Returning to Learning

Supporting Teachers • Promoting Learning

What can piano teachers learn from stepping into the shoes of the beginner and taking up a new skill or pastime? Quite a lot, in my experience…

Like many adults, I periodically look to introduce a new discipline or hobby into my life. And as a teacher, it is always fascinating to put myself in the position of student.

The latest activity to find its way onto my list of exploits is Pilates, the exercise system developed by Joseph Pilates and often mentioned in the same breath as Yoga (though I think, quite different!)

This lot are learning Pilates too. They look happy, don’t they?


And certainly I was hoping that I would find Pilates enjoyable – and hopefully beneficial for my health and fitness too.

And inevitably I also hoped that putting myself in the shoes of the complete beginner, there would be teaching parallels that I could reflect on, and which would give me fresh insight.

In this post I am going to list a few observations I made, followed by questions for self-reflection which make connections to piano teaching.

The Teacher

So first things first – what was the pilates teacher like?

Brimming with physical and intellectual vitality, he clearly understood and could explain all kinds of human movement.

While in another life I might go down the pub with him for a drink or two, in the real world I contented myself with simply following his lead in all aspects of physical exercise, posture and fitness. However hard I applied myself, of course, I could never equal his ability.

Part of me wondered whether it was worth returning to the class after the first couple of sessions – was I completely wasting my time? But I determined to keep going and to give the initial four week course a try. Were I even to develop a fraction of the teacher’s ability, it would have been well worth it!

To Consider:

  • How do my students perceive me?
  • What can I do to ensure I am not put on a pedestal?
  • How can I make my students feel more at ease in lessons?

Enjoying Group Lessons

The Pilates beginner classes lasted for one hour a week, and there were about a dozen of us learning in the group.

The sessions were really well paced, the teacher clearly explained all aspects of the theory and practice of Pilates, and took good care to include everyone and give personalised tips when we were practising the exercises. Nobody was left out, and to be honest, the classes served as a model of good group teaching.

There was a good camaraderie between the group members, too. Most came early for classes and sat about chatting before hand. It was good to meet new people with a shared (albeit embryonic) interest.

I really enjoyed showing up for class. It was simply good to be there! Pilates is enjoyable, rewarding, and I came home afterwards feeling uplifted.

And I learnt plenty during the classes. There was a good balance between consolidating what had already been covered (Active Repertoire) and learning new skills.

To Consider:

  • Do I treat every student as an individual, and take care to pace lessons to meet their specific needs?
  • Do my students enjoy their lessons, and leave feeling encouraged?
  • Do I take enough time to go over and consolidate work from previous lessons, or am I impatient about progress?
  • How can I encourage and develop a sense of community between my students?

The Power of Touch

Pilates involves postures, movements and physical activity that I haven’t done before.That’s a big deal, because all of us develop a kinaesthetic ‘body map’ of movements we’ve used before, which we can inwardly visualise and repeat. But in many cases the positions required for effective pilates weren’t in my ‘body map’ at all.

I was able to learn many of the positions by watching the demonstrations and listening to the teacher’s explanations. But that wasn’t enough, and a lot of the time my approximation of a correct posture or position was just a little … off.

Thankfully, the teacher visited each member of the group and gently corrected these sorts of mistakes using touch. And when doing this he simply explained the corrections needed and guided each student in a totally professional way.

Another thing that was easily apparent is that even when getting the postures completely correct, there can still be a lot of invisible tension – and this can completely undermine any effectiveness of pilates. In fact, it can easily lead to injury, just as invisible tension is responsible for so many pianist’s injuries.

Again, the teacher used physical touch to probe for any tension – enabling me as a student to also perceive tension in places where I hadn’t been aware of it on my own, and without that biofeedback.

It was all hugely helpful, and without the teacher’s touch I simply don’t think I could have learnt pilates.

To Consider:

  • What strategies do I use to help my students develop good posture, positions and movements that aren’t in their ‘body map’, and which they can’t work out just from demonstration or explanation?
  • How do I identify when my students have invisible (and inaudible) tension?
  • Am I doing enough to ensure my students don’t develop performance-related injuries, either now, or down the line in the future?
  • Do I have an agreed, established policy for using touch in lessons?

Practising at home

There’s no point in learning an exercise routine if you don’t commit to practising it and … well, exercising. Right?

Okay, I’ll be honest with you. During the four week course I failed to do any practice at all between the sessions. I did none, zilch, nada.

This may well have impacted my rate of progress and general success. But truth be told, I still really enjoyed the sessions and feel I learnt a lot. Interestingly, the teacher himself also seemed very pleased with my attainment and regularly complimented my progress.

So I guess the lack of practice on my part can remain our little secret, okay?

Alongside this, I found it helpful (read, essential!) that in each class at least the first half of the lesson was a recap of what we had done previously. Had each session assumed a full assimilation of the previous week’s progress, then I should expect the whole class would quickly have been left behind!

To Consider:

  • Which is more important – progress or enjoyment?
  • What do I expect in terms of pupil practice – and what happens when they don’t meet my expectations?
  • To what extent does it frustrate me if a student hasn’t fully assimilated the previous week’s work?
  • Am I using the Active Repertoire project and other forms of consolidation to help my students develop?

Comments …

For the avoidance of doubt, this is intended as a light-hearted post…

But I do think that my responses and reflections on taking a beginner Pilates course are perhaps worth thinking about as piano teachers – and I would be interested in comments from colleagues. My guess is that different aspects of the post will resonate in different ways for each teacher.

I would equally love to hear anecdotes from other teachers about what you have learnt from putting themselves in the shoes of the beginner, outside your usual comfort zone.

And before we finish…


Pilates – benefits for Pianists

In case you are wondering whether I think Pilates is helpful for pianists, the simple answer is YES, absolutely.

Pilates is one of many somatic approaches which helps the individual develop better posture, balance, body and kinaesthetic awareness, and I think it is a great complement to my Piano Qigong exercises.

I strongly recommend you find a class near you and give it a go!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.

4 thoughts on “Returning to Learning”

  1. I am learning piano & really enjoyed reading this post. What a good experience you have had as a way of keeping in tune with how your beginner students might feel. Bravo!

  2. I can really relate to this both as a piano teacher and as someone who took up skiing for the first time last year! I had lots of excellent ski teachers, but the one parallel that really stuck with me was the need for constant repetition of instructions about the most basic principles of turning on skis. This to me was the equivalent of all the phrases we repeat so often as piano teachers, such as ‘thumb under’, which as experienced teachers can get quite boring, but as a beginner in another discipline I really appreciated how important this regular reinforcement can be!

  3. A thought provoking article Andrew, and, yes, I find it very instructive, sometimes humbling and often grounding – and interesting – to try new things, from time to time, in the position of a beginner. It makes one so much more aware of how it feels ‘from the other side’. One of the most important lessons I ever learnt was that it is possible to do something quite badly, but derive enormous pleasure from it (in my case it was horse riding). So if I have a pupil who is not showing much in the way of promise or progress, but they really enjoy their lessons, then their involvement has value and potential. As an aside, I have been doing Pilates for six years now and I find it very helpful in maintaining suppleness, balance and flexibility.

  4. Last year, I decided to take up ballet as I had never had the opportunity as a child. It has been very illuminating stepping into the shoes of a complete beginner. I have absolutely no natural ability as a dancer, but in a funny way this was very liberating. I knew/know I will never be “good” at ballet, but I really don’t care. Knowing I am not aiming for any kind of achievement is allowing my to enjoy the journey without pressure or expectation. It is satisfying to find that particular routines and techniques are now more familiar so I don’t lose my way, but I do not aspire to any particular standard, and I never intend to perform, much like many of my pupils, especially the adults. It has really made me think about the personal motivations of my pupils and how I can help them enjoy their journeys.

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