The Art of Piano Pedagogy

The great Russian pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus (who taught such legendary classical pianists as Radu Lupu, Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels) wrote:

“I consider that one of the main tasks of a teacher is to ensure as quickly and as thoroughly as possible that he is no longer necessary to the pupil; to eliminate himself, to leave the stage in time, in other words to inculcate in the pupil that independent thinking, that method of work, that knowledge of self and ability to reach his goal which we term ‘maturity’, the threshold beyond which begins mastery.”

Heinrich Neuhaus
‘The Art of Piano Playing’,
trans. K.A. Leibovitch, London 1973

When I started teaching the piano back in 1993, a good friend and very experienced teacher shared a quotation with me to the effect that if we teach well, our pupils might believe they have essentially taught themselves, such will be their confidence and focus on what they have learnt.

At the time I had no idea that he was quoting from the great Daoist sage Lao-Tzu. But these profound words have stuck with me over the years, and I have always tried to explain to parents and students that my goal is to help students develop as independent learners, and as musicians who will not be forever dependent on me as their teacher.

If the art of piano pedagogy is ultimately about working our way out of a job then there are surely many ways to go about this, and much that needs to be done before a student reaches the level of maturity that Neuhaus envisions, arriving at that “threshold beyond which begins mastery”. To achieve this, we surely need a plan.

Most of us would start by stressing the need to help students develop their musical knowledge, understanding and sensitivity, with freedom of technique and an ability to shape and project musical sound in performance. These ideas would take many blog posts to cover, even minimally, but stay tuned!

Many of these aspects of attainment can be measured in terms of “progress” made, as Karen Marshall discusses in her recent blog post about graded exams. This measurement of progress has for some, sadly, become the whole raison d’être of their piano lessons.

But “independence” is not the same thing as “progress” – and it is not nearly so easy to measure as we might initially assume. It can really only be gauged over time, and within the context of a healthy two-way relationship between teacher and student.

This is because “independence” has as much to do with character as it does to do with ability, and requires particular care and attention in order to be fostered.

Parents and Teachers

In the case of younger students, I believe that parents need to be involved in this process as early as possible. This does not simply mean overseeing the child’s practice at home, but also taking a broader interest in his or her musical development, providing plenty of opportunity to listen to and discuss music in the home, and where possible attending concerts.

Some of the parents I have met, though dedicated to what is best for their child, are more interested in “progress” and measurable achievements than in their child’s developing “independence”. The teacher has a role in explaining the long-term importance of this.

However, it seems that some teachers are happy for their students to remain dependent. They gain their own sense of importance and value from the ongoing relationship, taking personal and professional credit for their pupils’ successes.

These are issues that I believe we all need to think about diligently. How we view the importance of independence and maturity will certainly impact on how we teach.

Another Perspective …

From the Daoist perspective, Heinrich Neuhaus’s words perhaps apply just as much to parenthood, leadership and government as they do to teaching. Indeed, this concept of developing maturity and independence affects all of life.

The more we guide students towards independence, the more lasting and worthwhile our impact will be. As the great sage Lao-Tzu wrote in the ‘Tao Te Ching’ :

“The master doesn’t talk; he acts.
When his work is done,
The people say, “Amazing:
We did it, all by ourselves!”

Lao-Tzu
‘Tao Te Ching: The Book of the Way’ 17
translated by Stephen Mitchell, London 1989

Lao-Tzu’s comment that the master “acts” – rather than talking – points to perhaps the most important key of all. As we consider how his insights might be applied to the art of piano pedagogy, we are confronted again by the crucial centrality of musical demonstration and aural transmission in teaching.

Those who will only bow to concrete logic will, as always, struggle at this point. Surely a more aurally based approach will militate against independence, not for it? And yet it is this – this commitment to demonstration, according to the sage – that will ultimately cultivate independence and maturity.

The lessons of music history (outlined in this article) seem to underline the potency of this truth – that it is through aural transmission that the true language of music is taught and passed on most effectively. Educational research, too, verifies the importance of teaching “sound before symbol”.

This verse from the ‘Tao Te Ching’ is, as you’ve no doubt realised by now, the very quote I heard all those years ago. It is the basic wisdom which has informed my whole approach to the art of piano pedagogy, long before I heard anything more of Daoism. And it is a wisdom which I find harmonises so well with the insight of Heinrich Neuhaus.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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