Friday, July 16, 2004

The great British amateur #1: The Piano Teacher

Can you imagine a scenario in which a skilled, specialised profession is so little regulated that anybody, absolutely anybody, can set up as a practitioner? A practitioner to whom young people return week after week, perhaps for years, to have their attitudes and expertise formed? Yet that practitioner has no qualification, accreditation or 'answerability' for what they do? If this person was a surgeon or a lawyer, that would be a national scandal. But for British piano teaching, this is normal.

One of the most fascinating things about my examiner training has been watching the different levels of ability, musicality and nerves that come through the door with the candidates. Most are nice kids who try very hard. Some of them have an unerring ear, others none whatsoever. Some seem thoroughly to enjoy playing their pieces; others sit petrified, tinkling out the notes with glassy gaze. Youngsters' attitudes to performing - and hence adults' attitudes to performing too! - are subject to influences from parents, peers and more; but the most telling instances are when a teacher enters a stream of pupils for exams and they turn up, one after the other, all exhibiting exactly the same problems.

On one of my days, five or six kids arrived in succession, each pallid with terror. Each was attempting a grade too high for his/her abilities. Not one of them could play scales, other than a basic easy major, to save their lives. They certainly couldn't sight-read (not that many can) and tried to stand about a mile away from me, with backs turned, for the aural tests. The common factor? The teacher - who must be unnerving the lot of them on a weekly basis, has no qualms about entering them for exams ill-prepared and is somehow instilling in them the idea that playing music is something to fear, not something to enjoy.

I find it terrifying to think of some of the people in charge of children's musical education. In my very first job, at Boosey & Hawkes in the educational music department, besides proof-reading scale books I had to write rejection letters to would-be composers of music for educational use, who had eagerly submitted unsolicited manuscripts hoping for instant publication. Many came from alleged music teachers who, to judge from their handwriting, presentation and general idiocity, were mentally way off the deep end and probably should have been on medication.

Regulatory bodies and recommending organisations do exist. If you're looking for a teacher, you can consult the Musicians Union or the Incorporated Society of Musicians, who will help find someone with a decent professional mandate. The music colleges and the Associated Board itself provide courses and qualifications for teachers. But there is no legal requirement for anyone wanting to teach the piano to hold such a qualification; and the too-numerous total charlatans in the profession cannot be stopped, because there is nothing from which they can be struck off.

Even some teachers who ARE accredited, who ARE members of professional organisations, occasionally purvey such crackpot ideas, such dangerous theories, such damaging and often destructive approaches, that to say the mind boggles is not putting it strongly enough. This is not solely an issue for the Great British Tradition of Amateurism: I've heard worse stories still about theoretically respected professors at such august institutions as Juilliard and the Paris Conservatoire.

But the GBTA does the charlatans too many favours. Traditions of good music teaching need decades, if not centuries, to build up, and they require formalisation and support at state level, with sensible advice from the wisest of music educators, if they are to take hold. Amateurism merely begets more amateurism. That greatest of British traditions is deeply rooted in our green and pleasant land and will take a long time to eradicate, assuming anyone ever sets about eradicating it. New Labour's music manifesto - the one that MP Boris Johnson just described, to Tom & co's delight, as 'more hot air than the wind section of the London Philharmonic' - isn't going to do much to help.

It's the taking part that matters, goes the old English maxim, not the winning. OK, we can't all win the Tchaikovsky Competition. But in music, if you are not taught the basics well enough and early enough, you will never even be able to take part. That's how music is. Get used to it.