Guest post by Garreth Brooke
“Like many other piano teachers I have studied music but not pedagogy…
When I first began teaching after finishing my music degree this did not seem such a problem, and certainly it did not stop me from finding work or my students from telling me that I’m a good teacher. Increasingly, however, I’ve realised that if I want to be a great piano teacher I need to be trained both as a pianist and as a teacher. It doesn’t matter how much we know about music or how well we can play, we have to also understand how to communicate that knowledge effectively to our students.
A 2014 survey on the UK-based Cross-Eyed Pianist blog of private piano teachers revealed that less than half of the respondents had teaching diplomas, and only 30% had training in music pedagogy. This is understandable. Piano teaching often comes as a result of a passion for playing the piano, not because we have always wanted to be a teacher. I’m certainly true in that regard, and indeed actively avoided teaching until forced to by circumstance, when I realised to my surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
In an ideal world, once we realise we want to be a piano teacher, we’d all be able to afford to take 3 years off and get a degree in music pedagogy but unfortunately that’s rarely – if ever – realistic. Luckily there are several options for part time study for teachers who are based in the UK or who use the UK examination boards, including studying for a diploma with an exam board like ABRSM or Trinity, getting a qualification from a pedagogical group like Suzuki or Kodaly, attending the EPTA’s Practical Piano Teaching course, or signing up for the Curious Piano Teachers.
None of these, however, allow you to get a qualification from a recognised examination board from the comfort of your own home and I was therefore excited to learn about the RCM’s Online Piano Teacher Specialist Course. (NB for Brits – this is the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music, not the Royal College of Music).
I eagerly signed up and I am just beginning week 3 of a 10 week course, and I’m thrilled to have been invited to share my first impressions with you on Pianodao.
About the course
The RCM offers three Piano Teacher Specialist Courses: Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced. I am studying the entry-level Elementary course, which is open to anyone who holds RCM Grade 8 or equivalent at the piano and who is 16 or above. Anyone holding a Grade 8 from ABRSM/Trinity would therefore qualify.
One major attraction is how cost-effective it is: only $499 per course (currently about £305). This is lower than all of the options listed above that lead to a qualification.
There are, however, also required books that must be purchased before beginning the course and which therefore push up the cost. I will discuss this further below because despite my first scepticism I have come to believe that this is actually one of the major advantages of the course.
The course is completely online, accessed via a secure web portal that is accessible through a normal web browser and which requires no additional software to be installed. I have found it attractively presented and generally easy to navigate.
Each module is made up of a mixture of readings and videos. I have been extremely impressed by the quality of the material presented in modules 1 and 2, which has featured video lessons from Randall Faber of the exceedingly successful Piano Adventures series and Marvin Blickenstaff, whom I was not previously familiar with but who I can only describe as simply fantastic.
The course is assessed in two ways: assignments and forum contributions.
Each week participants are required to submit a written assignment of usually between 500-700 words and also contribute to the forum discussion on the topic of the week. The forum requires you to post a 300-500 word long discussion of your thoughts on questions such as “What elements should be included in the student’s first lesson?”, and you are then given additional marks for the usefulness and helpfulness of your responses to other participants.
It it this second requirement to respond helpfully to the other participants that I really like. One of my concerns about doing an online course was that I might not benefit from meeting other piano teachers, but I’m pleased to say that this has been proved to be completely untrue. I have had some really stimulating discussions with the other teachers on the forum, and have been given a number of wonderful suggestions for how I could improve my teaching.
Speaking as someone who is more confident when they have time to consider what they want to say before speaking, I have found contributing to the forum a much more enjoyable experience than contributing to the rather more combative group discussions of my university days.
Assignments so far have included:
- writing a statement of your teaching philosophy
- writing a detailed plan of a student’s first lesson which fits into SMART goals for the student’s first year of piano tuition
- writing detailed notes on how to approach teaching particular pieces from the elementary level of RCMs piano exam syllabus: Calico Cat by Helen Marlais from the Prep B level, Mist by Clifford Poole from the Grade 1 repertoire, Sonatina in C major Op 38 No 1 (first movement) by Clementi from the Grade 3 repertoire, and Fröhlicher Landmann by Schumann, Op 68 no 10 from the Grade 4 repertoire.
I have found all of these exercises to be directly applicable to my own teaching practice and have already incorporated and applied many of the ideas. I have also been impressed with the quality of the feedback from the course supervisor, who has made some very helpful suggestions to the assignments I have submitted so far.
The repertoire books
For the Elementary course you are required to buy the repertoire books for RCM’s Prep A and Prep B and the repertoire and Etudes books for grades 1-4. Having already signed up for the course, I regretted it when I realised that I also had to invest a not-insignificant $147.50 (roughly £90) on ten music books which I was not sure I would ever use in my lessons, given that I prepare my students for ABRSM exams and the RCM only offers examinations in Canada and the US.
I am really pleased to say that I have completely changed my mind about this, and have actually gone ahead and ordered the complete RCM Celebrations series from the Preparatory Grades right up to Grade 10 at a total cost $411.85 (roughly £251.82). This was a significant outlay of money, but so far it has proved to be an excellent investment. I now have a graded set of Etudes and repertoire pieces from the very earliest levels (RCM Prep A is a little easier than the ABRSM Prep Test) right up to the most advanced levels that most of us are likely to use in day to day teaching.
Each book in the series does an exceptional job of covering the canon from Baroque to contemporary, and there has been a clear effort to provide a nice balance of the “greatest hits” and less familiar pieces. The repertoire books have between 21 and 43 pieces, the Etude books have between 12 and 20. Because of the wide range of styles covered, including the many excellent pieces by contemporary composers, these books are now the first place I turn to when I am looking for a piece in a particular style at a particular level.
Though I have been using them for less than a month, I have already performed pieces from the books to several of my current students and have had very positive responses. One student in particular said “I want to learn them all!” and then struggled to choose which one she wanted to do first. Her excitement was a real pleasure to observe.
I also love the fact that each of these books comes with a unique code that allows the owner to go to the RCM’s website and get a free download of a well performed MP3 of every piece included in the book. The complete set of music from the repertoire and Etude books is 509 tracks. This has already proved to be a very useful reference guide when preparing new music to present to students.
If you’re interested in investing in an up-to-date graded repertoire and Etude series then I know of no better and I’m surprised that the RCM have not made more effort to release and publicise the series abroad given its quality. (More info here and here).
A Big Question:
Does the course make sense for piano teachers not based in Canada or the US? Based on my experiences of the first couple of weeks, my answer is “yes, but…”
The quality of the pedagogical material that I have seen so far is excellent and applicable to anyone who is looking for a course at this level, regardless of the examination board that they use.
Value for money was a big consideration when I was choosing the course, and I believe that it is the most cost effective course of those listed above that leads to certification.
There was a brief technical problem with the course web portal, but this was rectified within less than a day. There was clear communication about the problem and its resolution, and all participants were given a deadline extension.
The fact that I am not familiar with the RCM syllabus and the examination requirements has not thus far caused any problems, but this may prove to be more of an issue in later modules. I am concerned about weeks 9 and 10, which focus specifically on preparing students for the RCM examinations, and I am concerned that this may be irrelevant to my teaching practise. I will report further on this in a later blog post.
While I thoroughly recommend the RCM Celebrations series and think it presents excellent value for money, I am not aware of any shops in Europe that stock it (though I would be pleased to be corrected) and as a result it is inconvenient to buy. After attempting to buy it online direct from the RCM, and then from their publisher, I ended up buying it from SheetMusicPlus.com and waiting almost a month for it to arrive, which was less than ideal.
While the readings, assignments and forum posts usually take me a little longer than the 4 hours per week suggested by the RCM, I generally complete it all in about 6-8 hours and I have found the requirements of the course perfectly manageable whilst still teaching full time. The 8 hour difference in time-zone has not caused any problems.
Conclusions so far…
The material presented so far has been immediately applicable to my teaching practise and will continue to be useful in the long term.
The interaction with the other participants has been valuable, and the requirement to buy the Celebrations series has been a useful addition to my teaching repertoire. I have not yet found that my unfamiliarity with the RCM syllabus has been a problem – in fact so far I would say it has actually been to my advantage – but I am concerned that this may become more of a problem later in the course (I will address this in a follow-up blog post).
What I believe is really exciting about this course is the potential it represents for the piano pedagogy training in the future. While face-to-face training will continue to be an important part of how our profession educates itself, it is not suitable for all piano teachers, given restraints on time and money.
European piano pedagogy educators who are serious about reaching more teachers would do well to study the RCM course and consider how they can implement their own version. The ABRSM offers examinations worldwide, including where I live in Germany, but access to ABRSM teacher training is not easy to access abroad. It is notable that the Curious Piano Teachers are preparing an online training course to prepare candidates for Trinity’s ATCL and/or the DipABRSM in Instrumental Teaching that is due to begin in September 2017. If this course had already been available then I would have seriously considered taking it, because of the difficulty I have had accessing face-to-face relevant training in English here in Germany.
I am sure there are many other international teachers in this position and, based on my experiences growing up in a very rural area of the UK, I know there are UK-based teachers who also struggle to access training. ABRSM could reach a much larger cohort of its piano teachers by offering an online course, and could potentially collaborate with its Canadian counterpart to share the digital infrastructure.
About the author
Born in Hereford, UK, Garreth moved to Wales as a child before going on to study music at the University of Oxford.
He now teaches piano to a full studio of international students in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and releases music for solo piano on 1631 Recordings. His writing on suicide prevention has been published on Huffington Post UK.
For more details visit garrethbrokepiano.com