A few thoughts on piano teaching in Singapore & Malaysia

I spent an energizing and inspiring Summer period away from home this year. For me, this was the perfect way to enjoy a substantial break from my conventional teaching and writing. After working trips to the US (New York) and Germany (Gelsenkirchen), I savoured a relaxing, short holiday in Devon (South West of the UK) before embarking on a three-week sojourn to Southeast Asia.

I was predominantly based in Singapore, but I did cram a jam-packed five days in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) too. This part of the world has always been a favourite; I have visited these shores many times as a young pianist, more recently returning as an examiner (for the ABRSM) and an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Festivals (BIFF). The culture, colour, and sheer vibrancy of this region resonate with me completely, and I particularly admire the deeply respectful attitude to my profession.

My work began with a visit to the Singapore Performing Arts Festival, where I was invited to adjudicate (for BIFF) small classes of solo piano and strings. This festival, which is based in Katong (to the East of the city centre), is fairly new and has yet to blossom into the colossal organisation of the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival where classes of sixty are a regular occurrence  (and where I will be adjudicating for a month in March 2018). The classes in Singapore were mostly filled with students preparing for exams or concert performances, and, as always, it was a real pleasure to hear their work and hopefully help with a few constructive comments.

The primary reason for the trip was to introduce and talk about my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music), and under the kind auspices of the festival, I gave two days of master classes and a further two of workshops, all of which incorporated my new books. The first workshop was for students and their parents, and the second, for teachers. Both were well attended, but the workshop for teachers was especially interesting (pictured above). My chosen topics (piano technique, scales & arpeggios, memorisation and sight-reading) were subjects of concern such is the regularity with which these elements are taught, often due to examination requirements (the British exam system thrives throughout the region).

All twenty-eight teachers were not just responsive to my work, they were also keen to come to the piano, one by one, and try out my ideas and suggestions. The day flew past, and it was extremely satisfying and heart-warming to see such an animated, engaged group.

A couple of days were then spent giving private lessons for the festival; working both with children taking their graded exams, and teenagers and teachers preparing for their performing and teaching diplomas. Practice and preparation is a serious business in Singapore, which suits my style of teaching, and I relished working on the FTCL and FRSM repertoire with several students.

There are a plethora of piano studios and music schools in this tiny country,  some of which inhabit shopping malls! My second engagement was giving private lessons and public classes at The Musique Loft and Musique D’amour, also both based in Katong, in a mall full of beauty salons and health shops. These busy studios teach students of all levels, and we had fun working on mainly exam repertoire. Parents are generally involved with their child’s musical progress and frequently come to the lessons. Some will disagree with this practice, but I find it can be very beneficial; it ensures fruitful practice and therefore bodes well for overall improvement.

The teacher’s workshop at The Musique Loft (pictured to the right, above) was held in a studio with a beautiful Steinway grand and with another group of dedicated teachers. Memorisation is a popular topic amongst teachers; ‘I can never memorise and therefore find it challenging to teach to students’ is a remark I commonly hear. We work at this subject in several ways, but memorising on the spot is a feature of my class, and I’ve yet to find anyone who can’t do it. Observing pianists who suddenly realise they can master this aspect of piano playing is always a happy moment.

Another element which appeared popular at all the workshops, were the sight-reading classes (which round-off the day); at the end of each session, I encourage groups to sight-read altogether (one of which is pictured to the left, at the Performing Arts Festival), with three pianists per piano or six hands (there were nearly always two or three instruments in the room (and we had five pianos to work with in Kuala Lumpur!)). I use one or two pieces, both of which are well within most student’s capabilities, and we run through them with me acting as the conductor; I use the same musical parts duplicated, which makes it easier for students to ‘hear’ and feel where they are in the piece (and in the bar) at any given time.

British composer Mike Cornick has written a splendid series of trios, 4 Pieces for 6 hands at 1 piano (there are several books in the series for different abilities), and the second piece, Sempre Legato, is a winner (the front cover of this volume was photographed many a time during these sessions, by those eager to get their hands on a copy). Sight-reading in groups is a sure way to improve reading, although most work on this demanding discipline is done individually in my classes before playing as a group.

In this part of the world, piano teachers sometimes work in music shops (where jobs are coveted). After working for three days at The Musique Loft and Musique D’amour, I gave classes and shorter workshops for two days at the Cristofori Shop and School (pictured below) near Marina Bay (with an impressive view of the renowned hotel, Marina Bay Sands). The Cristofori brand is new to me – it’s popular in this part of the world, originating in Singapore, and taking its name from the ‘inventor’ of the piano, Italian maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655 – 1731). The Cristofori instruments I played had a slightly muffled, ‘soft’ tone and a deep touch (which students responded to favourably).I took the bus from Singapore to Petaling Jaya, to the West of Kuala Lumpur, where I stayed for a few nights. A refreshing change from flying, it was a pleasant way to spend six hours and offered a chance to enjoy the scenery. Kuala Lumpur might be viewed by some as an assault on the senses with its stunning Batu Caves (I managed a quick visit), frighteningly imposing Petronas Twin Towers, endless traffic jams, bustling night markets, open-minded cultural mix, intoxicating heat, and stupendously spicy, fabulous food!

Gloria Musica is a popular piano school in this region with many students and teachers (and it’s about to become larger with a lovely new premises). I had been invited to coach several three-hour master classes and two days of workshops; one for students and another for teachers (pictured above, at the end of the day, with Play it again: PIANO). A factor which I feel is important when giving workshops is the inclusion of all. Active workshops seem the best way to assimilate information, and to this end I urge each participant to come to the piano and engage in what is being demonstrated (although this is a personal choice; students are never forced to take part). As a result, everyone does participate and they usually comment positively on how much more is learned.

After the final classes, the tour concluded with a teacher’s concert (see poster below). A group of teachers at the school (and professors from UCSI University) played short pieces to a large and appreciative audience. I played some of my own compositions. The range of music was interesting, from a duet version of Carnival of the Animals (by Saint-Saëns) to some compelling (and previously unknown to me) Chinese pieces.

I am extremely grateful to the teachers and piano studio owners who kindly invited me to their schools during this period (and spent much time and energy showing me around these enchanting countries), to the Performing Arts Festival in Singapore for its wonderful hospitality, and to Schott Music for their exemplary distribution and vital support.

The opportunity to travel is a privilege. And to incorporate travel and work together is an aspect of my life which I have never taken for granted. I left Singapore and Malaysia with a greater understanding of the culture and complete admiration for their dedication to music study. I can’t wait to return very soon.

You can find out much more about Play it again: PIANO here.


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