Of students and piano teachers

My elder sister started piano lessons when she was in Primary 2. Our maternal grandfather bought her a Schimmel console piano to start her off. I was then in Primary 1.

Once a week Miss Penny Tang would come by to teach, and I’d hang around either outside door of the closed room or outside under the window just to listen in on what was happening. A couple of years later I asked to be allowed to take piano lessons as well. My sister and I would then visit Mrs Tan’s home studio (she’d gotten married by then) in River Valley Road for lessons.

My sister and I thoroughly enjoyed our lessons with Mrs Tan. She was very motivational and interacted very well with kids. I used to learn material ahead of what she assigned because I thought that the pace was too slow.

A few years later we switched teachers to a woman named Flora Lim. This was also when my two younger brothers were started on the piano. Unfortunately, this woman (who came with good recommendations, how I will never know) killed any interest that my brothers might have had for the piano. She was mean and draconian. She rapped hands with rulers, poked kids in the side of the head with the blunt end of her pencil, scolded and berated students for being unable to do what she wanted or expected. It was so unpleasant, bordering on the traumatic, that my brothers asked to stop piano lessons. They were nearly hysterical with fear when my parents were initially reluctant to let them stop.

I of course wanted to continue with the piano, but asked to be allowed to skip exams, playing only for enjoyment. My parents agreed, and switched my sister and I over first to Ms Cheung Mun Chit (a well-known accompanist) and then Mr Simplicius Cheong (a fairly well-known local jazz pianist). I even completed ‘O’ Level music with Mr Cheong. I can’t remember why we switched from Ms Cheung to Mr Cheong — must ask Mum tonight.

My brothers never returned to the piano, though my youngest brother did eventually pick up the guitar much later in life.

Our family moved to Australia after I finished Secondary 4. By then, my lessons-without-exams had gotten me to roughly ABRSM Grade 8 standard in terms of keyboard skills (but my theory lagged by a long way). There we had lessons with a Mrs Eileen Johnson. I was doing OK for a while, even winning the Intermediate piano section of the local Eistedfodd with the first movement of Beethoven’s Op.81a sonata. It was around this time that I started to feel the frustration that eventually led me to abandon the piano and not to resume until 2006.

As I advanced in ABRSM grades, none of the teachers that I had ever taught me how to practice nor showed me different keyboard technique to tackle specific problems posed by the music. In the meantime, my repertoire ambitions were growing, but my keyboard and practice skills were letting me down badly. Eventually I just gave up after a forced absence from the piano due to having to return to Singapore to do National Service.

I only found out what my teachers weren’t giving me when I started digging up piano-related material after starting again in 2006 and teaching myself. I don’t really regret what’s happened anymore. What’s important is that I am now so hooked on the piano, and enjoying myself immensely. I don’t plan on taking lessons, preferring instead to rely on my own reading, listening, watching (DVDs) and experimentation.

So the lessons learned from my frustrations are these:

  • If you or your child decides to take the lessons-without-exams route, make sure the teacher covers the exam pieces in addition to any other music that student and teacher agree to do. The exam pieces were chosen to test on-going development of keyboard technique and musical sense, so being able to play them successfully will give the student some indication of how well they are progressing. It is also useful to have your music theory more or less congruent with your playing level.
  • If you want your child to progress well and enjoy his/her time at the keyboard, ask to sit in on the occasional lesson to see what goes on. Also get feedback from your child about whether or not he/she is enjoying the time with the piano teacher. Educate yourself about the piano as much as possible. Who knows, if you don’t play yourself, you might just decide to do so and join the ranks of the adult beginners. It truly is never too late to start.
  • In all cases, have a chat with the teacher and ask him/her to explain to you if and how they teach their students technique and practice skills.

2 responses

  1. When I was in secondary school, I had one nasty teacher that only said negative things about me and my playing, did the same things like “rapped hands with rulers, poked me in the side of the head etc”. I trembled with fear each time the lesson was coming and I would cry when I got home after getting reprimanded by her almost every lesson. I guess we didn’t hit it off ‘cos on my first lesson with her, her beloved puppy disappeared, apart from the fact that I didn’t practise enough. Years later, I make sure that I don’t advocate yelling or instilling fear to the juniors when they pick up piano lesson.

  2. It’s awful isn’t it. Compare that to what you read from piano teachers who post in PW’s Piano Teachers forum.

    I’m not saying that all piano teachers in Singapore are like that. There are very good ones, and more than just a few of them. The diligent parent will have to put some effort into finding them.

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