Piano Teaching Philosophy
What follows below are some key ideas about music learning that inform my teaching practices. I understand this may not resonate with every student. These are however central to my teaching style. You can click on "let me explain' under each heading to find out more details about each topic.
Everyone is musical - talent is overrated
I firmly believe we humans are all deeply musical creatures. Unless you suffer from an extremely rare condition such as amusia, as a non-musician, your musicality is likely to be dormant, underdeveloped or both.
With passion, persistence, expert guidance and a lot of practice, you can develop that innate musical self just as well as anyone else.
I do not subscribe to the idea of 'talent'. Based on current scientific understanding, I do not believe that people are born with a unique musical ability.
Instead, I believe prodigies are the product of a unique combination of external circumstances.
First, they possess character traits that make them suited to the pursuit of music to high standards early in life, such as a passionate interest in music, obsessive focus etc. Secondly, they often grow up in an environment that makes it possible for them to pursue these interests. For example, they have highly engaged and encouraging parents who are likely highly qualified musicians themselves, thereby able to mirror practice behaviours. They usually receive top-notch instruction from a very young age etc.
Even prodigies must practice intensely for many, many hours before becoming competent! (And it's their effort and dedication at such a young age that deserves our praise and admiration)
As such, given enough time, practice, dedication and instruction, and barring certain physical limitations, anyone should be able to become an accomplished pianist.
Learning piano is a long-term project requiring scaffolded learning
I strongly advise against the instant gratification mentality espoused by popular apps and some piano courses claiming you can play advanced music in mere weeks.
Learning an instrument requires focus, thousands of hours of practice, proper guidance and consistent effort. All the rest is fairy tales and false advertising.
You cannot take a few lessons and jump into Debussy or Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata and expect anything but a very substandard performance that leaves everyone, including the pianist, feeling unfulfilled, clumsy and inept.
I believe firmly in taking a patient approach to learning to play the piano, allowing you to develop your skills in a gradual, scaffolded, professional manner. Learning this way will not only take time but lots of practice and passion for the instrument.
Playing piano is an art of expression, not (necessarily) of performance
Music is generally labelled performance art, and I hear it often said by both teachers and students that "if you don't share music, then what's the point of it all".
I cannot disagree strongly enough with this sentiment.
While music CAN be a performance art, defining it solely as such alienates the vast majority of hobby and amateur pianists who learn and play as a means of self-expression and enjoyment.
I believe that a pianist at home, making music for their own enjoyment is just as valid a musician as a globally touring concert artiste.
The difference between both is their focus, not their identity: one focuses on sharing music with an audience, the other focuses on musical self-exploration. I don't see why the former should be considered more of a true musician than the latter.
That is not to say that performing cannot be an enriching experience, but it should not, and never will be, the main focus of my teaching. My students perform publicly only if they choose to make it part of their journey.
Teaching to the student's strengths - Bringing more positivity to lessons
Some people believe that the best teachers are strict, authoritarian and have almost impossibly high standards.
Indeed, this is the format of most expert masterclasses and has been the ‘ideal’ in most music schools and conservatories.
While this may produce exceptional results in some students, it also leads to a colossal loss of students who end up feeling like failures due to constant negative messaging in lessons: students are told the ten things they did wrong but are not made aware of what they did right.
This is not how I teach.
We all have weaknesses as pianists. Too often, teachers see it as their role to help the student overcome weaknesses at the expense of helping the students understand their unique strengths.
I see my role as that of a coach, helping you uncover your strengths so you may use them to minimise and overshadow (not eliminate) your weaknesses.
I teach this way because no one is perfect (see below), and the pursuit of eradicating any and all weaknesses in your playing is futile. Instead, learning to curtail them and developing your unique strengths (be that your sense of rhythm or ability to concentrate for long periods) is a far more enjoyable way to become a competent pianist.
Art is never perfect, it is human
As flawed as humans are, so is our art. Our playing is never going to be perfect. Your performance is never going to be perfect. Striving for perfection is a fool’s errand.
As wonderful as it is that we have such ready availability of great recordings, modern recording practices (where music performances are spliced and puzzled together to create note-perfect recordings) give us an impression of the infallibility of present-day performers. This impression is not only false, but it also sets a perilous precedent. If we focus too much on perfection, we may very well lose that which makes art, art – the human touch.
Let’s leave note-perfect performances for soulless computer renditions.
We need to focus instead on the music itself by making sure we communicate the right message that includes the composer’s intent and our own unique individual flavour.
Understanding perfection is unattainable doesn’t mean complacency. We should not be ok with careless errors. I coach my students on practice behaviour that helps them identify when errors are simply inevitable slip-ups and when they are systematic.
For the former, we need to learn to live with them and not let them ruin our enjoyment; for the latter, we need to work to eliminate them.
Inspiration over prescription
I consider it essential to give students some freedom to place a little bit of themselves into their music-making.
So while I teach historical performance practice, I try to steer clear of overly prescriptive teaching where I insist students strictly follow my personal interpretations (or those of other teachers!).
I teach by allowing the students to be inspired by various artists rather than prescribe rigid practices to be followed to the letter.
While imitation plays a vital role in all art education, there should always be some room for personal taste and interpretation, or else we risk being nothing more than photocopiers.
I encourage my students to reflect and make informed choices when editions vary or when altering written scores, using their own judgements alongside my teacher arguments for and against their choices.