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In this perceptive study, the amateur pianist and social scientist Barbara Ann Stolz explores what motivates those who pursue a piano-teaching career. Stolz teaches public policy at Georgetown University, Washington DC, and has previously authored Criminal Justice Policy Making: Federal Roles and Processes (Praeger) and Still Struggling: America’s Low-Income Working Women Confronting the 1980s (Lexington).

These books appear to place her somewhat at a distance from the world of piano teaching, but her father was a professional pianist who first taught her how to read music. For piano lessons, he sent her to a ‘nun dressed in a stiffly starched Dominican habit smelling of laundry soap, with long, pale fingers and wearing granny glasses’ (presumably this is Sister Rose Cecilia who is among the book’s dedicatees). ‘Fortunately,’ Stolz adds, ‘she did not use her pencil for disciplinary purposes and lessons were pleasant.’

Decades on, Stolz revisited the question of why piano lovers become instructors after her long-time piano teacher retired and she sought a replacement. At the same time, she read Thad Carhart’s much-discussed The Piano Shop on the LEFTBANK (Chatto, 2001) in which a persistent American receives lessons from a tetchy Frenchman.

Dutifully reading the full farrago of fiction and nonfiction devoted to piano pedagogy, she realised that hyperbolic descriptions were the norm, and the ‘piano teacher depicted in literature and film is typically tepid at best, and at worst malevolent’. Still, a few historical instances of horror film-style reality did occur.

Russian-born Isabelle Vengerova (1877-1956), a mainstay of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, was immortalised in the memoir Tyranna: The Legend and Legacy of Isabelle Vengerova (David Daniel Music Publications, 1995) by pianist and teacher Joseph Rezits, cited here. Even decades after her demise, Vengerova’s furious insults, hurled furniture and banishing of hapless pupils resounded in the memory.

To balance this unhappy, atypical example, Stolz interviewed 20 American piano teachers based in Washington DC, New York, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, but with a larger geographical scope, with half born in Russia, Lithuania, Poland, South Korea, Australia and Canada. The anonymous interviewees, mostly female and ranging in age from 30 to over 90, had studied in the former Soviet Union, Austria, Lithuania, Israel, the Netherlands, Ukraine and the UK, further internationalising the book’s message. They began teaching from the ages of 12 to over 40, but more than half started between the ages of 15 and 21. All had taught for quite some time, with teaching experience ranging from 12 to 78 years, while their pupils included small children to those in their eighties ‘or older’. Typically, they gave lessons in more than one place, whether a music school, college, university, personal studio or students’ homes.

Among the most pertinent messages these interviewees have to convey is to warn off aspiring piano teachers: ‘I do not advise pursuing teaching classical music. You cannot make a proper living’; and ‘Unless one can teach at the college level, the earnings do not keep pace with the cost of living’ are emblematic hints.

Another voice of experience states, ‘For those who have the calling to teach, I say do it in your spare time as a hobby and do something else to pay the bills. This way you don’t have to be under pressure to carry a certain load of students to pay the bills.’

With these caveats in mind, the suggestions turn to more constructive approaches: ‘I would really make sure teaching is what you want to do and that you are not just doing it out of necessity. Doing it out of necessity creates an army of frustrated people and that is projected to the students… To perform, you must have something to say. To teach, you must have a vocation.’

Indeed, piano instruction is decidedly not an instance of the old saying that those who can’t do, teach. Most of the teachers interviewed in this book are also performers and see the two activities as complementary. Ultimately, the choice to teach is due to a shared devotion for all aspects of pianistic life: ‘You have to love teaching. You cannot feel that you are doing it because you have to earn money and every student is taking your energy.’

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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