Your Stories No.6
Sue Greenham is a piano teacher from Maidstone in Kent, UK. She introduces herself:
“At the moment, I’ve teaching around 75 students each week. Most come to my home in Maidstone and have either 30 minutes or an hour. But I also do peri work in two secondary schools and the students there have 20 minute lessons, which isn’t very long, but they’re coming out of lessons so that’s the way it has to be.”
Here is Sue’s Story…
My Aunty Eileen had a piano. It was terrible really – an old boneshaker of a piano with some notes that didn’t work, and others that would probably have sounded better if they weren’t working.
Aunty played hymns on it, and I loved it. I used to make up little tunes on it, and play expressive not-really-tunes that were supposed to illustrate the stories that I used to make up.
Apart from Aunty’s hymn-playing at the local chapel, we weren’t really in to the arts at all, although my Dad loved Gilbert & Sullivan, and sang me to sleep every night with songs from the operettas. Bizarrely, he also loved Schubert’s Ständchen and Sibelius’s Finlandia and whistled them everywhere he went.
This was the only “classical” music I heard as a small child. I thought it was wonderful; I often used to cry at the beauty of it.
I kept asking for piano lessons but in those days (I’m remarkably old!) nobody in our little East Anglian village did anything extra-curricular, so my demands were written-off as a “phase”.
Eventually, at the age of 10, I had a three-year-old-type tantrum, screaming and shouting that I wanted piano lessons…
At this point, I was taken seriously and it was found that a lady in the village could give me lessons for 2/6d an hour.
I didn’t have a piano of my own and my parents were very poor, but they said that if I practised on my aunt’s piano every day for a year, then I could have one of my own. Well, that was easy … I spent hours each day at my aunt’s house, playing not only what my teacher told me to practise, but everything else I could find as well.
Within the first year I had passed Grade 1 with distinction, and I was presented with my first piano. It was a geriatric Kemble with a pedal that squeaked and keys that rattled around when I touched them, but it was mine and I loved it.
I didn’t love my teacher though; she was always getting cross with me because I wanted to play everything in sight; often things deemed “too hard’ for me that she wouldn’t let me play to her.
An extraordinary teacher
But luck was on my side. She decided to stop teaching for family reasons and my next teacher was absolutely wonderful. She was called Grace Vernon, and she became not only my teacher but the person I admired most in the world.
At just-past-Grade-4, she decided I needed inspiring by giving me something “really hard”. She gave me a book of Chopin Nocturnes and Dohnanyi’s Rhapsody on C major!
From that moment, until I passed Grade 8 three years later, I was on fire!
I would never have been the person I am without this wonderful woman. She persuaded my parents to save up for a better piano. She had a beautiful grand piano herself and every Sunday she welcomed me into her house, free of charge, to play solos and duets on that gleaming Bechstein. She and her lovely husband used to take me to concerts … I hadn’t even known that anything like that existed!
After grade 8 at 16, she started teaching me how to teach, and gave me some of her overspill pupils for me to teach under her supervision. It was wonderful; I loved it, and the money earned meant I could buy more music and go to more concerts.
Meanwhile – Music at School
I was doing music A-level at school. There were only two of us in the class and the other girl was a more confident pianist that I was, so I decided that I was no good.
Very silly, I know, but it’s the way a lot of people’s minds work, so there we are. The school music teacher didn’t like me at all and I hated the lessons there. I started to mentally phase out during the lessons at school and ended up only just passing the A-level.
Music college seemed out of the question so I looked around for something else.
And that’s how I ended up as an Occupational Therapist.
Well, what actually happened was that the careers officer at school said that, with my interests and attributes, I could either become an Occupational Therapist of Cambridge’s first dust-woman!
It seemed a no-brainer because in those days dustbins were heavy and metal, so off I went to London, to become an O.T.
The Pull of the Piano
I loved it. I learned about so many things … anatomy, physiology, psychology, medicine, surgery, psychiatry, drama-therapy, music-therapy, physiotherapy … it was fascinating. I qualified in 1974 and went off to work in Harlow hospital, in the department of psychiatry.
That’s when my mother phoned and told me she was going to sell my piano.
I was living away from home and had barely given the piano a thought for several years. All the same, I didn’t want her to get rid of it, so I said I’d have it in my Harlow council flat.
When the hospital staff found this out, they started asking me to teach them and their children. I was learning classical guitar at the time and my guitar teacher told me that a piano teacher was needed for a local Saturday morning music school.
It was time to start practising again.
I asked the piano tuner if there were any good teachers in the area. He told me that Virginia Black, who was professor of harpsichord at the Royal Academy of Music, lived a couple of miles up the road.
She took me on as a pupil, and was a wonderful teacher. I simply adored her and really flourished under her stringent teaching. I took the LRAM as an outside candidate and passed straight away.
I decided to work fewer hours at the hospital and do more teaching. And it all built up from there.
Having worked as an OT student with children with cerebral palsy, autism and various learning difficulties, and adults with mental health problems, I was more than happy to teach people whom a lot of other teachers had found “difficult”, “irritating’ or even “unteachable”.
A flexible career
Later, I married and had two children and found that teaching piano was a great way to fit working in around being a wife and mother.
My husband took voluntary redundancy at the age of 55 and at that point it seemed sensible for me to work full-time while he looked after house and home.
I took on lots more students. It was very hard work but I loved it, and he was very happy to do all the housework, so that seemed like a win/win!
And that’s where we still are, although now that I’m getting my old-age pension, I’ve decided to start cutting down a bit. I decided to do it by natural wastage, but it’s not really working out like that at all. It only needs someone to ring up and say, “I have an Aspergers son …” or “I tried to learn piano years ago and failed miserably” and my ears prick up, my tail goes bushy and we’re on the road again.
I love teaching. Anybody. Everybody.
I have some amazingly talented students and some who have to work incredibly hard for everything they achieve.
Some who want to thrash through the exam syllabus and others who just want to play what they want to play.
Some who want to enter every competition in sight and some who are actually looking for music therapy.
I’m dyspraxic myself (Oh yes, I forgot to mention that earlier!) and synaethesic (yes, probably quite a way along the autism spectrum as well), so can understand the difficulties and abnormalities that some people have. I’m quite good at finding ways round those difficulties too, I think.
I tend to get quite irritable with people who talk about the “right” and “wrong” way to teach, because I really believe that there is no right or wrong way; it really does have to be tailored to the individual.
As a teacher, I feel I have a huge bunch of keys and it’s down to me to find which key is the best one to unlock the learning of each person.
I think improvisation and composition is important and everyone I teach does it. After all, I can’t imagine an art class where all the students just reproduce other artists’ paintings.
I suppose I should say a little bit about the music I like and don’t like. Well, I like most things, but especially Schubert, Beethoven, Dohnanyi and Liszt. I guess if I had to choose just one it would be Schubert. So poignant, such depth of feeling; I wish I’d known him personally.
I don’t like jazz, or at least, not much of it. Some jazz pieces are beautiful, but a lot of it feels like an attack and I have to fight the urge to put my hands over my ears and leave the room! I do teach it, though…whatever anyone wants to learn is OK by me.
If I could change just one thing it would be that I would have more time for my own piano practice. This is what I intend to do when I finally do manage to reduce my workload. Watch this space.
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