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

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

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

Piano Star Theory

Sheet Music Review

ABRSM’s Piano Star series of books for children have been warmly received since their introduction a couple of years ago, their pieces regularly appearing in student concerts, festivals, the Prep Test and Grade 1 exams.

Last year the original series of three progressive books of fresh new repertoire grew to include a book of “Five Finger Tunes at the entry level, and a “Piano Star Grade 1 book at the upper end (reviewed here).


And now there’s another addition: the Piano Star Theory primer is published this week. Let’s take a look…

Continue reading Piano Star Theory

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?

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?

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

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

‘Rote Learning’ – a waste of time?

Pathways in Teaching

“Very young beginners, of five years or under, sometimes appear to make remarkable progress at first, and can be taught up to a point by imitation or ‘rote’. A large part of their lesson is taken up with rhythmic training and singing.
In actual piano-playing they progress a certain way and then they appear to stand still and, very often, to lose interest.”

Joan Last
The Young Pianist (Oxford University Press, 1954, 1972)

Rote learning seems to be very much back in vogue, and the remarkable progress which Joan Last writes of is something many teachers will be familiar with. Indeed, it is perhaps because of this ‘quick win’ progress that a number of prominent writers and trainers recommend teaching “by imitation or rote”.

The benefits would seem to include:

  • Building pupil confidence and ongoing enthusiasm;
  • Playing more advanced, expressive, interesting and impressive music than the pupil can presently read;
  • Exploring keyboard geography and developing physical freedom;
  • Developing musical memorisation ability;
  • Providing an inclusive option for students who struggle with reading;
  • Focussing more on technique and ear training;
  • Delivering quick results that impress parents and encourage students.

With such wonderful benefits, shouldn’t we all embrace rote learning as a core element of our teaching practice?

Certainly there are many who would answer that question with a resounding “yes”, but Joan Last points to a significant fly in the ointment: after progressing a certain way, players “appear to stand still and, very often, to lose interest”.

Martha Beth Lewis, a US pedagogue with more than 50 years experience teaching children, puts it far more bluntly on her advice page for teachers:

“Position playing and rote learning are mostly wastes of time. I think such methods are used by teachers to convince the parents that the teacher is doing a good job because the child can “play a tune” very soon. Such systems do NOT serve the student.”

So let’s take a deeper look at the subject, and consider why such esteemed writers and experienced teachers have spoken out against this approach…

Continue reading ‘Rote Learning’ – a waste of time?

Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

Pathways for Teaching

In the minds of many students (and in the case of children, their parents), two questions are constantly lurking –

  1. How well am I doing?  and,
  2. How can I improve?

I believe teachers should routinely answer these questions, but how best to frame those answers? As a general principle I would suggest that pupils will gain confidence if they have a clear, honest perception of their progress, and goals which are detailed and encouraging.

Graded exams can offer one way – and an important framework – for pupils to gain the meaningful, quantative answers that help foster confidence.

While exams are certainly not without their issues, most of the concerns I see raised relate more to their misuse than to their appropriate use. 

In this article I will consider both, and offer a personal perspective on some of the most common concerns. And in conclusion, I will try to provide an answer to the question: Graded Exams – Friend or Foe?

Continue reading Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

Why Bother with Scales?

Pathways for Teaching

“For many, scales and arpeggios are an academic, dry and soulless part of learning the piano, and have to be practised because, like cod liver oil, they are ‘good for you’.”

Anthony WilliamsThe Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide (Faber, 2017, p.31)

Why bother with scales? (by which, for the purposes of this article, I also mean arpeggios and broken chords) …

In order to properly answer this question, this article will consider these related questions, of vital importance to students and teachers concerned to know about the purpose and value of teaching and learning scales:

  • What are the benefit of learning scales?
  • Is it important to use consistent fingering?
  • What are the benefits of cumulative learning vs. exam preparation?
  • How can scales practice and creativity go hand-in-hand?

Let’s get started by considering the core benefits of learning scales…

Continue reading Why Bother with Scales?

Solo Xtreme Books 1-3

Sheet Music Review

The name Melody Bober may be a new one to many readers here in the UK, but in North America she is well known for her popular Grand Solos and Grand Duets for piano series, among others, published by Alfred Music.

And based on her latest series of collections, Solo Xreme, perhaps it’s time for her to gain wider recognition here too!

Let’s take a look…

Continue reading Solo Xtreme Books 1-3

Are You a Fanatic?

“If you’re invited for tea by a connoisseur of Pu Er (tea) in Yunnan, be prepared to deal with a fanatic, for Pu Er inspires a zealous devotion among its advocates, who, like missionaries of a mysterious cult, will try their best to coax you away from your own acquired taste in Chinese tea, and persuade you instead that Pu Er is the high and mighty lord in the entire pantheon of Chinese tea.”

Daniel Reid: The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea (Singing Dragon, 2011, p78)


I can think of several parallels in the world of the piano, where advocates of a particular approach or style present themselves as zealots for their cause.

It seems to me that there’s nothing wrong with such passion, so long as we each remember to show respect for one another, and present our views and ideas with dignity, generosity and grace towards others.

I have been, and remain, a fanatic for many musical and other causes. If something works for me, there’s a good chance it will equally work for others, and I am happy to share my experiences and insights if they might help.

But what works for one, although it may work for all, need not do so.

We are, each of us, unique. Each must find their path, and few of us like to feel coerced or pressurised into accepting a rigid model stipulated by another.

Experience ultimately always triumphs over dogma. As the saying goes,

“The older I get, the less I know.”

So let’s keep the fires of healthy fanaticism alight, but in our passion we must remember humility, keeping our hearts and minds open. Above all, pursuing kindness.


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The Three Treasures of Musical Learning

Pathways for Teaching

We all have a “teaching philosophy”, whether we realise it or not. Mine strongly advocates holistic, personalised, life-centred education. My model of The Three Treasures of Musical Learning is a key component to complement these values.

Paying attention to all Three Treasures – and at all stages of learning, from the youngest beginner to the most advanced professional – leads to deeper learning, fuelling progress and fostering a lifelong love relationship with music.

In this article I will explain what the Three Treasures are, and offer some tips on how focusing on them can help us develop as effective teachers.

Continue reading The Three Treasures of Musical Learning

100 Inspiring Ideas!

Building a Library

The work of the independent piano teacher can be as varied as it is rewarding, and this throws up innumerable challenges on a regular basis.

Every student is unique, and each lesson different from the previous or next one. Holistic teaching requires not only a deep subject knowledge combined with pedagogic expertise, but also psychological insight, access to multiple teaching strategies and resources, tactful diplomacy and administrative efficiency.

It’s little wonder that many piano teachers struggle to be equally adroit in all these areas, or to have well-honed skill-sets to meet all these varied demands. And while answers to many of the questions we face – and situations which arise – are probably to be found in our previous knowledge, experience and common sense, it is nevertheless a huge asset to go through each day prepared for what may arise, and thoughtful of the ways in which we can improve as well-rounded teachers.

Help is at hand in a recent book written by Penny Stirling and Karen Marshall, and published by Collins Music.

Continue reading 100 Inspiring Ideas!

Simplifying GDPR for Piano Teachers

When Liz Giannopoulos contacted me about a month ago to offer a guest post about GDPR, my initial response was, “what’s that?”

It is a response that was echoed by many when Liz’s post was published here just a few days later. It quickly became apparent that many instrumental teachers, like me, didn’t know the first thing about GDPR, even though it comes into effect on May 25th 2018. I know that many are hugely grateful to Liz for her very clear introduction to the subject.

In the weeks since then, there has inevitably been a huge debate about GDPR, and no small amount of activity on the part of those of us who are concerned to run our teaching businesses on a professional and legal footing.

This post will consider some of the biggest questions teachers have been asking and – with further help from Liz and from piano teacher Joanne Snowden – will offer some updated and accessible answers to these practical concerns:

  • Do I need to register as a data controller with the ICO?
  • What do I get for the £35 registration fee?
  • Do I need to seek consent from data subjects?
  • How do I write a Privacy Notice, and what should be included?

There has been much confusion about these issues, and often the ensuing debate between teachers has seemed to miss the core value that data privacy is a basic right for us all.

GDPR is ultimately about caring for our students and clients.
It is about respecting their basic rights.
It is an act of kindness.

Alongside putting my students’ and clients’ needs first, taking time to reflect on how I use other peoples’ personal information (and why) has proven to be a genuinely helpful professional development exercise.

As piano teachers we often enjoy considerable autonomy – and don’t always welcome challenges to our independence – but taking time to reflect on our compliance to external professional standards is worthwhile in and of itself.

With that in mind, let’s now turn to some big questions that teachers have been asking…

Continue reading Simplifying GDPR for Piano Teachers

Making Every Lesson a Special Occasion

Pathways for Teaching

When I started teaching full time back in the 1990s, the best known teacher in my neighbourhood was Sidney Pope, a venerable older gentleman who tuned pianos by day and taught the local children once the schools turned out in the afternoon. Sidney continued teaching until his health finally gave out, and was a much loved and very able teacher.

I was a tuning client of Sidney’s, and when he learnt that I was entering the fray as a teacher he couldn’t have been more encouraging, referring pupils he couldn’t personally fit into his busy schedule, and generously sharing a lifetime’s advice.

This perplexingly included his list of rules for student conduct; rules which were certainly very thorough…

Teachers today tend to provide contracts that for the most part relate to parental behaviour – paying on time, not cancelling at the eleventh hour, and so on. Sidney’s rules pertained to the children themselves, outlining his expectations of practice, attitude in lessons, and even the clothing they wore.

In this regard, Sidney’s demands were crystal clear: boys’ shirts must be tucked in, and dresses or skirts were compulsory for the girls – no trousers!

Why, I wondered in my professional naivety, should girls not be allowed to wear trousers to their piano lessons in 1992?

Sidney patiently explained that piano lessons must be regarded as a special occasion, and that students benefitted from making an effort to dress up accordingly…

Continue reading Making Every Lesson a Special Occasion

Get Set! Piano Characters

Collins Music have just made available a brand new FREE resource to accompany and support the Get Set! Piano series, written by Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond.

The latest additions to the stunning range of materials are a set of “Character” posters featuring the books’ popular Louis Legato, Suzie Staccato, Patrick Piano and Francesca Forte, as wonderfully illustrated by Julia Patton.

Each poster can be printed off as an A4 sheet to display in your teaching studio and use as a teaching and learning resource.

The complete set comes as a PDF file which Collins Music are generously offering on their own site, and by special permission, right here via Pianodao:

DOWNLOAD LINK.

Enjoy!

And many thanks indeed to the creators of Get Set! Piano and the lovely people at Collins Music.

You can also still find the full range of the Get Set! Piano downloads here.

And my review of the method books is here.

The Playful Piano Teacher

Pathways for Teaching

Are you a piano teacher? If so, let me ask you a question: Do you enjoy your work? I mean – really enjoy it, all the time?

I’m fairly sure that most of us, if we are honest, will recognise that while we love our work in general, there are times where fatigue, impatience, distraction and even boredom can set in, even very fleetingly. And while we may feel a little guilty or inadequate in those moments, the reality is that in any job – however wildly fulfilling – we all experience “off days” and times when our heart isn’t quite so far into it as usual.

To counter the negative feelings that this can produce, I invite you to consider this wonderful quote from Buddhist teacher Haemin Sunim:

“Those who work in a playful, relaxed manner
tend to work efficiently and creatively;
Those who work non-stop, driven only by stress,
work without joy.”

Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down (2012)

In this post I am going to consider what it might mean to “work in a playful manner”, and how this could make all the difference for our students.

Continue reading The Playful Piano Teacher

Your Stories: June Armstrong

Your Stories

June Armstrong is a piano teacher and composer of educational piano music which focusses on the promotion of technical development whilst engaging the imagination and encouraging the exploration of interpretation.  She lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Here’s her story…

Continue reading Your Stories: June Armstrong

ABRSM Teacher Conference ‘17

Having been very impressed with last year’s ABRSM Teacher Conference, I attended again this year, and with high hopes – and wasn’t disappointed!

Once again, the event took place at London’s Grange Tower Bridge Hotel, a venue which itself lived up to the excellent impression made last year. The surroundings, organisation and – perhaps most importantly – the FOOD were all first rate!

As for the content of the day, once again this year there was something for everyone, although a particular focus was on the new Woodwind and Singing syllabi and resources published earlier in the year.

This inevitably led to a lesser focus on piano teaching than last time (presumably next year the piano will again be centre stage) but I found the day no less rewarding. So here’s my report…

Continue reading ABRSM Teacher Conference ‘17

Musical Afterthoughts

That, Not That, And Other Musical Afterthoughts…

Guest post by Roberta Wolff

Teaching offers ongoing opportunities to reflect and learn. For me this is one of its great attractions.

We learn how to present what we teach in easy-to-recall, bitesize chunks. We learn about our students and ourselves, and we learn about learning. As well as enjoying watching my students develop their skills, teaching has made me a better musician.

The key to maintaining our learning lies in reflection.

In this day and age, with “information overload” and countless media vying for our attention, it is easy to forget that we often learn more by looking inward.

Instead, we are distracted by a near-constant stream of external input, and as a result it is becoming easier to overlook the importance of reflection in the learning processes of ourselves and our students.

This results in the development of reactive tendencies rather than considered responses. It also inhibits progress and self-knowledge.

Continue reading Musical Afterthoughts

A Weekly Smiling Face

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

A few weeks ago when I arrived at school I was given an envelope from the secretary.

One of my pupils (she’s only 5 years) had given her the letter to save and give to me on my next arrival. The envelope was beautifully decorated with some of my catch phrases written all over it.  I was a little stunned but very touched. And then I opened the envelope.

Not one letter but three, each about how much she loves the piano, is excited about coming to lessons, and is always greeted with a big smile!

Gratefulness spilled from the pages, I was truly humbled by the generosity of this little girl, but also very aware of the power of my words (repeated by her in the notes), which had all been absorbed and responded to.

Continue reading A Weekly Smiling Face

The Piano Teacher’s Posture

Pathways for Teaching

All good piano teachers are concerned to teach and monitor good posture to their students, and as players we are hopefully equally aware of our own posture at the piano.

But how about our posture when we are teaching?
This, in my experience, can too easily be overlooked as a less important concern.

I am trying to address my own posture while teaching, so write this article to share my experiences and findings, while also suggesting a few easy tricks that other piano teachers can incorporate into their thinking and practice where helpful.

In this article I will hope to touch upon:

  • Should we sit less, and if so how?
  • What about good posture?
  • What other factors have an impact on our working environment?
Continue reading The Piano Teacher’s Posture

How to teach scales effectively

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

As a young pianist I really struggled with scales.  In fact, I only passed the scale element in my music exams in Grade 1 and 8 and it wasn’t until doing my associated diploma (over 400 scales) that I fully mastered some patterns!

Because of my own struggles, I have spent a huge amount of time developing a wide range of activities for teaching scales.  My own students don’t struggle like I did.

It appears my weakness in learning scales has helped me develop some helpful techniques to teach them.  I share them here to provide some new ideas as we all embark on the new academic year trying to help our students master those repetitive patterns!

Continue reading How to teach scales effectively

Let’s talk about our practice expectations

Pathways for Teaching

Lack of practice is an issue that most piano players grapple with at some point – and it is something that teachers don’t always handle graciously and with understanding…

Continue reading Let’s talk about our practice expectations