Elissa Milne is a well-known pedagogue, composer, and author in Australia. Read her post on understanding why it takes students a longer time than expected to learn a piece!
By Loretta Lanning
As American piano teachers, we are always shamed by international teachers who find our system of private lessons vs. music schools to be quite terrible. I set out two years ago in my own teaching to create a studio of European quality.
After doing my absolute best, I have come to several conclusions about why young American piano students as a whole will never be the same level musicians as International ones, and that this is not really a bad thing.
1). The entire European education system has almost nothing in common with the American system. European schools are career-track schools from the elementary level; if a student shows musical ability or their parents decide that they will be musicians when they grow up, they are placed into high-level music schools. Every day, a small child has lessons, ear-training, theory, and supervised practice. Their parents support this utterly and enforce all practicing at home. How can they not grow up to be fabulous musicians?
2). European music schools are publicly funded. Governments value music education; in some countries, being a fabulous pianist is a symbol of national pride. Music teachers are paid living-wage salaries. American music schools, which are hard to find, are at least 90% privately funded through tuition, donations, and grants. This alone shows us that our American governments do not see music as career-track pursuit that should be taken seriously. just this year, even general music was taken almost completely out of our local school system. Music education is left to private teachers who teach out of passion and concern for their art. How can one private teacher create the same high-level musical culture that is needed on a daily basis for students to achieve international levels of musicianship?
3) The notion of amateur playing is foreign to Europeans. Children do not take piano lessons "for fun" or because it is "good for them" (which it is). Children are too busy following their already tightly prescribed curriculums for other disciplines. As American studio teachers, we get the serious students with supportive families, with whom nothing is impossible, but we also get a much larger percentage of students who don't like lessons, who have less ability, and whose parents put lessons and practicing on the bottom of the priority list. As teachers, we can have the highest standards and the latest methods, and all the theory and ear-training we can throw at them, but they will never grow to be great players. Yet, at the very heart of the matter, we cannot afford to turn them away from lessons because we are all self-employed. I would like to observe testing and recitals in Russia if the general public were all taking lessons and if gifted teachers had to teach all levels of talent, not just the exceptional ones.
4). If American private piano teachers went on strike and demanded the government subsidize their teaching (this is extremely hypothetical) and turned away all students that did not show ability and enthusiasm, we would see an immediate improvement in general performance. If we would all be paid to work in music schools and share the burden of teaching theory and general musicianship with a large number of colleagues, we too would be able to expect professional, high-levels of playing by the time a student graduates high school.
The main point I am making is that the over all lower-quality of college preparation is not really our fault as private teachers. Most of us do our absolute best to adequately train students, and Americans do have a history of brilliantly trained concert pianists. I believe that we should be proud that we offer lessons to everyone and continue to do so. I believe that music education is for everyone, not just for the gifted. To accomplish this, however, there are other things that we have to give up. We just need to maintain a difference between students who will grow to be amateur players and those students who aspire to be professionals. We must keep our standards high for those students who want to go as far as they can. In so doing, we cannot ignore everyone else. I hope to find this medium in my own studio, and begin my campaign to demand government subsidies (just kidding...or am I?).
Confessions of a Piano Teacher
by Megan Nyquist
I am thankful that I'm not a vocalist. It's nothing at all against vocalists - I will forever be entranced by the melodious sounds that come out of vocalists' mouths, and wish I had an ounce of their talent. It's also not the fact that I wouldn't normally sing in public - which I only do in church or the seventh inning stretch at baseball games. No, it's none of that. Here's the thing: when I get sick with say, a 4 week bout of laryngitis, my livelihood is not affected! Hallelujah! The ten, healthy digits attached to my palms blessedly do not feel the effects of said illness. I might be required to use pen and paper or a whiteboard to communicate with my piano students, or in extreme cases, sound like an injured bird screeching at them. But joy of joys, I can simply sit down at the piano and just play for them. No voice required. And for that I am thankful.