Sandy Holland is a UK piano teacher with a varied musical background as a head of school music, university (higher education) lecturer, and music examiner. Teaching has always been at the heart of her musical career and she has empowered many young people to go on to become professional musicians. She has had articles published in several music journals and is the composer of Learn to Sight Read: Piano Books. Sandy is co-creator and director of E-MusicMaestro, the leading online resource for music aural training for all music students, especially those taking ABRSM and Trinity exams.
Sandy, what are your specialties and/or interests as a piano teacher?
My main interests as a piano teacher are to get to know each student sufficiently to teach them in the best way for their individual needs, to help students enjoy playing piano and develop as musicians, and to inspire them to be positive, motivated learners. I particularly like taking on keen new students who have time to practice, at around grade 5 to 8, because of the opportunity to teach them such a lot, but I honestly enjoy teaching a mixture of all ages and abilities. At present, my youngest pupil is seven, my eldest is over eighty years old, and I’m teaching the whole range from beginner to post grade eight.
What is E-MusicMaestro?
E-MusicMaestro started in 2010 as a professional development website for piano teachers who enter students for grade exams. However, as music examiners, we soon realized that pupils need extra support too – we perceived a need for more confidence and accuracy particularly in the aural tests. As teachers, we acknowledge that there is often too little time in lessons for developing listening skills.
E-MusicMaestro was re-designed to support the invaluable work of teachers by enabling students to learn and practice aural skills at home. The program both teaches and tests the aural skills needed for success in exams, for wider musical awareness and for more informed performance while playing (all instruments) or singing. Our intention is to support the invaluable work of teachers by enabling students to learn and practice aural skills at home.
We now, additionally, include Learn to Sight Read: Piano, a comprehensive program for grades 1, 2, 3 and 4. This series is intended for use by teachers in lessons, and the recordings of every piece – online, or via QR code for the identical books – also make it an invaluable resource for reliable practice at home.
What is a status quo or unquestioned assumption in piano teaching that you think might be worth reconsidering or turning upside down? What might that look like in real life? How could it change piano teaching?
I think the status quo of piano learning is already changing, in that many people are attempting to learn without a teacher, using the internet and self-study apps. In tandem with this, it seems that more teachers may be acknowledging that some people – particularly teens and adults – want to learn to play without necessarily studying classical music, performing or taking exams.
The status quo of the teacher exclusively facilitating learning is already outmoded, in that high-quality online programs offer the opportunity for blended learning, an effective model for some aspects of musicianship.
Speaking of which, what opinions do you have on the myriad apps and online self-study options for learning to play without a teacher? Do you have any opinions on these, specifically for adult learners? What are the most important benefits of traditional individual and/or group piano lessons for adult learners vs. self-study with apps etc.?
I believe strongly that the best way to learn the practical art and skill of playing or singing is with a teacher. In my opinion, even the best self-study materials cannot replace the invaluable feedback and individualized attention of a teacher when learning to actually play. However, self-study is a particularly useful adjunct to wider musical learning, such as music history, listening skills, reading skills and theory, as long as the resources used are of high quality (and some, sadly, are not!).
What are the most common reasons adult learners stop learning/practicing/studying? What are strategies adult learners can use to continue their studies when experiencing roadblocks, resistance, time constraints, etc.?
I notice that music learners stop studying when life gets in the way – it’s nearly always lack of time, such as studying for extra qualifications, other leisure pursuits assuming more importance, starting a new job, having a child, or sometimes, sadly, ill-health. Some adults never pluck up the courage to begin learning because they suffer anxiety about attending lessons with a teacher. On the other hand, some adults who are high-achieving professionals can feel frustrated to be learning a new skill as a beginner. I believe that a supportive teacher who is sensitive to each individual can help adults to deal with their particular issue with continuing learning.
What is your #1 recommendation for how adults can get the most out of their practice time (which may often be less time than they would like)?
My number one piece of advice is called “Top 10”! The first 10 minutes of our practice time have been found to be the most productive in terms of learning and remembering. I suggest to time-poor adults that they grab ten minutes of practice time whenever they can rather than waiting until they have half an hour to spare, which may not happen. Practice should then be focused on what needs to be learned rather than playing through what is already known.
When an adult student hasn’t gotten much practice in since the previous lesson, how do you structure a lesson? Do you have them practice? Work on something else like theory, or a creative project? Something else?
This depends very much on the student. My student who has the least available time to practice at home usually prefers to have practical advice on sections of technical difficulty, which is, essentially, supervised practice during the lesson.
What has been your biggest challenge as a teacher of adults? How have you addressed or overcome it?
The biggest challenge for me is how to start off complete beginners. I like very few adult method books but I attempt to overcome the challenge by selecting material carefully according to the individual’s interest and initial progress.
One aspect of andragogy is that adults like to be “involved in the assessment of their progress.” How do you approach this?
We talk about what progress means for them and I ask their opinion about how they are playing. Progress takes many forms and, for most adults, the most significant breakthrough they need, and want, is that of maintaining focused concentration during the lesson, which often means overcoming their anxiety about playing for me. Some adults are returning to playing after a break – often when they retire from employment – and we often discuss how to learn more efficiently, tackle technical challenges, and deal with memory issues.
Do you have any thoughts on the distinction between teaching adults how to play vs. teaching them how to practice (and eventually teach themselves)?
My lessons are a template for how to learn and practice each piece. The lessons vary depending on the stage the student has reached with each piece. I suggest strategies for learning and remembering the notes, rhythms, articulation and structure within the context of interpreting the music and managing technical challenges.
Is it important for adults to master every repertoire piece they play? What strategies can adults who quickly tire of pieces use to muster the enthusiasm/motivation to bring at least some of their repertoire to a high level? What strategies can teachers apply?
I don’t think it is necessary for adults to perfect each piece. If adults want to learn a piece that I know is beyond their current capabilities, I gently explain that they may not be able to play it to a performance standard but that they may enjoy exploring it. I check that my students actually like a piece before starting it so it rarely happens that they tire of it. Occasionally, however, both the student and I feel it’s best to discontinue learning a piece – life is too short and the repertoire too vast for students to play pieces they are not enjoying.
How would you answer this question if posed by an adult student: “How long does it take to learn the piano?”
I invariably say, “It depends” … or, “How long is a piece of string?” because everyone’s situation is unique. Furthermore, we never stop learning, and that’s part of the joy of the piano. This question tends to be combined with the question, “Am I too old to start?” and, if people want a detailed reply, I refer them to a blog post in which I address both issues.
How can piano teachers be more creative in teaching? How are you creative in the way that you approach teaching? Can you suggest one or two specific approaches or strategies for teachers?
I like to involve my adult students in arriving at their own interpretation of a piece, sometimes listening to different interpretations of the repertoire they are learning, or to alternative performances of a song, if appropriate. I sometimes suggest that they attempt to explain why a composer might have added certain performance indications, or structured a piece in a particular way.
How do you define “technique?”
For me, good technique is about playing in the most natural, least effortful way physically, constantly returning the hand to a normal hand-shape. It’s about good use of the body, encompassing posture as well as the use of the hands. One of the most satisfying aspects of teaching, to me, is problem-solving students’ technical issues, which are so often caused by unnecessary bodily and mental tension.
How important are technical exercises such as Hanon, Czerny etc. in your own teaching? Do you have an opinion about the value of such exercises? Do you, like some teachers, eschew them in favor of using repertoire to develop technique?
If a student has ingrained technical issues, I think that exercises are of some use but only if they are done under the close supervision of a teacher. There’s no point in practising the wrong technique! Every piece requires technique of some sort and, frankly, who wants to plough through Hanon when they could be playing Chopin?
Will technology or artificial intelligence ever partially or completely replace music teachers? If not, why are teachers so important for learning piano?
The lack of ability to provide crucial feedback, to observe keenly and to demonstrate appropriately will continue to keep technology in its rightful place as a useful adjunct to some aspects of musicianship. Technology will not successfully replace those professionals who teach others to play or sing, at least not in the next hundred years.