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Keys to Success: L.A.'s Finest Piano Teachers
Including How To Buy a Piano
New West, Oct. 24, 1977
by James Boyk

with a 1997 comment by the author,
What I Learned From Writing This Article
Copyright © J. Boyk 1977, 1997.

[Yamaha International purchased 11,000 reprints of this piece, saying it was "the finest statement of philosophy of music education we've ever seen." I like to think it wasn't just because I praised the Yamaha Music Schools.]

Finding a piano teacher is easy. Finding the right one is trickier. People get names by asking friends, looking at grocery store bulletin boards, calling up college music departments—UCLA sends out a list on request. But most people don't so much choose a teacher as arrive at one by default.
      The right teacher will be personally compatible with you or your child, affordable and capable of teaching you what you actually need to know. Bear in mind that the teacher will be an important person in your—or your child's—life. As Hollywood teacher Jacqueline Sharlin points out, "The piano teacher is usually the one teacher with whom they have a one-to-one relation." Also, for the two or three years that most people study, you will probably lay out a couple of thousand dollars for lessons; so it's worth taking the time to find a good teacher.
      Most of this article applies to all music training, whatever the instrument. The particulars deal with the piano because it is most people's choice for basic music training.
      You should listen to any prospective teacher give a lesson or two, and you should hear a number of his or her students play; a student recital is ideal. Listen to the students' playing with the following ideas in mind: Do they play naturally? Could you dance to the playing? Does the playing convey feeling?
      A given student may be good or bad, but you can judge the teacher by what the students seem to have in common. There is such a thing as talent, but anyone can play competently and musically, if taught properly and by the right person. It's like learning a language: There is a range of talent linguistically, but everyone learns his or her own tongue.
      Most music students, however, do not understand the "language"—they don't really know what they are doing or why. Ask your prospective teacher to give you an overview of the first few months of study. If he or she cannot do this in a way that you can understand, what are the chances that you will understand the lessons themselves?
      What are lessons about? First, they are about the language of music, which is a language of sound. Music lessons without reference to the sense of hearing are like cooking lessons without reference to the sense of taste. This is not so obvious as one would hope. In preparing this article, I interviewed more than 70 teachers in Southern California. I asked them all a question that you should ask a prospective teacher: "What is your approach to music training and piano training?" Almost half of the teachers made absolutely no mention of the ear, or of listening or of anything relating to the sense of hearing. I would then ask, "What is your view of the role, if any, of the ear in music and piano training?" I expected the answer that the ear was so important that the teacher had just taken it for granted. But a number of teachers claimed that the ear doesn't have anything to do with music training! If you get this answer, keep looking.
      In case the phrase "ear training" makes you think of someone learning how to wiggle them, I should explain what it means. Suppose that you and I are listening to someone talking. To show me that you have heard what is being said, you could repeat it to me or you could write it down. The same holds in music. You can show that your ear is functioning by singing a tune you hear, by writing it down or by playing it. These are just skills, and anyone can acquire them. Ear training traditionally involves all the possible couplings of hearing, singing, writing, playing and reading. Listening to a melody and writing it down is called "taking melodic dictation." Hearing a tune and playing it is "playing by ear." Singing a written-down tune is "sight-singing"; playing it is "sight-reading."
      Traditional ear training is like learning to understand the words that someone is saying in ordinary language. But there is another kind of ear sensitivity that lets us hear the feelings behind the words. We take for granted our ability to read such subtleties into speech we hear, and to convey them in our own speaking. By developing a parallel sensitivity, the music student learns to register and project the emotions of music.
      And then there's the most difficult kind of ear training: the ability to hear yourself objectively as you play. This is the meeting ground of music training and psychoanalysis.
      Well-known teacher Robert Turner says, "The most important thing for anyone in music is to have a good ear." Mr. Turner starts every beginner playing by ear, to establish music as an aural experience. Another teacher, Sheldon Steinberg, calls a good ear "the absolute indispensable," going on to say that he has students do "a great deal of singing," and that he's "suspicious of anyone who doesn't want to sing. Sometimes there isn't time for it in the lesson, but I make them go home and do it, and I check up on them."
      Concert artist and teacher Edward Auer sums it up well by saying, "All of this training and drilling and ‘do this' and ‘don't do that' is very fine, but the real teacher of a student is his ear, so a main function of the teacher, in my opinion, is to develop the student's ear so that it becomes gradually more exacting."
      You can cut the cost of your musical education by getting the ear training, sight-singing, etc. in a class instead of private lessons. Christine Plumb, who teaches piano teachers in Ventura, says, "The problem is we don't have time to do all we should do [in private lessons]. There are many teachers—and perhaps this is ideal—who give an individual lesson and a class lesson every week." Jacqueline Sharlin goes further: "So many kids should not be taking instrumental lessons. They should be taking—I don't want to say ‘music appreciation' lessons, because most music appreciation courses are so terrible—but something that would give them something they would carry away with them after the two or three years of lessons." Such classes do exist. Some private teachers offer them, and so do the following schools . . . . [1997: Details omitted as out of date; list included CalState Univ./Northridge Music for Youth Program, Immaculate Heart and Occidental College Preparatory Programs, UCLA Extension, USC Community Schools Program, and Yamaha Music Schools.]
      You do want to be able to play the piano, not just sit there in front of it with your ear functioning like mad. Which brings us to a field plagued by misleading and downright incorrect ideas, the field of piano technique.
      If this phrase conjures up anything for you, it is probably scales and exercises and yellow music books that say Hanon or Czerny on the front. And boredom. That's what is commonly known as "piano technique," and that's what I heard about from at least half of the teachers I interviewed. But Bruce Sutherland of Santa Monica is one teacher who makes a valuable distinction: "Technique isn't so much the what as the how."
      Piano technique—any instrument's technique—is the means of getting the sounds you want from the instrument. (Of course you must know what you want before you can know if you've got it, which is why ear training and ear imagination are at the foundation of technique itself.)
      We learn many things by example and metaphor. I learned to shoot a basketball jump shot by watching others do it and by listening to advice like, "Hang in the air just before you shoot." Now, you don't hang in the air for more than an instant without defying the law of gravity; but it feels as though you're hanging in the air, so this is a useful metaphor.
      It's hard to learn piano playing by example, though, because it is an involved activity and your attention may be directed to the wrong place. You may be watching your teacher's hands when you should be observing his or her shoulders. And most teachers don't describe what they are doing in scientific terms. Instead, excessive reliance is placed on metaphor. One teacher may say, "Dig into the keyboard." Another may say, "Draw the sound out of the keys, don't point it into them" I myself have always liked saying, "Make it sound like molasses."
      What do these things mean? Inherently, nothing at all; but for a particular student, they may work. And the wonderful thing about teaching by image and metaphor is that when it does work, it's fast.
      When you sit in on a couple of lessons, be certain that your prospective teacher's metaphors and images make sense to you. Notice, too, what happens when the metaphors don't work. Does the teacher become exhortative and impatient? Does he or she mistake the metaphors for the actual physical reality? If so, find yourself another teacher. But if the imagery is congenial to you, and if the teacher has some awareness of physiological reality when needed, then you've found a possible teacher for you.
      Pianist and teacher Jo Ann Smith says, "Too many parents feel that the best teacher is the one who lives the closest and charges the least." Now that you have some idea how to find a good teacher for yourself, we should talk about how much you will find yourself paying.
      Fees charged by the teachers I interviewed ranged from $10 per one-hour lesson to $100. The average was $21. [1997: Figures in this section are those from 1977; I haven't conducted the survey again. However, it's all too clear that lessons have not kept pace with inflation. They never do. In 1961, I paid Gregory Tucker $25 for my lessons at the Longy School, and that was a much reduced rate then. Allowing for inflation turns that into something like $175 now; and the most I've heard of anyone's charging is about $110. Even more relevant to most people, the low end of the range has hardly moved.]
      Many teachers give shorter lessons to young beginners; and most of these charge at a lower rate for these lessons. Teachers who accept beginners average $20 per hour, but those who offer half-hour lessons at all charge an average of $8.50 for them, not $10.
      Teachers who do not accept beginners average $23 per hour, with quite a number charging $25 and several at $30, $35, $40 and $50 per hour. This is a lot of money, but we're talking about people with a lot of training.
      The last question I asked of each teacher was, "What other teachers in Southern California do you consider outstanding?" Below is an unexpurgated list of the teachers whose names came up more than once. [1997: List of 25 teachers is omitted as out of date. See below, "What I Learned From Publishing This Article."]
      Among people who teach, there is a tremendous variety of professional involvement with music. The teachers featured below have been chosen to illustrate that variety. [1997: Descriptions omitted as out of date; the list included the late Aube Tzerko, Richard Grayson, Edward Auer, Leonid Hambro, Robert Turner, Terry Trotter, Doris Koppelman, and Joanna Hodges.]

How To Buy a Piano

Pianos, like automobiles, are big, complex, delicate and expensive. New pianos can cost up to $165,000 [1997: These figures have been updated and are current.], with medium-sized grands at $20,000 and up, and good vertical pianos starting at about $8,000. Used pianos cost less—perhaps down to about $3,500 for a decent used vertical.
      Pianos are as complex as automobiles, too. The "action"—the internal mechanism—has as many moving parts as an automobile. Just as in car buying, the simplest way to buy a piano, either new or used, is to get one from a dealer, while the cheapest way is to buy one from a private party. (Both kinds of seller advertise in the classifieds.) Some pianos are lemons, so you should have a piano technician, not just a tuner, check yours out for you.
      A piano is different from a car in one respect. You might purchase a car just for basic transportation, but the whole point of a piano is to provide beautiful sound, and responsive and reliable touch, not just to get you from one end of a scale to the other. This means that ideally, every beginner should have a "concert grand" piano. In practice, it means you should buy the best piano you can afford, sacrificing fancier styling for a better instrument. (Cosmetic beauty is nice, but there are lots of awful pianos with beautiful cases, and vice versa; just as with people.)
      Go to more than one piano dealer to see which one you're comfortable with; and ask friends about the dealers' reputations.
      The dealers will have demonstrators showing the actions of a grand, a vertical and a spinet (the smallest vertical). Note how the grand's action is simpler than the vertical's, and the spinet's has extra kinks because the piano is so low.
      Notice the difference in soundboard shape between grands and verticals. Try a few pianos yourself, or get a piano-playing friend to try them. Your ear will tell you that every piano is individual, and sounds different even from others of the same make and size. Certain generalizations are useful, however. When you compare instruments of equal quality, you will notice the following things:
      1. New pianos sound unfocused because the hammers are not yet broken in. Breaking- in takes a few hundred hours of playing. [1997: Some makers now treat the hammers to sound "brighter" when new. This seems to make the sound less good in the long run.]
      2. Big pianos sound better than small ones, because they have longer strings and bigger soundboards.
      3. Grands are better than verticals. Their actions are more responsive, and their soundboards are better-shaped and better-placed than those of verticals, giving better tone and projection. (However, some very tiny grands may not sound so good as large verticals.)
      4. Spinets feel sloppy. Because of the extra kinks in the action, playing a spinet feels like shifting our old front-wheel-drive Rabbit: mushy and unresponsive. Avoid spinets!
      When you have found a piano you're serious about, have a competent piano technician judge the condition of the basic structure and give you an estimate of the work which will be needed in the first few years. Find a technician by looking in the Yellow Pages. [1997: This was advice born of desperation. It is not easy to find a good technician. Years later, I wrote an article about this situation.] By all means have a piano-playing friend try out instruments for you, but remember that his or her judgments are as subjective as a car driver's. You need the technician's inspection to get the equivalent of a mechanic's opinion.
      When you get your piano home, place it away from direct heat, cold and sunshine. If it is a vertical, move it out from the wall to open up the sound. Have any piano tuned at least twice yearly even if it is never played; and if you do play it, have minor adjustments to the action done annually. Take care of your piano and you will learn how it is not like a car: Pianos last!

1997: What I Learned From Writing This Article

This was my first published article, apart from one about piano care that was mutilated by its editor. I learned a lot from writing this piece; for instance:
      No one pays attention to the author; only the people written about get attention. I thought that readers would note my effortless mastery and lucid overview of the subject and want to study the piano with me. I got not one call.
      Subjects who are praised do not thank the author. Of the 30 or so teachers who were mentioned positively in the article, only three called to say thanks. All reported receiving many inquiries from readers. None of the other teachers called or wrote.
      Subjects do blame the author for what they don't like. This seems natural, but I was startled when teachers omitted from the list blamed me even though the article made it clear that being listed was decided by the votes of everyone interviewed, not by me. Obviously, I was naive.
      In the future, I should try to be the subject of articles rather than the author.
      Writing articles is a lot of work. I started this one by interviewing a number of reputable teachers, then interviewing every teacher recommended by any of them, and continuing this way, stopping only when the recommendations came full circle. By the end, I had interviewed 72 teachers, typically for 60 - 90 minutes each, and had attended several student recitals.
      The field of piano teaching is terribly compromised by what I call the piano-teaching wife syndrome. The piano-teaching wife's husband provides the family's main income, and the P.-T. W. has never had to earn her own independent living, never been part of the world's economic hurly-burly.
       She may be an excellent musician and thoughtful teacher. What defines her (and it is always a "her", though of course not all "hers" show the syndrome) is that she hasn't come to terms with being a professional charging a fee for a service. Out of ambivalence which she calls generosity, she charges less than makes any sense for someone of her training and experience. These women asked me if I thought they were charging too much, when their fees were about 10% of what a psychiatrist would get. And many of them had as much, and as serious, training in music as a psychiatrist has in psychiatry.
      Paying less for lessons is an undeniable economic benefit for the P.-T. W.'s students; but I think there's also a disadvantage to studying with a teacher who does not take herself seriously as a professional. And there are so many piano-teaching wives that fees for the whole profession are compromised.
      Perhaps there are few piano-teaching wives now that times are economically more difficult. I don't know, but somehow I doubt it.


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