The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide

A brilliant new publication, The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide instantly establishes itself as the very best practical manual available for today’s piano teachers …

Book Review by Andrew Eales, with a Second Opinion by Karen Marshall.

Prelude

A few days ago there was a knock at the door, and the postman delivered what seemed the perfect combination: a Laithwaite’s wine catalogue together with a review copy of The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide – Anthony Williams’ new book from Faber Music.

When I first heard that this book was in the works sometime toward the end of last year, I wondered what it might include. What are the major problems or dangers which we, as piano teachers, need to survive?

As founder of the Piano Network UK group and active member of other online forums for pianists and teachers, I notice that the issues which seem to most vex piano teachers include fee collection, pupils failing to turn up for lessons, parents with unsupportive attitudes or unrealistic expectations, navigating the various administrative quirks of the exam boards, and the pressures that can accompany working in today’s schools.

I briefly wondered whether the Laithwaites catalogue might offer a better range of solutions to these common problems and the stress they bring!

Having spent a few days virtually glued to his book, I can confirm that Anthony doesn’t really get bogged down answering questions of how to run our teaching businesses, instead applying his efforts to distilling and sharing his considerable knowledge of how to teach the piano effectively and imaginatively.

According to Anthony’s Introduction:

“This book is written to give piano teachers the confidence to explore new, imaginative and creative ways to help and support their pupils. It is rich resource of principles, ideas, useful strategies and thought-provoking questions rather than a book of definitive answers reflecting any particular school or technique.”

In this review I hope to explain how this publication fulfils these goals, in the process establishing itself as a unique and essential purchase.

But you won’t have to just take my word for it, because I am delighted that best-selling author and composer Karen Marshall has agreed to provide a second opinion, which appears towards the end of this article as a series of Questions and Answers.

The Publication and Format

The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide is a very nicely presented and well made product, which could itself survive plenty of abuse!

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The book dimensions are 27.5 x 1.4 x 19.5 cm, which means that page sizes are almost A4, and include a lot of information.

It is immediately striking when flipping through the book that each or the 31 chapters includes several box-out sections, with bullet points, extended lists, musical examples, and practical suggestions a very strong feature here.

A few sample pages are available from Faber Music here.

Most chapters end with a “Clinic” section, in which Anthony offers answer to frequently asked questions posed by teachers.

The Content

Anthony Williams will be well known to many readers as an author for ABRSM, contributing to their Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces, as well as being a syllabus repertoire selector, senior examiner, and conference speaker. He has distinguished himself in all these roles, as well as at Radley College, an exclusive boys boarding school in Oxfordshire where he is Head of Keyboard.

I was eager to hear what he would share from his experience – but would there be a heavy exam-centric focus?

The full list of chapter headings reveals the main topics covered:

  1. What makes a good piano teacher?
  2. Developing a curriculum for your pupils
  3. First lessons
  4. Introducing notation
  5. Strategies for good piano practice
  6. Foundation skills: scales and arpeggios
  7. Foundation skills: sight-reading
  8. Foundation skills: aural
  9. An introduction to technique
  10. The importance of posture
  11. Relaxation and physical tension
  12. Weight and relaxation
  13. The importance of the wrist
  14. The art of fingering
  15. Developing finger control
  16. ‘Thumb under’ technique
  17. Finger-speed and agility
  18. Rhythmic control, coordination and independence of hands and fingers
  19. Tone, touch and balance
  20. The art of articulation
  21. Exploring the pedal
  22. Developing movement across the keyboard
  23. Fast consecutive chords and octaves
  24. Technical exercises and studies
  25. Choosing repertoire
  26. A guide to interpretation
  27. Performance and interpretation across specific periods of composition
  28. The performance
  29. The ingredients of a musical performance
  30. Dealing with nerves
  31. And finally … life, the universe, and dots on the page

Those concerned that the author might take too exam-centric a view will find that contrary to those expectations he warns against becoming too focussed on exams, and encourages a far broader musical outlook.

In the section about ‘Sight-reading’, for example, he writes:

“If we find ourselves specifically teaching ‘sight-reading’ then we have neglected or forgotten about the broader musical development of our pupil and fallen into the ‘exam trap’.”

But it is clear from the list of chapter headings that Anthony’s perspective is at least informed by his extensive experience working with ABRSM. Eagle-eyed readers might for example have noted from the chapter list that the three “Foundational Skills” for pianists are here regarded as scales and arpeggios, sight-reading and aural, in direct alignment with the specific supporting tests that are the focus of ABRSM graded examinations.

Conversely, we don’t see specific chapters here on the subjects of developing creativity, improvisation, composing at the piano, playing by ear, playing duets, accompanying others, joining ensembles, and nor does the book touch on any musical genres or piano playing styles beyond standard classical repertoire.

While it would have been great to see Anthony take this broader view (as of course most piano teachers working in the mainstream today must do) at the same time we are no less well-served by his decision to stick to what he knows best.

It is a strength of the book that Anthony covers his ground with confidence, genuine expertise and aplomb.

Piano Pedagogy

The first several chapters of The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide are devoted to core aspects of pedagogy. Anthony’s advice on What makes a good piano teacher? is basic but brilliant. The same can be said for his thoughts on develop your curriculum priorities, although I would have preferred more focus on the importance of establishing a clear educational and musical philosophy to underpin all our work.

A good example of the detail the author manages to cram into the book is found in the chapter covering First Lessons. Here he gives 98 bullet points covering questions to ask before lessons begin, and ideas for the first lesson with a young pupil. He then puts this into context, giving an outline of Eloise’s first lesson, a real world example. The chapter concludes with a section about what to do After the first lesson.

Anthony thus provides a wealth of informative suggestions within a relatively short, concise space, but always succeeds in making his point, and raising questions that as teachers we can unpack in our own time, indeed, throughout our careers.

The following chapters cover introducing notation, strategies for good piano practice, and the “foundational skills”: scales and arpeggios, aural, and sight-reading. It’s in these chapters that Anthony first introduces his “Clinics” at the end of each chapter.

While the core advice offered in each chapter is outstanding in itself, it is in these clinics that the book really reaches a higher level of excellence.

The questions dealt with here cover so many of the bases that piano teachers ask about at professional development seminars – issues such as:

  • My pupil is still having trouble reading the notes
  • Pupils insist ”it always goes right at home, but frequent mistakes creep in
  • My pupil is having problems playing evenly in tone and rhythm
  • My pupils are reluctant to practise their scales and arpeggios

It would be odd to find oneself agreeing with every single answer Anthony gives, and of course that isn’t the case. But nor is it the point. Rather, we are treated to an agenda of ideas to ponder, to discuss, to try out and work through. There’s also plenty of suggestions for lesson activities, educational games and highly practical solutions to common problems.

As such, this book offers us something quite unique and very special.

Technique Matters

The pedagogy chapters take up barely 40 pages of the book, yet include so much. Imagine, if you will, the depth and value of the section covering piano technique, which fills the next 94 pages!

You have seen from the chapter list above that the topics covered are wide-ranging. I can add to that by telling you that those topics include everything that is essential for the young beginner, and right through to the advanced techniques that occupy players at the top end of the spectrum, such as double trills, fast octaves, chord voicing, and advanced pedalling techniques.

In all cases the advice given mixes an emphasis on musicality, physical relaxation and technical accuracy and accomplishment.

And once again, it is in the “Clinic” sections at the end of each chapter that this book rises above the voices of other piano technique books, offering specific application of the concepts discussed while also answering the many concerns, misconceptions and confusions that can arise.

Repertoire

The final chapters of The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide focus on repertoire choice, interpretation and performance.

A particular highlight is Chapter 27, which deals with historical awareness and issues of period style. The box-out sections on Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th Century performance practices are outstanding, providing so much key information needed for effective engagement with the repertoire from these periods.

The sections which tackle the ingredients of an effective performance, and dealing with nerves, are also written with sensitivity and a warm clarity.

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Q&A with Karen Marshall

I am delighted that Karen Marshall, who co-wrote the excellent Get Set! Piano method and was editor of the Encore series for ABRSM – has agreed to offer a second opinion.

Karen is, like me, very excited by The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide. I wanted to find out why…

Andrew:  Why do you feel this is a valuable text for piano teachers.

Karen:  I think Anthony has very effectively ‘de-bunked’ piano technique in a way I haven’t seen done since Joan Last’s ‘The Young Pianist’. Some teachers can feel uncomfortable about admitting their lack of knowledge in this area if they are already teaching. I think the posture information is so easy to understand, the games for a relaxed playing position are excellent, and the ornament information will be a life line to inexperienced teachers. It’s so clearly written with very practical tips on how to overcome difficulties displayed by students from collapsing fingers to poor co-ordination.

A:  What will you be taking to your teaching from the book.

K:  As a teacher I have always been a bit of a magpie, talking and listening to teachers to find ideas that will help my own students. What a little treasure trove this is!

It’s the practical exercises I will be using. I have my own ideas on many of these things but feel that my students will really benefit from some different strategies. I think the pedal section is particularly good and has given me some new approaches.

A:  What do you think is unique?

K:  I think it’s the fact that all this tricky technical and stylistic information is written in such an easily understood way, with actual practical activities to achieve what he’s suggesting. This kind of practitioner information is very rare to find, games, activities, I was thrilled to see them all.

A:  Who do you think the book will be most useful for?

K:  New piano teachers will find this most useful but I also think teachers who are much more experienced will find it helpful too. We can forget some of the things we have used so successfully in the past, this book has really has reminded me of many of the things I’ve done before (but also provided some alternative strategies).

I find the book useful because it has made me think and re-appraise my own teaching. Always a good thing!

A:  What books would you use to complement this?

K:  I use the Music Teachers Companion by Richard Crozier and Paul Harris (ABRSM) as my main text with Piano teaching diploma students. There’s more general music teaching information in there, because of course it’s not about one instrument. I still love Joan Last’s The Young Pianist.

And it may be out of print but Pianoforte Diplomas by Geoffrey Tankard is very good on specific repertoire. 

The business and relationship aspects not covered in Anthony’s excellent book are covered well in Music Teacher Magazine on an ongoing basis.

However I must say, I will be using this book with all teaching diploma students too from now on. On a personal note, congratulations to Anthony on producing such an excellent text!

A:  Yes, I completely agree! I would also add to your list Paul Harris’s books Improve your Teaching and The Virtuoso Teacher, which are great for understanding how to plan and integrate different lesson activities. Lucinda Mackworth-Young’s Tuning In: Practical Psychology for Musicians also covers very important ground.

My Conclusions

Once in a while a book appears which must be considered essential, an instant classic, and this is one such publication. The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide instantly establishes itself as the very best practical manual available for today’s piano teachers.

The range and clarity of material is second to none, making this volume one which will inspire and inform the reader who takes it in from cover to cover, while also providing a fertile source of ongoing reference, covering a wide range of musical, technical and pedagogic subjects.

Quite apart from the enormous service that Anthony Williams does for teachers with this book, the sections on piano technique and repertoire could prove a huge help to amateur and professional players, and while written with the teacher in mind I can imagine many pianists eagerly taking advantage of the advice on offer here.

This is quite simply an outstanding and essential publication. And at just £12.99 it is also an extraordinary bargain.

Buy it today!

Available worldwide, and from the Faber Music site here.

Published by

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.