08 February 2018

Why Teach Piano?

How many piano teachers are there?  I am certain that nobody knows or could even hazard a realistic guess.  Teaching piano is about the most comprehensively unregulated profession in the world, and amassing realistic statistics as to how many people do it is made all the more difficult because it is also a leading contributor the black economy in many (most…all?) of the countries where piano teaching takes place.  But while a great many piano teachers collect fees for teaching the piano of which the taxman remains blissfully unaware, the issue is more to do with intentions than finance.

In short, why is there such a huge and international demand for piano lessons, and why has that demand not abated as the piano has lost its once ubiquitous place in society?

When teaching amateurs to play the keyboard began – we can pinpoint the date to around 1716 when François Couperin published his L’Art de toucher le clavecin, the first written tutor to give guidance to teachers – society was in a state of change.  In the main, before then, those who played a keyboard instrument had served an apprenticeship, either with their own father or a master at the court to which they were, by virtue of birth, attached as a servant.  Under the reign of Louis XIV making music had become a respectable pastime amongst the nobility, and people began to learn to play for pleasure rather than for employment.  Over the next century, the ability to play the keyboard was seen as a valuable addition to the armoury of young women about to enter the marriage market, and the ability to play became an essential in the world of aristocratic and noble daughters.

The world has changed.  It’s a good few years since I last went a-courting, but I doubt whether today’s young men, spotting an attractive girl at a disco (or wherever courting is carried out today) is going to go up to her and say “I fancy you.  Do you play the piano?”.  It never crossed my mind all those years back to enquire whether my prospective bride had pianistic abilities?  I knew she could sing because we used to spend evenings in the karaoke bars.  (Be fair!  In deepest Sarawak, once you had traipsed for hours through a mosquito and leech infested jungles to stare at a flowering Raffelesia and savour its unique aroma of rotting durian, visited the orang-utan sanctuary and attended feeding time at the crocodile farm, there really wasn’t much else to do!) So I doubt that modern-day piano teachers see their role as helping to improve the marriageable prospects of young women.

In the 19th century playing a keyboard instrument was recognised as a useful social skill, a way of whiling away the long evenings in formal Victorian drawing rooms.  But the invention of first wireless, then television, then the internet and finally social media (there’s an oxymoron if ever there was one – engaging with social media is a solitary activity and one which actively discourages social intercourse) has thrown the piano into another anti-social box; you go and play it on your own, in isolation and usually careful not to be overheard by neighbours or friends.  You even learn it on your own, closeted in a room with nobody other than the teacher, while for many in south-east Asia, the focus of their lessons is to play it on their own, closeted in a small room with just a visiting examiner (and the day when people will wake up to the potential hazard of this situation cannot be far off).

So if learning the piano is no longer a means to secure employment, to secure a wife or to engage with society, why on earth do we bother to teach the skill to young people?

Innumerable surveys have been conducted which have shown the beneficial effects of a practical involvement in music.  We are told of its power in developing brain power and motor skills, fending off dementia, of its therapeutic value and of its role in helping channel emotions.  And all of that is true.  A survey we did many years ago to mark the centenary of the ABSRM saw us contact major captains of industry and leading figures in political, military and civil life in the UK.  It revealed that a disproportionate number of successful people had, in their youth, learnt the piano.  (We did not delve further to see whether we could prove a correlation between pianistic ability and success in public life – it was enough to hint that, if you did your ABRSM Grade 1 you stood a more than average chance of becoming Prime Minister!)  And I am totally convinced that there are huge benefits – beyond musical ones – in learning to play a musical instrument and in studying music in general.

My interest is the focus on the piano, and why that focus, perhaps explained in the past by the piano’s social status, remains even in an age where the piano is largely irrelevant to society, and indeed, has developed a certain anti-social stigma.  Attempts by imaginative and eager advocates of the piano to bring it back into the social foreground by placing pianos in public areas and encouraging anyone to play them, seem to have attracted much attention, but I have yet to see some conclusive evidence that this has resulted in anything more than people seeing a piano and playing it, regardless of who is listening.  I am not aware that there has been a significant shift for the piano to regain its once dominant social role.

So again I ask, why do we teach the piano?  It remains the most taught of all musical instruments, to the extent that when people talk about “music lessons” they usually mean “piano lessons”.  People who learn the violin, the cello, the trumpet, the flute, the harp, the drums, the organ all have a clear goal; and that is to play their instrument in an orchestra, church or some other social environment.  (Harp teachers tell me that the wedding market has done wonders to their income levels.)  Yet still these are the minority instruments.  A vast majority of people who learn a musical instrument learn the piano.

The motor skills required in piano playing – finger dexterity, hand/eye coordination – do not actually have much use outside playing the piano.  I used to tell my piano students that, if they did not end up playing the piano, at least they had the necessary physical skills to become good typists.  But now type-writers and word-processors are ancient history – as are the finger and hand skills they require – and written communications are by means of two thumbs on a tiny touch screen or voice activation.  So pianistic skills seem largely confined to playing the piano.

The piano has a huge repertory, yet since the instrument has only been in existence since the early part of the 18th century, a knowledge of the piano repertory is hardly sufficient to broaden one’s eyes to the vast scope of social history which is open to those who study music history.  Similarly, while a familiarity with the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, precisely defined on a piano keyboard, is an inevitable consequence of learning the piano, few other instruments have such a clear black-and-white distinction between pitches.  Pianists cannot comprehend the myriad micro-tones and subtleties of intonation which are the basis of string and wind instrument technique.  Listen to a pianist conduct an orchestra and you will invariably notice how little effort is made in tuning chords – a string player, on the other hand, will devote a lot of time in rehearsal to this aspect of a performance.

We might suggest, in the light of all this that learning the piano enables the student to detach themselves from society, to indulge in a wholly solitary pursuit which, in its complete inability to relate to other activities, is a self-sustaining occupation of little worth.  But it’s not.  It cannot be.  Why else would so many the world over indulge in it?  Are we really teaching people to exist in their own unique capsules, detached from their fellow men?

A good piano teacher will use the piano as a catalyst for a whole world of other things, using the piano to arouse pupils’ consciousness to listening, imagining, thinking, feeling, reading, relating and society in general.  You can learn more about the history of the world, and you can learn more about how society has developed by touching a piano than by reading any number of academic books.  All you need is a good piano teacher.  The trouble is, in such a widely unregulated business, who is good and who is bad?  And I remain completely in the dark as to what those bad teachers think they are doing when they teach their students to play the piano.

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