Prestige: Does it Matter?

Guest Post by Katrina Fox

The pandemic has accelerated change in almost all walks of life, and music education is no exception.

The release of the new ABRSM Piano syllabus has coincided with massive changes in the delivery of their practical and theory exams, which have been met with mixed responses from piano teachers, parents and pupils.

In a recent discussion on an online forum, the “prestige” of ABRSM was cited as a significant reason for continuing with their examinations. This point really struck a chord with me and left me feeling uncomfortable, and for the last few days I’ve been turning it over in my mind.

The Oxford Dictionary defines prestige as,

“widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.”

Is prestige a good thing?

Does it confer any benefits in real terms to users?

Does it benefit the majority, or a privileged few?

These questions made me reflect on my own educational experiences, and the impact of prestige in my own development.

Growing up in a working-class family (not poor, but certainly not “well-off”), prestige was something my parents valued enormously as they felt it would give their children better opportunities. However, in these last few days I have realised it has been something I have come to resent. 

Looking back, opportunities that I would have loved to participate in were closed off to me either due to finances or resources, or by attitudes I found alienating. My own teacher was both understanding and generous: understanding that my parents could not afford the longer lessons that were required as I moved up the grades, but giving me that time anyway. I was lucky. 

This was all three decades ago. But in 2020, should prestige even be a consideration in the education of our young people?

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Adapting to Change

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.

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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…

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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, EPTA stalwarts Mark Tanner and Karen Marshall 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…

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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.

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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…

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‘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?