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Piano Teaching: Requirements, Realities, Aspirations

The profession of piano teaching encompasses a broad range of talents and skillsets requisite for effective dissemination of knowledge. I shall speak of the necessary qualities for teaching, practical considerations and associated issues for maximal success of both teacher and student. This is not an all-encompassing, nor prescriptive outline of piano teaching. However, it provides some measure of insight into the industry from diverse perspectives.

Educational Attainment

ABRSM’s 2014 review reveals data of the educational attainment of instrumental teachers at a variety of pedagogical practices. The data revealed “almost 40% have an equivalent qualification at Masters or PGCE level, with a further third qualified up to Bachelor degree with honours” (ABRSM, 2014, p.31). However, the level of educational achievement required to teach depends greatly on the competence of the student they are teaching. If they are teaching an absolute beginner, then a relatively small amount of knowledge is required on the part of the teacher (Farnhill, 2018).

A practical awareness of a range of genres is useful for starting a teaching practice. Inhabiting too small a niche will limit the numbers of potential students. Ability across multiples genres further allows a teacher to expose their students to a wide range of musical paths.

The graded exam is a marker of musical achievement identifying levels of proficiency largely comprehendible and translatable. However, achieving a high grade does not guarantee musical fluency in areas directly pertaining to instrumental teaching. High levels of sight-reading, aural, technical and theoretical comprehension are vital skills required for the musical demands during a lesson. These skills may not be tested thoroughly through grade exams, although grades’ utility are manifest as marker of competency (Eales, 2018).

Other than purely instrumental qualifications, there are ‘Instrumental Teaching Diplomas’ available through the main music exam boards. This qualification has the objective of “teaching of music as a practical activity” (ABRSM, 2018). The diploma may be a useful way for a teacher have their manner and methods assessed, which happens rarely outside of this qualification (Rostvall, West, 2003, p.215). Higher educational attainment also opens opportunities for working in more advanced sectors of the industry such as conservatoires.

Personal Qualities

The ability to empathise with the student during the difficulties involved in learning a new skill is a vital quality for a teacher. The complications of learning can be more recognisable if the teacher undertakes a new skill themselves. They may have to comprehend the unifying challenges associated with learning a new language, a new instrument or art form. It is not so much the tasks specific to the learning outcome, but the skills required in order to learn in and of itself which would be gleaned through this activity. Flexibility of expectations depending on the competence, age or requirements of the student will facilitate greater patience. Furthermore, students require time “to absorb what they learn” (Yeh, 2018, p.38). They may not always be able to learn and employ the technique or concept that one is teaching straight away.

Enthusiasm is of paramount importance when imparting information. Frequently, what may seem mundane and routine for a teacher is brand new information for the student. Thus, appropriate enthusiasm can engage the students with the same passion which first engaged the teacher. Shared with this is the idea of the student’s propensity to assimilate the views and attitudes of the teacher. If a teacher is resentful of exam grades, or theory, then the student may well share this viewpoint. This is in part due to no one present to counterbalance the teacher’s argument. But this is also due to the asymmetric power dynamic noted by Rostvall and West (2003, p.220).

One of the main benefits of one-to-one tuition is that of being able to best meet the needs of the student. There is “no written curricula” which must be covered (Rostvall, West, 2003, p.215). This allows concepts to be addressed on the student’s terms. Advantage needs to be taken of this, a student may question “why is this an A-flat not a G-sharp?” which can invite an enthusiastic discussion of enharmonics (appropriate to the level of the student). If this is not taken advantage of, then discussion of enharmonics on the teacher’s terms, may not be received so enthusiastically.

Telos

Understanding the telos of instrumental teaching is important also. What is a teacher’s responsibility to the student? What is the purpose of the student’s lessons? Is it: enjoyment, progression, accomplishment, education? Insight into each student’s motivations for learning an instrument can elucidate the issue (Eales, 2017). Understanding the statistical reasons for students stopping lessons may also aid in developing a telos. According to Making Music (2014, p.19), 46% of (child) students that stopped lessons, did so because of a loss of interest. The second most popular reason, 30%, was “busy with school/work/other interest” (p.19). These were also the two most popular reasons for stopping lessons in adults. This raises questions for teachers such as, “how can I maintain my student’s interest?” or “how can I make my student love music so much that it becomes their priority over other interests?” Perhaps this can be achieved by a teacher allowing the student to learn repertoire from their favourite genre, introduction of new skills such as playing by ear or improvisation, reimagining their teaching methods to meet each individual student’s aims and learning styles (Rostvall, West, 2003, p.224).

Practical Guidance, Challenges and Solutions

A typical day may begin (depending on whether the teacher is travelling) with a punctual arrival to prepare the room for the first student. Adequate lighting, heating and ventilation helps create a comfortable learning and working environment. Lesson preparation can be made through the aid of a ‘Teacher’s Notebook’. In this book, lesson summaries and lesson plans could be noted. This reminds the teacher of the materials covered in the previous lesson and guides lessons to be structured, whilst allowing for adaptability and flexibility (Perkins et al., 2015, p.83; Yeh, 2018, p.35). This notebook can be filled in after the lesson if time allows, or at the end of the teaching day. This also assists the administrative aspect of teaching, that of documenting students’ attendance or payment.

During lessons, multiple teaching resources, a “bag of tricks” (Perkins et al., 2015, p.86) are required to cover any issue which may be raised. This might be the variety of apps which are fantastic learning methods as they integrate a ‘game’ reward system with practical education (Schubert, 2017, p.177). Apps such as Tenuto, Rhythm Lab, Piano Maestro, Functional Ear Trainer and the ABRSM’s aural apps are applicable tools for effective learning. The benefit of using these apps in lessons are compounded by the student being able to download and practise on the way to school or in bed, due to tablets’ portability. However, it is the responsibility of the teacher to screen which apps are of sufficient quality and to have competence and fluency in app usage. This ensures optimum efficiency during lessons and maintains student engagement.

A key issue related to private instrumental teaching, particularly of the piano, is its solitary nature. This does not mediate healthy discussion and reflection upon teachers’ practices (Rostvall, West, 2003, p.224). Instead, teachers may develop tendencies to follow “routines that have evolved during the long history of instrumental teaching” (p.214). Or even more specifically, implementing the methods that they had been exposed to when they were taught. Rostvall and West (2003) further note the lack of “any colleague or headmaster evaluating their teaching” (p.214). Even the discussion of problems and issues of differing pedagogical methods are “often considered taboo amongst colleagues” (p.214). This lack of exposure to alternative methodologies can have a stagnating effect on a teacher’s enthusiasm for disseminating instruction. This may be mitigated by a teacher maintaining a proactive attitude towards “learning about learning” (Perkins, Auffegger, Williamon, 2015, p.85). Engaging in the ongoing process involved in improvement as a teacher is a sure way of maintaining enthusiasm and interest for both teacher and student. This can be achieved by reading notable piano teaching blogs and watching YouTube creators such as: Pianodao, Practising the Piano and Pianist Magazine, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, Music Matters, Nahre Sol. These online resources build a community of teachers which facilitates exposure and implementation of new pedagogical methods in one’s own teaching practice. Frequently, private teachers will be working unsociable hours, evenings and weekends. This increases the solitary proclivity of the industry as it is challenging to engage in social life with those that do not share their working hours. Negotiating a work-life balance is an important aspect for longevity as a teacher.

Logistical concerns are a facet of teaching worthy of consideration. Often, private teachers have not made their way into the profession due to desire to fill in tax forms or invoices. Self-employment brings with it the reality of being an administrator, marketer and financial director on top of the more obvious duties of the job (Farnhill, 2018). Skills such as personal organisation, efficiency, a strong work ethic, reliability, good health (due to no sick pay) are all qualities vital for success in self-employment.

A further issue which arises when teaching younger students, is that of balancing the parent’s interests with the student’s. Some parents may want their child to focus on exam grades, others will want their child to play songs they know, or to simply have enjoyment as the main aim. Other parents will place this responsibility solely on the teacher. Regardless of the aim, the student will be more successful if the parents act as a support network for the child. Eales (2018) writes of the “triangle relationship between teacher, pupil and parent” acting as “a fundamental in almost every private lesson context”. Communication of teacher and parent on the student’s progress and areas to improve, can motivate both parent and student.

Eales (2018) notes that most UK piano teachers “receive enquiries from at least as many adult learners as they do from children/parents”. This corroborates with ABRSM (2014) which found 2.5 million adults have lessons and 3.5 million children have lessons (p.15). Perkins et al. (2015) note the unique challenges and rewards of teaching adult learners. Importance is placed on viewing the “learner as a partner in musical dialogue” (p.81) in tandem with providing encouragement without being patronising, as “many students of this demographic can be lacking in confidence” (p.85). If a teacher has consecutive lessons, one child student to one adult student, an alteration of teaching tone is necessary to avoid patronisation.

Opportunities

One of the downsides of the one-to-one teaching industry is a lack of potentiality regarding scalability. There are only a certain amount of lessons one can teach in a day. This results in two ways to earn more money, work more hours or increase lesson fees. Of course, a teacher may expand into running their own music practice and employ teachers, although, this pertains less to teaching music and more towards management. Freelance instrumental teaching allows them to devise their own schedule, which may only have teaching in a part-time capacity. This can allow other projects to be undertaken such as: composition commissions, performances, writing educational books or creating online resources which act as more scalable enterprises. This has been done by Andrew Eales with Pianodao and Graham Fitch with Practising the Piano. This tendency is a reality, as ABRSM (2014, p.33) indicates 88% of instrumental / vocal teachers are involved in other work either inside or outside of the music profession. A teacher may also expand their practice through running group lessons or teaching multiple instruments (Farnhill, 2018). Different clientele may be approached, that of teaching in a school, music service, university or conservatoire. This may prove to be more lucrative than simply private teaching (ABRSM, 2014, p.33). Furthermore, working in an educational facility may provide networking opportunities, which could lead to growth of business or even a permanent position in the relevant educational institution.

Conclusions

One consideration I have not discussed at length is that of mindset. A teacher may read the relevant literature, stay up to date with the latest musical and educational thoughts and be active in their personal pursuits. However, if one does not set out with the intention of assimilation, integration and evolution within one’s work, then the rewards cannot be not fully actuated. Open-mindedness to altering entrenched methods creates new paths, perhaps traditions, if then perpetuated by their students. When a student walks into their first lesson, there is no way of knowing where their musical path lies. It is a teacher’s responsibility to aid the student to fully realise their potential and inspire a life-long passion for music, and learning.


Bibliography

ABRSM. (2014). Making Music. Retrieved from https://gb.abrsm.org/fileadmin/user_upload/PDFs/makingMusic2014.pdf.

ABRSM. (2018). Instrumental/Vocal Teaching. Retrieved from https://gb.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/diplomas/instrumentalvocal-teaching/.

Eales, A. (2017, July 15). Personalised Learning [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://pianodao.com/2017/08/15/personalised-learning/.

Eales, A. (2018, January 11). The Pianist’s Perseverance [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://pianodao.com/2018/01/11/the-pianists-perseverance/.

Eales, A. (2018, March 3). The Pianist’s Motivations [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://pianodao.com/2018/03/03/the-pianists-motivations/.

Eales, A. (2018, November 11). Slow Progress [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://pianodao.com/2018/11/11/slow-progress/.

Eales, A. (2018, October 28). Parents, partners & supporters [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://pianodao.com/2018/10/28/parents-partners-so-many-others/.

Eales, A. (2018, September 2). Graded Exams: Friend or Foe? [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://pianodao.com/2018/09/02/graded-exams-friend-or-foe/.

Farnhill, T. (2018). Music portfolio careers, including instrumental teaching, composing, performing, and arranging. [Lecture]. Retrieved from https://videohud.cloud.panopto.eu/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=f27b732b-769f-48a6-81b2-a99300c842ff.

Meissner, H. (2017). Instrumental teachers’ instructional strategies for facilitating children’s learning of expressive music perforamance: An exploratory study. International Journal of Music Education, 35 (1), 118-135.

Perkins, R., Aufegger, L., & Williamon, A. (2015). Learning through teaching: Exploring what conservatoire students learn from teaching beginner older adults. International Journal of Music Education, 33 (1), 80-90.

Rostvall, A.L. & West, T. (2003). Analysis of interaction and learning in instrumental teaching. Music Education Research, 5 (3), 213-226.

Schubert, P. (2017). Teaching theory through improvisation. In M. Guido (Ed.) Studies in Historical Improvisation (pp. 175-184). London and New York: Routledge.

Yeh, Y.L. (2018). An investigation of Taiwanese piano teachers’ reflection on teaching challenges and pupils’ learning difficulties. Music Education Research, 20 (1), 32-43.

By Connor Gaydon

I am a Music graduate and piano teacher for 5+ years. I have created a range of resources to broaden and deepen the knowledgebase of the Improving Pianists community.