At the Piano with Dylan Christopher

98588What is your first memory of the piano?

My very first memory of piano is sitting quietly, listening, and watching my older brother’s lessons. He was playing a simple piece of music in a five-finger position, but I liked the sound of it, so I would listen carefully to what he played, working it out by ear later at home. This happened a few times until on one occasion my Mother heard me rehearsing, mistaking my playing for my brother’s, which now retrospectively speaks volumes for his playing, and why he ultimately stopped. She arranged for me to start lessons.

I was four.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Inspired might be the wrong word, but I was inspired to start teaching by my secondary school music teacher, Ian Claydon, and Sue Rowley who delivered A-Level music during my sixth-form studies.

By the time I reached secondary school, I had already achieved my Grade 6 and was working towards my Grade 7. As you can imagine, first-year music was somewhat – to be diplomatic – uninspired (sorry Ian!), being a mixed ability class. Ian kept me occupied by letting me help other students. Before long, I was the second point of call in the class if Ian was unavailable.

When Ian retired as the Head of Music, Sue Rowley, his successor invited me to teach a few lessons to younger students during my free periods in sixth-form. It was unpaid work as a mentor, but I soon grew to love it. After sixth-form, I took a gap year and officially became a peripatetic tutor at the school. Before long, I had established my first teaching practice traveling to my students across Greater London.

I took it upon myself to ‘get qualified’ so I enrolled in a three-year music degree programme, gaining my teaching qualification a year later. While studying I met my (now) wife; when we graduated, we went into business together, teaching from our home in Colchester, Essex, which we have now been doing so for seven years.

Time really flies when you’re having fun!

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I have had relatively few teachers that would be considered master-pedagogues, but one, in particular, changed my life significantly.

A remarkable woman, inspirational person, and phenomenal pianist, Lesley Young was Head of Keyboard at Colchester Institute since the early nineties until retiring in 2016. She would be considered my first ‘real’ piano teacher; that is not to detract from other teachers that I had received lessons from previously while young, but the ‘real’ here is only to differentiate the difference between a general music teacher and a piano teacher.

She valued more than anything else the psychological intelligence of her students, helping us to understand what our mind is doing while we play.

A stock phrase she would often say in lessons was:

Everything we do at the piano is cerebral; before we play a single-note, we must understand what our mind is doing.

Feel, think, then act.”

Three years of study was not enough to learn all this person had to offer me, but in this brief time, she found my Dyslexia and helped with referrals and a diagnosis. She was the epitome of clarity after years in a fog.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

This is a tough question; nothing exists in isolation, so everything is influential. My life, my experiences, my teachers, and my own personal life-lessons learned, influence every element of my teaching. As teachers, we deal in the business of shaping human beings, which we can all agree is a continual process of growth and learning; our students grow, and we do also.

If anything, the actual teaching of my students has taught me the most. Each student that is taught influences the next lesson. It would be arrogant as a teacher for me to believe that what we have learned regarding our craft as practitioners are more important than the human being we have sitting before us. We can learn a lot from our students, in particular, some of the more challenging ones.

So as oxymoronic as it may sound, my students influence my teaching; and quite drastically so. When reflecting on my teaching from 2003, in comparison to my teaching now in 2017, what amounts to a few thousand hours of teaching, the one overwhelming influential difference over that time is exposure to students, their unique difficulties, then reflecting and helping them overcome them.

What do you expect from your students?

Respect, reason, patience, discipline and obedience; however, they are almost dirty words in today’s society.

The piano – or for that matter, the larger subject of Music – arrives from a time when people had to be disciplined. It took a considerable amount of time to do anything; usually, by hand, and without shortcuts. This meant the person working at it needed to have patience and more importantly the discipline. To learn anything requires a person to be reasonable, and able to listen and carry out instructions. My students are welcome to disagree with me, I actively encourage it as makes for interesting discussions. However, if they simply refuse to carry out my instructions there is little point to the interaction.

Today, particularly in western countries, we as teaching professionals have to contend with student-centric learning, which in itself is not bad, however, it does create problems. If you give a child the open choice of eating what they want, they would likely indulge in something fatty or sugary … for every meal; which is damaging to long-term health. As teachers, parents or guardians, it is our responsibility to teach them that you need the discipline to resist these impulses. Before reaching this point, we must teach obedience to trust out guidance due to experience and longevity.

The first lesson I teach my students is to listen to what I say and to carry out my instructions even when they don’t think they need to. Without this fundamental element, it is not a lesson, and they might as well not have my input.

What are your views on piano exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams and competitions serve a function, but they should never be the soul purpose and end-goal of the activity. I often would encourage my students to take part in concerts before an audience than enter for exams or competitions. My reason for this is, when the goal becomes solely to pass an exam or win a competition, it can create an extremely narrow path for learning to obtain a certificate or trophy; this all creating false confidence.

As teachers, we have all encountered the learners who arrive at lessons touting various graded numbers, who then fail to carry out simple tasks, only for them then to avoid responsibility for the gaps in knowledge. This is false confidence; though an exam was passed, the learning was specific to passing the exam, so the validity of the test is always then questionable at best.

I am painfully aware of the irony; myself holding several qualifications, also entering a number of competitions before, during and after studying. However, they were not, and still are not the ends of my learning, but a means to test it. I passed or won, indicating that on that day, at that time, I was ready.

You pass the exam when you are ready, but, you are not ready just because you passed an exam.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

I spend an insurmountable time with my under-fives working on ‘pulse’. This is often overlooked in transfer students I encounter, or felt unneeded by some newcomers, but, without a pulse, music will always fail to arrive.

Even advanced players can come unstuck if they fail to count measures accurately. This is also a problem with people who profess to not being able to sight-read music. It would be analogous to trying to build a house on an unreliable foundation or to paint on a moving canvas.

An advanced student, who is truly advanced is always willing to go back to basics in order to rebuild. A beginner takes a long time to build anything, so they are always reluctant to lose it once they finally built it. The beginner will also rush ahead in an attempt to catch up, only having to go back and do it again after they realise that there are no shortcuts.

Do you teach adults? If so, what are the particular challenges and pleasures of teaching adult learners, in your experience?

I do teach adults, and it is always a pleasure.

From my experiences, the main challenge I encounter is getting them not to be so hard on themselves, and not to make comparisons to other musicians. The over-compensation that is created from these two actions are devastatingly self-defeating, causing many to give up before they try.

If you are an adult reading this, it is never too late to start learning a new skill; however, be patient and remember you are an adult with responsibilities, don’t compare yourself to others, particularly children.

…and, most importantly, count!

What are your thoughts on the link between performing and teaching?

Not all performers are teachers, but all teachers are performers.

Every lesson is a performance; to bestow knowledge to another is a defacto performance. Not a single lesson has gone by without me playing the piano; whether it be a single note or phrase, or demonstrating an entire piece.

It would be hypocritical as a teacher to teach a performance art and not perform, yet expect our students to do so. Furthermore, how can we make any claim to know how to teach music to a student if we have not yet discovered it ourselves fully.

That would be like offering advice on how to traverse a vast ocean by boat, without ever sailing, seeing a boat or for that matter, ever seeing the ocean oneself.

Dylan Christopher has established himself as a pianist and music educator in Colchester providing piano lessons, workshops and concert-performance opportunities to aspirant musicians young and old.

dylanchristopher.com

At the Piano With……Frances Wilson

AT THE PIANO WITH……is a series of interviews with piano teachers which is running on my sister blog, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, with occasional posts on this blog.

What is your first memory of the piano?

My paternal grandfather playing Methodist hymns and excerpts from Bach, Haydn and Beethoven on the Victorian upright piano in the “parlour” (front room) of his house in Ipswich.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

There was no “eureka moment”, or a driving ambition to be a piano teacher. In fact, it happened by accident. A friend of mine, whose daughter was in the same class as my son at primary school, knew I played and asked if I would teach her daughter. I thought “why not give it a try?” and so Rose and I set off on a journey of discovery together. It was a bit hit and miss at first, but I soon discovered I enjoyed it and developed my own teaching style and approach.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

My second piano teacher, Mrs Murdoch, in Rickmansworth taught me how to appreciate Bach, an appreciation I retain to this day. My music teacher at secondary school has been a major influence on my teaching: I often hear Mr Weaver at my back when I’m teaching. He was a very committed, enthusiastic and energetic teacher, and I hope my teaching, in a small way, emulates his. My current teacher is also significant: she unpicked 25 years of bad habits, accumulated between ceasing lessons in my late teens, and returning in my 40s, and has taught me confidence and self-belief. I would never have passed my first Diploma with distinction without her support.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

See above. My blogging has put me in touch with teachers and pianists around the world and I find the exchange of information and ideas very useful to my teaching and my playing. I find there is also a lot to be gained from talking to professional musicians (who may not be teachers).

Frances Wilson ATCL
Frances Wilson ATCL

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Every week something happens which is wonderful and memorable, but Lucy gaining a Merit in her Grade 1 was pretty special (the first student I entered for an exam). Seeing and hearing my students perform at our annual concerts is always lovely too.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

The interaction between an adult student and me as teacher is more interesting and often more involved than with a child. Adults are generally very committed and keen, but they tend to be far more nervous than children and need support and encouragement to overcome their anxiety. Others have slightly over-ambitious ideas about what they can play, but I would never discourage a student from trying repertoire that might be beyond them. If it is really impossible, one can always offer a simplified version…..

What do you expect from your students?

  • Respect – towards the piano, the score, the composer’s intentions, and me
  • Willingness to learn, and being prepared to put in the hours practising
  • Not playing when I am talking (very distracting!)

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams are a useful obvious benchmark of progress, and many students want to take them for this reason. I am not a teacher who lives by her results and I would never enter a student for an exam if I felt they were not fully prepared. I am wary of parents (and children) who see the accumulation of exam results as the be all and end all of musical study. My main aim is to share my enthusiasm and passion for the piano and its literature.

Festivals are a great opportunity to put repertoire before an audience, perhaps ahead of an exam, and the adjudicator’s remarks are often kinder (but no less useful) than those of an examiner.

I have had no direct experience of competitions, but my views are mixed. Some students see competitions as a means to an end – i.e. a professional career. But a win at a competition does not necessarily guarantee this. I am wary of the “Three C’s” – Conservatoire, Competition, Concerto – and feel that any student of music should have a rounded education, with broad musical horizons.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Beginners – the will and enthusiasm to learn, and an ability to stick with it. Learning to play the piano is hard! But regular practise leads to noticeable progress.

Advanced students – stick with it! Play what you love, and don’t select repertoire just because you think it will impress an examiner, tutor or competition jury. Try to find your own musical voice and artistic vision, and don’t forever compare yourself to others.

What are you thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

A teacher who is teaching students to perform – whether in student concerts, exams, festivals or competitions – should be a performer him/herself. How else can you teach performance? Performance requires special talents, which cannot be taught unless you have direct experience yourself.

Who are your favourite pianists and why?

Maria Joao Pires – sensitivity and musical understanding, particularly in Schubert

Mitsuko Uchida – her Mozart playing is second to none.

Murray Perahia – an ability to highlight all the interior architecture in the score. He is particularly fine in Bach and Chopin

Glenn Gould – a maverick and a genius. No one else plays Bach like Gould did!

Marc-Andre Hamelin – technical prowess and proof than anything is possible

Pierre-Laurent Aimard – a profound and insightful pianist, particularly in Liszt, Debussy and Messiaen

Peter Donohoe – a formidable talent, and a thoroughly nice bloke, who is never too busy to offer advice and support.

Frances Wilson runs a busy private piano teaching practice in SW London. A keen concert goer, Frances writes music reviews for international concert and opera listing site Bachtrack.com, and blogs on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. (She is also the author of this blog.) Currently studying with Penelope Roskell, Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

More At the Piano interviews here

At the Piano With……Philip Fowke

The first in an occasional series of interviews with piano teachers – and I am delighted to launch this new series with an interview with acclaimed pianist and teacher Philip Fowke.

Philip Fowke

What is your first memory of the piano?

My first memory of the piano was when my parents bought an upright for my sister Alison who was beginning to learn the piano. I can recall it coming into the house quite clearly and I must have been about 4 years old. I was fascinated by it from the start and its grinning mouth of keys. At my first school, Milford, in Gerrards Cross, the headmistress, Miss France, used to play the piano for hymns and music classes. I can remember watching her hands and the way the keys went down. It is a vivid memory and it was Miss France who first encouraged me to play and gave me my first lessons. Initially, I did everything by ear and taught myself simple harmonisations of well known tunes like The British Grenadier. I remember playing this during break to all the other children as we had our regulation bottle of milk.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

Miss France, whom I mentioned above, was my first encounter with a piano teacher and she set me on the road. However, she felt I needed a more qualified teacher and she arranged for me to have an audition with Marjorie Withers who also lived in Gerrards Cross. She was an outstanding musician and teacher and I went to her when I was seven. It was she who really inspired me and had a gift for giving me pieces which really excited me. She also encouraged my playing popular tunes and improvising. I was heavily into Russ Conway, Winifred Atwell and Joe Henderson in those days and could do a passing imitation of them. At Downside School, where I boarded from 1964 to 1967, I also had remarkable teachers in Roger Bevan, the Director of Music, Lionel Calvert and Peter Matthews

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching? 

I have mentioned the teachers I had as a boy and they all had influences on me, most notably Marjorie Withers. It was really she who laid the foundations of such technique as I may have, and who instilled in me the discipline of practice and ways in which to make it creative and effective. She was also a fine pianist herself and was well able to demonstrate, quite dazzlingly as it seemed to me, Chopin Studies, bits of Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Grieg, and numerous other composers. Her attitude, her sense of fun and celebration of the music deeply influenced me

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

Initially the pressures of having to earn a few pennies was quite an incentive to start giving lessons to local children and one or two adults. However, I do recall helping a friend at school, of no particular pianistic talent, to play a piece he was struggling with. I remember feeling a strong desire to help him conquer what seemed to be insurmountable difficulties! However, it was Gordon Green at the Royal Academy of Music who was the chief musical and pianistic inspiration and who continues to exert an extraordinary influence on me and many others who had the good fortune to study with him.  His philosophy was to allow young people to develop at their own pace in their own time. Not for him the pressures of competitions, rushed learning and the resulting stress and misery which can follow. He used to say that his concern was not how you played today, but how you would play in ten years’ time. His wisdom, gentleness and encouragement enabled many of his students to go on to achieve considerable success. He was neither possessive nor ambitious except in the sense of wishing students to be balanced, fulfilled human beings who happened to play an instrument.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

There are many issues but one is the tendency to choose too challenging a repertoire. Also nerves and confidence. Then there is physical condition, i.e. muscular flexibility. This can be very variable. In general my approach is always to build positively on whatever the situation presents. It is all too easy to be inadvertently discouraging and negative. Always be upbeat and positive. Quite often there have been bad, even traumatic experiences with past teachers and this can result in a general crisis of confidence which has never been fully addressed. Inevitably there is a tremendous legacy of vulnerability which must be handled with sensitivity and gentleness. The early lessons need to be a form of therapy with a bit of piano occasionally thrown in with no strings attached preferably! I often start with a course of simple exercises which involve the entire keyboard….a kind of embrace and bonding with the keys. It is also important do some simple pre-keyboard exercises, standing, bending stretching and relaxed breathing. It is also good to be aware of the prevalent danger of “wishful listening”. This is very common and accounts for attempting to play pieces before they have been sufficiently prepared and studied. The trouble is, a habit forms whereby the student doesn’t hear what’s actually being played, but hears an imaginary and vastly edited version which sounds, to their ears, acceptable…only it isn’t!

What do you expect from your students? 

Expectations vary especially between college students and amateur adults. Inevitably more is expected from a young person embarking on a professional life of a musician. In the case of adult amateurs, those doing it for pleasure in such time as they have available, different expectations arise. I take each person as they are, as circumstances allow, and work within those parameters. However, I do always work at simple strategies which, if followed closely, can save endless hours of needless repetition…..which unfortunately so much so called “practice” can often be. An issue which often arises is the one of that dreaded word “tension”. I make a point of never using the word preferring to ask whether the students feels “comfortable” in a particular passage. Invariably the answer is uncomfortable, so I suggest that together we find a more comfortable way of doing it. This, in itself, reduces tightness and anxiety. To simply say ”that looks tense” exacerbates the problem and is, in my view,  poor teaching psychology. I have found that many tension issues have not been addressed simply because the symptoms have been treated and not the cause. A tight wrist can be the result of weak fingers or an impractical fingering. It’s amazing what an unconventional fingering or a cunning redistribution can achieve…let alone the discreet omission of troublesome notes which can barely be heard. I rather hear fewer notes comfortably and confidently played than more, scrambled!

Another issue is the release of notes, usually caused by the notion that everything must be legato fingering. The horror of letting go and allowing the pedal to help in appropriate situations, is a real psychological and physical difficulty. The traditional tyranny has taught that not doing legato fingering is a mortal sin. There are ways of achieving legato other than holding on to notes in distorted and twisted ways which make a horrid sound and cause great discomfort. In saying this, I do not wish to mean that legato fingering is of no importance…. it is essential, but a realistic balance needs to be found and allowed for. Too often I encounter “off the peg” fingering – one size fits all. Only it doesn’t!

In general I find with adults, as with the younger generation, stretch and extension exercises have not been addressed. Fingers operate in isolation with one another. I encourage a dialogue between all the fingers so that they can get to know one another. Coordination exercises also can be of great benefit. So often fingers are complete strangers to one another, and rather hostile ones at that! Explore movement; find the slip roads on to the motorway. Ski, fly, grope the keys. When fingering, explore options, be daring. Give the fingers a choice. Within a very short time they will make their own decision….. and a good one provided they have the initial choice. Let the miserable, bald battery fingers out of their cages to roam free, grow feathers and lay big fat brown eggs. They’ll make a better sound. I call it Fowke’s Free Range Fingering. Your fingers will smile in gratitude and relief scuttling off into pastures new and sunlit glades.

Don’t get stuck on slow practice. Practice above tempo in short bursts, strong beat to strong beat to learn movements and gestures which can help the keyboard choreography. Practising slowly, though essential at all stages, does need an antidote. There can be a danger of practising to play slowly. Similarly with hands separate practice.

Practice pianissimo, or on the surface of the keys. Too much practice is too loud and too fast. Listen in your head. A good maxim, though not invariable,  is to practice loud passages pianissimo, and piano passages forte. Similarly, practice slow movements quickly and quick movements slowly. Play in different registers, crossed hands, even in different keys. Muck about. Practising can be like a kitten teasing a ball of wool. I always remember Shura Cherkassky saying to me that if I heard him practice, I wouldn’t think he could play the piano. This made an indelible impression on me at the time and beautifully describes real practice…. a craft that has to be carefully honed. Learn to dismantle a piece down to the tiniest component

We press keys down, but do we consider the release? Same with the pedal. Practice the sustaining pedal with the left foot. Concentrates the mind and ear wonderfully!

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

Very mixed. They all have their place but in my view far too much emphasis is put on the competitive element and too little on the musical and artistic elements. Performing in public has become an international sport and the list of sporting casualties and injuries grows proportionately. We need to review the number and regularity of some of these major competitions…..and the way the media promotes them. As to exams, again they have their place, but it is noteworthy that countries where the graded system does not exist produces playing of a singularly and consistently high order from an early age.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students? 

This is difficult to condense into a few simple sentences. If I have one thing to say it is that so many pianists of whatever age, ability and experience have little concept of the keyboard. They have never been encouraged to explore it, to improvise, to be allowed to make nasty noises eventually leading to rather more beautiful sounds. An intrinsic fear lies at the core of so much playing; fear of wrong notes, fear of going wrong. All this is caused by a basic lack of harmonic awareness, a hazy knowledge of scales and arpeggios, and an inability to busk and improvise. Teachers pass on their own fear as they themselves were never encouraged to improvise to play with the keyboard rather than on it. The tyrannical pull of middle C reigns supreme I fear!

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job? 

I’m not sure I can answer this. Teaching is not exactly a job for me, more a mission. I simply want to explode myths, to enable and to explore, to reveal the keyboard as more than an extension of middle C

What is your favourite music to teach? To play? 

Well, of course it is always a pleasure to work on familiar core repertoire. However, I do enjoy the challenge of unfamiliar scores which nobody has issues with, received opinions and which no one has ever heard before!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

This is dangerous territory and one I have consistently tried to avoid!

Is there a link between teaching and performing? 

It has been said that performers don’t make good teachers. Well, this is true in some cases but certainly not all. Equally I know of some good teachers who don’t, and never have to any significant degree, performed in public. However, having said that, the experience of performing, the physical and psychological act, does possibly lend one’s teaching an element of realism and practicality. Knowledge and respect for the score is well and good, but how to deliver it? What I describe as health and safety editions with their plethora of notes and commentaries, foot and note disease, can be daunting. Nothing is left to chance and this can inhibit performance rather than inform it. Performing in public can give a teacher the insight into that which is to be aspired to, that which is feasible, and the experience to make the choice.

Philip Fowke, known for his many BBC Promenade Concert appearances, numerous recordings and broad range of repertoire performed worldwide, is currently Senior Fellow of Keyboard at Trinity College of Music.

He is also known for his teaching, coaching and tutoring in which he enjoys exploring students’ potential, encouraging them to develop their own individuality. He is a regular tutor at the International Shrewsbury Summer School as well as at Chethams Summer School .
Conductors with whom he has worked include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Rudolf Barshai, Tadaaki Otaka, Sir Simon Rattle, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Yuri Temirkanov and the late Klaus Tennstedt. He will shortly be recording piano works by Antony Hopkins CBE in celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday.

In addition to Philip Fowke’s many invitations to tutor at festivals, summer schools, and numerous lecture recitals, he will be appearing with The Prince Consort, a group founded by his former student Alisdair Hogarth. Their recent recording for Linn Records featuring works by Brahms and Stephen Hough, has received outstanding acclaim, and was nominated CD of the month by Gramophone Magazine. Future appearances include the Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, Cheltenham Festival and the Concertgebouw Amsterdam.