A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILY
I hope you had an enjoyable Christmas and you were able to see loved ones during this lockdown period. There’s no doubt that 2020 will go down in history as one of the most catastrophic episodes of our lifetime – possibly of the century. We could not have foreseen what awaited us this time last year, and, as we go forward with hope and baited breath, let’s pray that during 2021, we are able to move out of this difficult, isolating crisis and look to the future.
Our lives have changed immeasurably this year, much of it for the worse, sadly. Those who run businesses or are in the entertainment or hospitality industry seem to have suffered the most, with many now considering a career change in order to stay afloat. But one profession which has still been able to function is teaching. Whilst those in this profession have generally continued to work, for many, it has been a totally different experience to that which we had become accustomed; face-to-face teaching has been replaced with remote online learning. This online experience has changed our working lives completely, and, for many, including myself, has also changed the way we view our work. In my new year’s post, I want to write a little about those changes, and how this devastating Pandemic has allowed us to glimpse at a future where online teaching could indeed take centre stage.
This time last year, if you had told me that I would be spending most of my teaching life sitting at my piano, working through my computer screen, I certainly would not have been happy. Up until this point, I had very little experience of online teaching. About four years ago, a student had been preparing for an exam, and due to A level pressure, she simply hadn’t got around to taking it by the time she left the school at which I was teaching her, therefore during her first term at university in Boston (US), she took lessons with me on Skype until her exam. The connection was always poor, rendering the whole experience as rather negative. Suffice to say that I decided to stay firmly offline believing it a challenging medium, and one which couldn’t possibly replace face-to-face teaching.
I don’t teach the piano full time and never have. I usually work two days per week, and the rest of my time is spent writing and composing, as well as running workshops and piano courses, both here in the UK and abroad; travel has always been one of my favourite passions, and I love to work around the world. Teaching the piano is extremely hard work (as those teachers who read this blog will know) and it’s especially demanding when working with advanced students (all my students are advanced). It would have appeared to me that this type of student would not benefit from anything less than their teacher working with them in the room at the piano.
At the end of the Spring term 2020, with just two weeks to go until Easter, the Pandemic was declared, and what with face-to-face teaching now considered a danger, we had no other choice but to turn online. There was a myriad of questions. Which platform is best? How can we learn to use it swiftly? Will it be reliable? How will students respond? Where I teach, we use Microsoft Teams and Zoom, and, for private teaching, I use Skype. All these platforms have their good points, and it was tricky learning how to use them quickly. But, as so often when we are pushed beyond our comfort zones, there are many silver linings associated with this new way of working. And my students had no issues using these platforms and they were clearly enjoying the new experience.
Online Piano Technique
As a teacher who strives to build solid technical foundations, I was very concerned that the way I work simply wouldn’t translate via a screen. Despite the fact that teachers are advised to have limited physical contact with their students (there are many rules associated with this type of teaching here in the UK), in order to alleviate and correct tension issues, I find it necessary to regularly reposition shoulders, arms, wrists, hands and fingers etc. Without this constant hands-on coaching, students simply aren’t aware of what they are doing; bad habits are tricky to correct, and good posture or hand/finger connections and positions take time and care in order to establish (or re-establish) them properly. I do this with great care, and only with student permission.
At first, it was certainly strange to be so disconnected and remote. However, it didn’t take too long before I realised that what I said to students was now far more important, as was ensuring succinct instructions. Demonstration is vital as well, and, for me, a crucial element is to always demonstrate physical movements very slowly. I do this during face-to-face lessons, too, but it’s even more imperative through a screen. I teach using just one laptop, as opposed to using several screens or devices, but I do move the laptop all around the piano, to ensure students have the best viewpoint of my movements. After demonstrating slowly, I have learned to describe in detail what I am doing – and to describe the ‘feeling’ behind the movement, that is, to advise what muscles/tendons need to be employed and, subsequently, released. Tension in piano playing is nearly all about ‘locked-up’ arms, wrists, or hands, and therefore, releasing during practice and, particularly, immediately after the moment of impact (or the playing of a note/s), is paramount. It’s a good idea to slow down movements during any practice sessions (that is, practice slowly), but exaggerated movements are also useful in order for students to comprehend the required motion; when movements are up to speed, the feeling is, of course, different, but tension breaks learned during slow practice sessions are still in place, once they have been understood. I was surprised at how these descriptions worked just as well online as they would have done face-to-face.
Sound quality is a real issue when teaching online and it’s almost impossible to hear every subtlety. But I’ve become accustomed to observing my students’ movements. Good sound is all about movement preparation. After demonstrating how to make a certain tone colour using particular movements, it quickly becomes apparent as to whether the student is making the desired movements and if they’ve understood what I’ve said. Movement observation has worked really well here, and for finer details relating to sound, I ask students to make a recording – and this in itself has been a useful exercise.
One of my students applied to study at a UK music conservatoire this year, and she had to send a recording instead of attending a live audition. This was a major challenge, but we quickly adapted, and part of her weekly practice and preparation was to record herself at least two or three times between lessons. For me, her success was a triumph because she lives in China and, whilst I had taught her for a couple of terms face-to-face in London, I had never before prepared a student for such an audition without ever hearing the programme ‘live’. She will be starting her piano studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama next September, where she has won a full scholarship.
Interpretation is a much easier aspect to convey online, and even pedalling can be explained and demonstrated with laptop mobility; I have found that a tablet is a beneficial addition for this facet, too. In fact, the movement of my laptop or tablet has been a crucial factor – they are both able to whip around the piano for detailed observation. Fingering is a bit laborious; it takes more time than doing it in person, however, I have been able to watch and change a student’s fingering when I ask them to move their cameras close to their hands. It’s vital to ask a student to place their camera in an advantageous position, and be able to move them, too, so finger movements and finger placement can all be viewed with ease.
Moving into the Future
In October 2020, I was asked to run a piano course online for Jackdaws Music Education Trust; it was their first online piano course, and my first, too. I was sceptical about such a venture, partly because my piano technique course relies on lots of hands-on coaching. But we presented the course on Zoom, and it was very successful. Participants understood everything via my demonstrations, and we seemed to have even more time to work on small details – and I left the camera rolling during coffee breaks, so that we were able to chat and interact as we would have done in person at Jackdaws.
In November 2020, I adjudicated at the Around The Globe Piano Festival which was online this year. Students recorded their performances, uploading them to YouTube, and I sat at my desk writing comments, as I would have done in person, whilst the audience watched on Zoom as we listened to each competitor. I commented and announced the winners after each class, exactly as I would at the festival.
From someone who doubted online teaching, I’ve turned into a teacher who loves it. During 2021, I will be hosting one day online piano courses for Pianist Magazine – these start in February, so keep an eye on Pianist’s social media sites if you would like to attend. I’m looking forward to giving a whole series of online master classes to students in Hong Kong and Macau throughout the year. And if you would like to attend my Piano Teachers’ Course to be held at Chetham’s Summer School this year, you can join us face-to-face or remotely, as all my classes will be streamed online.
Could this be the future of piano teaching? Only time will tell, but it has been gratifying to find something positive during this disastrous year.
I wish you a wonderful and successful 2021.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.