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  • Pamela Krakauer

Piano Teaching as an Art (and the razzle dazzle of performance)

When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, the term piano pedagogy was pretty much non-existent in the vernacular and just by virtue of being employed by Yamaha Music School, one was already seen as a legitimate music teacher. Today the term seems to be more foregrounded due to the efforts of one individual backed and endorsed by a prominent piano dealer, to circulate and champion the cause of piano pedagogy in Singapore, by encouraging Grade 8 teachers to “upgrade” themselves. In the Austrian university system, the school teaching, solo performance and instrumental pedagogy tracks are clearly differentiated with several music school systems across the provinces that insist on an applicant having a pedagogy degree as a license to teach. My Chinese friends however, report that the situation there is the reverse, where the performance graduates are perceived as the more desirable and sought-after teachers. My sense is that the perception in Singapore is quite the same as in China, where many believe in the mantra of “Those who can, do (perform). Those who can’t, teach”. It’s an unfair division, as it implies that there are naturally expressive imaginative artists on one end, and critical pedantic teachers at the other end of the scale. Because of wanting to portray a certain image associated with the glamour of being a concert pianist, some of my former university schoolmates ended up doing makeover photo shoots in evening gown with the piano.

I’ve also heard stories of disgruntled performers who once had great dreams and ambitions of making it big on stage, but never did and thus had to fall back onto teaching. In the long run, they ended up infecting all their students with their own sense of malcontent and failure. I’m happy to say that I was never one of those types, and would also urge students and parents not to pick a teacher primarily based on one’s reputation as a stage performer. In fact, I would like to assert that teaching as an art in itself that encompasses an additional set of skills (communication, the ability to positively motivate and inspire others etc.) that the performer does not have to possess. The impact of bad teaching is immeasurable and the result is long lasting collateral damage, while the impact of a mediocre performance might just be foregone opportunity cost on activities that could have made for a more inspired evening. More than anything else, a great teacher’s reputation rests upon the kind of students he nurtures and grooms.

The legendary Heinrich Neuhaus (1888-1964) who taught Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, and Radu Lupu among many other great musicians, had some interesting points to make about teachers, the types of teachers, and how this intersects with performance:

“though the teacher-performer offers a number of undoubted advantages compared to one who is a teacher only- and first of all the advantages of being a living example- yet, to a certain extent, one who is purely a teacher appears in a way to be more of a piece. His life and profession seem unwaveringly directed at a single aim merely because, to put it bluntly, he has never had to sit on two chairs. He devotes himself entirely to his pupils, and only to his pupils, demanding nothing for himself. If a performer is overloaded with teaching work he is conscious at every moment of the harm which this excessive workload causes to his favourite occupation, that of performing. And even if this awareness does not have a negative effect on his teaching, it inevitably affects his morale. Even before he realises it, dark minor tonalities creep into his heart. Happily these vague feelings do not disturb the heart of a pure teacher. A psychologist said that a real teacher assesses himself seriously only from the point of view of his pupils. For a performer this is unthinkable”.

I teach from my home-based studio and it is an honour and serious undertaking to be in this profession. I feel a sense of indignation and annoyance when people think that 10 students a week equals to ten teaching hours and they ask me with, “what on earth do you do every day?” There are issues and questions that I grapple with on a daily basis:

Do I have sufficient knowledge with regards to piano technique, musical structure, style, theory, historical knowledge, harmony and form? What is my knowledge of the piano repertoire- or am I only restricted to teaching pieces that I myself have played before? Have I played similar repertoire that is on par in terms of complexity with what the student has brought to me? Do I have to rely excessively on recordings to “learn” how a piece sounds like or am I able to read and study the score? Am I aware of what makes a performance outstanding and musically convincing? How much can this particular student accomplish and how can I help him/her to maximise potential and to do more? Am I spoon-feeding my student by giving him/her all the solutions and unintentionally encouraging passivity and mindless imitation? Am I empowering my student to be an active listener and critic of his/her own music-making, encouraging my student to develop a sense of taste and sound musical judgment? As an individual, am I stagnant and complacent, recycling pieces that I have taught dozens of times or am I open-minded and committed to developing myself personally and artistically by learning and exploring new repertoire?

It is another dismal and tragic outcome that some teachers in Singapore are promoting themselves as gifted educators capable of sending young students to perform in prestigious concert venues such as Carnegie Hall. (On that note: beware of charlatan music teachers with no degree who charge $200/hour). I find this phenomenon completely abhorrent, especially when many of these performance festivals do not even have any stringent criteria of screening applicants, simply granting podium space to anyone who is willing to pay $100 a minute to perform and to buy up a good number of tickets to fill up the hall. A few months ago, I met someone whose teenage son (with singing abilities many light years away from the young Christian Immler) had performed there and I ask myself, what kind of self-created myths and self-delusional bubbles are people creating for themselves by paying heaps of money to fly to the East Coast and perform in a venue associated with luminaries such as Vladimir Horowitz and David Oistrakh? What kind of perverse logic is this to say, I performed in Carnegie Hall and therefore I am good. It’s a free market and venues are available for rent but we need to be more discerning and critical of these pay-to-perform festivals. How far is one willing to go, to pay in order to enhance one’s CV in such a manner?

The obsession with showcasing talent is especially pronounced in Asia. There exists a pool of parents and students who are ambitious and eager to sweep up as many accolades and prizes like a racehorse, which has given rise to the many performance festivals and competitions around the region (where students can even using ABRSM exam pieces to compete). Music schools and music teachers showcase their students on social media ad nauseam, often regardless of their ability and quality and some teachers keep a stranglehold over their students. I recently spoke to a mother who complained incessantly about her children’s existing piano teacher not giving them a proper foundation, made plans to transfer them to my studio, but later informed me that she couldn’t transfer since they were committed to competitions later in the year under their previous teacher, but that she wanted to hire me as a shadow teacher anyway to prepare her son right away on his Grade 8 examination pieces, in spite of him having played virtually nothing since his Grade 6. I said no, and that was the end of our correspondence. When trust is irrevocably broken and when one demonstrates hypocrisy and cowardice, there is no turning back. It is a blessing in disguise when things don’t work out.

It is an increasingly cluttered world we live in and it’s a pity that the music industry is going in a direction that is losing contact with the essence of music itself, and I urge all parents and students to have a realistic set of expectations (and their own limitations, while striving to overcome them) as it’s so easy to be swept away by vainglorious, inconsequential and meaningless pursuits ostensibly for music’s sake

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