a “performance” or “mini concert”, and to try and step back from the feeling they are being “judged” and to enjoy the experience, as far as possible.

Specifically in relation to performance anxiety, I reassure students that feeling nervous is “normal” and that top international musicians feel nervous too. We discuss the “whys” and “hows” of anxiety so that they understand it is a natural physiological response (“fight or flight response”) as well as an emotional one. I encourage students to come up with ways to help them personally manage their anxiety – these may include recalling a previous successful/enjoyable performance, using visualisation techniques, NLP, deep breathing and positive affirmation (“I can do it!”). Above all, I remind them that examiners are not looking for bland note-perfect performances but for music which is vibrant and expressive, with good attention to details of dynamics, articulation etc. And I reassure them that I will not be “cross” or disappointed if they don’t achieve a certain mark, that I want them to do their best and enjoy the experience.

For older/more advanced students, exam preparation also involves some discussion about the process of practising and what has been achieved to arrive at the point where the music is ready to be put before an examiner or audience. This understanding of the process and journey of learning is particularly important and helps students see exams in the wider context of ongoing musical development, maturity and progression.

To all students, young and old, beginners to advanced, Good Luck with your exams this summer!

Dispelling the myth of difficult 

There has been a lively and thoughtful response to an article which appeared in The Guardian on 27 March in which the author declared that notated music is “a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people“. The author, Charlotte Gill, who is neither a musician nor a music teacher, suggests that only privately-educated students can understand music and because it is difficult for most students, it should not be taught in such a formal, or “academic” way in our schools.

I was very happy to add my name to a still-growing list of signatories (which includes internationally-renowned musicians such as Sir Simon Rattle and Stephen Hough) to an open letter written in response to the article by pianist and musicologist Ian Pace in which he states that the author’s claim “flies in the face of countless initiatives over two centuries making musical literacy available to those of many backgrounds. As with written language, musical notation enables effective and accurate communication, as well as critical access to huge amounts of knowledge”

As I have written on my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist, music notation is in fact not that difficult to learn, if taught well, and most children, whose brains are receptive and open to new things, can pick it up fairly quickly. What has troubled me about Charlotte Gill’s assertion (which seemed to be founded only on the fact that she found sight-reading difficult at school), in addition to the accusation that the ability to read music is somehow “elitist”, is the peddling of the idea that if something is difficult or challenging children and young people, or indeed adult learners, won’t be able to do it and therefore it should not be taught in school. Some teachers skirt around the issue of teaching music theory and notation for this very reason, and in doing so they are depriving students of an incredibly useful tool for understanding the nuts and bolts of music and denying them access to a wonderful universal language. This form of dumbing down is yet another worrying example of the anti-intellectualism and suspicion of learning and the acquisition of knowledge that pervades society today.

In my limited experience teaching piano privately to children and teenagers, and through my son’s unhappy journey through primary and secondary education, I have formed the impression that too much teaching in our state schools has been reduced to “tick-box teaching” which involves a fair amount of spoon-feeding of bite-sized information to students, largely to enable them (and their teachers) to cope with the ridiculous amount of testing which goes on in UK state schools today. Sadly, while such spoon-feeding may bring decent exam results and desirable league table positions for schools, it also robs children and young people of the opportunity or ability to think independently, creatively and critically – all skills which are part and parcel of being a well-rounded, thinking individual.

In teaching notation – and indeed in all other areas of teaching – I believe we need to dispel “the myth of difficult” – that is, if we tell students that something is difficult before they begin, the difficulty is inculcated in them from the outset and the task seems that much more onerous/impossible. One significant yet very easy way to achieve this is to change the vocabulary – that is, not to preface a lesson in music theory or the first stages of learning a new piece of music with words like “difficult” or “hard”, but instead to find positive words to describe the task. I don’t use the word “difficult” in my teaching (“there’s no such thing as difficult” is something my students hear regularly from me), nor indeed in my own musical studies: I find it discouraging and dismotivating, with a danger of setting off the cycle I have described above.
Most students, children and adults, enjoy a challenge, and children in particular are generally very open to new processes and ideas. In the teaching of notation to very young children, there exist a number of methods and systems which make the process great fun – see for example, Dogs and Birds – and a quick Google search brought up many simple yet fun and creative “methods” developed by music teachers to engage children’s attention and fire their imagination, including music dominoes and musical cupcakes And once we have engaged our students, the process becomes that much more straightforward.
In addition, when our kids are subjected to dumbed down teaching and anti-competitive attitudes (my son’s primary school sports days promoted the “everyone’s a winner” mantra and were consequently very dull events) in our schools, there is something rather gratifying about engaging with an activity which takes time and effort, and most children actively enjoy it. (It is for this reason, in my experience, that many young people actively relish the challenge of taking music grade exams as well.)

If it’s too hard, I won’t be able to do it!

Many people can’t read music because they don’t believe they can, that it is simply too difficult for them to grasp: they have been peddled the idea that it is “difficult” by teachers, peers, and parents, and such a negative, defeatist attitude simply convinces them that they won’t be able to do it. But good, intelligent, and positive teaching encourages confidence and self-belief – it turns “I can’t” into “I can!” and makes learning to read music a valuable and practical tool which gives access to a common language, develops fully rounded musicians, and sets us on a wonderful voyage of discovery.
I’d like to close this article with some notes I took at one of the ‘Virtuoso Teacher’ seminars presented by acclaimed educator Paul Harris


Dispelling the “myth of difficult”

  • Changing the vocabulary
  • Learning how to achieve
  • Removing obstacles
  • Encourage through a thorough, meticulous and supportive approach
  • Ensure that the quality of our students’ understanding is better than the quantity of their work.
  • Lessons become positive with a spirit of discovery.


Further reading:

Ian Pace’s response to Charlotte Gill’s article in The Guardian includes a link to the original article, his open letter and links to other articles written in response.