Who needs piano lessons anyway?

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
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As UK Chair (at time of writing) 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.

Continue reading Who needs piano lessons anyway?

16 Attributes of a Good Teacher

PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING • by ANDREW EALES
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With these striking words, contemporary Daoist author Deng Ming-Dao invites us to consider how our personal qualities can help us be the best people, and by extension, the best teachers that we can be:

“Those who follow Dao believe in using sixteen attributes on behalf of others: mercy, gentleness, patience, non attachment, control, skill, joy, spiritual love, humility, reflection, restfulness, seriousness, effort, controlled emotion, magnanimity, and concentration. Whenever you need to help another, draw on these qualities.”

Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao Daily Meditations, 188 (Harper Collins)

So let’s be clear from the start: what is on offer here is the secret of how to be successful in helping others, in any context. A lot of us will devote much of a lifetime to discovering the answers which are presented right here.

But how about applying this directly to our work as piano teachers?

In this post I am going to look at each of these attributes in turn, briefly exploring the powerful links that exist between a teacher’s character and the quality and effectiveness of their teaching…

Continue reading 16 Attributes of a Good Teacher

Adapting to Change

PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING • by ANDREW EALES
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Change sometimes takes us by surprise, a bolt from the blue, and in the early months of 2020 we have all experienced a jolt to our way of life as countries around the world quickly followed each other into lockdown.

As the dust settles and we try to adapt to “the new normal”, many are now wondering how these changes will continue to affect us, and what they mean. We are feeling uneasy about the future, and unsure of our footing.

Here in the West, we sometimes assume change is a linear process, an ongoing narrative in which we continually face the unknown, but with no going back. We measure our success in terms of our annual growth targets, believing that unless we progress “onwards and upwards” we will fail.

For the Daoists however, change is cyclical, often understood in the natural context of the turning seasons and the rotation of day and night. There is similarly a natural expansion and contraction of all things, seen for example in the ebbing of the tides, the wax and waning of the moon.

I believe that these metaphors are really helpful; they can give us hope. They encourage us to accept life’s “ups and downs”, pliably and positively adapting to them. In contrast to western materialism, Daoism teaches that there is a rightful time to contract, consolidate, and rest: all of which are necessary for our well-being.

In this context, there really is no “new normal” because we are all on a continuing journey. Nothing in the universe stands still. But at the same time, it certainly seems that history has a peculiar habit of repeating itself. Fixed plans and linear growth targets only succeed when all else is essentially in a state of entropy, but this is historically rare and actually a bit weird.

The upheaval of 2020 presents us with a unique opportunity to reflect on this. How then can we “go with the flow”, “roll with the punches”, and adapt to change?

In this article I will consider this question primarily from the point of view of a pianist and teacher, but beyond my thoughts on how to adapt our playing and teaching, there is much here that equally pertains to our living.

Continue reading Adapting to Change

Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism

PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING • by ANDREW EALES
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“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

Piano Star Theory

EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES • review by ANDREW EALES
Supporting your teaching • PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING


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 • by ANDREW EALES
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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.

And perhaps in the age of the lockdown, the sense of isolation becomes more acute than ever. We are all suffering, but we are not alone. You are not alone.

In this article I am going to consider from a personal perspective why I don’t personally feel isolated as a piano teacher, and offer some useful tips for those who do, along with practical suggestions for networking and accessing support from colleagues.

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

PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING • by ANDREW EALES
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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

‘Rote Learning’ – a waste of time?

PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING • by ANDREW EALES
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“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?

Why Bother with Scales?

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
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“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 Williams, The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide (Faber Music, 2017)

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?