Piano Teachers and Professional Organizations – yes/no?

Professional organizations for Piano Teachers

I ran across a Piano Pedagogy book that got me thinking. I won’t mention the book’s name because, frankly, there are too many assertions in the book with nothing to back them up. The first part of the book has some comments and assertions about professional organizations and piano teachers that I’m not sure I agree with. I’ll also add that I would think a Pedagogy book would include lists of curriculum appropriate for those students who have moved on past beginning method books, but it does not.

The book asserts that a good, professional piano teacher will be actively involved in at least one, if not more, local professional organizations. These might include local music teacher’s associations, guilds, music workshops and the like. It also asserts that a truly professional teacher will continue to attend education courses. The book gives no convincing reason why any of this is true. For that matter, it doesn’t give much of any reason why these assertions are true.

Supposedly, the book suggests, only by being actively involved with such an organization will a piano teacher have the skills, knowledge and ability necessary to teach piano students. This assertion is never explained with sufficient detail. I would expect most teachers would never be convinced to join such an organization based on this book. Also, it is supposedly only piano teachers who enter all or at least those ready to do so in annual competitions sponsored by these professional organizations that are any good as teachers. Again, no sufficient explanation is given as to why this is true.

My Experience

I’ve been teaching piano lessons, albeit not full time, but continually since the 1980’s. I’ve worked in an urban/suburban area of slightly less than 2 million people and in a similarly sized area with less than 250,000 people. I’ve been members of organizations that dealt with music education, church  music and pipe organs. If I had known in the 1980’s I’d be writing such an article, I would have kept statistics to prove my assertions, but I’ve not yet learned to predict the future.

One organization did nothing but have a one-week summer workshop. At least 90% of the classes offered were taught by members from within the 2,000 or so member organization. While it was a nice social event and a nice opportunity to perform with other professionals, there was nothing being done by anyone that was ever of any help to me. With so much of the course content coming from within the group, I never felt that I was being exposed to what was going on in the rest of the world of music, only what that group did. After a few years, I found the workshop to be a nice vacation and a nice ego boost but little more than that. It and the courses available became predictable and boring very quickly.

Another organization I was associated with planned about 9 concerts during the year. As with the previous organization, the majority of the concerts were put on by members of the organization with very few outside performers. There was nothing in the way of educational classes – either for us to learn more or to learn how to teach. I could have saved a lot of gas money, stayed home and watched a video or listened to a recording of a single performer and gotten as much out of that organization.

Finally, one other organization I belonged to was a music teacher’s organization. The people who attended the meetings were, for the most part, middle-aged or near retirement age housewives who taught on the side in order to make some extra money or because they liked teaching. The meetings were little more than monthly social gatherings where I can’t remember even one discussion on teaching technique, pedagogy, curriculum or the business side of being a music teacher. They did sponsor a once a year music festival where piano students played so that someone other than the student’s teacher could offer comments and suggestions to the student. The “judges” were always from within the organization, the rooms where the student’s performed were barely big enough for 10 people and sometimes the pianos were digital pianos.

Recitals and competitions

Without exception, every teacher I’ve ever known who was actively involved with competitions and annual recitals fell into one of two categories: 1) The competitions and recitals were venues for the teacher to show off how good she/he thought they were or 2) The students spent all of the time between competitions/recitals learning material for the next competition/recital. Few of their students went on to study music in college or go on to work in the music business. I don’t know if any continued to play piano after leaving those teachers or not.

I’ve had quite a few piano students take lessons from me who previously had teachers who were big with competitions and recitals. Of all the transferring students I’ve had, those students were the worse overall musicians. They knew very little if anything about music theory. In some cases, they didn’t even know the letter names of the notes on the staff. (I’m thinking of some book 2/book 3 Alfred basic piano library students). Others had so-so technic and others had obviously had no aural (ear) training.

Whether recitals or competitions, my observation is that students who take lessons from teachers who require their students to participate in such events are being shortchanged. Their sight-reading skills are poor and their general music theory and ear training abilities are sub-standard. That’s my experience.

The Academic Circle

The assertion that a characteristic of a professional piano teacher is to actively take music courses themselves reminds me of the hamster running around in its exercise wheel. I call this the Academic Circle. (I assume the courses would be college level and related to teaching, but that is not said in the book).  While I agree that reading articles about piano teachers, piano teaching, and the use of new materials (not just technology) for teaching is something one should do. But taking college level courses or taking any sort of paid course seems to be nothing more than keeping the Academic Circle going.

It goes like this. A student takes piano lessons from childhood, graduates from college where they paid a lot of money, were most likely classically trained, and performed music that, let’s be honest, very little of the world population has any interest in hearing. They then decide to teach. If they want to teach in the public schools or a university they then have to spend more money to earn a master’s degree. The degree they earn is probably going to be so specialized that unless they are going to teach, the degree is pretty much useless unless they are in the top 5% of musicians. If they are in that category, it really doesn’t matter what their master’s degree is in.

Now, the student has their master’s degree. They can teach in university or public schools. If they perform what they learned in college, they often will do so in their own university or as guests at other academic venues and rarely in non-academic venues. Their university students then pay a lot of money to be exclusively classically trained. Most of that money does not go to the teachers if the teachers are in the public schools or universities. Private teachers, if they are able to get enough students are better off. Now those students of the original students go on to pay more money for master’s degrees that do little more than allow them to say they have a degree and go on to teach. Almost all public school teachers and I would guess most university teachers would be required to take college courses to keep their license to teach or their job.

So, what the first student learns stays within the academic world, for the most part. Then their students stay in the academic world and the circle continues. Once a teacher, they then keep the Academic Circle going by having to take college courses and so on.

Conclusion

I know this may not be the best written article I’ve done and the last section is not as well written as the other sections.

I welcome comments. As I moderate all comments, I will not be approving all comments. If you want your comments to show up here, please provide the hard facts that I don’t have and thus did not include in my post. For example, if you believe that those students who participate in competitions do better than those that don’t, please include hard facts such as documented percentages/numbers, links to websites of those who made a career in music whose websites discuss how those competitions helped, etc.

Thanks

 

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About jamesgilbertmusic

JamesGilbertMusic is a web based publisher of sheet music and mp3 files. The founder, James Gilbert, is a pianist, organist composer/arranger and piano teacher. He offers piano lessons in Micanopy.
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