Govind Kharbanda, Trinity’s Product Support Manager for Music, recently attended the EPTA Conference 2017, at which Trinity was an exhibitor and sponsor. Here, he gives us his thoughts and feedback from the conference.
Conferences can often seem grand and overwhelming, with weighty programmes featuring eminent names, and long lists of seminars with complex titles. Not this one. It was the model of how all conferences should be: friendly and collegiate, with private teachers, exhibitors, and research professors all treating each other as equals, in an atmosphere that generated a healthy and open exchange of ideas.
This year, EPTA UK invited the inspiring The Piano Teachers’ Course (PTC) Director, Lucinda Mackworth-Young, and her team of Principal Tutors, to select and design the conference programme. A task that they clearly relished and welcomed.
Setting the scene, the conference opened with a brief but dynamic overview of the PTC itself: Piano Teaching for the 21st Century in a Nutshell. In this session, Lucinda presented the Philosophy and Guiding Principles which underlie the course and which chime closely with Trinity’s values: that learners have meaningful musical experiences, that musical concepts are firmly established, that instrumental skills are developed, and this is all done through a pupil-centred approach in a positive teaching atmosphere.
She then continued with some psychology, demonstrating that it is the way pupils feel about their practice which determines whether or not they’ll do it, and that pupils are naturally multisensory, and respond to being taught in a variety of ways: aurally, visually, kinaesthetically, imaginatively, intellectually, creatively, and with their whole bodies (singing, clapping, moving).
A skilful practical demonstration then followed to illustrate how to do this. Four PTC Principal Tutors joined Lucinda to teach the same repertoire (the A minor ‘Arabesque’ by Bürgmuller and ‘Aquamarine’ by June Armstrong) in a variety of different ways.
Firstly, Sally Cathcart involved us in singing, clapping and moving (the PTC’s ‘sing then play’ approach), and used marbles and coloured circles to show how pupils can experience and internalise the 4 semiquavers/1 crotchet rhythm from the Arabesque.
Heli Igniatus-Fleet then focused on engaging pupils’ musical imaginations through musical expression, phrasing and colour, and Graham Fitch followed up with focused ideas for practising, including how to use the arm to support finger movement.
Lucinda then returned to demonstrate how easy it is to extract two or three chords and a five-finger position from the pieces to play by ear and improvise with.
One of the most fascinating of the PTC tutors’ talks, for me, was Ilga Pitkevica’s, who showed how contemporary music can be used for teaching pianistic skills, even at a fairly elementary level. Here, for instance, is an extract from ‘Midnight Moon’, by Stephen Montague:The performer can decide how many times each note capsule, contained in the box, is played; the durations of the notes can be mixed freely, and where the white space appears, the performer can decide how long to wait before playing those notes. Music that could be spread over multiple bars is written very concisely, helping to unlock perceived difficulties in learning repertoire, and encouraging creativity in performance.
Ilga also gave a list of recommended repertoire and it was pleasing to see the Piano Dreams Solo and Piano Dreams Duet volumes for Piano (published by Trinity College London Press) amongst her suggestions.
Later the same day, there was a roundtable discussion on the teaching profession – Are piano teachers ‘professionals’, or are they not? On the surface this may seem a provocative title, but piano teaching is not regulated in the UK and so the standard of teaching is very variable. Many good points emerged; the need for teachers to invest in their professional development, the importance of setting professional development goals, the willingness for professional members to mentor associate members, and for everyone to be aware of how they are perceived by the parents that ultimately employ them.
We heard international viewpoints, from teachers who had come from as far afield as China and the US. And for Trinity as an exam board, there was discussion about the role we could play; educating our customers on the values that underline our particular approach, rather than just ‘selling a new syllabus’, and helping to inform parents about aspects of taking an exam such as the pitfalls of entering for an exam too soon. When thinking about our role as an exam board, teacher CPD is something we are exploring in partnership with the Musicians’ Union and Music For Youth, and in July we held the first of our Teacher Conventions series in Birmingham.
On the second day, William Westney’s thought-provoking keynote session, entitled Serious Fun, set a dynamic tone for the conference. He explored the thesis, from many angles, that a sort of joyous and energized engagement that can best be termed ‘fun’ can – and must – be a major component of everything we do in music, even at the most demanding levels of high artistic achievement. He also shared insights gained from his cross-disciplinary scientific research into what happens when classical pianists are invited to play a piece while ‘just enjoying’ what they are doing – how their performance changes, and how others perceive it.
Jean Luc Hottinger’s presentation looked at the various facets of a piano lesson – shown here, and how this may vary over the course of a term’s teaching, right up to the day before an exam:
His examples, such as encouraging pupils to look at art as a source of inspiration, were thought-provoking. For instance, we were encouraged to look at a Debussy Prelude (Les Voiles) and compare it with Concarneau: Calme du Soir by Signet, painted in the same period – how would that make you play the piece differently?
Murray McLachlan, who in recent years has produced two excellent books on piano technique, gave a talk on the psychology of performance – warming up, for instance, is something we need to do emotionally and mentally, and not just physically. There’s so much that could be applied here to preparation for exams – why think of a Chopin study as a terrible challenge that will make you seize up, with missing notes in the right hand and poor articulation, when you could be visualising it as a background soundtrack to John Cleese doing a Ministry of Silly Walks presentation? We can get so worried about minutiae, and so often in practising we get our priorities the wrong way round, and forget about the broader emotional picture that the repertoire can convey, together with shaping, phrasing and character. Confidence and self-esteem is something that needs to be developed as part of everyday practice.
A highlight of the conference was to hear performances from the EPTA UK competition winners, including Leo Bailey-Young who at age nine has already gained Trinity’s LTCL diploma, and Stephen Wood who won the Composer competition with his piece, ‘Another Time’.
And, as has been tradition now for the past six years, Trinity hosted the drinks reception before the gala dinner, at which we said a few words about what’s new with Trinity, including the introduction of online booking for music exams in the UK, and working with EPTA and other organisations more closely to develop compelling support resources for teachers and learners.
This conference set out to ‘inspire professionals’ and fully met these expectations. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it, whether you are starting out in teaching or even if you have an established practice. Piano teaching can be such an isolating profession, and so much can be gained from an exchange of ideas.
Many thanks to Helen Tabor, who took many of the photographs included here.
To find out more about Trinity piano exams, including the new 2018-2020 syllabus, visit trinitycollege.com/piano