As UK Chair of the European Piano Teachers’ Association, Mark Tanner seems an unlikely cheerleader for shunning expert tuition in favour of “teaching” oneself to play the piano. And yet in his new teach-yourself-book for older beginners, The Piano in Black and White (Faber Music, 2021), this is the path he advocates, enthusing:
“Learning to teach ourselves gives us the advantage of becoming masters of our own universe.”
Tanner ignores the obvious point that our own universe, without the guidance and insights of those more experienced and knowledgeable than us, might well prove to be a rather limited, small universe.
Tanner’s teach-yourself book is just the latest in a plethora of new apps, YouTube channels, books and videos claiming that adult beginners can learn to play the piano without the help (and expense) of a teacher.
Popular though these DIY attempts seem to be, and welcome though a diversity of educational resources are, most of us truthfully recognise that we are better off letting an expert guide take the lead. We realise, too, that while a one-size-fits-all app or book might set us off in the right direction, without the benefit of a personal guide who understands the terrain, the quicksands may well swallow us whole.
We can cite examples of those rare geniuses who succeeded as pianists without being able to access tuition due to geography, generation, genes or genre. But within most musical traditions, historically and globally, instruction from a teacher has been and remains the norm. There are many compelling reasons for this.
The idea of “going it alone” in preference to learning from an experienced practitioner is neither heroic nor wise. This is true in any field, whether basket-weaving, developing a good golf swing, or learning to play the violin. Piano playing is no lesser a skill, no mere “button pressing”, and must not be portrayed as such.
Those of us who have learnt from good teachers will appreciate and be grateful for that privilege. We naturally support the teaching profession, having ourselves experienced the elevating qualities of a good music education, and are eager for others to enjoy the same benefits as we have.
In this post, I will explore those benefits.
What could possibly go wrong?
We cannot function in the role of teacher and student simultaneously. To suggest otherwise doesn’t simply abrogate, but fundamentally misunderstands the teacher’s working role.
Without a teacher, we depend on and are ultimately limited by the resources that others have produced for our instruction. We are still in effect learning from teachers, but in a far more limited and limiting way.
We are impeded by our inability to assess the true quality of our own music-making, and often struggle to connect the disparate discoveries we make in the absence of a carefully tailored and pedagogically informed curriculum.
Ultimately, we all need to humbly accept that “we don’t know what we don’t know” and forget about ego.
Independent learning, self-motivation, a spirit of enquiry and curiosity are all essential. Learning under one’s own steam and under a teacher’s guidance are interdependent. A good teacher will steer and encourage students in their own learning, taking care to oversee that it has both breadth and balance.
Over the last couple of decades I have taken on a number of teenagers and adults who were initially self-taught. Whether out of frustration or basic curiosity, they finally found their way to me in the hope that I might troubleshoot the problems holding them back, give them fresh ideas, or paper over the cracks before a performance or audition.
Invariably they have been taken aback to find out how, with just a little expert guidance, they could easily improve as players, and find more freedom and joy in their own artistry.
The Shared Journey
So here are some of the many ways in which having a good teacher makes a huge difference, often missed by those who “teach” themselves, and based on the Three Treasures of Musical Learning model.
A GOOD TEACHER WILL:
- identify and help you fix problems of pulse, rhythm and flow of which you are unaware.
- help you to understand phrasing by modelling the sound, working with you to improve the dynamic contours in your playing.
- help you develop a better awareness and appreciation of tonal production, evenness, voicing between parts, and musical quality.
- support your aural development with personally tailored listening exercises.
- help you develop your creativity, using step-by-step approaches to improvisation, composition and interpretation.
- encourage your ability to communicate directly with an informed listener through your playing.
- explain and demonstrate issues of interpretation in a wide range of music styles, genres, and from different historical periods.
- help you to develop healthy posture, hand positions, and fundamental whole-body technique with attuned awareness.
- help you improve the quality of your physical movement and breathing when playing.
- troubleshoot physical problems, offering suggested solutions to issues which are holding you back and impeding fluency and control.
- support the development of accuracy in your playing by helping you apply the right technique to the right passage of music.
- help you develop a range of good pedalling techniques.
- help you develop good fingering technique, and a detailed range of touch.
- devise and provide physical and technical exercises aimed at solving specific problems you have encountered.
- give you suggestions and specific insight into how to practice the particular music you are working on in order to fulfil your aims.
- help you become more mindful in your playing.
- identify unrecognised physical tension and offer advice, support, and if necessary refer you to an expert to help you avoid common injury.
- hold you to account learning the basic scales, arpeggios and other studies necessary for progress.
- explain musical notation, terminology, and identify any misunderstanding or mistakes in your reading and understanding of the pieces you are playing.
- give you a more informed structural overview of the music you are studying, teaching you to analyse and recognise musical form.
- explain the cultural context and background of the music you are playing, based on their extensive study, and discuss your own discoveries with you as a mentor-friend.
- offer appropriate suggestions for listening, helping you develop your awareness and breadth of musical language.
- point you towards repertoire that is appropriate to your level, inspiring to play, and developmental in your piano journey.
- discuss the meaning of music you are playing: personal, social and historical.
- guide your learning using a well-structured and balanced curriculum, and a wide range of resources as identified.
- help you to reflect on your learning more honestly, giving regular feedback about progress and ongoing areas for improvement.
- develop your sight-reading ability using carefully structured and personalised methods and materials.
- explain music theory concepts, carefully checking the scaffold of understanding you are developing, and ensuring concepts are properly connected and applied.
- give you the opportunity to play on their piano, experiencing how this is different to your home practice instrument.
- provide opportunities for performance and informal music sharing with others as appropriate.
- introduce you to other players and musical activities and events within you region and community.
- discuss the suitability of other courses, learning materials, online resources and apps, monitoring their impact on your progress.
- offer a listening ear when you are troubled and struggling, accompanied by empathetic advice and support.
- provide a level of accountability from one session to the next.
- help you to understand and enjoy your own piano journey in a broader context.
- be your friend on the journey.
Any one of the many things on this long list is sufficient to justify the cost of an occasional consultation session. Taken together though, they deliver overwhelming confirmation of the true value of professional piano tuition, in stark contrast to trying to teach oneself using only books, apps or videos.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg!!
Let’s Walk Together
For many of us, music is one of the deepest pools of our human experience, both individually and communally. Piano playing is fundamentally a living tradition, shared and passed between generations of players.
It is possible, wondrous even, to wander into the creative maelstrom alone. But how much more energising and enriching to share our music and playing in relationship with others. As our own realised potential develops, so too do our musical and learning relationships with others.
As the ever-wise Deng Ming-Dao eloquently but succinctly observes:
“Teacher and student
Walk the path side by side.
They share their destinies
Until their paths diverge.”
Piano lessons aren’t “for EVER”. But nor, clearly, are they “for NEVER”.
As a piano teacher, I naturally have an interest in pitching my stall. And as a friend of other piano teachers, I want to support and encourage their work with honesty, consistency and integrity.
I neither find it difficult to speak up for the piano teaching profession, nor to defend the importance of music education at a time when it is under threat as never before. I welcome the multiplicity and variety of learning resources available to help students at the piano, but have an unshakable conviction that they should be used in conjunction with the right teacher.
As Murray McLachlan, international concert pianist, Head of Piano at Chetham’s Music School, and former Chair of EPTA so eloquently put it,
“The important thing to remember if you are an adult amateur pianist in search of a teacher is that there is a piano mentor out there who will love to have you as a student and with whom you will adore studying…
If you have decided that piano lessons are for you, you should congratulate yourself for embracing a hobby that could become a passion for the rest of your life, and you should remember to hold your head up high.”
Murray McLachlan, Pianist magazine, 62, Oct/Nov 2011.
I want to echo Murray’s words and encourage any piano enthusiast with this exhortation: seek out personalised support from a mentor or teacher who can help you make the very most of your love for playing.
And if you have benefitted from piano lessons, please go ahead and leave a comment below telling us about your positive experiences. Thank you!