About Me: Why I Became
a Piano Teacher
When I started out in this profession, I didn’t have the self-belief to tell people: ‘I’m a piano teacher’: instead I described myself as ‘a full time mum who teaches a bit of piano’.
My previous occupation had been as a sub-editor on a local newspaper – a job which I gave up when I had children. However, when the younger of our two boys started pre-school, I decided it was time for me to earn some money again.
It was actually a fellow journalist who recommended piano-teaching to me, pointing out several advantages: I could work from home so I wouldn’t need to pay for child care, piano teachers are much sought after so I’d be likely to find pupils, I wouldn’t need an expensive or time-consuming course to start me off and I’d have all the advantages of being my own boss. I’ll always be grateful for his advice.
So what made me think I could become a piano teacher? Well, I’ve always had a deep love of music and a reasonable amount of patience and empathy – qualities which I believe help make a good teacher. I had a piano at home and – having had lessons as a child – knew how to play it.
• The majority of references I make to piano examinations concern those provided by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). It is probably the best-known exam board with exams taken in more than 93 countries (to change country on the ABRSM site, click on ‘GB’ in the top right-hand corner) and it’s the one I have always used for myself and my pupils. However, there are other exam boards: most notably Trinity College London and The London College of Music (LCM) which offer similar levels of qualification. Some countries have their own exam boards – one of the largest being the Australian Music Examinations Board.
• In addition to 8 graded examinations (and the ‘prep’ test which can precede them), the ABRSM offers three diplomas: music performance, direction and instrumental/vocal teaching. Each of these has three different levels: DipABRSM Diploma of The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, LRSM – Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music and FRSM Fellowship of the Royal Schools of Music. See ABRSM diplomas for further details.
Although not exactly ‘musical’, (I’ve always struggled to sing in tune and don’t find picking up new rhythms particularly easy) I had nevertheless gained a grade A in my ‘O’ level (now known as GCSE) … and a not-so-good grade O in my ‘A’ level! I think laziness was to blame for the latter … although I did pass my grade 5 music theory examination at around this time – thanks to after-school lessons in my North Wales comprehensive.
But was my piano-playing good enough? I decided it probably wasn’t. I had completed only the first four ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) grades (see side panel about examination boards) when – as a teenager – I stopped taking lessons. (I did continue playing after this – but mainly just the same two or three pieces over and over again). I realised that if I had any hope of teaching others, I needed to improve my own skills. However, as I was keen to start teaching – and earning – as soon as possible, I decided that I could take on a few beginners whilst still learning myself.
Personality as Important as Musicianship
The two piano teachers I went to in adulthood taught me a lot about teaching. The first – a young male – steered me successfully through grades 5, 6 and 7 – before being offered a teaching position elsewhere, while the second – who (miraculously!) helped me pass my grade 8 – lives nearby and has become a good friend. In addition to generously sharing plenty of teaching tips, these two showed me that being a successful piano teacher is as much about personality as it is about musicianship.
Many of the adults who start lessons with me tell horror stories of their childhood teachers who shouted constantly (and in extreme cases even rapped pupils’ knuckles), filling them with a fear of making mistakes or failing. I have vivid memories of my own dreaded piano lessons which started when I was a shy, timid nine-year-old. Mrs Griffiths – the short, big-bosomed, Welsh witch with a twitch whom my mum, sister and I called ‘Mrs Bam-Bam’ (after the word she used to shout repeatedly along to the music) is long dead so I can say what I like about her. Unfortunately, I remember more about her consuming countless ‘jam butties’ throughout the half-hour lesson than I do about anything she actually taught me.
So many adults say “I wish I’d carried on” and it may well be that the blame for their failure to do so lies with the teacher.
Trial and Error
When it comes to how to keep learners interested, I don’t have all the answers – and I have certainly ‘lost’ my fair share of pupils (the majority of whom were only vaguely interested in learning piano in the first place and took lessons merely to please their parents). However, I don’t feel I have frightened any of them away and hope to increase my success rate as I learn through trial and error. The purpose of this website is intended to encourage you to do the same, whilst giving you a head start on avoiding many of my errors.
I will not attempt to outline the rudiments of music: I will assume readers have a knowledge of such things as musical notation, rhythm, pitch, key signature, time signatures, scales, intervals, dynamics and so on; in order to even consider becoming a piano teacher, you must have at least a basic understanding of all these things and, if you want to know more, you’d be better off reading a detailed music theory book (there are plenty of music theory guides at Musicroom.com, Amazon UK/Amazon US or eBay.co.uk/eBay.com).
I make no apologies for the fact that some advice offered may seem simplistic or amateur. I will not give a great amount of technical detail (about finger action or pedalling technique, for example) as I do not feel qualified to do so. Anyone aiming to improve their own piano-playing or to fine-tune their teaching skills would do better looking elsewhere. This website is intended mainly for those considering piano-teaching for the first time and wondering what it entails … and for existing piano teachers looking for a few problem-solving tips.
Use Your Strengths
To some, my approach may seem old-fashioned – my pupils start learning to read the notes in the very first lesson and I spend little or no time ‘messing around’ with music. I’d like to say this is because I feel very strongly that focusing on the score is the best and only ‘proper’ way of teaching piano … but if I’m honest, it’s probably just that I’m not very good at the other stuff!
Obviously, if you have the ability to teach improvisation, invent piano games, help children write their own music, transcribe their favourite pop songs or play a duet with them on another instrument … so much the better! But don’t be put off if you feel your musical knowledge still has gaps – even the best piano teachers continue learning ‘on the job’.
I’m not an expert in piano-teaching and I’m certainly not a brilliant pianist – far from it – but after 10 years in this job, I feel I have plenty of tips to offer whether you’re an existing piano tutor, one who is starting out – or even at the stage of just considering piano-teaching as a career.