In addition to the questionable pedagogical tenets commonly practised, a growing body of literature criticises piano pedagogy within tertiary institutions and also the pedagogical qualifications of many studio piano teachers. Liertz notes that studio instrumental teachers often do not have a central standard which to adhere; many do not even have tertiary degrees (2007, pp. 2, 8). While Smith (2007, p. 2) optimistically suggests that pedagogy is increasingly emphasised as part of a “portfolio career” to current students in UK conservatoires, pedagogy is not always mandatory for tertiary students, particularly those studying performance degrees.

Similarly, pedagogues at tertiary level are not necessarily specifically trained as teachers. In most cases, their position at the institution was attained through their achievements in performance rather than pedagogical ability (Wristen, 2000, p. 57; Purser, 2005, p. 287; Oltuski, 2009). Yet as Coyle identifies, practising 10,000 hours to develop one’s performance craft to elite level does not translate to becoming a world-class teacher, which requires an investment of that same amount of time in practising teaching. A “Master Coach”, by Coyle’s definition, usually has 30-40 years of teaching experience (2009, p. 178).

In my experience and that of others, a gifted virtuoso’s technique may have a mixture of healthy and incoordinate elements (also see Mark, 2003, p. 2). Furthermore, while performer/teachers (or artist/teachers) may have an intuitive insight into their impressive skills, this understanding is often unconscious. They may be unable to identify and/or communicate the many physical processes underneath their playing. As Gelb notes, the inherent human quality of faulty kinaesthesia allows the possibility of being unaware of movement, rendering the explanation of one’s own physical processes difficult (1994, p. 96).

In emulating their revered teacher, students may imitate all of their habits without discrimination. Issues in a teacher’s playing, such as strain caused by playing 1-4 octaves, can easily be passed on to the student, as pianist Earl Wild observed (cited in Grindea, 2007a, p. 123). Combined with the prevalent delivery mode in instrumental studios of the teacher demonstrating and student imitating, the student often “interprets in light of faulty sensory perception, executes with habitual misuse, and judges results through faulty sensory perception” (de Alcantara, 1997, p. 43). Thus, instrumental pedagogy can be often based on deceptive subjective experiences and what Watson describes as “erroneous notions” of how the body functions (2009, xi).

Additionally, the primary focus in piano tuition is often still on the musical results; the physicality of the performer’s body interacting healthily with the instrument is often ignored. Carey reports student feedback that in some piano departments, instruction in individual lessons can have little integration of the physicality underneath the desired artistic results (2004, p. 125; also see Watson, 2009, p. xi). Thus, the typical pedagogical practices Ortmann described in 1929 are unfortunately still present today:
Very often the necessary mechanical analysis is never made and the pupils continue day after day in their attempts to do the mechanically impossible, until the hopelessness of the task and the ensuing loss of interest turns them from their task into non-musical activities (p. 377).

While working in purely interpretative realms may work well for advanced students, disregarding accurate explanations of the physical processes can be insufficient for those who have not intuitively developed a healthy virtuosic technique (Kochevitsky, 1967, pp. 17-18). As Chasins believes, unless a student is technically, intellectually and emotionally mature, it may even be dangerous to present them with a musical vision beyond their capabilities without clear how-to instructions (1981, p. 81). As Schindler attests, now an accomplished vocal performer/teacher herself, there can be “great love” for and willingness to please the teacher (2009, pp. 183-184). Yet if the performer/teacher cannot articulate the exact physical processes underlying their intuitive ability, students may graduate with a high degree of musical understanding, but with technical limitations, and feelings of guilt and responsibility for their “failure”.

Thus, the physicality of music making can no longer be ignored in instrumental tuition. As Altenmüller describes, “Music performance at a professional level is one of the most demanding tasks for the human central nervous system”, involving an intricate feedback loop of movement, sounds, and emotions (2003, p. 523). High-level performers regularly accomplish inconceivable feats such as performing up to 1800 notes a minute in a Liszt Paganini etude (Muente et al. in Jabusch, 2006, p. 91). Therefore, the physical complexities need to be considered by pianists and pedagogues alike. Otherwise, well meaning but uninformed pedagogues, teaching through an “aura of mystery, misunderstanding and misinformation” can inadvertently cause their students pain (Vieland, 1987, p. 6).



Reference List
Altenmüller, E. (2003). Focal dystonia: advances in brain imaging and understanding of fine motor control in musicians. Hand Clinics, 19(3), 523-538.

Carey, G. (2004). New understanding of ‘relevant’ keyboard pedagogy in tertiary institutions. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.

Chasins, A. (1981). Speaking of pianists (3rd ed.). New York: Da Capo Press.

Coyle, D. (2009). The Talent Code. New York: Bantam Dell.

de Alcantara, P. (1997). Indirect procedures: A musician’s guide to the Alexander technique. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gelb, M. (1994). Body learning: An introduction to the Alexander technique (2nd ed.). London: Aurum Press.

Grindea, C. (2007a). Great pianists and pedagogues in conversation with Carola Grindea. London: Kahn & Averill.

Jabusch, H. (2006). Movement analysis in pianists. In E. Altenmüller, M. Wiesendanger & J. Kesselring (Eds.), Music, motor control and the brain (pp. 91-108). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kochevitsky, G. (1967). The art of piano playing: A scientific approach. Princeton, NJ: Summy-Birchard Co.

Liertz, C. (2007). New frameworks for tertiary music education: A holistic approach for many pyramids of excellence. Paper presented at the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference. The Australian National University, Canberra.

Mark, T. (2003). What every pianist needs to know about the body: A manual for players of keyboard instruments: piano, organ, digital keyboard, harpsichord, clavichord. Chicago: GIA Publications.

Oltuski, I. (2009). Crafting the well-tempered pianist: Introducing the Taubman Approach. Retrieved January 9, 2010, from

Ortmann, O. (1929/1962). The physiological mechanics of piano technique: An experimental study of the nature of muscular action as used in piano playing and of the effects thereof upon the piano key and the piano tone (Rev. ed.). New York: Dutton.

Purser, D. (2005). Performers as teachers: Exploring the teaching approaches of instrumental teachers in conservatoires. British Journal of Music Education, 22(3), 287-298.

Schindler, M. (2009). “Where was I when I needed me?”: The role of storytelling in vocal pedagogy. In B. L. Bartleet & C. Ellis (Eds.), Music autoethnographies: Making autoethnography sing / making music personal (pp. 23-38). Brisbane: Australian Academic Press.

Smith, R. L. (2007). Piano pedagogy in the 21st Century Conservatoire: Reflections on current developments in the United Kingdom and their significance for Australian practitioners. Paper presented at the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference. The Australian National University, Canberra.

Vieland, J. (1987). [Letter to the editor]. Piano Quarterly, 36(140), 6.

Watson, A. H. (2009). The biology of musical performance and performance-related injury. Lanhan, MA: Scarecrow Press.

Wristen, B. (2000). Avoiding piano-related injury: A proposed theoretical procedure for biomechanical analysis of piano technique. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 14(6), 55-64.


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