We all remember the teachers who have inspired us the most, and we may refer back to those teachers and mentors for advice and support long after we have ceased to have regular tuition. Many of the finest piano teachers active today were themselves taught by the great teachers and musicians of a previous era, and it is this connection to earlier teachers which makes these teachers so valuable and wise. A good teacher is like a portal to the wisdom of those earlier teachers and mentors, and, most importantly perhaps, to the music.
One feels a tremendous sense of continuity through these generational connections, and such musical ‘provenance’ can be invaluable and inspiring when one is learning. A teacher can act as a “spy” on the past, if you will, passing on “secrets” of technique, performance practice and more handed down from earlier teachers, and enriching one’s experience of previous performers and performances. This musical genealogy can offer unique insights and also enables a good teacher to be eloquent and articulate about what makes a good performance – and what makes a really great one.
This connection to earlier teachers and pianists interests me: one of my previous teacher’s teachers, Vlado Perlemuter, studied with Maurice Ravel, and was a student of Alfred Cortot, who was a student of Descombes who was, possibly, a student of Chopin. Thus, I could, albeit somewhat tenuously, claim to be a great-great-great-grand-pupil of Chopin! My current teacher studied with Andras Schiff, Leon Fleischer and Nina Svetlanova, amongst others.
This remarkable heritage feeds into today’s teachers, making them highly sought after – though some students perhaps think that these teachers can “channel” the great pianists of the past directly to them. This is a rather simplistic and unrealistic view, for what these teachers really do is distil and adapt the wisdom from their own teachers to make it relevant to their own students. A good teacher will be generous with their wisdom and knowledge, while also allowing the student to develop a personal approach to their playing.
The word “teach” comes from the Old English meaning to “show” or “point out” and I think the concept of a teacher as a guide rather than a didactic tutor is a good one. A good teacher also appreciates that teaching is an ongoing learning process in itself: the best teachers are often the most receptive too, and engage in continuing professional development to ensure they remain in touch with current practices and theories. Mix this with that wonderful heritage of past teachers, an ability to communicate well, patience and empathy, and a positive attitude, and you have a truly great teacher.
One of the most important pianists of the 19th century was Franz Liszt and he also had a substantial reputation as a teacher. Some pupils described their lessons as masterclasses of 10-20 students where others were in smaller 5-pupil classes that might meet 3 times a week. Students had to perform from memory and would pile their scores at the front of the room. When Liszt found one of interest, he would have the student perform, but if he heard a mistake, the student would be swept off the piano bench and replaced by another. Liszt rarely played privately in these classes and students resorted to various subterfuges to get the maestro at the keyboard to “show them how….”
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