24 October 2017

Puzzling Piano Pedagogues


Is there any field of practical human activity in which those who teach do not, and never have, practised?  Are there driving instructors who cannot drive, parachute instructors who have never jumped?  Do medical doctors learn their skills from those who have never faced a patient, or chefs from those who have never handled food? 

Incredible though it may seem, there is one.  Moreover, it is not so much a practical activity in which some of those who teach are not practitioners, but that the vast majority of teachers of it are not, have not, and will never be practitioners of it.  In the world of piano teaching, a complete lack of experience in playing the piano is not so much common as the norm.

I must state straight away that this is not the case when it comes to advanced piano teachers.  In our conservatory in Singapore I count among my colleagues eminent piano professors who regularly prove their unquestionable piano performing skills in the public arena.  The situation – I don’t call it a problem since it is such standard practice – of the non-practitioner teaching exists more at the earlier stages of the teaching process.

It does not seem to exist in other branches of music.  My first French horn teacher was a man called Alan Civil, whose name lives on almost 30 years after his death through his legacy of great recordings.  My first harp teacher was a glorious lady with the wonderful name of Glenys Gordon-Fleet who was Principal Harp of the BBC Welsh Orchestra.  And while I began my organ lessons with my father and later a man called Peter Mound – both highly-respected church organists - I was just 14 when I was sent to be a pupil of Michael Austin, a virtuoso recitalist on the international circuit and an extremely inspirational teacher.  And beyond my immediate personal experience, my daughter’s first violin lessons were from a leading figure in the Scots fiddle world who is also a regular fixture in several prominent ensembles.  So what is it about the piano which gives credibility to the non-practitioner’s guidance of the potential practitioner?

There are, of course, many answers to this apparent contradiction, not the least of which is the unique place the piano has in society and its ubiquitousness in the domestic environment.  And it is an indisputable fact that many piano teachers with no performing experience or ambition are really very good indeed; just because Mrs Smith, Mdm Wong or Mr Levy-Ragonstein has never played the piano in public is no barrier to them being excellent piano teachers.  But that begs two questions.  Firstly, what IS a good piano teacher and, secondly, how can they teach something of which they have no practical experience?

The second question is easy, and I draw on my own experience.  Like most students, I found I was able to make a bit of money by doing some private piano teaching.  When I left the warm, safe embrace of my student life and battled out into the nasty reality of life in the adult world, I carried on as a piano teacher, and built up a large body of pupils.  I hated every single moment, because I knew I did not really know what I was doing.  Yes, I could sit down with a student and watch them play scales, tell them where they had played a wrong note (as if they didn’t already know) and drill into them the mechanical actions which enabled them to pass their music exams.  But I knew in my heart of hearts that if they had turned to me and said “I need you to teach me the Liszt Dante Sonata as I’m playing it in the Wigmore Hall next month”, my façade as a knowledgeable teacher would crumble.  I had no idea how to play the Liszt Dante Sonata, certainly could not even dream of playing it myself and, moreover, I had no idea how to face a Wigmore Hall audience.

(That dislike of teaching stayed with me for years, to the extent that I refused to teach for over three decades, eventually relenting only when a number of erstwhile pupils persuaded me to take them on as organ pupils.  I am a practising organist with a pretty good background in performing, and I suddenly realised that, since I knew my stuff and had real practical experience of the skill, teaching the organ was an extreme pleasure.  My students all did extraordinarily well by their own terms, and I bitterly, bitterly regret that, based in Singapore with no access to an organ nor any potential pupils, I no longer teach.)

I had been able to set myself up as a piano teacher, not because of my experience (as a student I had none) but because the market took no heed of credentials.  If I said I could teach the piano, that was enough, and the pupils flocked in.  Parents did not know any better, and paid up happy that their children seemed to be progressing and periodically taking home bits of paper with words like “Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music”, “Examination” and “Distinction” elegantly printed on them.

Much more difficult is to define what makes a good teacher.  And it is this issue which has led to the common practice of people attempting to teach something of which they have no real knowledge or experience.

For me, a good teacher inspires and encourages, sets an example through their own experience and demonstrates how to negotiate the practical obstacles along the path of gaining professional competency in the skill being taught.  Yet, when most teachers have no practical experience to draw from nor are able to show, from personal experience, how to negotiate the inevitable obstacles along the path of a professional career, there has to be some other yardstick which substitutes for practical experience yet still appears to legitimise the teacher’s practical credentials.

Step forward the graded music exam.

A vast worldwide industry has been set up around graded music exams, generating vast numbers of self-sustaining career opportunities in the pursuit of the ultimately sterile attainment of a certificate.  While violinists, cellists, organists, brass and wind players, harpists and even singers are trained to perform, most pianists are trained to pass exams.  Without the graded exam, the piano teaching industry would collapse and vast numbers of ersatz-professionals transformed at a stroke into inexperienced amateurs.

It doesn’t perhaps read that way, and I admit to feelings of cynicism, but this is not a criticism of the situation, merely an observation of it.  Most of the piano teachers I have met are well-meaning, caring and conscientious folk; it is the environment in which they work, where the focus is not so much on acquiring a practical skill as acquiring an ultimately pointless certification, which I feel is so weird.

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