How playing the piano reminds me of teaching

In recent days I have been returning, after a hiatus of about nine months, to playing the piano every day, even if only for a few minutes. The struggles of becoming familiar with an instrument that has spent most of the past year as as a glorified magazine rack and repository for academic articles have been difficult. It has however also been greatly enjoyable.

An important caveat needs to made here, which is in comparing piano playing and teaching I am an expert in neither but with a passable set of skills (I am a better teacher) that with informed, focused practice would improve greatly. That is the point.

So here are my top tips for how improving your piano playing is like improving your teaching. If you are a pianist but not a teacher, or a teacher but not a pianist, that’s fine. Nobody’s perfect. Here are three things to hopefully get you thinking.

1. The Fundamentals Really Help

I hate scales & finger/hand exercises, and so have centuries of small children (and large adults), but they really work. If I am playing a piece in D major and my fingers know where they are meant to be in that scale, F# & C# sharp are going to be less of a surprise. It is the same with the fundamentals of teaching (domain knowledge, questioning, behaviour management, bladder control), a firm grasp of the basics will underpin your performance and often help you out when things seem uncertain.

2. Muscle memory is a powerful thing

The pieces I struggle the least to get my hands into the right shape for are my own pieces. This is because I crafted them myself, performing the melodies, chords and transitions dozens of times under my hands & fingers, and they are familiar to me. Practising difficult fingerings and chord changes slowly and carefully can immeasurably improve a pianist’s ability to play them at a faster speed in the context of the whole piece. Although in teaching we can become stale repeating the same things and spontaneity can be wonderful in the classroom, don’t underestimate the effectiveness of repeated practice to improve performance and to help those particularly difficult moments. However…

3. Practice the right thing in the right way

There is a piece that I love to play (Andre Previn’s arrangement of ‘I’m in the mood for love’). I must have played it over a hundred times in the past 35 years, but I can play it no better no than I could then, for one simple reason. I have never practised it. Doing and practising are not the same. Doing may involve some of your skills, although in my case with this piece it is often more akin to the enthusiasm of an over-excited octopod. Practising is an often deliberate action that picks apart errors and isolate individual components and improve them in order to improve the whole. This is different from ineffective, and possibily damaging, repetition. There is a quoted statistic that 10,000 hours of doing something can make you a master at it. It is of course nonsense if those 10,000 hours are not focused in the right direction. A teacher who has been teaching for 3 years but has focused on effective practise and improvement may be a better teacher than one who has taught for 30 years but where practise has not been at the heart of the endeavour.

So there you go, three things to (hopefully) think about. If you are a pianist yourself, then join in the conversation here with other comparisons. I also welcome contributions from other musicians, even guitarists.


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