Friday, March 1, 2024
HomeMusic EducationThe ‘Ideal’ Piano Teacher – Melanie Spanswick

The ‘Ideal’ Piano Teacher – Melanie Spanswick


A Very Happy New Year To You And Your Family

At the beginning of a new year, it’s natural to take stock and consider our direction in life. I took a trip to Amsterdam for several days just before Christmas. I love my short trips. They provide the chance to get to know a place, soak up the atmosphere, the vibe, the food, the culture, and meet the people. I hadn’t been to the Dutch capital city for nearly 25 years, and, last time, I played two concerts for the Anglo-Dutch piano platform and didn’t have time to view the sights. I primarily went to see the Christmas markets. European Christmas markets are magical and well worth a visit. I also enjoyed concerts at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and the Concertgebouw, as well as tours of the majestic Rijksmuseum and the fresh, engaging Stedelijk Museum. Such a trip provided the opportunity, away from the usual weekly teaching and writing routine, to reflect on my work.

Irrespective of our profession, we generally want to do our work to the best of our ability. As teachers, we like to think that our efforts are appreciated by our students, and we hope to continue to improve and hone our teaching skills—skills that have been acquired over what can seem like a lifetime of learning. I’ve been teaching the piano, on and off, for nearly 40 years, stopping occasionally for a few years due to performance commitments. I started teaching at age 15 at my first teacher’s piano school, coaching the littlest students. A job for which, at the time, I was totally unprepared. I quickly realised that this was demanding work and, as such, work for which I wasn’t best suited. Requirements include adopting the patience of a saint, plenty of forgiveness, and even, dare I say it, the ability to ‘switch off’ from students and not worry too much if they haven’t done their practice and therefore haven’t improved. None of these attributes are my strong points.

My reflection on the piano teaching profession and what the ‘job’, or vocation, requires from the teacher was fuelled by several recent disgruntled posts from members of my Facebook group, Adult Piano Returners. We are fortunate to have an active, lively group with daily discussions about all kinds of piano-related topics, and piano teachers are one of the most popular subjects. I was sad to read just how many adult amateur pianists were demotivated, demoralised, and belittled by teachers when they learned as children. Perhaps more upsetting was the number of students who are unhappy with their current teacher, and, amongst some members, there was a feeling of mistrust and even disdain for the piano teaching profession.

It seems that despite our so-called ‘advances’ in student protection, what with the now necessary DBS certificates, and the general awareness and importance of our mannerisms in lessons and how they can lead to irreparable damage to a student’s psyche and morale, some teachers still continue to act in a discouraging manner. Piano teaching is not an easy job and can be frustrating. My first teacher frequently rapped my knuckles with a ruler, and rather perversely, I thought it quite amusing and vowed to show her that I would be able to get it ‘right’. Students would be horrified if this happened today, and this behaviour is, of course, totally unacceptable and must be immediately reported.

It took me a while to completely re-route my thinking regarding piano teaching—in fact, it has taken years. I now view it from a different perspective and have learned to thrive; it’s a truly rewarding experience watching students develop as musicians. 

Parents, teachers, and readers of this blog have frequently asked me what the most important prerequisites and attributes are for a good piano teacher. It’s a subject I wrote about with alacrity and passion in my book So You Want To Play The Piano (Alfred) and have subsequently received criticism for due to my fairly uncompromising approach. I don’t apologise for this. I’m uncompromising because I’ve witnessed the damage poor teaching can do to a student, and once ‘damaged’, it’s challenging to repair. However, I will admit that my thoughts and beliefs constantly change as I work with an increasingly large and diverse cohort of students. I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes a great teacher totally depends on the demographic of students that teacher is teaching and their approach to each and every student within that demographic.

The Approach

I consider this a crucial aspect. I have a direct approach with students during my lessons, and I’m not a fan of using toys or games with little ones. Yet I teach two piano teachers who unashamedly employ this style of teaching every week and say they couldn’t survive the lessons without these ‘props’. I try to treat younger students as little adults, giving them the respect they deserve, but I appreciate that for very small children, ‘nursery’ style teaching is more appropriate for those aged under six.

Young Students

Here’s where teaching a young student demographic becomes controversial: should lessons be fun, amusing, easy-going, relaxed affairs for this age group? Is keeping a child amused more important than actually learning to play the instrument? Does it matter if improvement is slow or non-existent? Many comment that it doesn’t matter at all and isn’t really the point of lessons for this age group. But I’d be upset if my child attended lessons for a couple of years and still couldn’t read music properly or play much by the end of it, and this is a common complaint I hear from parents.

My youngest student, who’s 8 years old, is working towards Grade 8, and, therefore, thankfully doesn’t qualify for the toys or ‘games’ option. However, if a teacher is working with an 8-year-old who has just started lessons and who is easily distracted, incorporating toys and games with lots of friendly chat and banter may be a good option. Yet both my student piano teachers regretfully report that they find the inclusion of toys and games slows down lessons and tends to impede progress because they are essentially a distraction, yet they find them necessary to keep the child vaguely interested. Many will say that it’s possible to have ‘fun’, engaging lessons where students also learn, but, speaking to parents, this approach doesn’t often lead to satisfactory results.

Should a child be made to learn to play if they aren’t interested? What if the child dislikes the piano and their lessons intensely? I had this situation just last term with a 9-year-old whose parents are insistent on practice—a typical situation for many teachers. This student came to me at around the Grade 5–6 level, and we went back to fairly easy repertoire to learn technique basics. I ensured that she really liked our selected pieces, and this, coupled with a simple and direct approach as well as parental supervision during lessons and practice sessions at home, seemed to work (the father comes to every lesson, takes notes, and films part of the lesson). By the time of my end-of-term concert, she played two little Burgmüller studies from memory extremely confidently, despite having declared that she would never be able to play without the score. Rather surprisingly, she admitted that she was starting to enjoy the lessons and playing the piano. So perhaps success is due partly to a free approach to repertoire, moving away from the exam system, as well as spending crucial time getting to know what makes every student ‘tick’; it’s a tricky balance between conjuring an ‘interesting’ lesson alongside learning in a manner disciplined enough to make a difference. Finding that ‘sweet’ spot is of fundamental importance.

Whilst repeated practice and the discipline necessary to do it might seem dull, I’ve repeatedly found that those who work consistently at their playing learn to enjoy the process more and more because they are able to witness their own progress, and this is surely the most exciting, rewarding, and ‘fun’ part of piano playing for any student.

Parents

Parents. They often try to dictate lessons and can be unforgiving about what they require from a teacher, but their input will be paramount, as they are paying. Parents who are directly involved with their child’s lessons, their practice, and overall improvement, can be a huge help to the teacher and I actively encourage them to sit in at all my lessons for any student under the age of eleven.

Older Students

When working with older students or adults, the approach, as might be expected, should be quite different.

Important lesson attributes might include:

Allowing the student to freely make lots of mistakes without the need to apologise – adults often do this. In my lessons, I try to resist mentioning ‘wrong’ notes or errors. Correcting the student in this way seems futile; they generally know when they’ve made mistakes and pointing them out merely makes them uncomfortable and can lead to a loss of confidence. Far better to focus on their movement around the keyboard and their rhythmic grasp, because when these aspects improve, errors will be less likely to occur.

Spending a significant proportion of lesson time explaining and demonstrating how various elements should be practised; I work on hand/wrist/arm/finger movement, allowing ample time for ‘trial and error’ from the student so they are clear what must be done during their practice sessions.

Slow practice is also vital for adult students (it’s vital for all students), as is demonstrating its importance, because adults have a tendency to rush to play pieces up to speed and side-stepping this crucial part of the learning process is where mistakes begin to manifest.

Moving forward in small steps at each lesson, so they feel that they are making progress.

Providing the necessary encouragement at every stage. Mature students can find themselves dreadfully out of their comfort zone and need constant bolstering as they will easily become demotivated; they should be told they can do it, even if we suspect they can’t.

When the student returns the following lesson, having practised in a ‘less than ideal’ manner, we need to be prepared to calmly take it from the beginning again—but this time, explain it all in a different way, or maybe move to a different piece altogether, where progress might be easier to achieve.

Trust

Do we become friends with our students? Not really. But, in time, an understanding takes shape between the student and teacher, and that all important trust flourishes. One-to-one lessons are a very personal affair and this may take a few months or even years to develop; until we cultivate a student’s trust, improvement can be limited. It’s a delicate relationship and one that must be free from a teacher’s ego. We must learn to park that at the door of the teaching room and focus on the student for trust to blossom.

One of my favourite facets of this job is the necessity of getting into a student’s mind, with the aim of deciphering why a particular element is proving troublesome, whether that be technical, musical, or psychological. The psychology of piano teaching is fascinating, and, for me, it’s a real challenge and one that I enjoy; the psychological or ‘counselling’ element of this job cannot be underestimated.

Experience and Qualifications

Is it important that I have been teaching for 40 years? Not really, although, as with most professions, it proves experience and a track record. Is it important to have been a pianist, that is, having played professional concerts? I think it is. How else will we understand what a student is going through whilst they prepare for exams, school concerts, festivals, or competitions? How can we guide them through a 40 or 50 minute diploma recital if we haven’t done it ourselves? Is it important to have qualifications? Definitely, but these won’t compensate for a teacher who hasn’t been given a good technical grounding, or doesn’t know how to break down that technical grounding and deliver it on demand, week in, week out.

So what might an ‘effective’ teacher look like? There are so many disparate ways to  teach the piano, and a teacher who suits one student may not suit another. But, in my opinion, it’s someone who can teach technique, explaining and demonstrating it patiently in great detail, and, more importantly, someone who can ‘show’ the student how to attain fluency and consistency, working with them until they fully comprehend the practice and work needed to achieve it. Is technique even important? I’m frequently asked this question. Without honing their technique, a student can’t even begin to focus on artistry because until they can find their way securely around the notes, they can’t actually play a piece.

A good teacher is someone who can guide the student, allowing them to thrive creatively, developing a connection with the music they are learning. It’s someone who can illuminate the music, encouraging the student to love it, keeping them motivated. It’s someone who has the knowledge to establish a personal student ‘plan’ regarding repertoire and performance practice. It’s someone who is committed to the student’s development and who is perpetually supporting them. Someone who is always on their side. These teachers often aren’t the best players (although many are), but they have learned the fundamental aspects of pedagogy in a manner that has allowed them to assimilate a proven pathway to development and progress within each student.

Over Christmas I spent time with my nephew and niece. My niece, who’s 12, is taking singing lessons and has just passed her Grade 4 Musical Theatre exam. ‘Is your teacher good’, I asked. ‘She’s nice’ was the response. I repeated my question, to which my niece replied ‘I haven’t a clue, but she gives me a nice smile when I finish my song’. ‘Nice’ is clearly an important attribute from the student’s viewpoint.

Three Defining Elements

For progress to take place, I believe there are three vital elements: the first is a committed student who respects the teacher, and understands what is expected of them at every lesson; the second is a student with an awareness of the task ahead of them and the work involved as well as the necessary time to practice; and the third is a teacher who knows how to work with that student, how to develop them as a musician, and who knows what makes them ‘tick’. If one of these links is missing, improvement will be limited. 

Moving forward in 2024

There’s no such thing as the ‘perfect’ teacher but rather the ‘ideal’ teacher for you or your child. Will you find such a teacher in 2024? I do hope so. 

You (or your child) may also consider what you can bring to the party. How can you focus on your playing and practice sessions to make a difference? We can’t always blame a teacher for lack of progress as so much depends on the aptitude and dedication of the student, too, and it’s most important to bear this in mind.

I wish you continued happiness with your piano playing, your practice, and with your lessons during 2024 and beyond.


Publications

Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.


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