Experiences of a piano teacher in London

This new article is written by Sabrina Curpanen, one of our Senior piano tutors in London. She has recently written this post in order to make us aware of what are the common experiences and situations of any music tutor in London. Combining work, music commitments and personal life might be stressful and hard, however, we do love what we do.

Music lessons London by WKMT

1. Preparing a concert in a very stressful situation.

As teachers, we all hear stories from our students on how much they are stressed about their exams, sports competition, tiredness, friendships and their social life. Most of the times, it is the typical excuse to start with when someone hasn`t practised at all.

Listen, listen…we teachers, we do have our life outside the studio and we are stressed and tired too. This month has been very stressful for me: I had to prepare a very big concert where I had to learn ninety per cent of the programme, a super busy teaching schedule, my dad illness and his death at the beginning of May. During the concert I had to perform Beethoven first cello Sonata, Prokoviev Sonata in D minor for piano and cello, Martinu Trio for piano, cello and flute and other Trio and duo compositions by a contemporary composer.

How did I cope? The situation cannot be changed and I just need to live it and keep as calm as possible because adding more stress and anxiety can really get things worse. Complaining, crying, moaning doesn`t solve the problem but they take out good energy for the things needed to be done. My motto is “go one step at the time and don`t think about the big mountain to climb”. Whilst I was trying to solve problems regarding my family, I took two hours a day focusing only on practising for the Concert which has been postponed.

Every morning, I carefully made a list of what to practise and what I wanted to achieve. I thought it would be best not to aim to unrealistic goals but keep it easy and simple. When you have a lot to do, the last thing you want is to get discouraged by not being able to tick all the items on the list. At the end of the day, it was a good feeling to achieve the little goals I set up daily: writing all the fingering, playing all the notes correctly, focusing on the right speed, adding dynamics contrasts, thinking about the style and the interpretation, working in-depth on every single phrase. The organisation is key and I found setting up little goals every day and being very consistent at following them has helped a lot.

I cannot deny that lots of it have to do with being mentally prepared to throw out from your brain any other thoughts not regarding the activity you are focusing on. I also found very important to go to rehearsals well prepared in order not to waste precious time. As professionals, we should sort out the basics by ourselves and during rehearsals focusing on “making music” together, talking about the feeling, sharing information about the composers we are playing, their language and style in relation to their life. I hope you will find my experience useful for your own performance experience or exam preparation: “one step at the time and be consistent”.

2. Working on a new project with a new Chamber Music ensemble: juggling between teaching and practising.

I have been away from public performances for a while because of an intense teaching schedule. Just a few weeks before Christmas I received a message from a cellist willing to perform Chamber Music with a flautist too. I love the sound of the cello; deep, thick, human and with a certain languor. I believe that the combination of piano and cello is just heavenly. I certainly couldn`t refuse this proposal. After the excitement of the first meeting when we planned the concert in May and mapped out some repertoire combination, I suddenly felt worried: “ And now? When am I going to practise?

This is serious music and I certainly cannot sight-read the whole time!”.

My fear and worries increased when we decided the repertoire:

- L.van Beethoven Sonata for cello and piano n. 1

- B. Martinu: Trio for flute cello and piano

- S. Prokoviev: Sonata for flute and piano in D major

In addition, there are few other pieces composed by a contemporary composer who will be attending the performance in May.

I didn`t play any of the pieces except the Martinu trio, many years ago. There is no time for complaining and I am up for a challenge and what a great challenge. After a few rehearsals which didn`t go very well, we managed to grow up together after lots of practice, discussion about the technical and musical problem and we needed time to settle as teamwork because we didn`t know each other.

As for my own practice time, it is very difficult to find time inside my busy teaching schedule. Planning is the secret. I can practise four or five times a week for three or four hours and the night before I would write a list of the problems I need to sort out the following day. I decided not to make a long list because there is nothing worse to get discouraged because of not being able to tick all the points. The secret is to do little but constantly and practise various pieces during the session instead of looking for perfection for one. Listening to the good recording has been also very beneficial and helpful.

It is a tiring but a great learning experience to boost my confidence as I found out myself playing an entire sonata by Prokoviev in less than a month and up to performance speed considering I have never learnt a piece by him before. It is also exciting to get to know other musician coming from another part of the world and see their way of playing, thinking music.

As a teacher, it is nice sharing my experience with my student; at the end, even if it is at a different scale, we have the same fears and challenges about finding practise time, frustration in overcoming musical and technical issues, worries of being badly judged by others, fighting the anxiety of performing in public. It helps to improve the relation teacher-student and build up confidence on both sides.

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