The Creative Vs Traditional Piano Teaching Debate. Where Do You Stand?
I have to admit, I didn’t come across the term “creative” piano teaching until about 3 years ago. I hadn’t considered if I was a creative piano teacher or a traditional one. It had never crossed my mind. But everywhere I look now, the term is used to describe a new approach to teaching piano.
So what’s the difference between traditional and creative piano teaching approaches, and which camp do you fall in?
Definitions Of Traditional And Creative Piano Teaching
Let’s be literal here for a minute. The definition of creativity (according to dictionary.com) is “the ability to transcend traditional ideas…and to create meaningful new ideas..”. There are a few other words associated with the definition of creativity, such as imagination, progressiveness, innovation, originality.
Sounds pretty exciting yeah?
Whereas the definition of tradition is “a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting”.
Hmmm, not as exciting, perhaps?
Many would say, that our modern times demand that we move beyond tradition and carve new paths for ourselves, break new ground and evolve. I would certainly agree with this. But does that mean we should completely abandon traditional practices?
Let’s look for a minute at the main differences between a creative piano teaching approach and a traditional one.
The Traditional Approach
A traditional approach will focus on attention to the mastery of pianistic technique and performance skills. Often in preparation for students to undertake exams, eisteddfods, or higher-level musical studies at conservatories, universities, or colleges.
They are about laying all the groundwork for a potential career as a professional pianist or teacher.
Of course, not every student has this as a goal, and certainly, most of them don’t achieve either of these outcomes. But lessons are structured to provide opportunities for students to develop skills comprehensively to a high standard.
A Traditional Lesson Will Usually:
- be an individual, one on one/ face to face lesson
- prioritise “Classical” repertoire – predominantly baroque through to early 20th century.
- Be highly structured in the format of lessons ie. warm up with scales and technical work, move on to Piece A – work on the various problems and practice expectations and then proceed onto Piece B, then Piece C etc..
- have less exposure to contemporary repertoire (pop, jazz, new age, film)
- prioritise learning repertoire through a process of developing technical mastery of skills and thoroughly understanding key, form, rhythm, history and interpretation
- include comprehensive skills development in music theory, sight-reading, memorisation, aural, interpretation, and accompaniment
The Creative Approach
A creative approach seeks to instil different values and expectations in the student. It’s less about the final outcome and more about the journey.
The priority is to give students access to creative skills often overlooked in traditional lessons. They are about laying all the groundwork for a life in music, rather than any specific career or achievement objectives.
A Creative Lesson Will Usually:
- be either an individual or group lesson, either face to face or online
- incorporate creative activities such as improvisation, composition, lead sheet reading
- prioritise the learning of repertoire through a variety of processes such improvising around the key, story associations, or pattern recognition and re-contextualization of concepts
- are less inclined to prioritise learning “classical” repertoire and more inclined to prioritise learning contemporary styles of music, improvisation skills and ensemble playing
- include the use of technology and alternative methodological approaches such as gamification (use of games to reinforce knowledge) and rote learning (learning by imitation and memorisation)
Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater
It’s my personal belief that there are many factors of a traditional approach that we should absolutely hold onto. For me, the idea of technical mastery is still incredibly relevant.
It’s essential, no matter what style or application of your playing, to learn to play with a relaxed tension-free technique. To develop strong independent finger control and wrist flexibity so that you can produce a warm and beautiful tone.
In creative approaches, there seems to be far less attention paid to learning correct technique. In my opinion, this is a problem that we can’t ignore.
Any piano student without a good technique can face problems down the line, such as pain or an inability to achieve their playing goals due to limitations in their technique.
The Fun Factor
The more traditional teachers out there are less likely to use the word “fun” in their marketing as their creative teacher counterparts.
There seems to be this unspoken belief that fun and tradition cannot co-exist. That along with high-level mastery comes extreme discipline, hard work, rule-following and nothing else.
Maybe this is true for some teachers but I think most of us want our students to achieve lifetime musical enjoyment and fulfilment, no matter the approach.
Fun and aspects of a traditional approach can absolutely co-exist.
The Best Of Both Worlds
Most of us will have been trained in the traditional approach. I certainly was. But chances, are if you’re alive today then you’re actually probably teaching a little of both.
Some aspects of the creative approach are fairly ubiquitous. Such as the use of technology – apps, digital sheet music, iPads, iTunes, YouTube etc…
And many teachers don’t prioritise exams or high-level training but still teach mostly classical repertoire in the traditional approach.
When I came across this concept a few years ago I definitely taught in the traditional approach. Even though I was also a composer in the film industry, and improvised everything I wrote.
It just never occurred to me that I could combine the two worlds because that was not how I had been trained to teach.
It wasn’t until I started investigating what kind of teacher I wanted to be that I carved a new approach for myself.
The Evolving Piano Teacher
These days I definitely straddle both sides of the fence.
- classical and contemporary repertoire with a strong focus on technique
- both exam and non-exam preparation
- a fully comprehensive approach to skills development
- individual and group formats
- improvisation (mainly non-jazz) and composition, with a strong focus on storytelling through music
- using technology – apps, computer software, digital sheet music
- using games and rote pieces for my younger students
I like to think of myself as an evolving teacher. One that embraces creativity and innovation and is not afraid to try, or even create original ideas.
But I still see the value in holding onto some important aspects of the traditional approach.
I’d love to know where you stand? Let me know in the comments.