A new publication from Faber Music, The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide instantly establishes itself as one of the best practical manuals available for today’s piano teachers. Here’s my review…
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?
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 play and 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.
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!
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.
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:
- What makes a good piano teacher?
- Developing a curriculum for your pupils
- First lessons
- Introducing notation
- Strategies for good piano practice
- Foundation skills: scales and arpeggios
- Foundation skills: sight-reading
- Foundation skills: aural
- An introduction to technique
- The importance of posture
- Relaxation and physical tension
- Weight and relaxation
- The importance of the wrist
- The art of fingering
- Developing finger control
- ‘Thumb under’ technique
- Finger-speed and agility
- Rhythmic control, coordination and independence of hands and fingers
- Tone, touch and balance
- The art of articulation
- Exploring the pedal
- Developing movement across the keyboard
- Fast consecutive chords and octaves
- Technical exercises and studies
- Choosing repertoire
- A guide to interpretation
- Performance and interpretation across specific periods of composition
- The performance
- The ingredients of a musical performance
- Dealing with nerves
- 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, expertise and aplomb.
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 how to 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.
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.
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.
Once in a while a book appears which must be considered essential, and this is one such publication. The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide instantly establishes itself as one of the very best practical manuals 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 £13.99 it is also an extraordinary bargain.
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