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 Kodály, attending the EPTA’s Practical Piano Teaching course, or signing up for the Curious Piano Teachers.
Only one of these, however, allow you to get a qualification from a recognised examination board from the comfort of your own home: the Curious Piano Teachers run a course that prepares student teachers to take either the ATCL from Trinity College or the DipABRSM in Teaching from ABRSM. This course was however not open for enrollment when I was researching what I could study (the next enrollment date as I write is likely to be in June 2018) and I was therefore excited to learn about the RCM’s Online Piano Teacher Specialist Course, which is run more frequently. (NB for Brits – this is the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music, not the Royal College of Music).
I eagerly signed up and was thrilled to be invited to share my experiences with the Pianodao readers. I first wrote an article on this topic back in February 2017, when I was in Week 3 of the course. What you are currently reading is the revised and updated version, written in September 2017, a few months after I completed the course.
About the course
The RCM offers three Piano Teacher Specialist Courses: Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced. I studied 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 a UK examination board would therefore qualify.
One major attraction is how cost-effective it is: only $499 per course (currently about £300). This is a significantly lower cost 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. It is attractively presented and generally easy to navigate. During my course there was a brief technical problem which prevented us from accessing the course materials but this was resolved within hours and all students were given an appropriate deadline extension.
Each module is made up of a mixture of readings and videos prepared by a variety of different RCM examiners and teachers. Overall I was extremely impressed by the quality of the material, and I thought that the breadth and balance of viewpoints given by the various different teachers was excellent. The videos by Marvin Blickenstaff were particularly wonderful, but everything was engaging and challenging. There was one module where I felt that parts of the course material could have been better presented – in this case I felt that the written text could have been more clearly explained and would have been even better if it had been demonstrated in a video – but this was just one part of one module.
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 related to the week’s focus, and then 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.
Forum discussion topics during my course included:
- Getting to know the other course participants
- My teaching inspirations (reflections on good and bad teachers that you experienced as a student)
- The First Lesson (what do you think is important to cover during the student’s first lesson)
- Hand Position and Posture (a reflection on how you ensure students have good hand position and posture)
- Exploring Literacy in the Classroom (what resources do you use to teach your students music literacy, for example about composers and their lives)
- Sight-reading as an Everyday Activity (how do you incorporate sight-reading in every lesson, and how do you think you teach it effectively)
- Broadening Our Horizons (pick three pieces that you’ve never played from the RCM repertoire, learn to play them, and then write about how you would teach them)
- Encouraging Musical Imagination (discuss how you explain pieces to students in a way that brings them to life)
Assignments during my course included:
- Writing a statement of your teaching philosophy
- Writing a detailed plan of a student’s very first lesson which fits into SMART goals for the student’s first year of piano tuition
- Writing detailed lesson plans on how to teach specific pieces from the elementary RCM syllabus, focusing on what physical movements students would need to make and what technique should be employed
- Writing detailed lesson plans which guided students through sight-reading selected pieces from the elementary repertoire
- Writing lesson plans that focus on ensuring that the student has a sound theoretical understanding of the pieces they are playing, with reference to the RCM’s theory examination rubric
- Writing a story based on the musical narrative of one piece in the elementary repertoire, that you could use to explain a piece to a student
- Writing a balanced and well thought through exam programme for imaginary students who are taking each of the 6 RCM elementary exams, then writing a lesson plan for each student which explained how you would teach one piece from this exam programme
- Revising the teaching philosophy submitted in the first week of the course, based on what you have learned during the course
Reflecting back on the course a few months later, I realise just how much it has shaped my teaching. Here’s a list off the top of my head of things I do differently:
- I now take care to make sure that my students are sight-reading an easy piece much more frequently. I used to have a vague idea that sight reading is something that you should learn at the same time as studying repertoire, but since doing the course I’ve realised that it is often more effective to teach sight reading as a small but regular separate activity, and then when teaching repertoire I am freer to focus on ensuring the students have the technical ability and a good understanding of how the piece works. This has had various positive effects: my students are better sight readers than before; my students are now better prepared to deal with the technical requirements of their repertoire; my students are now very used to sight reading a short easy piece during their lesson and this has made them much more confident with both their sight reading and their repertoire.
- Writing the story about the musical narrative of a piece was genuinely inspiring, and I now find myself often telling a story to my students to explain a piece, which engages them much more.
- I’ve become much more aware about my students posture and hand position and have many more tools to correct these when they are faulty.
- I’ve got better at teaching about composers, and have made a real effort to make my students aware of the composers whose music they are playing.
- I’ve massively broadened the range of what I can teach through getting to know the repertoire and etude books.
(Hopefully it goes without saying that the points listed above are just an illustrative list of where the course has helped me address my own weaknesses, and are not an exhaustive list of what you may learn whilst taking the course).
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.
As the course progressed, I became increasingly impressed by the support I received from the course leader. It’s my understanding that the course leader is not always the same, so your experience may vary, but I was given tonnes of helpful comments, feedback, and advice by our course leader, Laura Beauchamp-Williamson. I think she’s fab.
About the 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 have completely changed my mind about this, and so much so that I now own the complete RCM Celebrations series from the Preparatory Grades right up to Grade 10 at a total cost $411.85 (roughly £250). This was a not insignificant outlay of money, but it has proved to be one of the best investments I’ve made since becoming a piano teacher. 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.
Looking back on it, I realise that a lot of my reluctance to buy all these books was because I thought I would be getting something similar to the ABRSM piano examination books, i.e. a rather mixed bag of only 9 pieces. I was totally wrong about this.
The RCM examination books are completely different to ABRSM’s offering. The RCM examination repertoire books more closely resemble ABRSM’s Encore series or Faber’s Best of Grade, which have been reviewed on this site here.
The RCM repertoire books have between 21 and 43 pieces and the etude books have between 12 and 20. 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. Because of the wide range of styles covered, including the many excellent pieces by contemporary composers, these books are now often the first place I turn to when I am looking for a piece in a particular style at a particular level.
The reason I turn to these books so frequently is simply that the pieces included are so enjoyable. There’s an excellent representation of all the major piano composers that you would expect from the canon, and the range of pieces by contemporary composers is fantastic. Mike Schoenmehl, Clifford Poole, Linda Niamath, Melody Bober, Jon George, Helen Marlais – these were all unfamiliar to me before taking the course, and I really feel enriched by their presence in my teaching repertoire.
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 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).
Buying the books is unfortunately not simple as there does not appear to be a direct European supplier, but can be imported from sheetmusicplus.com and I was recently informed that they can be bought through amazon.co.uk.
I think the course is great and very affordable. I was pleased how well it fit into my busy teaching schedule.
I would unequivocally recommend this course to teachers who are based in Canada or the US who can enter their students in the RCM’s examinations programme. The quality of the material is excellent, and the way it is delivered works very well. The course supervision is excellent. I also think this is currently the best value for money piano teacher training course that leads to certification by a recognised exam board.
Many readers of this blog are teachers based in the UK or elsewhere in the world, where it is not possible to take RCM examinations, and may therefore be asking themselves, “Does it make sense for me?”
My answer is “yes, but…”
If you don’t have a piano teaching qualification and have never studied piano pedagogy then this course is an excellent and very cost-effective introduction to the topic, which will benefit you and your students in the short and long-term. However, there will inevitably be some time spent getting to know material that isn’t directly relevant to you. Nevertheless, I think you will probably find that this is not a massive problem because, like me, you’ll find that the modules that are specifically about the RCM examinations teach you valuable lessons that are easily transferable to preparing your students for other examination boards.
What I believe is really exciting about this course is the potential it represents for 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. It is a source of considerable frustration that the ABRSM offers examinations worldwide, including where I live in Germany, but access to ABRSM teacher training is very difficult to access abroad.
I also know that there are many UK-based piano teachers from rural areas who would really appreciate being able to take an online course. ABRSM and other UK exam boards could reach a much larger cohort of their piano teachers by offering an online course, and could potentially collaborate with its Canadian counterpart to share the digital infrastructure.
The Curious Piano Teachers have taken a step to fill that gap in the market with an online training course to prepare candidates for Trinity’s ATCL and/or the DipABRSM in Instrumental teaching. Enrolment is currently closed, and will open again in summer 2018. If enrolment for the Curious Piano Teacher course had been open when I was researching courses then I would have seriously considered taking it, but it wasn’t, and you can apply for an RCM course at any time.
I plan to spend 2018-19 studying for both the DipABRSM with the Curious Piano Teachers and the RCM Intermediate Piano Teacher course, which combined will hopefully give me both an in-depth knowledge of intermediate piano repertoire and improve my ability to prepare students for ABRSM examinations.
About the author
Born in Hereford, UK, Garreth moved to West 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 his contemporary piano music on 1631 Recordings.
His writing on suicide prevention has been published on Huffington Post UK.
For more details visit garrethbrokepiano.com
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