Column: Piano teacher's diary

Rachael Gillham
Monday, March 1, 2021

Rachael Gillham casts round for positives after a year of pandemic restrictions.

 ‘Both teachers and pupils have developed and grown musically this year. It hasn't gone to waste’
‘Both teachers and pupils have developed and grown musically this year. It hasn't gone to waste’

Lockdown mark three. Darker, colder, bleaker, and at times, these first few weeks of 2021 have seemed interminable. The dreadful, harrowingly high numbers, and personal testaments to loved ones who have sadly passed away. Each was alive, loved, and has stories to tell.

More than ever we need hope and promise of better times to come. From my piano stool I can see spring shoots pushing up by the fence, and I measure, weekly, the lengthening sunsets.

More than ever we need friends, hobbies, and a means to keep moving forward. With live music having been effectively put on hold for so long, music teachers and performers have become adept at editing videos, with online exams and concerts providing our creative outlets.

Not a lot has changed for my family's circumstances, and our weeks are largely similar to those eight months ago. We have two teaching spaces now my husband is teaching too, and so far, the allocation of grand vs digital piano has been amicable. Accompanying seems a distant memory, barring a handful of exams before this latest lockdown. With a new year inevitably comes planning and dreaming. I have myriad plans and visions for the future, and nearly all of them include coming together with other musicians for collaborations, both for business and artistically.

Rather than focussing solely on my perspective, I asked friends, colleagues and family, all of whom teach, how they have been affected. They include a singing teacher, the director of a music school in Ireland, and piano teachers in Ireland and Surrey.

Singing, as we all know, has suffered terribly, and my sister-in-law who teaches and runs community choirs has lost over three quarters of her business. In common with other singers I know, teaching online, especially with a group reliant heavily on their MD keeping them together, isn't the same. I know other singers who have retrained, unable to wait it out.

Starr Meneely from Surrey Piano was asked to leave her rented business premises with no notice during the first lockdown. With no other option she had to let her teachers and their pupils go, and give away equipment, including pianos. She has retained her own pupils, and now teaches online from home. She plans to start again when the time is right and the right premises come up.

One thing (among many) I have in common with my piano teacher friends is that the majority of us are not particularly high-tech people or teachers. As lockdown has progressed, I have found it impressive seeing others’ virtual studio set-ups; reading about multiple split screens and camera angles to show both the hands and face. It has niggled slightly and feelings of not doing enough to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ occasionally pop up. The extent of my tech is a tripod and an iPad.

Over on the west coast of Ireland the strong tradition of music is continuing. One friend who teaches for music schools is preparing pupils for an online concert, pianists only, live on Zoom, with an audience.

Katharina Baker, director of Coole Music in Co. Galway runs a meticulously organised and musically high achieving school. A violinist and composer herself, she is a strong advocate of chamber music and, perhaps uniquely, she composes for her quartets, into which young players are placed from early on, tailoring the music to each group's ability. They have had several orchestral tours put on the back burner, and the annual graduation ceremony is on hold. Music is not, though. Earlier this year, her annual fundraiser for a bursary took place online, and saw performers take part from far and wide. Plans are still in the pipeline, and her students are progressing well and can enjoy the social aspect of remote ensembles.

For so many teachers, exams have stopped. I have never forced exams on pupils, and remind parents that while they have a place, there is more to music than eight grades and 24 pieces. It is lovely to explore neglected books and encourage pupils to broaden their horizons. Getting a deeper understanding and going off on tangents, while still insisting on accurate knowledge and thorough technique is refreshing. Much as I can't wait to go back to work properly and for restrictions to lift, I will continue to advocate for varied repertoire and understanding its context.

Both teachers and pupils have developed and grown musically this year. It hasn't gone to waste and resilience, patience and stamina to not give up are all qualities we wish for. I hope that we can look back and appreciate the good that comes from it.