Piano teacher and best-selling composer and author Heather Hammond shares her background…
I grew up in East Yorkshire and my Mum was very keen that my brother and I should learn to play the piano, which was something she hadn’t had the opportunity to do as a child.
I started lessons at about 8 years old and made fairly rapid progress initially. However, I did find the staple diet of classical music rather uninspiring, and with no opportunities to play in concerts or perform with others I decided to give up lessons when I was about 11.
However, I started at the local secondary school the same year and due to an excellent Music Service (then providing music lessons free of charge) I decided to learn the clarinet.
I guess if I had been born later, without the opportunity of free tuition, my music learning would have stopped completely then, and I would have most probably ended up taking a different career route.
Luckily the clarinet lessons meant that I was able to get back into music again. I had the opportunity to play different styles of music, play with others in bands, take part in concerts and I started really enjoying making music.
Back to the Piano
I did miss playing the piano though, so when I was around 13, I asked my Mum to get in touch with my old piano teacher and organise some lessons again. This time there was a condition – I wanted to play things like The Entertainer by Scott Joplin!
At the time (the 70’s) there were no simplified versions, so I spent hours learning the original version of The Entertainer bar by bar. I loved it, and wanted to be able to perform something that I felt was really impressive – but also music that I really identified with. After lots of work I did finally perform it at a school concert.
My older cousins Janine and Andrew (who were a big influence on me and definitely two of my childhood heroes) were both studying at the Birmingham Conservatoire around this time. So I did suspect that going to Music College might be a really cool thing to do!
At age 16, I was accepted on a Music foundation course at Leeds College of Music and then later went on to study Jazz and Light Music there.
My First Students
When only 17, my clarinet teacher asked if I’d be interested in teaching his niece to play the piano, and although initially very nervous about taking on this new role, I quickly found that it was something that I really enjoyed doing. I gradually ended up teaching quite a number of my new student’s friends in the local area too.
After college I did have a few wilderness years which included three years working full-time in an office which I absolutely hated. During that time I still had a few piano students and I travelled out to their homes to teach them after work.
I eventually decided to train as a teacher and thoroughly enjoyed my time at Bretton Hall (near Wakefield) doing a PGCE. I then ended up getting a job as a primary school teacher in York – how cool was that? – It’s my very favourite city!
I did enjoy being a full time primary school teacher, and particularly enjoyed teaching music, maths and art.
After 5 years I decided to have a year out to do an MA at York University. Unfortunately, I found I wasn’t very happy being a student again so left the course at Christmas. At this stage, I felt a bit of a failure as I’d never really given up on anything before. However, I spent the next few months teaching piano and gathering up quite a number of students.
Miraculously, I discovered that I could actually still pay the mortgage each month so decided not to return to primary school teaching after the year was up.
Venturing into Composing
I continued to expand my piano teaching and around this time (in the mid 90’s) also started to write pieces for my students to play.
I finally plucked up the courage to send my compositions to various publishers some years later, and Kevin Mayhew Ltd. were keen for me to write six piano books, so the original Cool Piano series was written and finally published in 2003. Soon after this I wrote the Funky Flute, Cool Clarinet and Super Sax books.
I believe it is extremely important to offer my students a wide range of music so they can find out what they’re really going to love – jazz, pop, folk, rock, blues & boogie, classical, reggae or funk (this list could be even bigger of course!)
Nowadays there is such a wealth of wonderful music we can easily access. I also feel that it is so important to teach ‘how music works’, not just how to interpret notes on the page (as my initial piano lessons seemed to do). It’s so important to understand about chords, chord sequences, scales and modes etc. as a teacher, and to pass on to students.
Students should have the opportunity to explore and mess around on the piano (something I always seemed to get into trouble for!) and be encouraged to improvise and compose if it is something they’re interested in.
Nowadays, I feel that I am incredibly lucky. I have my dream job – I teach around 40 piano students each week (of all ages) and I get the opportunity to write lots of educational piano and woodwind music for a range of publishers too.
I have recently started getting back into art again (another childhood passion) and I’m really enjoying exploring different techniques and even making some jewellery.
I don’t think I’ll be retiring for a long time yet – my work is definitely my hobby too!
Heather is a piano teacher and the composer of the Cool Piano, Funky Flute, Cool Clarinet & Super Sax books (all published by Kevin Mayhew Ltd), and will be known to many readers for the Get Set! Piano series (Harper Collins) and award-winning Intermediate Pianist series (Faber Music), both co-authored with Karen Marshall. She also has a number of books published by Elena Cobb (EVC Music Publications Ltd).
Heather’s pieces frequently appear in exam syllabuses, and she wrote the three current pre-Grade 1 London College of Music handbooks. She is currently working on pieces for the new LCM electronic keyboard and flute syllabuses.
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