Saturday, 29 September 2012

Wot, no scales?

More about the cast of characters today. I suppose you're always attached to your first pupil. Amelie wasn't my first pupil really but I think she was one of the first to take the piano seriously enough to make spectacular progress. There was just one problem - well, two problems, really but linked. If Amelie got anything wrong or couldn't understand something or couldn't master something quickly enough, she'd cry. Then, there was nothing more you could do that day. Looking back, it was probably frustration. The encouraging thing was that when she came back the following week, she'd have mastered the point in question. Except scales. She's always refused to do scales - and that's a problem, I think. YOU NEED TO BE FLEXIBLE as a teacher and I've had to find ways around that, for instance by choosing music like famous Mozart's C Major piano sonata that features a lot of scales in an attractive format. Amelie plays the whole of that sonata very well now. Of course, you can't do exams if you don't do scales and Amelie was always a little too nervous to do exams anyway. However, from time to time, we'd work through some exam pieces just so I could get a general idea of how she was getting on compared with others of roughly the same level. Not obsessive comparisons, just a general idea. I think I'll always remember her performances of two pieces from grade 4 ABRSM. Many of my pupils have played them and done a good job of it but her interpretation of them haunts me still. First, this beautiful Valse Lente by Vaughan Williams Then there's this Waltz by Kabalevsky where the hands have to be very independent to play the parts where the hands move widely apart at the beginning and the end. It's all too easy to rush these passages and create a clumsy effect but Amelie was always so graceful. In fact, graceful is probably the best way to describe her playing.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Leave the wylus on

I should introduce the rest of the cast as well. Today, let's look at the ideal piano parent. Joy asked me to teach Amelie, the eldest of her two kids about five years ago now when she was six. Joy has recognised music among the many gifts her children have. Perhaps when they were in the cradle they'd perk up when a certain song came on the *wylus. Perhaps they'd sing or clap along with the TV as toddlers. And it would be in tune or in time. Then, without being pushy she's given them an opportunity to learn in a more structured way. She's provided good equipment - in this case a nice Yamaha piano - because sometimes it's counterproductive to learn on any old thing (although that didn't do me any lasting harm). She's attended the lessons and learned alongside the children and managed to get to a pretty good standard herself. In the early days she brought Spiro, the younger one along to the sessions to soak up the music and, who knows,to pick up some of the tuition. Now, it's been said that even the infant Mozart had to put in the same practice time as anyone else and I think that's very true. Once, the composer Clementi was involved in a piano playing competition with Wolfgang Amadeus and came off worse but he was right to point out, ruefully, "Even the genius has to practice scales in thirds with each hand." So, above all, without being overbearing, Joy has supervised the piano practice and has come along with questions and problems to be resolved. Without having unreasonable expectations, she's had unlimited faith in Amelie and Spiro to be the best they can be. When they had to move to Houston, Texas she searched out the best teacher she could find. But - and it's lovely for me - even at a distance of nearly five thousand miles she's found a way of letting her children keep in touch with their first teacher. That's Skype. *Wylus? In Britain we sometimes still call the radio the wireless. I saw a small ad in the Gwent Gazette here in South Wales trying to sell a used car. What did it have? Supercharged engine? Check. Sporty wheel trims? Check. Wylus? Check. So, I always say wylus. And the ideal piano parent always has the wylus on at home.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Why me? Why me?

I've changed my mind. It's a better idea to say a bit about MY LIFE IN MUSIC before I go on to anything else. I was a late starter. I asked my folks for piano lessons when I was nine and they got a beat up piano into the front room at 21 Gladstone Street in Abertillery and sent me up the road to Miss Horler at number 47. Two shillings for a half hour slot. My brother is seven years older than me and he was into biology. He told me it's impossible for the right hand and the left hand to do different things at the same time. It's not; but it is a challenge. I don't think I was that good but that probably helps if you're a teacher because you know what it's like to struggle a bit and YOU CAN SYMPATHISE WITH YOUR STUDENTS. At eleven I started playing the cornet. Hopeless. I couldn't even get a sound out of it for weeks but I did play my first concert on cornet - Cwm's Junior Showtime. That's Cwm in the South Wales Valleys . . . I switched to French horn a year later and it began to click because not many people played horn round there in the seventies and I was in demand. That's when I first began to earn some money from playing in my mid-teens. I eventually made it through to the National Youth Orchestra. My worst choice was to drop music as a subject at school in favour of Latin. Still, that choice made a practical musician out of me. I taught myself the guitar and the recorder. I spent more than a decade in France mainly working with homeless people but came back to Britain in 2002. I met some great musicians called Huw and Catherine who inspired me to write some new songs Lots of them have been played on BBC Radio including Radio 2 and Radio 4. At the same time, I began to teach piano a lot - I'd always done bits and pieces - and it just snowballed from that. I decided I needed to have a qualification to get a bit of credibility so put myself through Grade 8. Once again, I SYMPATHISE WITH MY STUDENTS because that was tough. I felt as if my hands had turned into lumps of quivering slime. Yes, kids, I know how you feel when you walk into that exam room !

How do you start?

I was heartbroken. Two of my best students had to move to Texas. I had to go on living, but it was hard. I had to go on getting the others through their ABRSM exams but each new clutch of merits and distinctions somehow failed to satisfy. No, of course I really enjoy teaching the piano and it's never a chore but I was delighted when the Skype call came asking if I'd like to try teaching on that great platform. They had found a teacher in Texas - apparently piano teachers exist even there - but, bless their hearts, they MISSED ME. I looked into the different techniques for teaching piano on Skype. It all seemed so complicated. You could split the screen up and invest in the technology to show the piano music on one side and the student on the other. You could even make annotations on the screen for the student to look at. Then I realised the best tool for teaching piano is having a piano there in front of you to demonstrate the points you're trying to explain. I'll tell you how the first session went in the next post.