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Three young pianists show how alternative strategies can work

Because I teach outside the school system pupils sometimes stay with me for a decade or so, from first steps until the big step of university. I've been teaching privately in Wiltshire for 15 years, and have always used concerts in place of exams because I’ve found the latter largely negative experiences for young people which, in my view, give them completely the wrong message about what the true experience of music is. I see a clear psychological difference between a recorded concert and an exam in the environment each creates. One is cut and dried, requiring young people to go into a room with a stranger whose only purpose is judgmental – which strikes me as very negative emotional message – the other takes place within the warmth of friends and family, whose support creates a space of infinite possibility and encouragement.

Not long after I started teaching I wrote a piece for Classical Music titled What Role for Exams in a post-Gutenberg World? pointing out how the self-assessment which technology now allows is a potentially more valuable tool for development than conventional methods. Having started filming pupils’ concerts with a single fixed camera 14 years ago, I'm now able to produce quite sophisticated multi-camera videos with the aid of a local youth film project, recording the audio independently and completing postproduction myself. Fortunately I was born ‘digital’, in both senses of the word, and very much enjoy using the video and editing skills I acquired during my previous life as a broadcast composer and producer. When I gave that up 20 years ago and came to live in the country, partly to compose, and partly because I wanted to do something more useful with my life than score car chases or write love songs to carpets, I little thought that that would include piano teaching; but am absolutely delighted at that development.

I still hold the view that while exams are clearly appropriate in science, where there are facts that can be objectively tested, in the arts the paramount purpose of teaching needs to be the encouragement of subjective imagination, and this is best achieved within a permissive space. Whether you agree with this or not (and I anticipate that some readers may not) what my films demonstrate is an effective alternative motivational strategy that achieves excellence within its own context, whose legacy is a permanent record of children’s maturation as well as their musical progress.
Since the advent of YouTube five years ago I've been uploading students’ concert videos to, where there are now 229, which have received 280,770 viewings, the most popular getting 20,600 hits in 3 years. This works like a stimulant in boosting young performers’ self-esteem and causing them to redouble their efforts. I have recently edited and uploaded three 10’ compilations of three pupils which make quite interesting case studies for the virtues (and possibly the vices) of my approach.  The three clips feature individuals whose pianistic ‘outcomes’ have been very different.

The first, covering 1997-2005, is one of my earliest pupils, William, who is also the only one to date to go into professional music. He came to me, as quite a lot of pupils do, because I specialize in pianists for whom conventional methods have failed. Tho he was only 10, I knew at once that he was destined to be a professional musician because he would always sit with arms folded when not playing – just like every session pianist I've ever encountered! Another sign of his destiny was that William’s fingers were immediately electrified by an audible beat. There was a bit of a wobble in his mid-teens when a career consultant, who plainly didn’t think music was a ‘job’, suggested he consider becoming a journalist; but then Beethoven reclaimed him for music, and he went on to Bath Spa and so into the profession.

The second, Tim 2000-2006, was an interesting character. He had a great love of the piano, and made up for what he lacked in natural facility by determination. It was while teaching him that I discovered Ludovico Einaudi, whose music transformed Tim’s life as it has that of most of my teenagers at one time or another. I've no idea why conventional musicians are so snooty about the attraction of Einaudi’s melodic minimalism; indeed connoisseurs will recognize Stella del Mattino as the current BBCtv1 station ident. Tim’s performance of I Giorni is the video with the most hits. It was also my first experiment in extending a simple concert performance into a music video by adding nature footage of the trees seen throu the windows of the Tanglewood-style concert hall of Port Regis School overlooking a lake where our concerts are normally given. This video is the more moving because the performance represents the achievement of someone who didn’t have advanced skills at his disposal, but absolutely made the best of those he had.

Tim went to read engineering at uni and still plays. His mother may be responsible for some of the viewing figures, because she told me that when she hadn’t heard from Tim for a while she would go and watch his old performances and reconnect with him that way! And that raises a further educational and documentary point: the films are living records for pupils and their families not just of their musical development but also of the very best aspects of their childhood that will give pleasure throughout their lives, and more meaningful than a yellowing certificate in a frame.

The third pupil, Johnny 2001-2009, is the one who made the most adventurous musical journey, at the end of which he decided that he would prefer to make a life in writing, for he is also an extremely good actor. But this is music’s loss, as his final performances of John Adams’ China Gates and Gershwin’s First Prelude show. While he got a merit in G8, the process involved in preparing for the exam was one of the determining factors in Johnny’s final decision not to pursue music professionally, for which he would have been well qualified. Because this was the only exam he wasted time on, Johnny’s musical journey had space to encompass several Scott Joplin ragtimes, Haydn’s D Concerto, two Mozart sonatas, Bach, Ravel, Prokofiev, Carlos Jobim and various other jazz and pop composers, as well as a fine performance of Erki-Sven Tüür. While I may have ‘lost’ Johnny, he is amply replaced by his 11 year-old brother Finn, whose performance of the A minor Prelude of Bach’s Fifth English Suite which greets you at is a tour de force. As I've said, there are 229 videos there for your interest, and a further 40 will be added after our summer concert.

I should just add for those who don’t already use YouTube for educational purposes, it’s a fantastic resource for demonstrating pieces to students. Just about every work in mainstream repertoire is up there, and most in multiple versions, including some magnificent historical performances, such as film of Moiseiwitsch & Michelangeli as well as the gamut of jazz pianists.

Posted: 28 Apr 2010 By: Clement Jewitt

Nice one Maxwell! Good to read that you continue to develop your philosophically spot-on piano teaching practice. But then, what else would one expect?

Namaste, Clement

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