Lessons in Making Music

Were Your Childhood Music Lessons Fun?

child learning piano

© nwschoolofmusic.com/

If you, like me, had piano lessons as a child, I expect there were rather too many times when you sat at the piano and wondered what this thing called “music” was all about? The daily grind of practising, seemingly endless scales and arpeggios, dull pieces which you played without imagination in a way which would please your teacher and earn you rewards and praise… And then each summer the excruciating, artificial experience of displaying your pianistic abilities to an examiner who had probably already heard 20 versions of the same pieces you were playing. When the exam results were published, you would start on the next grade’s repertoire, and so the process would repeat itself.

When people discover I’m a piano teacher, they often confide in me about their childhood piano lessons, their memories of their piano teachers and how the experience obscured the pleasure and joy of music making. Some shudder at these memories, and such anecdotes often reveal how much baggage from our childhood we carry into our adult lives, and how these experiences inform and influence the way we approach our music making as adults. I’ve come across adult pianists who seem stifled by fear that their childhood teacher could rear up beside them at any moment, and heap criticism and disapproval upon them. I have encountered adult pianists in masterclasses who, when asked why they approach a certain passage in a certain way, reply “My teacher told me to do that”. Their body language and their piano sound hints at great inner tension, resulting from fear of criticism, fear of making mistakes; and the recollection of those difficult, joyless childhood piano lessons.

Some of the young people I teach, and have taught in the past, seem to be accumulating similar tensions (though not, I hope, from their lessons with me). One student told me of her previous teacher who regularly made her cry, another whose lessons were dull and boring (and even dull and boring lessons can have a profound effect upon our attitude to music and music making). Some of my students still find it hard to appreciate that music and music making is meant to be pleasurable, stimulating, exciting, entertaining and satisfying.

I blame this partly on the U.K. state education system with its obsession with tests and “results”. Kids are tested so much these days it’s as if the creative spirit has been sucked out of them. They aren’t encouraged to think or behave creatively at school and so being asked to be creative at the piano is almost anathema to them. They have also been peddled the idea that classical music is universally “serious”: it took nearly a year of coaxing for one student of mine to appreciate, and highlight, the wit and humour in a Rondo by Diabelli. The day that student made me laugh out loud in his rendering of this piece was a significant step forward for him (and me).

Parents too can be unintentionally complicit in this stifling of creativity, insisting that only the repertoire set by teacher should be practised, and using exams (yes, more testing!) as the only benchmark of progress and success. As for what “needs” to be practised, if a student comes to a lesson having learnt something without any input from me, which is not assigned “homework”, I’m not going to tick them off. Instead, I’ll praise them for their initiative and independent learning.

When I was learning the piano as a child and teenager, I was actively encouraged to seek out new repertoire, whether it was assigned by my teacher or not. I would take my discoveries to my teacher and she would help me find a way through the more challenging sections – and she never once said “You shouldn’t be learning that”. Yet as an adult pianist, I have encountered an attitude amongst some teachers and professional pianists that certain repertoire is “off limits” to amateur pianists. Such attitudes can only discourage adult pianists in their quest, and I take issue with anyone who says some repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the professional.

Some professional musicians lose sight of what the music and music making is about too. The pianist who described his working day to me as “strictly 9 to 5”, reducing his wonderful craft to nothing more than a “day at the office”; or the international concert pianist who complained in an interview with me that the rigours of keeping the repertoire going combined with the demands of the career – concerts, travelling, recording, making a living – could obscure one’s love for the music to the point where one begins to resent it. Another professional pianist told me she “envies” amateurs because they can play for pleasure whenever they like.

Music is about emotions and emotional release, escapism and storytelling, excitement, pleasure, contemplation, humour, philosophy… and so much more than that. It’s personal and highly subjective, and it can provoke profound emotional responses in both performers and listeners. It’s not about dry exercises and “getting it right”; or about playing a certain piece in a certain way to “please teacher”.

If music comes from your heart and soul, and if you feel it inside yourself, it will affect others in the same way

Yes: if your music comes from deep inside you, it will speak to a place deep in others

We should take Schumann’s advice (revisited by Steven Isserlis) and make that our lesson in music making.

For more of the best in classical music, sign up to our E-Newsletter

Antonio Diabelli, Op. 168, No. 1, Rondo allegretto

More Opinion


  1. Fran

    As ever, an interesting and engaging read – thank you for writing this!

    A couple of statements of note:

    ”I blame this partly on the U.K. state education system with its obsession with tests and “results”. “

    Yes, and I blame the demise of school choirs, operas, orchestras, plays over the last 20+ years for the general lack of understanding of serious music in general. Those who were the first generation not to sing in a choir, not to do Gilbert and Sullivan, not to perform “The Crucible” sing “Romeo and Juliet” or “Dido and Aeneas” in your run-of-the-mill British comp are now becoming parents themselves. The same is starting to happen with languages, by-the-way where we seen “no value” in learning a foreign language.

    At issue is the obsession with STEM in our education system, not for the intrinsic value of the study of science to help explain and sustain the human condition (which IS a worthy cause), but as a means of supporting industry to make and sell STUFF (much of which we don’t actually need!). I speak as a research scientist and engineer who sees in my profession people simply versed in science-for-commerce, not science for life or understanding. In much of the modern world, unless it is an endeavour that we can use to “make a buck,” we don’t give a for it and that pulls ALL ships down.

    Science and Art are two sides of the same coin – you need the rigours and methods of science to practise good art and you need the imagination and creativity of art to make good science.

    “Some professional musicians lose sight of what the music and music making is about too.”

    Demoralised and under-valued people will do this partly because of their original love for their craft – it is a reaction – granted, an over-reaction – to the manner by which society values (doesn’t value) their art. It comes back to education and support of the arts and the societal attitudes towards anything that isn’t a quick-fix, instantly compartmentalised, pigeon-holed so that it fits a marketable, commercial narrative – how many times have you seen “Classical” music associated with “soothing,” “relaxing,” “unwinding”? Pierrot Lunaire anyone?

    The answer – we need an inquisitorial not an instructional education system. Education should be about discovery and challenge, not rote learning for defined outcomes. And we need to understand that value is about SO much more than Pounds, Shillings and Pence.

Leave a Comment

All fields are required. Your email address will not be published.