There is, perhaps, little more daunting than giving your first one to one instrumental lesson. In my case, I was 15 years old and the 9 year old son of a friend of my parents was the lucky pupil. As I was still in school and taking lessons on three instruments I was surrounded by a wealth of inspiration - including how not to teach - and my memories of being a 9 year old beginner were relatively fresh. The whole thing was cooked up by our mothers; I did not decide to teach and I'm fairly certain he did not decide to learn!
Another 20 years of my life flew by before piano teaching became a career choice.
My family influence
I fell in love with music at a very young age and I was surrounded by music as a child. My mother would play piano many evenings and I would lie in bed and listen to Don McLean’s Vincent or Clementi’s Sonatina No. 4. At the weekend, my father allowed me to choose music to listen to. This was a wonderful privilege because I was allowed to touch his precious records. My favourite was Lloyd Webber’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini; I also loved Mozart, Miles Davies and Elton John, whose Your Song now settles my sons to sleep.
By age 10, I was taking piano lessons and wanted to play “like my Mum”. She was perhaps my most inspirational role model because she played for her own enjoyment and seemingly without effort.
My formal education
I was taught by approximately a dozen instrumental teachers, conductors and school music teachers. They all had a comprehensive understanding of how to play and were able to impart that understanding clearly and effectively. My instrumental tuition was largely tutor-book led in the early years. Scales, arpeggios, aural and sight-reading were introduced in preparation for ABRSM examinations. From Grade 1 Piano in December 1986 to Grade 8 Clarinet in December 1992 I completed 16 practical examinations in six years! My music library now seemed limited which suggests I was constantly working towards exams, festivals and performances at the cost of appreciating the diversity of music. Thankfully, two of my teachers were exceptional and inspired my own teaching style.
I started clarinet (age 9) and piano (age 10) with Becky, an enthusiastic graduate, who coached me to ABRSM Grade 5 on both instruments. I adored Becky and worked hard to please her. My parents say she was an excellent role model and they rarely had to nag me to practice. I suspect Becky subscribed to Dame Fanny Waterman’s incentive approach to motivating young students; silver and gold stars were available for each piece learned. Becky introduced me to performing at informal concerts for parents and other students. She also encouraged me to play in music festivals regularly. I was never expected to win but encouraged to participate nonetheless. It is important both teacher and student have realistic goals. Had I been encouraged to compete with unrealistic ambitions, I would have been disappointed and possibly demotivated. By managing my expectations Becky inspired me to enjoy performing.
My second piano teacher, Miss Faulkner, taught at my secondary school. We had musical interaction outside our regular piano lessons through the GCSE music course and other school activities. I learned “about” music history and the theory and structure of music, which helped me understand what I was playing. This is where I find most technical memories including using variable rhythms to perfect tricky passages, ‘nice cup of tea’ to master polyrhythms and using well known tunes to identify intervals aurally. Miss Faulkner used metaphors, analogies and examples and asked me to listen, observe and discover techniques for myself so I not only learned to play quavers against triplets in Grieg’s Notturno (Op.54, No.4) but could subsequently apply what I had learned to Debussy’s Deux Arabesques (No.1).
In an interview with Music Teacher Magazine, Dame Evelyn Glennie explained ‘the power of a teacher; going beyond the four walls of the institution; drawing on an individual’s skills and experience; allowing a student to create opportunities and push their boundaries by saying, “Here’s an experience – deal with it”’ (Glennie, 2011, p. 66). Becky and Miss Faulkner broadened my musical experience beyond the classroom. They encouraged me to join local orchestras and enrol in music camps. These are some of my fondest memories of playing.
My university experience was, on reflection, rather disappointing. This was, in part, due to my own failure to embrace the opportunities provided which included composition tuition with Alan Bullard! It might also be attributed to a rather uninspiring approach by the instrumental tutors and the realisation that I was not sufficiently gifted to pursue a career in musical performance. As a result, I majored in arts management during my final year. I was declared over-qualified and under-experienced by the leading performing arts institutions in the mid-90s and consequently developed a career in office management.
Rather unexpectedly in my mid-thirties, I found myself with a husband, two children and a deeply unsatisfying, yet very demanding, career. There was no doubt that my family needed more of my time, but I was equally certain that I needed creative and intellectual stimuli beyond pureed carrots and a 40 degree wash cycle! My husband asked me what I wanted to do when I was little. My answer was simple; “I wanted to be like Becky”.
So, in 2009, I took on my first student as a professional piano tutor. Since then, I have grown my teaching practice to over 50 regular students, ranging from 6 year old beginners to returners in their 40s. I have coached students through around 30 ABRSM exams from Prep Test to Grade 5 (with 100% pass rate to date). For my own professional development, I have completed a Certificate of Teaching with ABRSM, and an ABRSM Diploma in Instrumental Teaching (piano).
Like Becky, I award stars and certificates. I agree objectives with the students and parents and provide a written progress report at the end of each term. I aim to motivate students through the thrill of achievement, not through fear of being scolded or failing.
Inspired by Becky, I host concerts twice a year. It is important for children to have opportunities to perform and showcase their latest achievements, special favourites and duets. Participation is not compulsory but strongly encouraged because it motivates goal-oriented practice, allows children to demonstrate their talents and exposes them to the pressures of performing in a non-threatening environment.
Miss Faulkner taught me there is great value in exposing children to the wider possibilities of music making. I enjoy taking groups of students to musical experiences, from youth jazz at The Barbican to FUNharmonics with the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall; from the London Mozart Players to STOMP!
When I began teaching I expected to follow a straight path through ABRSM grades via a structured selection of tutor books. Studying for the ABRSM Certificate of Teaching inspired me to research and experiment with other tutor books. Following Paul Harris’ advice, I now ‘have the courage to deviate, add or substitute [my] own exercises or pieces, move sideways (or indeed in any direction!) as [I] feel appropriate’. And my teaching is much richer as a result.
My reasons for becoming a teacher were mostly about the practicalities of my own life. The reasons I am still a teacher - and still love being a teacher - are the daily challenge and reward it brings; the impact I can make on an individual's life experience; the 'eureka' moment when they get it; that every day is different; that I learn something new about myself, my students, teaching or music every single day; and the sheer joy of working creatively, reactively and proactively alongside children who are joyfully learning. My 8-year old son (and piano student) gave me a hand-written plaque last week. It said "Teachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning".
It is one thing to master the techniques of playing an instrument. It is quite another to experience and appreciate music. I was taught the value of both and I strive to pass on to my students a broad musical experience.