Santiago Belgrano

On teaching piano

Through my life and my musical career I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to study with the best pianists (both classical and jazz) in Argentina, the Netherlands and New York. Almost twenty years ago I began this journey, trying to find something like the ideal piano teacher – or at least ideal for me. That’s why I went searching and discovering many different kinds of teachers and teachings, and to also understand how the most common reason to choose a teacher is usually not the best one: the teacher is a great pianist. That’s how I ended up having a lot of teachers who were superb pianists but had no idea at all about pedagogy, or no idea about how to explain (or sometimes understand) how they were doing what they were doing on the piano. Part of this is because of what F.M. Alexander calls “unreliable sensory appreciation”: the teacher thinks s/he is doing something with her/his playing mechanism (body, arms, hand, fingers), but s/he is doing something totally different to what s/he thinks. Part of it is because of lack of knowledge: there’s many invisible movements underneath that often go unnoticed, and some teachers never learned about that. Part of it is because of a tradition of piano pedagogy that focused for hundreds of years on a “macho” approach, based on ideas such as “no pain, no gain”,  and believing that if the student doesn’t improve s/he has no talent, or that the only way to improve is with more and harder practice, instead of a better teacher and a more intelligent approach to practice. But let’s be honest: part of it is because of the lack of interest on teachers to become better educators. Unfortunately, making a living as a musician is not easy anywhere in the world. That situation instantly converts thousands of musicians on teachers with no interest whatsoever on pedagogy, who just do it because it’s one of the easiest ways to earn money as a musician.

When I was studying in the Netherlands and in NYC, I had the wonderful experience of taking lessons with the fantastic teacher and pianist Paul Komen, and later with John Bloomfield, who is probably one of the pianists with more knowledge about the playing mechanism in the world. That’s when I got to realize that most of my problems with the piano and with my education were things that I learned before, misconceptions, or a complete lack of knowledge about many fundamental things. I’ve learned things that anatomy has proven wrong many decades, or even a hundred years ago. I learned things that scholars and piano pedagogues have also proven wrong long time ago. I found through the writings and teachings of people such as Dorothy Taubman, Otto Ortmann, Tobias Matthay, Thomas Mark, George Kochevitsky, Abbey Whiteside, and Reginald Gerig that some of the solutions I was looking for on the 21st century were deeply researched and found on the 19th century, some on the beginning of the 20th, and others more than 50 years ago. And the worst part is, more than 20 teachers never mentioned any of these to me. Such a thing would be completely unacceptable in any other field: a doctor, a scientific or a therapist who sticks to ideas proven wrong 100 hundred years ago would be probably accused of committing a crime, or at least malpractice. Unfortunately, in my experience this situation is practically the norm between piano teachers.

How can we change this situation? 

If you’re a student, choose your piano teacher based on their experience as teachers, not on their level of piano playing. Those two things can be completely different, and many of the best teachers I’ve ever had were definitely not the best pianists. If your teacher explains something to you, ask why. Why should I do this movement, why should I use this fingering, why not this other fingering, why should I sit this high, why should I sit this low, why should my wrist work like this, etc. That’s the best way for you to learn, and for you to know if the teacher knows what s/he is teaching to you. 

If your teacher tells you that pain is normal, that you’ll get used to it, that you should repeat and repeat the movement that is causing you discomfort until it gets better, then change the teacher. If something hurts, there’s something you’re doing wrong. If the teacher says the opposite, it’s probably the wrong teacher. If the teacher only focuses on technique and not in music and showing you the joy of playing the piano, it’s probably the wrong teacher. It’s ultimately the teacher’s responsibility to help you find the way to solve any problem that appears, or to achieve any goals that you have. Of course, there’s a part on you too. But sometimes it’s not that you need more hours of practice, or that you don’t have enough talent: maybe you just need a better teacher.

If you are a teacher, or if you decide to become a teacher, commit to it, research, read, listen, learn as much as you can about everything that you’re teaching. When you teach something, ask yourself: am I basing my teaching on beliefs or on my knowledge? Am I certain about what I’m about to say? Can this affect the student in any bad way? Is there research on this topic that might explain why this is the best option? Does this have a solid explanation? Am I sure that this is the only way? Am I sure that this is the best option? 

Questioning oneself about everything we teach is fundamental. One simple comment, or one simple class may have an effect that can cause trouble for years in the student’s career. I know about this because it happened to me, many times.

And last, but not least, I heard many stories about teachers who said to their students things such as “you have no talent”, “you will never become a good musician”, “your hands are not adequate for a pianist”, or similar things. If you are a student, don’t pay attention to those comments, and change your teacher urgently. If you’re a teacher, don’t you ever say that to a student. You have no right, you have no idea, and you’re most certainly completely wrong.