Lessons From the Past – on Teachers and Mentors

We all remember the teachers who have inspired us the most, and we may refer back to those teachers and mentors for advice and support long after we have ceased to have regular tuition. Many of the finest piano teachers active today were themselves taught by the great teachers and musicians of from a previous era, and it is this connection to earlier teachers which makes these teachers so valuable and wise. A good teacher is like a portal to the wisdom of those earlier teachers and mentors, and, most importantly perhaps, to the music. One feels a tremendous sense of continuity through these generational connections, and such musical 'provenance' is invaluable and inspiring when one is learning. A teacher can act as a “spy” on the past, if you will, passing on “secrets” of technique, performance practice and more handed down from earlier teachers, and enriching one’s experience of previous performers and performances. This musical genealogy can offer unique insights and also enables a good teacher to be eloquent and articulate about what makes a good performance - and what makes a really great one.

This connection to earlier teachers and pianists interests me: one of my teacher's teachers, Vlado Perlemuter, studied with Maurice Ravel, and was a student of Alfred Cortot, who was a student of Descombes who was, possibly, a student of Chopin. Thus, I could, albeit somewhat tenuously, claim to be a great-great-great-grand-pupil of Chopin! Students of British pianist Phyllis Sellick (1911-2007) can trace a direct lineage back to Chopin via Isidor Philipp and Georges Mathias. Another of my teacher's teachers, Guido Agosti, was a student of Busoni. Yet another, Maria Curcio, studied with Artur Schnabel, who was a student of Theodor Leschetizky. This remarkable heritage feeds into today’s teachers, making them highly sought after – though some students perhaps think that these teachers can “channel” the great pianists of the past directly to them. This is a rather simplistic and unrealistic view, for what these teachers really do is distil and adapt the wisdom from their own teachers to make it relevant to the students of today. A good teacher will be generous with their wisdom and knowledge, while also allowing the student to develop a distinctive and personal sound and approach to their playing. The word “teach” comes from the Old English meaning to “show” or “point out” and I think the concept of a teacher as a guide rather than a didactic tutor is a good one. A good teacher also knows that teaching is an ongoing learning process in itself: the best teachers are often the most receptive too, and engage in continuing professional development to ensure they remain in touch with current practices and theories. Mix this with that wonderful heritage of past teachers, an ability to communicate well, patience and empathy, and a positive attitude, and you have a truly great teacher.

Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She is a reviewer for international concert and opera listings and review site Bachtrack.com, and contributes art and exhibition reviews to US-based culture and art site CultureVulture. She writes a regular column on aspects of piano playing for ‘Pianist’ magazine’s online content, and contributes guest articles to a number of classical music and music education websites around the world, including Clavier Companion and The Sampler, the blog of SoundandMusic.org, the UK charity for new music. Frances is Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series, an innovative concert concept which gives talented amateur musicians the opportunity to perform alongside young and emerging professional and semi-professional artists in the same formal concert setting. Read more on her blog: www.crosseyedpianist.com.

Author: Frances Wilson / edited by Nina HELLO STAGE
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