One of my senior pupils asked me the question, “When is someone qualified to teach piano?”  It was a subject she had been discussing among friends. There are no doubt various opinions on this. Some might argue that unless you had passed all your piano exams you shouldn’t even consider it. Others may say years of experience on the instrument are more important. Still others may feel that skills gained in teaching other subjects can be transferred as long as you have a good grounding in general musical theory. And others, even, that you can teach anything as long as you are at least a lesson ahead of your pupil!

It is a too big a subject to cover in depth here, but I will briefly touch on some of the important issues to consider. First, I’ll cover the negatives of pupils learning from inexperienced and/or not yet qualified teachers, then follow that up with a way through if someone is wanting to get started as a teacher.

First of all, you need to grasp the importance of a solid understanding of the basic skills. Any of us can teach what we have learned one way or another, but how it is received and carried through for the long term is going to be the best test of whether our teaching is effective or not. In any project there are foundations that must be put in place. For example, if a child has not been taught early on to have good hand shape firmly in place on the correct notes it can affect their ability to read music fluently. This is because they will likely be switching between looking at their written music and their hands to see if they are in the right place.

Second, it is not fair on any beginner to learn from someone who is just feeling their way without having done it before. If you have not yet seen the problems that will occur later on from poor tuition at the beginning, you may not realise the importance of getting basics into place from the start. And you owe that to your pupil.

Third, every learner is different. Knowing what methodology to use for each learner comes with experience. Even if a tutor uses one particular tutor book series they need to know how to adapt that for the needs of their pupil.

Fourth, if the pupil is not well supported from the outset, they may give up and never come back to learning again. And even if they do so with an experienced teacher, bad habits formed early can take a lot of time and patience to correct. I am saddened by the many conversations I have had with people who have had a negative experience of learning an instrument that put them off for life.

 

What would help?

Supervision

Anyone wanting to teach because there is no suitable professional available should do so somehow under a qualified, experienced teacher who can guide them through the challenges they face at the beginning, of which there can be many.

I realise, as I think on this now, how privileged I was to be mentored from a young age from such a person in my mother who was already teaching instrumental music as her profession. I grew up seeing all it involved almost without even thinking about it. She helped me as I put my first pupil through for his first exam when I was 15. But actually, she was still the main tutor. Everything I did was using the exact methodology she was doing for her other pupils.

All this to say, whatever age you are or whatever qualification you have, if you are starting to teach an instrument, you would benefit hugely from having an appropriate mentor.  You owe it to anyone you teach to do so. 

A systematic tutor book or course

If you use a recognised tutor book series, you at least have a solid progression of pieces in an order that has been tried and tested with many before you. Look for a course that provides clear instructions for the tutor. Some will also offer tutor instruction books to go with their courses. 

Keep learning and get qualified

A teacher who is continuing to learn has a better understanding of the struggles of their pupil.  Keep working at increasing your own qualifications and attend teacher training courses and workshops at every opportunity. This will mean you are working at getting qualified while you are learning through practical experience, both essential. 

Avoid teaching the very young

This will depend on the child, but it is much easier to teach someone who has learned to at least sit still and do a given task through being at school a couple of years. You need to establish that they can spend some time practicing what you teach them.

Avoid teaching a family member*

Although teaching a family member may be your motive or goal, teaching someone who is not a family member is much easier. Family members tend to take each other for granted and you would need to put clear ground rules in place for it to be effective.

 

This has barely touched on this subject, but I hope it gives some guidance. If you have want to discuss any specifics, do get in touch with me via email delwyn@accentmusicschool.com

I would be glad to help you be sure about how to start out as an instrument tutor. You might also find a blog I wrote in February helpful: 7 characteristics to look for in a piano teacher

 

*I consider teaching your own family members a specialty of its own and am currently writing a course to help with this specifically for piano, called: Teach My Child the Piano like a Pro. It is especially for those who want to teach their own children (or grandchildren) when a qualified, experienced teacher is not available, but provides a decent amount of practical help for anyone wanting to teach the piano.  Again, if you want to know more about this forthcoming course, you can contact me via email delwyn@accentmusicschool.com

 

As a boy, my brother Peter hated pumpkin. To make matters worse, the compost heap in the back garden produced a healthy number of them. So one day he took the family broom and smashed a few of them to pieces. Waste was unacceptable in our household, so our mother gathered all the usable pieces, roasted them and served pumpkin with gravy to Peter for breakfast, lunch and dinner until it was all eaten. Strangely enough, he likes pumpkin now. Almost to prove the point, when I rang him this week to confirm the details of the story, he’d just had pumpkin soup for lunch!

I think as parents we could learn from this, and not just with food. Just because our children express a dislike in something, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of the story. It may just be that they need some careful parental persuasion to look at it differently, try it a different way or try it again at a time when they may be more responsive. This can be equally true in regard to developing musical taste.

We’ve all heard people express very definite opinions about what they like and what we don’t like. We might make a judgement on what is good or bad music, when maybe it is simply a matter of taste developed from our particular set of experiences, however limited or broad they may be.

Sound is morally neutral when you stop and think about it. Society determines the sounds and sound combinations that are assigned as music, and then gives meaning to that music by the context in which it is used, how it is played and listened to.

Let’s go back to the humble pumpkin to illustrate this.

In New Zealand we commonly eat pumpkin boiled or roasted as a vegetable, or as pumpkin soup, and I was surprised to find out that some of my American friends were only used to consuming it in pumpkin pie, a dessert. The pumpkin remains the same, how it is used is different.

In a similar way, a system of sounds played in a non-western culture (for example, Indian raga-based music) will have a different framework from the scales used as the basis for Western music. Without some kind of exposure to the system of music used, it is not surprising if we dismiss it as something we don’t like.

We tend to like what we grew up with: the particular sounds of music that surrounded us as children and gave us an association of home. For me, this was a combination of the classical music being taught by my parents and the musical theatre pieces being practiced and performed when they were musical directors. However, in the process of studying music and later ethnomusicology (the study of music in culture), I have come to appreciate a wider range of music than I grew up with. I still have personal tastes, but learning to understand a little of other music systems is fascinating and has helped me objectively learn to appreciate a variety of music.

From a very young age our chiIdren are already developing their tastes in music from what they hear around them. If we, as parents, are enjoying a wide range of music played by a variety of instruments, it stands to reason our children will grow up doing the same.

As a music teacher I have seen children grow in their appreciation of a piece of music that at first was more tolerated than liked. Getting to know it via working through new or difficult passages can often turn it into a firm favourite.

Had my mother served up Peter’s pumpkin a different way, I wonder whether the story would have had a different outcome. We’ll never know. What we do know is that she didn’t just accept his dislike, but found a way to broaden his preferences and give him an acquired taste he is grateful for today. Food for thought?

Through the exam process everyone wins!

For the pupils an exam helps them step up quite intentionally to another level of playing and gives them an internationally recognized qualification.

For the parents an exam provides an honest, qualified, outside perspective on their child’s learning. It is a check that the tutor is guiding their child well.

For the tutors an exam shows areas of strengths and weaknesses in their own teaching.

The exam system I am most familiar with is that offered by Trinity College London. They provide an impartial unknown examiner and globally recognized levels of achievement for a range of instruments. Other examination boards such as the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music offer very similar systems.

There is so much that goes into preparing for a music exam. The 5 tips from last week and another 5 here are just scratching the surface, but I hope you will find the process interesting and helpful if you ever want to consider your child or yourself sitting such an exam. 

  1. To memorise, or not

My preference is that pupils always have their music in front of them for the exam and that they know how to read it – and especially where to continue playing from should a slip arise! This is a valuable skill that all musicians need to develop. Playing from memory is wonderful, but if it slips up and you don’t have the music in front of you, it can mean unnecessary failure. The examiner can only judge by what he or she hears and you do not get extra marks for playing by memory. They want to hear a beautiful performance and it is irrelevant whether you have the music in front of you or not.

  1. Mock exams

Getting closer to exam time, when the pieces can be played proficiently, but with polishing still relevant, is a good time to have a mock exam with the tutor. This helps get a feel for the flow of what will happen in the exam. You get marked down on things like restarts and realise you have to have things clear in your mind before the performance. As a teacher it is always helpful for me too, to see how accurate my predictions are of the marks that follow later. I am usually a harder marker than the examiner, but that is how we get a better result when it matters too.

  1. Pre-exam concert

A concert before the exam always proves valuable for getting rid of last minute concerns and in particular dealing with playing for an audience. I have clear memories from my youth of pre-exam concerts before the examiner from England had travelled to our town and do the exams. My parents had so many music pupils that we had the exams at our place and the best china always came out with the silver tea pot!

For our pre-exam concerts the music room sliding doors were opened up to our lounge and the larger room was filled with parents and friends a few days before the exam. Pupils would play their pieces and my mother would jot down final points for them to be aware of.

  1. Playing ahead of time on the actual instrument of the exam

It is especially important for pupils to have a practice on the exam piano. Just going from an upright to what might be a grand piano is a big enough adjustment to throw their concentration off. I was fortunate growing up that the exam piano was also my practice piano (which was probably worth a few extra marks in itself). These days I book a practice session for my pupils at the examination room ahead of the actual exam. If you play a different instrument you will likely be using your own. But even though familiar with it, you need to know it well and have extra bits (reeds, strings, etc.) for breakdowns as may be required.

  1. On the day of the exam

Relax! Don’t frantically play right up to the exam. Warm up with some scales and just imagine you are going to play some nice music for a kind elderly gent. (Who knows? It may turn out to be a kind young woman.) Examiners are usually lovely people and do their best to set you at ease. Enjoy the day and have something nice to do to look forward to after it.

 

Last week I started by saying that I am not a natural performer and I did not find exams easy as a child. But with clear goals and working progressively towards it, I’ve witnessed now as a teacher and a performer that a music exam can be a positive experience even for the most unnatural of performers.

I am not a natural performer. And I can’t say that I was excited about music exams growing up. In fact I was terribly nervous. The pressure leading up to them was disconcerting and I often, regrettably, left everything to the last minute. But I never really minded the exam day itself. By that stage there was nothing more to do than the exam. And everyone seems to be nice to you on exam days too.

Reflecting back, I’m grateful for everything I learned through doing them. And it wasn’t always just about the music – I gained valuable life skills too.

 Over my years of teaching children to play various musical instruments and guiding them through exams, I have come to see exams as a very positive part of their learning.  Knowing that they can be a challenging experience in different ways for different people, I do my best to make sure the process is as positive as possible. I’ve come to realise that it’s not so much about learning the music for an exam (although that’s important!) but the overall approach that matters.

 I’d like to share with you my 10 top tips for music exams, from preparation to performance. But, as that will be a lot in one hit, you’ll have to wait until next week for the last 5. Here are the first 5 of those tips to make the best of an exam experience:  

 

  1. Know ahead of time what it will involve

Have a good chat with the tutor to know what is involved, so there are no surprises along the way.

  1. Start learning the music with plenty of time

Get started well in advance of the exam. I usually find that the time of putting the entry in (2-3 months before the exam) about right. This may vary from 9-12 weeks depending on school holidays and the age of the child. Allowance is needed for trips away in school holidays and possibilities of family events or sickness disrupting preparation time. 

  1. Have good support from tutor and family

Have good support in place from all the relevant family members so that someone is making sure the practice is covered each week. Parents and tutors need to communicate well to make sure things are steadily progressing as planned.

  1. Prepare music accurately

This may seem like a given, but mistakes learned early require a lot more work to correct than if the music has been learned carefully and accurately from the outset. In an exam, those mistake points are the places you are mostly likely to stumble over in a performance, even when you may have corrected them well.

  1. Learn to play at the correct speed

In their eagerness to learn the piece, there can be a danger of a pupil playing a piece faster than the speed required. Then it can be difficult to play at the correct speed for the exam. Too fast is as bad as too slow and will be marked accordingly.

 

That is all for this week. Next week I’ll continue with another 5 tips for preparation right through to the day of the exam.