How do we stop students quitting?

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

These days when I catch up with teaching colleagues, there is often a common theme:

“I need to recruit some new students as I’ve got X amount leaving (especially in the summer term).”

The numbers vary from just one to as many as twelve.

As most are self employed with bills to pay, adverts are out, websites are being updated, and they are doing their very best to fill those gaps – and fast!

We will always have some students leave as families move out of the area, or a student leaves for work or University. However increasingly (from anecdotal evidence) it appears that students are giving up in greater numbers. With lots of other activities going on, children heavily tested with demanding national examinations along with technology distractions, instrumental learning can suffer.

In my own teaching practice, I have tried to become much more conscious about any signs that perhaps I need to adapt a little in order to keep a student coming through the door…

Continue reading How do we stop students quitting?

Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism

“Advice is like the snow. The softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon and the deeper it sinks into the mind”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

One of the key roles of a piano teacher is to help their students make direct improvements in their playing. To do this we must identify the priority areas that need attention, hopefully without turning into the scolding teacher in the photo above.

In this article I will share some suggestions on how to offer helpful criticism, encouraging positive progress and enthusiastic learning.

I will cover the following points:

  • Why Accuracy Matters
  • The Piano Teacher as “Critical Friend”
  • Golden Tips for Giving Constructive Feedback

Listening to our students play and offering suggestions for improvement is certainly not the whole of a piano teacher’s work, but in many lessons it will be a central feature…

Continue reading Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism

The Pianist’s Resolution

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

The start of any new year or season is for many a time for making resolutions: a time for ambition, grit and determination.

Whether it’s a fresh commitment to healthy eating and exercise, or a renewed self-discipline in setting aside time to practise the piano, this is a month where many make a decision to turn a new leaf.

But how can we foster perseverance and ultimately success?

Continue reading The Pianist’s Resolution

Active Repertoire Challenge 2020

What can you play?

This is a question which for too many pianists leads to such answers as:

  • I’m working on Allegro, but it’s not yet ready to play;
  • I finished learning Andante last month, but I’ve forgotten it now;
  • I don’t have my music books with me, so …

What a pity!

The reality is that too many of us can’t sit down at the piano without notice, without notation, and without embarrassment, and simply play something!

Continue reading Active Repertoire Challenge 2020

Musical Christmas gifts from children

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

Like many other musicians (and having musical children) I walk into the next two weeks packed with rehearsals, performances and concerts.

It is so easy to become stressed, anxious and to not remember that Christmas is suppose to be about joy (as I mentioned in my last year’s Christmas blog post).  

Yet, I want to suggest that over these next two weeks we look out for the special musical gifts we can receive from children we teach over this festive period.  

Continue reading Musical Christmas gifts from children

ABRSM Goes Digital for 2020

Usually around this time of year I write a report from the annual ABRSM Teacher Conference (for more info you can follow these links to the reports from 2016, 2017, 2018, and my 2018 interview with chief executive Michael Elliott).

This year I wasn’t a media guest at the conference, but in any case ABRSM chose to make their biggest announcements online. And two of those announcements are pretty significant…

This article offers a quick update on ABRSM’s new online booking service for exams, including some details teachers may have missed, as well as taking a look at their new online learning platform, Journeys: Guitar.

Continue reading ABRSM Goes Digital for 2020

Winter Repertoire Challenge

The Winter Repertoire Challenge is ideal for players of all ages, and offers a great opportunity for developing your Active Repertoire at the piano. Are you up for it?

Continue reading Winter Repertoire Challenge

“Piano Trainer” Free Downloads

FREE Resources to accompany:

  • The Foundation Pianist
  • The Intermediate Pianist
  • The Advanced Pianist

Especially designed to accompany the award winning books or just for general use, Faber Music with Karen Marshall have designed free digital resources for teachers to use in their piano teaching.

Continue reading “Piano Trainer” Free Downloads

Chetham’s Piano Teaching Course

In addition to the embarrassment of riches already on offer at the Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists (read all about it in my review here), organisers Kathryn Page and Murray McLachlan last year added a Piano Teacher Course to the menu.

Led in its first year by Margaret Murray McLeod, the course attracted some 35 teachers from around the world. This year Karen Marshall and Mark Tanner took the reins, and the organisers plan to involve different course leaders each year so that returning attendees can learn from a range of perspectives.

In the UK we have a rapidly growing number of well-regarded piano teacher training opportunities and courses (though sadly not a widely supported and accredited qualification), and the choice can be bewildering.

The availability of a credible training course with the benefits of a residential (rather than remote online) setting, held at such an ideal time in the calendar, and with such an impressive roster of world-class concert pianists on tap is certainly very appealing.

Could this be an obvious first choice for teachers looking for further training? As part of my visit to the Summer School, I was able to join the course for several sessions. Here’s what I found out…

Continue reading Chetham’s Piano Teaching Course

Can we really trust educational research?

I recently came across an article by Elizabeth Gilbert of the University of West Virginia and Nina Strohminger of Yale University presenting their findings that only a third of published psychology research is reliable.

Another article confirms that in the field of biomedicine (the basis of so much news coverage of medical advances) less than 50% of research proves reliable when the “reproducibility factor” is applied.

And astonishingly, we read elsewhere that “just 11% of preclinical cancer research studies could be confirmed”.

We might well speculate as to why such a body of inaccurate “research” is being published; certainly there are important questions here. And let’s be clear that it is academics themselves who are drawing attention to the problem, and expressing frustration.

If psychological and medical research are this unreliable, shouldn’t we also be concerned about the “research” that underpins educational theories and methods?

Continue reading Can we really trust educational research?

Hooked on Duets

Guest Post by Susan Bettaney

The Piano Duet form is an enriching experience which opens up a plethora of knowledge and repertoire dating back to the 18th Century, a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of a wondrous art form which evolved from the quills of the Great Composers ideal for the drawing rooms and salons of the times.

Continue reading Hooked on Duets

Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?

Pathways for Teaching

Over the years I’ve repeatedly encountered the suggestion that music should be taught in much the same way as we have tended to assume language is acquired.

Advocates of this theory point out that:

  • Firstly as babies we hear words;
  • Soon we start to mimic them;
  • In time, we learn to speak fluently;
  • Later (perhaps several years later), we are taught to read;
  • And then to write.

I’m not a linguistics expert, but I suspect that this linear sequence is somewhat over-simplistic. In any case, it is adapted by some to propose this music education equivalent:

Hear  →  Sing  →  Play  →  Read  →  Write

It has long seemed to me that finding any direct or useful equivalent between musical learning and theories of language acquisition is more difficult than some suggest. And like many experienced teachers, I have observed that those taught according to this notion don’t always develop into good music readers.

In this short article I will flirt with the complexities here by asking three important questions:

  1. How do music and language seem to behave differently?
  2. How does informal learning prepare us for formal tuition?
  3. Does learning always follow the same one-way sequence?

As with the initial proposition, direct answers to such questions are elusive; perhaps it is sufficient to simply acknowledge their existence. But let’s take a brief trip to this hinterland together…

Continue reading Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?

ABRSM’s Piano Scales Review

ABRSM’S global standing has long been predicated on wide respect for their role as leaders in music education, setting and maintaining the “gold standards” that have been such a rich source of motivation and affirmation, inspiring generations of musicians worldwide.

But as they launch their latest Piano Scales Review, it increasingly seems they are ceding their authority, trading educational leadership for commercial popularity, led by market research.

In this post I will unpack some of their latest proposals against the backdrop of the bigger question of ABRSM’s historic role in setting and maintaining global standards in music education, noting both improvements and concerns.

Continue reading ABRSM’s Piano Scales Review

Breathing with Bach

Lesson Notes

Please note: “Eva” is not this student’s real name.
However, her story is told here with permission, and with my gratitude.

Eva learnt piano as a child, but took a break in early adulthood. A few years ago she returned to playing. Since coming to me for lessons she has completed the higher ABRSM grades and gained a DipABRSM performance diploma.

Eva continues coming for a 90 minute consultation lesson once a month. Her focus is on expanding her repertoire, and at present she is working on Bach’s Partita No.1 in B flat major.

In this lesson, we address the importance of the breath in alleviating shoulder tension, using three dance movements from the Partita as example repertoire.

Continue reading Breathing with Bach

How to motivate the demotivated student

Guest Post  by Amy Wakefield Taylor

Lack of motivation in our students is a problem that all teachers of piano can expect to encounter at some point in their practice, so it seems important to develop strategies for tackling it…

Continue reading How to motivate the demotivated student

Compassionate Boundaries

“It’s hard for us to understand that we can be compassionate and accepting while we hold people accountable for their behaviours. We can, and, in fact, it’s the best way to do it…

“We can confront someone about their behaviour, fire someone, or fail a student, or discipline a child without berating them or putting them down. The key is to separate people from their behaviours – to address what they’re doing, not who they are.”

Brené Brown, Ph.D, LMSW
The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden Publishing, 2010)

Online forums see daily requests for advice and support from teachers who are struggling with tricky pupil and parent relationships.

For piano teachers, the problem often seems to stem from a lack of agreed boundaries around issues such as prompt fee payment, lesson attendance, punctuality, respectful behaviour and effective, regular practice.

How do we balance on the one hand enforcing contractual obligations and appropriate behavioural expectations and, on the other hand, offering compassionate support, putting musical learning needs first, and positively enthusing our pupils?

I would suggest that the only effective balance here is to give 100% to both.

Pupils and parents do not, cannot, and should not need to know every detail of how a teacher organises their personal world. Effective studio policies, clearly communicated, fence off our personal and professional lives, and are especially important for those of us whose studios are based within our homes.

Boundaries help us devote ourselves to our shared objective of pupil progress, giving of ourselves wholeheartedly and without distraction.

Only when our personal and professional boundaries are securely in place, enforced in a firm, fair and friendly way, can we move on from the sense of resentment which develops when we feel others are taking advantage of our compassionate commitment.

In my experience over the years, the vast majority of my students (and their parents) have respected my professionalism when I have offered, explained clearly, and stuck to fair policies.

And in turn, this has created a studio environment where commitment, friendship, respect, compassion and enthusiasm have thrived.

Let me close this short reflection by handing back to Brené Brown:

“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behaviour or a choice…

“For our own sake, we need to understand that it’s dangerous to our relationship and our well-being to get mired in shame and blame, or to be full of self-righteous anger. It’s also impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment. If we’re going to practice acceptance and compassion, we need boundaries and accountability.”

Brené Brown, ibid.


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Piano Teaching: An Isolated Existence?

Pathways for Teaching

It’s become something of a cliché to say that the life of a piano teacher is a terribly isolated one, implying we have little or no meaningful contact with colleagues, operating entirely off our own steam, without support.

In this article I am going to consider from a personal perspective why I don’t personally feel isolated as a piano teacher, and hopefully offer some useful tips for those who do.

Continue reading Piano Teaching: An Isolated Existence?

Steve Luck’s Practice Tips

Steve Luck is a piano teacher from Newcastle Upon Tyne. This guest post originally appeared as a forum post within the Piano Network UK group, the leading Facebook community of piano players, teachers and enthusiasts living in the United Kingdom.

Steve’s post includes such useful information, aimed primarily at piano parents and students, that he has agreed to me giving it a public platform here on the Pianodao site, for which I am grateful, as I am sure many readers will be!

Continue reading Steve Luck’s Practice Tips

Simple fixes for easing piano pain

Lesson Notes

Please note: “Bernice” is not the student’s real name.
However, her story is told here with permission, and with my gratitude.


Bernice is a 76-year-old learner who took up the piano about 5 years ago. She has made steady progress, is now early intermediate level, and particularly enjoys playing traditional classical favourites.

Bernice’s Wrist Problem

Bernice has recently developed some physical problems in her wrist area. On the right wrist, she has a large ganglion close to the base of her thumb, which cases mild discomfort. The surgeon she has consulted is going to remove this soon.

On the left wrist she has a more chronic problem. Here there is a ganglion just below the fifth finger, not noticeable to the eye, and a scan has revealed that it is pressing against a nerve. There is possibly also minor swelling in the tendon. The medical specialist cannot operate, but has suggested that with care and anti-inflammatories the problem may dissipate.

The mention of tendons might be enough to convince some that piano playing should be avoided altogether. It is natural that we teachers don’t want our students to experience pain, and most of us will be aware of the real danger that tendonitis presents to pianists.

However, the medical advice here is that it is fine for Bernice to continue playing the piano, provided she is careful and exercises moderation. The hospital specialist has pointed out that such problems, as well as arthritis, might become an ongoing issue, but that these need not stop her from pursing her love for music (which is real and important to her).

Happily then, we can assume that Bernice’s medical problems are essential “minor” at present. But this doesn’t diminish the discomfort she reported when coming to her lesson, nor her fear that she might not be able to continue playing.

Continue reading Simple fixes for easing piano pain

Do you believe in classical music?

Wonderful news: the latest figures from the BPI reveal that sales and streaming of recorded classical music grew by 10.2% in 2018 compared to the 2017 figures.

This compares to the much lower 5.7% growth in other genres. In fact, classical CD sales grew by 6.9%, while most other genres actually saw a decline in sales.

And online streaming of classical music grew by a whopping 42%, compared to the 33% rise in the overall market. These figures are presented and discussed in this BBC News article.

Some will no doubt quibble over the specific artists and composers featured in the statistics, and we must admit that the categories formulated by salespeople and marketeers rarely tell the whole story. But those of us who really believe in classical music won’t be surprised by its upsurge and enduring popularity. We know that once people encounter good music, it can wield its transformative power.

It is odd, then, that so many piano teaching colleagues seem to largely avoid classical music unless and until it is specifically requested by a student or required for an exam. Why is this?

Continue reading Do you believe in classical music?

The Piano Student’s Humiliation

The other morning, while enjoying my first cup of tea for the day, our puppy Bella Bardóg decided to keep nudging me for attention, distracting me from reading the book in my hands. I rather thoughtlessly responded with,

“If you want the book, how about you read it to me?”

Bella looked somewhat forlorn, and my wife Louise chipped in with,

“Don’t humiliate her! You know she can’t read!”

This slightly daft domestic anecdote illustrates a hugely important truth: when we ask somebody, anybody, to do something we know they are incapable of, we humiliate them.

How often, perhaps inadvertently, do we do this to our students?

As well as an aspiring dog-whisperer, Louise is a clinical specialist in child and adolescent mental health, and it is only fitting to credit her for many of the thoughts which follow, emerging as they did from our discussion that morning…

Continue reading The Piano Student’s Humiliation

What Makes a Good Lesson?

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

A Student Perspective

Have you ever asked your student what makes a good instrumental lesson?

A number of years ago I did just that in a secondary school. There was a whole class full of students of different ages, learning different instruments with a variety of teachers.

Their feedback was enlightening. Here are the main themes, the messages I believe are still valuable.

Whilst revising this, from a personal perspective, it was a useful reminder to ask and listen more to the needs of my students and to think more creatively – especially when teaching sight reading and scales.

So, what did they say …

Continue reading What Makes a Good Lesson?

Finding Your Mentor

Here’s a very positive trend within the world of piano education: many teachers are enthusiastic about refreshing their skills by attending training courses and seeking out a mentor who can support their ongoing professional development.

Unfortunately though, while there are plenty of courses to choose from, finding a suitable mentor isn’t always so easy. In this post I will consider the qualities to look for, but first of all we need to ask: what is a mentor? 

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us:

“A mentor is an experienced and trusted adviser.”

With this definition in mind, I will begin by sharing my own journey…

Continue reading Finding Your Mentor

First Steps in Pedalling

Guest Post  by Margaret Murray McLeod

This post is an exclusive excerpt from this month’s Piano Teacher Talk – the online newsletter from EPTA UK. The whole newsletter is also available as a PDF at the end of this excerpt, with the kind permission of EPTA.

In this month’s EPTA post, Margaret Murray McLeod offers much-needed advice on pedalling…

Continue reading First Steps in Pedalling

Slow Progress

”Often we find ourselves in trouble simply because we are going too fast, disregarding signs of trouble that we would have seen if only we had been going a little slower.
All too often we get caught up in the rush; our whole culture is based on it.  Get ahead!  Do it now!
Sometimes the right thing to do is not to do anything.”

Solala Towler, Cha Dao (Singing Dragon, 2010)

These comments (which are taken from a book about the preparation and consumption of tea) offer golden advice which can be applied to pretty much any aspect of our lives. No wonder so many of us feel completely worn out most of the time!

For our purposes, I want to touch on the value of taking our time in two areas:

•  firstly teaching and learning
•  and then our personal piano practice

Continue reading Slow Progress

ABRSM: New Directions 2019

Exclusive Interview with Michael ElliottChief Executive, ABRSM


Having attended a few ABRSM conferences in recent years, the 2018 event was notable in many ways. On a visible front, it was noticeable that the venue was teeming with enthusiastic professionals.

More subtly, it seemed to me that ABRSM as an organisation was invigorated, the spring back in its collective step, its message an especially positive one, in spite of the challenges which presently face music education.

Against this backdrop, it was unusual too that in his welcome address, ABRSM’s Chief Executive Michael Elliott refrained from listing a string of achievements and announcements for the future, as has typically been the case.

Happily, I later in the day had the chance to sit down with Michael, together with ABRSM’s new Communications Officer Kerry Sheehan, to follow up on a few announcements from previous years and other rumours doing the rounds.

Michael gave generous and full answers, outlining his vision and a raft of forthcoming developments which will undoubtedly please readers here. And he was happy for me to audio record our interview and publish this full transcript, in which I hope readers will capture something of his enthusiasm and positive message!

Continue reading ABRSM: New Directions 2019

ABRSM Conference 2018: Report

Can it really be a year since I last reported from the annual ABRSM Teacher Conference? Apparently so! But once again this year I was delighted to be invited along to report from the event, share ABRSM’s latest news, and generally reflect on the day.

This year I had the added pleasure of a sit-down interview with ABRSM Chief Executive Michael Elliott on the day, and I’m grateful to him for graciously giving up time to answer my questions. Thanks too to Penny Milsom and Kerry Sheehan for their support.

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I’ve said in previous years, but it bears repeating: ABRSM really know how to put on a fantastic training day for instrumental teachers, building on their experience as world leaders in the music education sector, and with their fine pedigree of in-house and associated presenters.

A pleasure, too, to be back at London’s Grange Tower Bridge Hotel, once again proving to be a superb venue to host an event on this scale. As usual, the food was splendid, and every need of both hosts and delegates was anticipated and smoothly met. As for ABRSM themselves, the event was as flawless as in previous years, even though there was a noticeably and considerably larger audience this year (the conference sold out well in advance).

The rear cover of the glossy conference programme included the following important reminder of just how extraordinary ABRSM’s global reach is, summed up in these staggering statistics:

Over 40 million exams since 1889
600,000 exams a year
More than 700 examiners
1,200 books published
1,000 different assessments for 43 instruments
Exams in over 90 countries

I feel ABRSM are quite right to celebrate these achievements, because they don’t simply underline their success as the world’s largest examination board, but equally our success as musicians and teachers.

Not that we can rest on our laurels however; there is always more to learn, to do, and to achieve. As Michael Elliott explains in his introduction to this year’s conference:

“As music teachers, you have a vital role to play in passing on and nurturing a knowledge and love of this wonderful thing we call music. It’s a role that’s very much about giving and sharing. But it’s also about reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, discovering and implementing new ideas, and finding new sources of inspiration. Today we offer you a chance to do just those things in a conference packed with insights and top tips from a range of expert music educators.”

So without further ado, here’s the Pianodao report from the day…

Continue reading ABRSM Conference 2018: Report

Parents, Partners & Supporters

When I started teaching a quarter of a century ago, the bulk of my students were children. They and I depended on their parents for payment and support, which sometimes also meant direction.

And the crucial (if at times complex) triangle relationship between teacher, pupil and parent was a fundamental in almost every private lesson context.

Today the world has changed considerably, and one of the many differences for teachers is that the network of relationships around the private lesson context has become a far more complex and diverse one.

Continue reading Parents, Partners & Supporters

Learning to Play with Precision

In my recent article  Why Bother with Scales?  I considered the many benefits that arise from regularly playing and teaching scales and arpeggios.

In this shorter post I’m going to hone in on one especially important advantage which is sometimes overlooked entirely:

Regular scale and arpeggio practice trains the brain and the fingers to develop precision in judging and playing all intervals up to a fourth, using any standard combination of shapes and fingerings, and in all the standard keys.

This significant benefit is certainly not to be sniffed at, and fosters a technical ability that is otherwise unlikely to develop during the formative stages of learning the piano.

Let’s consider how this works…

Continue reading Learning to Play with Precision

A Halloween Treat

Guest Post by Alison Mathews

including Free Sheet Music and Lesson Activity downloads


With Halloween approaching, it is an excellent time to engage pupils in some creative work and explore the evocative and haunting sounds the piano can make. I’d like to share a short story and resources that may inspire you and your pupils to be creative!

Continue reading A Halloween Treat