Piano Teaching Philosophies
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
ost teachers have well-established ideas, derived from long experience or the way they were trained, about what constitutes good piano teaching. They might not necessarily think of the sum of those ideas as a "philosophy of teaching". Yet, one could argue that the teaching philosophy, even if the teacher doesn't think of it as such, determines more about her teaching than the teaching method or her knowledge of piano, per se, since the underlying philosophy determines pretty much everything else about the way a teacher teaches. This article considers the philosophical bases of piano teaching, how they might differ from teacher to teacher, and why teachers, students and parents should care about them.
For student advice on talking with teachers about teaching philosophies, see our Interview Checklist.
The best teachers will tailor their teaching to the strengths, weaknesses and interests of the individual student. They will choose, combine or invent materials and approaches that work best for that student. However, most teachers can be said to have some basic philosophies, or foundations, behind their teaching, separate from any piano methods or materials that they may use. For example, some teachers believe that ear training and playing by ear are preferable to an emphasis on sight-reading music. Since some students play well by ear and may have interests in improvisation (jazz), this might make sense for those students. Other teachers believe that constantly challenging the student with progressively more difficult material and concepts is the best approach, while others concentrate more on making lessons "fun". I have heard many times from teachers who use the "Suzuki method" that Suzuki is as much a philosophy as a teaching method.
A teacher who believes strongly in sight-reading ability probably will choose to use certain methods and not use others. A teacher who teaches jazz piano probably will have a different underlying philosophy, i.e. one more attuned to ear training and improvisation, and use different method materials, than one who teaches classical piano. A teacher who teaches only advanced students will likely have a different approach and different values than one who teaches only young children. However, I would submit that, while you would probably get somewhat different answers, all these teachers could, and probably would, tell you what aspects they think are most important about piano learning. The sum of these aspects for each teacher can be referred to as a teaching philosophy.
All piano teaching methods embody, to at least a degree, a certain small set of underlying principles or, put another way, a philosophy of teaching. A teaching philosophy is not identical to a "method", even though a method might be mostly or fully consistent with a teaching philosophy. Most teachers can tell you what the "strengths" of a method are. It's a small step from there to deducing the philosophy underlying the method. This is an important matter for those teachers who use method materials, since they will want to use materials whose philosophies are consistent with their own. Teachers who might like to learn more about the basic principles behind some common methods might want to view our Piano Teaching Methods page.
Even though teachers might use parts of different methods with different students, most teachers use the parts that are consistent with what they feel to be important and effective (i.e. consistent with their teaching philosophy). If you believe that sight-reading is important, you'll choose books and approaches that strengthen sight-reading. Just because you decide to use different books and approaches with different students, precisely because you know what you're doing, doesn't mean that you've changed your overall view of what aspects of piano training are most important.
Many piano teacher web sites and brochures have statements of philosophy. Unfortunately, some of the statements are more of the "touchy-feely" sort ("I believe in bringing the joy of music to everyone"), rather than clear expositions of what the foundations of their way of thinking about lessons are. It is hard to imagine how such broad statements could be of much actual use in directing day-to-day teaching, even though they might express the way the teacher feels about music. For example, if one's philosophy of teaching is something like, "Being the best one can be is critical to success. I want to produce the best pianist possible from each student", such a philosophy might be entirely true and laudable. But, it would be almost impossible to determine, except in the most approximate of ways, whether you are achieving that goal.
A valuable teaching philosophy will be more than lofty words. It will be specific and have a connected goal that the teacher and student can measure their achievements against. A more useful formulation might be something like: "Sight-reading of music is critical to playing the piano. My beginning students will learn to read and play written music proficiently." Such a philosophy and the consequential goal are determinable and achievable. With a small number of such definite philosophies and goals, one will have a pretty good basis for building teaching approaches customized for each student. A well-considered teaching philosophy will also help in interviewing students, in that you can then determine if the student's goals and interests are compatible with your own views and priorities.
Teachers who have a business background may see some similarities between a well-formed teaching philosophy and a business "mission statement". Each serves similar purposes. Just as a mission statement says what the business views as important and provides some overall goals, the teaching philosophy helps the teacher both in deciding what really counts and devising means for bringing it about. Businesses write down their mission statements and revise or revisit them regularly. The mission statement serves as a background and aid for making weighty decisions about acquisitions, expansions, employee relations and other important issues. A teacher might be wise to consider doing the same thing with her teaching philosophy. There is no better way to understand one's teaching philosophy than to exercise the discipline of writing down the top few assumptions and goals which drive one's own teaching. Even if you don't write down your teaching philosophy, it's worthwhile to spend some time thinking it through. The time will be repaid in better, more efficient teaching.
It's hard to know where you're going without a map. Think of your teaching philosophy as the map that you will use to get where you want to go. You might be able to get where you want to go without the map, if you spend enough time exploring dead-ends and wrong turns. Knowing where you want to go and how to get there will make the trip faster and more enjoyable, for you and your students.