Frances Wilson's survey Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers

In September 2014, I ran a survey, Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers, as part of some research for a paper I presented at the Oxford Piano Group meeting last October. Originally intended to offer some insight into whether private and independent piano teachers regard themselves as "professionals", the survey revealed some interesting and unsettling thoughts on how independent piano teachers perceive themselves generally, and how people outside the profession view them.

The majority of respondents were independent/private piano teachers and it was their response to the question: 'When you think of the typical private piano teacher, who teaches at home, what image immediately comes to mind?' which gave me significant pause for thought.

One of my ongoing issues is people not regarding what I do as a "professional" role, despite the fact that I adhere to many of the perceived definitions of the word "professional’. Discussions with friends and colleagues in the field of piano teaching indicate I am not alone in this: many of us feel denigrated and unappreciated, and not recognised as professional people.

Sadly, this is a common problem for musicians in general: the fact that we enjoy our work and (often) work from home, it is not perceived as "a proper job", and as such, we are often undervalued, expected to work for low or no pay, and our job is regarded as some kind of eccentric hobby. Never mind that many of us have undergone a long and specialist training, or have years of experience and an impressive track record.

One of the major problems of private piano teaching is that it is unregulated with no minimum entry requirements. This means anyone can set up as a piano teacher and recruit a few students. Other professionals - doctors, lawyers, accountants for instance - have their own professional/regulatory bodies, with professional exams, code of ethics, and so forth, which lends proper accreditation and gravitas to their role.

Piano teachers can opt to join professional organisations such as the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM). The ISM states:

'The ISM has entry requirements that recognise you as a music professional, and recommend that teachers apply for ISM Registered Private Teacher Status. The Registered Private Teacher scheme was put in place because of the lack or regulation in the private teaching sector and gives our teaching members an opportunity to be recognised for following safeguarding good practice by obtaining a DBS check, undergoing a reference check and signing several safeguarding declarations. ISM member who pass these checks become ISM Registered Private Teachers and are given an enhanced listing on the Music Directory. Teachers with this status are marked clearly on the Directory and the ISM explains the difference between private teachers with and without this status in the ‘about us’ section of the directory so that potential students and parents can make an informed decision over who they hire.'

I would like to share the results of my survey, in the hope that this may encourage all independent piano teachers to consider how the profession is regarded and to support me in raising the profile of the private piano teacher.

Qualifications

What has the average piano teacher studied to teach in an independent studio?

  • Piano to grade 8 - 78%
  • Music theory to grade 8 - 37%
  • A-level music (or equivalent) - 45%
  • Music degree - 50%
  • Teaching diplomas - 46%
  • Performance diplomas - 43%
  • Piano pedagogy - 30%

These results interest me because I frequently come across the view that the private piano teacher should have attended music college or taken a degree in music, as a minimum qualification to teach. While I accept that a BMus or MMus (or equivalent international qualification) would be desirable, it is worth pointing out that not all conservatoire or university music courses offer a separate and/or specialist course in piano pedagogy; the main focus tends to be on performance, and music theory and history. At the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity-Laban Conservatoire, piano pedagogy is a optional course. Many professional musicians teach because they have to; but they are not necessarily the best teachers just because they have undergone conservatoire training.

Unfortunately, as an unregulated profession, there is no minimum standard qualification for independent piano teachers. Here is a teaching colleague of mine on the thorny issue of qualifications:

There is huge range of qualifications on offer, some of which test different things to others. I think in my experience, the usual thing, 'qualifications do not necessarily a good teacher make' stands true. All the qualifications I've done, I've done because they enhance and enrich my teaching rather than that they somehow make me look a better teacher. I've never once, in 13 years been asked about them anyway, and I find this quite common. Having worked with quite a few teaching diploma candidates, for example, it is clear which of them are using the qualification as a means to reflect on and evaluate their teaching skills, and those who want the piece of paper (and for the latter, the act of doing the qualification will have had little or no impact upon their actual teaching ability).

Bearing in mind that the majority of respondents to my survey were independent private piano teachers, it is interesting to note that only 50% of respondents regard a music degree and only 46% regard teaching diplomas are necessary qualifications.

Do you consider private piano teaching to be a "profession"?

91% agreed with this statement, while 7% did not. 2% responded "Don't know".

When asked to qualify their responses, the following comments were made:

  • It's a hobby, even if a full-time living, and never feels like a 'real' job. It's up to the teacher to be self-motivated and conscientious if he/she wants to do a good job of it, though, but it's increasingly a peripheral and quaint thing to do in life.
  • No [it's not a "profession"], in that there are no recognised entry qualifications, no regulation and no career progression.
  • It doesn't command any respect, people think it's a hobby, not a vocation.
  • It depends on qualifications

What attributes and/or qualifications do you think define a private piano teacher as a "professional"?

  • Qualifications (e.g. music degree, education degree, PGCE or similar teaching qualification, performance or teaching diplomas) - 95%
  • Experience - 80%
  • A career as a professional performing musician - 25%
  • Ongoing professional development - 71%
  • Self-motivation - 50%
  • Good business skills - 36%

Additional comments in response to this question:

  • Success in motivating, teaching and helping students grow - not just musically, but personally, as well
  • I am constantly baffled as to why some piano teachers are not part of a union or professional body
  • Understanding of child development and basic psychology (we teach adults too)
  • A 'professional' attitude to practicalities such as studio policy, having insurance. Planning lessons
  • An ability and willingness to perform up to something resembling professional levels, but not necessarily having a professional performance career.

When you think of the typical private piano teacher, who teaches at home, what image immediately comes to mind?

It is the largely negative responses to this question which have given me most pause for thought. Remember, the majority of respondents are independent piano teachers - these comments are their view of how our profession is perceived by others:

  • Probably an older, rather eccentric female
  • Someone who is probably not properly qualified
  • Old lady next door, cardigan, cats, musical erasers
  • Someone who is not really up to the job- who isn't fully trained or a professional musician and has realised they can make a quick buck teaching piano. Someone who is kind and nice to the children and parents but ultimately unaware that they are teaching bad technique often and not aware of the rigours of quality music-making
  • Not a profession but a religion!
  • Someone who is keen to develop people in their creativity and understanding of music. They love what they do, and teach it because they themselves love to play and be creative.
  • A mum who used to play.....has kids and needs a bit of extra money
  • I divide it into two types: Those that live and breathe the piano, and those for which it is a "nice little hobby".
  • Someone who has Grade 8 or Diploma in performance. Teaches pupils for the exam they are working on, leaving ear training and background knowledge until the week before the exam. May be a great performer.
  • It used to be a woman in her 40s or 50s sitting, slightly seriously, beside a wide-eyed child at an upright piano. Things have moved on now and I know teachers across a wide demographic.

Interestingly, when I asked two professional pianists who also teach (one privately, one in a university music department) how they are perceived by their students and parents of their students, I received the following replies:

I find that my students and parents treat me as 'highly professional' due to the calibre of my performing engagements. This is completely unrelated, however, to any ability I might or might not possess as a teacher. The latter comes from studying and working in the field for over thirty years, from discussions with psychologists and other instrumental teachers - and trial and error.

I find that generally (with a few exceptions) teaching within an establishment [a British university] one does get the appropriate respect and indeed, as instrumental teachers, most of the students treat us as being on a par with the other academic staff. The only private teaching that I do (at the moment) is on a consultation basis, so people (generally parents of talented late teenagers or sometimes young professionals themselves) approach me because of what I've done or because they've actually heard me in concert. I guess that generally means that one has already overcome the hurdle of being respected and the people involved do therefore treat one as 'professional'. But this is less about qualifications/prizes won....

Do you have any memorable anecdotes about the perception your students, their parents, or someone outside the profession has had about the independent piano teacher or the job of teaching from a private home studio?

  • Parents of new students think often of piano teaching as a simple, stress free and lucrative job. Parents of older students realize it's a profession, that requires knowledge, competence and constant learning on the part of the teacher.
  • Thinking I'm a part-timer. - Believing I deserve less professional respect. For instance: paying me late, assuming I want to babysit their kids, wanting to switch times when a plumber/electrician wouldn't put up with their crap. This might be a bit controversial, but I think part of the problem lies in the fact that as a profession, there are very little "benchmarks" or "guidelines" to guide absolutely everybody in a uniform fashion, even within unions and professional bodies. For instance, there are some piano teachers who may put up with late payment because they feel they don't have a choice, or other teachers who allow pupils to switch times and cancel at the very last minute. This makes others believe all piano teachers are the same. I think this freedom and flexibility to operate is a positive, but if you compare to say, the GMC (General Medical Council) or BMA (British Medical Association), they are a lot more stringent and dogmatic about what their members should and should not do as professionals.
  • "What do you do for a living?" (Parent couldn't believe this was my job)
  • Once a mother pulled her son out of lessons because I was getting too skilled and teaching too much and she just wanted him to read notes. I told her I was allowed to grow too
  • As organizer of a local piano competition and representative of a teaching union, I sat down to check a piano was in tune and the stool was at the right height at the start of the competition day, only for a parent to ask "so you actually play the piano then? Like properly!" Made me smile for hours.
  • One piano parent asked me and my colleague Claire "So what do you want to be when you are older?" whilst she was sat in my private piano teaching practice which I rent and run as a business.

I am troubled by these largely negative comments and the recurrence of the word "hobby" in relation to piano teaching. The perception, expressed by teachers themselves, that the role is not valued nor regarded as a proper professional job is very evident in these responses. While the stereotypical view of the private piano teacher as a little old lady down the road is fading, there is a still a strong perception that the private piano teacher is doing the job for "pin money", or because they can't get a "better" job. I find this view deeply depressing: I take my job very seriously and adopt a professional attitude to every aspect of my work (the fact that I also enjoy it a great deal is an added bonus). How do we change this attitude into a positive perception of piano teachers as highly skilled and professional people? I believe that the impetus must come from within the profession, from piano teachers themselves, and from professional bodies such as EPTA and ISM, who should be actively promoting private piano teaching as a recognised and respected profession.

[This is a revised version of an article which first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog in October 2014]

Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, music reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

Filter articles