At the Piano With……Jill Owen

40_5983What is your first memory of the piano?

Hearing my Dad playing Bach chorales and chorales he used to compose.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I always thought I’d teach and I’m not sure any one person inspired me to teach but rather my love of the piano that I wanted to pass on.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The most significant teacher was a lady who taught me when I moved to the first year of sixth form at the age of 16. She helped me to understand how to phrase music and I suddenly improved when I started with her.

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

The most important influences on my teaching are the last two teachers I had combined with my own unique approach. Most importantly I respond to the individual pupil as I teach ages 6-80yrs!

Tell us more about your Adult Intensive Piano Course…..

I created the Adult Intensive Piano Course after I taught adults at the City Lit Institute and I could see there was a gap in the market. Adults in London want to learn new skills and learn quickly. I wrote all the music and text. It takes a complete beginner in 5 one to one one-hour lessons to playing a Grade 1 piece and playing from music. I’m a stickler for reading music! The course also suits adults who’ve learned in the past and need a refresher and I can tailor a course to the standard of any pupil.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect my students to practice often and in small amounts. I also expect them to feel at ease and happy with the lessons and to talk to me if they are not. I mostly desire that they enjoy the lessons and are progressing well. I enjoy teaching adults because they are doing it for themselves and it is great to be a part of the joy it brings and fun they have in learning and playing the piano.

With children I feel it’s very important the parents are on board and understand the importance of practice whilst I still make lessons fun. Especially at a young age the child needs a parent or someone to sit and help with practice. If the parent expects that I do all the work at the lesson, it simply won’t work!

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

Exams, Competitions and Festivals are not for everyone. Some of my pupils take exams and indeed need that piece of paper and Grade to have their achievement validated. For others they feel they’ve been there and done that with exams over the years and the stress is not worth it! I’m happy to be flexible and usually I know pretty early on which approach is going to suit the pupil. I think the ABRSM’s Performance Assessment is a good thing: I have adults who do this and it can also be a good trial for exams.

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

I think it’s important to stress to both beginners and advanced students that music is fun, that it is a unifying language through which we can express ourselves in a unique and positive way. We can also learn valuable life skills such as discipline and team work as learning an instrument can help concentration and of course it is very good for the older brain….the possibilities for playing with other musicians and making friends are endless once you can play to a certain standard.

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

Teaching and performance definitely are linked. As a performer one is always learning something new, even playing the same piece each time can bring up a fresh idea/something not previously seen. Having been both a performer and teacher all my life I think one can bring the performing into teaching and vice versa. We should always be learning and striving to educate ourselves also as teachers as we can always find new ways to teach, new influences and by attending courses for teachers and conferences etc…

Essentially we are always learning and then we can pass that on. Most importantly for me with music in any form, it moves me and bring me great enjoyment. This is what I try to pass on to my pupils.

Jill Owen is a pianist, piano teacher and composer based in Stoke Newington, north London. She studied piano accompaniment at The Royal Academy of Music, London, and is the creator of The Adult Piano Course, a fun and unique course for adult beginners now in its 10th year.

www.pianocourse.co.uk

 

 

 

Faber Music Piano Anthology

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This attractive anthology contains a wealth of favourite piano pieces and gems of the repertoire, including Fur Elise, Gymnopedie No. 1, Solfegietto in c minor, La fille aux cheveux de lin, To A Wild Rose, and many other popular works by leading composers for the piano. There are also pieces by lesser-known composers such as Alkan, Guilmant, Lyadov and Maykapar. Many of the works will be familiar to teachers from piano grade exam repertoire, and for the student pianist it is a real treat to have such a rich selection of piano music compiled into a single volume. The pieces are organised by ability, starting with Bach’s evergreen Minuet in G, BWV 114, which is roughly Grade 2 level, and closing with Fauré’s Romance sans Paroles (Grade 8) thus offering a progressive and varied overview of popular classical piano repertoire. Compiled by pianist and teacher Melanie Spanswick, this large-format hardback  collection is presented with an eye-catching cover illustration (‘The Concerto’ by Cyril Edward Power) and coloured endpapers, high-quality paper and a ribbon marker.

I have to admit I found the format of the book slightly cumbersome when actually trying to play from it at the piano: the hardback cover is rather unforgiving. I would have also liked  more twentieth-century and contemporary piano repertoire included in the selection (pieces by Bartok and Prokofiev wouldn’t go amiss, for example), but the pieces are selected from Faber’s own music collection and perhaps some composers’ works were not available due to copyright constraints. Overall this anthology would make a very pleasing and long-lasting gift for pianists of all levels and ages.

To win a copy of The Faber Music Piano Anthology, please answer the following question

Who composed the piano miniature ‘To A Wild Rose’?

(Please use the contact form to reply)

Publisher: Faber Music

ISBN: 0571539572

RRP £22.00

Further information and ordering

Reflections on ten years as a piano teacher

Another term is over, and as my students depart for their summer holidays, I have time to pause and reflect as my piano teaching studio approaches its 10th birthday.

I never intended to be a piano teacher. I worked for ten years in art and academic publishing after leaving university and I continued to freelance in this sector when I stopped full-time work to have my son. But as my son started to grow up and become more independent, I began to consider a change of direction but it had to be one which could accommodate the school day and looking after my son during the school holidays. One day, during the chat that takes places between mums in the playground while they wait to collect their children, a friend asked me if I might teach her daughter to play the piano. “But I’m not a piano teacher!” I said. The friend suggested that I try piano lessons with her daughter “as an experiment, to see if you you both like it. Rosie can be your trial student“. And so in September 2006, I started teaching Rosie, and quickly acquired more students who had heard about me via Rosie’s mum. I have never been taught how to teach and had no clear “method” at the time, only that I was determined to make piano lessons interesting and fun for the children, the absolute opposite of my childhood lessons which had seemed dull and interminable and driven by an exam treadmill. I was pretty sure I could articulate this in a way that would appeal to children:  My teaching studio grew rapidly and by the end of the first year I had nearly 20 students, most of whom had come to me via my son’s primary school. People would come up to me in the playground and say “you’re the piano teacher, aren’t you?“. And indeed by about 18 months into the job, I felt qualified to call myself “the piano teacher”.

I found the first couple of years quite tough. My son was less than happy about other people’s children coming to the house and taking up my time, but I felt it was important for him, as an only child and a boy, to see his mother working. At that time, when I was still a fledgling piano teacher, I took anyone. I didn’t interview prospective students or their parents, because I knew most of them via the primary school anyway. But after a couple of instances where I and the child or parent simply did not get on, I grew more discerning and careful about whom I took on. And after a parent persistently messed me around over dates and times of lessons, cancelling them at short notice and demanding that I reschedule, I introduced a formal contract which put everyone on an equal footing and enabled me to run the studio in a more formal/businesslike way.

And that perhaps was the first most important lesson I learnt about running my own teaching studio – that one needs to formalise arrangements to ensure people treat you with respect. This is not a “hobby job” but rather a professional role which I take very seriously.

A few years ago, by which time my studio had grown to 25 students and I had two performance diplomas successfully under my belt, I decided to make some significant changes to the way I organised my teaching: I “let go” the students who were simply coasting, not practising and not really taking their piano lessons particularly seriously; I rebranded myself as a serious teacher of classical music (no more Adele songs!) who carefully selects students via an interview and trial lesson; and I put my fees up. Within weeks of making these changes, I had more enquiries than ever and I began to enjoy real job satisfaction too.

Second lesson: as a freelancer, don’t be afraid of making changes to your working life to suit you and which gives you job satisfaction. A happy teacher is more likely to be a successful teacher.

In terms of the actual teaching, I based much of it on my own very positive experiences with my music teacher at secondary school, rather than on my childhood and teenage private piano lessons. My music teacher was endlessly inventive and enthusiastic and it was his enthusiasm that, more than anything else, I tried to incorporate into my teaching. I felt – rightly – that children and young people, adults too, would be enthused and excited by music if I was enthused by it, and I made sure everyone learnt and played music which they enjoyed, rather than which might be “good for them”. When, in 2008, I started having lessons myself again after a break of nearly 25 years, I was able to distill what I was learning into easily understandable nuggets for my students (something my piano teacher actively encouraged), and I quickly saw the benefit of my own lessons in my students’ playing as well as my own. In addition, I started attending courses and workshops to enhance my professional development, and began to connect with more piano teachers too.

Third lesson: good teachers never stop learning themselves

Now, as my studio approaches its tenth anniversary, my teaching style and approach has settled into one which is relaxed and flexible. There is no “one size fits all” in teaching because all children – and adults too – are individuals and deserve to be treated as such. I know each student’s strengths and weaknesses, what music they particularly enjoy, and how much or little they like to be pushed by teacher. Some want to take exams, others are content to learn music which they enjoying playing. I’ve always been a natural communicator and it’s not in my nature to be overly didactic: I want to empower students by giving them the tools, and the confidence, which encourages self-discovery and independent learning. I have a couple of very musical and talented students, and supporting them with issues such as perfectionism, performance anxiety and the psychology of performance present their own interesting challenges and force me to think outside the box as their teacher and confront my own issues in these areas. All my students are hardworking and enthusiastic about the piano, who are taking lessons because they want to, not because a parent has insisted on it.

I no longer teach very young children or beginners. My students are aged between 11 and nearly 17 and are all early intermediate (Grade 3) to advanced level (Grade 8) players. They are bright and engaged, unafraid to question or challenge me or work things out on their own, which is great because I never want to be the teacher who simply “tells”. For me, teaching is an exchange of ideas, a process of showing, demonstrating, explaining, confirming, questioning….. An inquisitive student is likely to learn more, and more quickly. I encourage my students to find their own individual voice in their music making and to use their developing musical knowledge to help them make judgements about aspects such as interpretation and presentation.I don’t use a set “method” or particular range of tutor books. My teaching is instinctive, responding to each student’s needs and wishes rather than imposing my own opinion and way of doing things on them, and I encourage excellence rather than perfection. My own regular studies with two master teachers, in addition to encounters with other renowned teachers and pianists via courses and masterclasses, has undoubtedly informed my teaching, and will continue to do so.

Teaching has taught me far more than I ever would have imagined about being a musician as I constantly refocus and re-examine what I do and how I approach my own music making. And I think my students are intrigued by the fact that their teacher continues to study and have lessons. Perhaps the most significant thing I have learnt over the past ten years is that learning is a continuous, ever-changing process. It is satisfying, occasionally frustrating, and deeply fulfilling to watch students develop, find their musical voice and tastes and, above all, to gain pleasure and enjoyment from their music making.

For further information about my teaching studio please visit www.franceswilson.co.uk

Further reading

The Performing Teacher

You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing

The desire for perfection surrounds us in our modern society. “Getting it right” and “being perfect” are inculcated in children from the moment they enter the formal school system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded are “wrong”.

Many piano students carry this need to be perfect with them when they come to the piano and can easily grow frustrated with their playing if it is not note-perfect. Unfortunately, perfection is unattainable – because we are all human and we make mistakes. And by making mistakes, we learn. People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is achievable and positive.

I encourage all my piano students to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for excellence (within their own capabilities), for expression, musical colour, vibrancy and a sense of “ownership” in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on my part. Many students say to me “the examiner will mark me down if I play wrong notes”. In fact, examiners are looking for playing which displays musicianship and musicality, expression and communication. Of course an accurate performance is desirable, but it is not the be all and end all.

I go to many concerts and hear many pianists, amongst them some of the finest on the international piano circuit. I have heard memory lapses, smeared scales, muffed chords, but I have also heard a wealth of exciting, memorable and truly amazing performances. I have also heard note-perfect performances which lack personality, with no discernible connection between audience and performer, are over-thought, or just plain dull.

How to be amazing:

  • Know your pieces well (the result of careful, thoughtful practising). This is also good insurance against performance anxiety
  • Think about the special character of each of your pieces. What images or stories does the music suggest? “Tell the story” of the music to your audience using dynamics, articulation, clearly defined phrasing, and a vibrant sound
  • Play with confidence and poise (this makes your audience feel confidence too). If performing before an audience, even if only at home to family and friends, don’t scurry shyly to the piano and never pre-empt your performance with negative comments such as “I played this so much better at home” etc.
  • Before you play, take a few moments to prepare yourself. Don’t rush into the opening bars of the piece. Instead hear the music in your head, imagine your hands playing the notes. Remind yourself what the piece is about, for you, and think about how you wish to communicate this with your audience.
  • Banish negative self-talk while you are playing and remain focused on the music. If you feel your concentration slipping, take a deep breath in and exhale slowly to pull your focus back to the music.
  • Gain pleasure from your music and enjoy playing it, to yourself and to others. Music was written to be shared!

People go to concerts to be transported away from the every day. They enjoy the emotions which music inspires in them, and the sense of communication between performer, the music and listener.

Be amazing – at home when you’re practising, in front of others when you’re performing, but above all, enjoy your music!

Students’ Concert at the 1901 Arts Club

This year my annual student concert was held at the 1901 Arts Club, a beautiful, intimate venue in a former schoolmaster’s house (built in 1901) close to London’s Waterloo Station. The venue boasts a lovely Steinway C grand piano and an informal, convivial atmosphere, thanks in no small part to the very welcoming personalities of the people who run it. I use the venue for the South London Concert Series, an innovative series of concerts which I organise and co-host with my friend and piano teaching colleague, Lorraine Liyanage. I felt the small size of the venue (it seats just 45 people in a gold and red salon redolent of a 19th-century European drawing room) would enable the young performers to feel less anxious and to relax into the special atmosphere of the place.

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

I cannot stress too highly the importance of performing, at whatever level one plays, and I have written extensively on this subject on this blog, my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and in my column for Pianist magazine. Music was written to be shared – whether in the home or the salons of other people’s houses, or in recital rooms or concert halls. But on another more important level performing builds confidence, not just in the sphere of music but in many other walks of life, and equips people (of all ages) with an important life-skill.

When I was the age of my students (9-14) I had few opportunities to perform for others. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, not even small-scale events in her home, and as a pianist at school I was always rather sidelined (a solo instrument being deemed the epitome of showing off!), so my only real performance experience was either in the orchestra (where I played the clarinet) or in the choir, both instances where one’s performance anxiety is tempered by performing with others. One of the many decisions I took about my piano teaching when I established my practice in 2006 was that I would give my students performance opportunities. And so from little house concerts (with obligatory tea parties!) to the event this week at the 1901 Arts Club, the annual student concert has become an integral part of my studio’s activities.

Preparations begin many months before the actual date – and I know from my own experience as someone who has come relatively late to performing (in my late 40s) that preparation is everything. Being well-prepared is one of the best insurance policies against nerves and will enable one to pull off a convincing, enjoyable and polished performance on the day. Good preparation, including practising performing in less stressful situations, also means that any slips or errors in the performance on the day can usually be skimmed over and will not upset the flow of the performance.

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Many of my students chose to perform exam pieces – music which they had already played in an exam situation and with which they were therefore very comfortable. It’s always interesting to play exam repertoire after one has put it before the critical ears of the examiner: when I revisit my Diploma pieces (as I am now, in preparation for a concert in January) I notice a distinct sense of relaxation in the music – and my students have commented on this about their own pieces too. Some selected new pieces, and we also had solo clarinet and saxophone performances (it is so gratifying that a number of my students play other instruments – saxophone, trumpet, clarinet and cello – or sing in school choirs).

I always perform at my students’ concerts as well. I think it is important for them to see their teacher performing and to understand that I do my practising and preparation just as they do; also that I am also engaged in ongoing learning of new repertoire or revising previously-learnt music.

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The event at the 1901 Arts Club was really lovely. The young performers all played beautifully (no visible nerves whatsoever, though a number did say to me afterwards that they were really nervous!) and we had a lovely range of music from Arvo Pärt and Einaudi to Bartok and ragtime. Despite knowing my students pretty well now (some have been learning with me almost as long as I have been teaching), I am always amazed at the way they step up to perform with such poise. I don’t know what I do, but maybe by assuring them that their performance will be wonderful, they learn to trust me and this gives them confidence. Each performance was greeted with much enthusiastic applause by family and friends, and at the end of the event another piano teaching friend, Rebecca Singerman-Knight, awarded prizes for Star Performer (Tom Driver) and Most Enjoyable Performance (Eli Hughes). The children were presented with boxes of chocolate grand pianos (which I doubt lasted the homeward journey!). I have had some lovely feedback, from students and parents, and I think the general consensus is that this was a really enjoyable and inspiring event. I certainly felt so!

More about the benefits of performing:

On performing

Performing in a safe circle

Going into the zone

Strategies for coping with performance anxiety

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