Today we’re joined by Sharon Mark-Teggart, who along with Dr. Sally Cathcart runs The Curious Piano Teachers, one of the leading organisations training up the next generation of piano teachers. And as you’ll discover in this episode they’re leveraging the latest research into what makes for effective learning and teaching to help those new teachers be more successful, enjoy their teaching more, and be continually developing and improving throughout their teaching career.

On the face of it you might think this interview is one for aspiring piano teachers only, or perhaps just music teachers. But we would strongly encourage you to take the kind of attitude Sharon talks about in this conversation: one of curiosity. She talks about how she would sometimes go along to training courses that didn’t seem directly applicable to her, for example ones designed for classroom music teachers – but by being open-minded and curious she found she would always come away with a ton of new tools and inspiration to apply in her own teaching.

In the same way we would encourage you to listen to this conversation and not just take it at face value. When we talk about teachers and students, try to consider how it all could apply not just to your own role in a student-teacher relationship, but also when studying resources online by yourself, or even when you sit and practice and you act as your own teacher. We think you’ll find that all the insights Sharon shares in this conversation can be very relevant to you in one context or another in your own musical life.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • The transformation Sharon went through in her own teaching, and why she is now so passionate about changing the status quo in piano teaching.
  • What it means to bring curiosity to your teaching and learning, and why that can be so powerful.
  • The teaching toolbox she has built up and now shares, including the surprising variety and power in the questions you can ask to accelerate learning.

We also talk a bit about the online course and teaching diploma training they have developed, and so if you’re a teacher yourself or know somebody who is, you won’t want to miss the details of that.

Listen to the episode:

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Transcript

Sharon: Hey there. This is Sharon Mark-Teggart from The Curious Piano Teachers, and you’re listening to the Musicality Podcast.

Christopher: Welcome to the show, Sharon. Thank you for joining us today.

Sharon: Oh, it’s such a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for having me, Christopher.

Christopher: You are well-known online for being an expert in teaching teachers. You specialize in training piano teachers. I think anyone would assume that you must have been one of these virtuoso kids who sat down at a keyboard and could instantly play anything at the age of three. Having talked you a little bit, I think maybe that’s not exactly the case. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like for you when you were first learning piano?

Sharon: Yes, sure. Okay. I was initially taught by my great aunt. I can remember it well. She used to call round on Saturday afternoon. I started by learning to play hymns from music notation, so it was as deeply thrown in at the deep end as you could possibly imagine.

I continued having lessons with her until I started secondary school, so I guess I started around the age of eight. Thereafter, I then had lessons from a teacher who was really quite well-considered in the area, I think possibly because she was one of the only full-time piano teachers. Again, it’s interesting, full-time, because they do it all the time it’s considered that amazing teacher.

I guess my big issue was I did nothing but prepare for exams. For the first right through until I was age 17, when I did my graduate, everything was exam-focused. I did go off. I did have the motivation to go off and learn things by myself, but I did not enjoy learning the piano at all, and only I had my mom there behind me pushing me on, I would definitely have quit.

In fact, I remember two weeks before I took my graduate exam, bringing my mom into the room and saying, “Okay, sit down. I want you to listen to this,” hoping that she would say, “It’s awful. I’m not going to make you go in there and take that.” Instead, she said, “You’ve got two weeks. Just get on with it.”

I did quite literally take it at that. I remember spending those final two weeks in the run up to my graduate practicing madly, listening to loads of recordings because I remember I was not skilled in technique and just looking back, goodness me, there were so many weak areas.

I went in. I did the exam. I got a distinction, and that was the one thing that actually spurred me to continue with learning piano. My playing and my skills as a musician were let’s say very shabby, to say the least.

Christopher: Interesting. I talk to a lot of people who have had that kind of intense exam-focused childhood experience of learning an instrument. Number one, I’m sad to say, it’s all too common, isn’t it, to feel like you haven’t actually learned to really play the instrument, you’ve just learned to tick the boxes and do your performance.

Sharon: I remember feeling so embarrassed actually when I was at somebody’s house. There was a piano, and they discovered that you had graduate with distinction, and the first thing was like, “You must be brilliant. You must be amazing.”

It was always this excuse, because at that stage, I couldn’t play from memory. I couldn’t play by ear. I couldn’t improvise, and it was always this excuse, “Well, I didn’t have the music that I knew.” Of course, to give me something to sight read would have been the other terrifying factor.

Christopher: Got you. I think when I talk to people like yourself who’ve had that experience, it’s actually really unusual to find they’ve continued with the instrument. Normally that story goes, “And so I passed my exam and I never touched it again.”

Sharon: Yes.

Christopher: For you, clearly that wasn’t the case, and you think getting a distinction encouraged you on. Was there anything else that made you think, “Okay, maybe there’s something to this”?

Sharon: The distinction was, I remember actually where I was, sitting on the stairs in my aunt’s house getting the news that I had got a distinction graduate. I didn’t think it mattered that much to me, but it did. Still to this day, I don’t feel worthy of that. I don’t think I was worthy of that distinction.

Providence, call it whatever you like, it was there, because if I hadn’t, if I’d just got a merit or if I just passed, and certainly if I failed, that would’ve been it. That would’ve been it, but I think the fact that I got that encouragement and I then explored that, and it was the people that I met subsequently that I then realized, “Okay, yes, I need to teach the piano and I need to teach it in a way that suddenly being in those years after revealed to me.”

Again, like you said, I came into it not having a great experience at all. In fact, probably what you would term as a pretty terrible experience, but I came into it so impassioned that no one was going to learn the piano like the way I had. I think that is what drove my passion to be an effective teacher myself, and then obviously leader. As I really got into it, my passion then lay in training piano teachers.

Christopher: That’s such a positive, creative outcome. Some people would have that resentment of the way they were taught and just bury their head in the sand. What was it that opened your eyes to the possibility of it being done in a better way?

Sharon: I move teachers. I’ve had a new teacher for my diploma. It was definitely the starting point, because a lot of things in those lessons changed. It was that glimpse into, “This is really quite different.” I got very involved. I started teaching. Just about the same time that I started preparing for performance diploma with that new teacher, I got involved in an actor, actor UK. I actually won my own region for 10 years in northern Ireland.

When I say I was immersed in professional development, I was for 10 plus years of my life, I was completely immersed in it. In my professional development, I’ve spent over 100000 pounds. Obviously being based in northern Ireland, I was having all the traveling expenses, as well. I have lived in London. Didn’t ever live in London, but it felt like that because I was always there for courses.

I think it was getting right there. It was meeting the right people at the right time. It was the people I met who did have the spark and the enthusiasm and where I was just like, “Wow.” I was literally blown away because I was in contact with the people who were, again, what they were doing was bringing transformation to my life as a pianist, as a musician, as a piano teacher. It was just seeing the relentless possibilities, which I hadn’t seen before.

Christopher: Take us back to that time then, because you mentioned passion there, but I’m sure it wasn’t just these people were passionate about teaching the grade four ABRSM exam syllabus to their students. What was it that they were passionate about that had been missing for you up until that point?

Sharon: What I will say at this point is that until I did the MTPP course, which is the Music Teaching and Professional Practice Course based at Reading University, post-graduate course followed by a master’s in music education research, I was teaching piano for about five years before I did that course. I remember distinctly trying so hard to teach in a way that didn’t reflect how I’d been taught, if that makes sense. I went all out. It was like, “I’m not going to teach as I’ve been taught.”

Until I went in that course, did I actually discover, “Oh, Sharon, actually you’ve been teaching exactly as you were taught.” The difference with that course was reflective practice and really digging in and understanding. Before, it was like I didn’t know what to be curious about. I didn’t have enough knowledge to be able to explore. I think it was that particular course that really exploded everything.

Up until then, I guess I was inspired by little bits and pieces, but actually just before I started the MTPP course, I was considering quitting piano teaching. Initially, going through school, I wanted to be a dietician. Can’t get any more different than that to piano teaching. If someone had said, “You’re going to teach. You’re going to be piano teaching,” it would have been, “No, absolutely not. Piano teaching is just not on my radar.” At that point, five years into teaching, I was actually considering going back into dietetics or something different because I was getting frustrated.

Christopher: Where was that frustration coming from?

Sharon: The frustration was, again, I was doing lots of courses, but there wasn’t any follow through with them. If you like, it was a one day conference here, another seminar here, the sort of thing that just fires you up for the day, for two weeks later, and then you’re back at home, you’re back in your studio and things just fall back into the routine because there isn’t that ongoing catalyst to keep you moving forward.

That was where the MTPP course at Reading University changed all of that. Again, my route is so unconventional. I didn’t have a degree at that point. I didn’t have a basic music degree. I didn’t have a basic degree of any sort of description, and I remember talking years later to the course director, and he said he really did wonder whether or not you would be a good fit on this course, because the course, it’s a master’s degree. I think I was one of the very few people to get onto it without a basic music degree.

It was because of all the other stuff they could see I was doing. They could see it was thirsty and hungry to develop my skills as a piano teacher. At that point, I was severely frustrated, and I think it was because there just wasn’t this ongoing thing to give me the solutions that I needed.

That was where then the MTPP really came into its own because there was the ongoing. You had a tutor. You could go back. The stuff that was frustrating you, you then had someone to talk to. You had a network of fellow students, and that actually made all the difference.

Christopher: Interesting. I think we’ll cycle back and talk about this a little bit later on when talking about your own community now for piano teachers, but I’m reminded so much of an episode we did recently here on the show about online courses and when you’re choosing and following through with an online course.

I was talking particularly about trying to find a course that has really great support, because it’s one thing to be able to submit an email question, but it’s completely different if you have some kind of community or some kind of an environment where a tutor, for example, is keeping an eye on you. If you start to wander off course, they can help you get back on. They can help with motivation and enthusiasm, and there’s little sticking points that can otherwise frustrate you.

I’m sure a lot of people listening can relate to where you were up until that point, taking little bits and pieces of learning from here and there and getting bursts of enthusiasm, enough to carry you through, but not really solving the overall problem.

Sharon: Yes.

Christopher: You mentioned something there that I’d love to pick up on, which was reflective practice. What does that mean?

Sharon: Okay. Reflective practice is where, I’m going to describe it as, okay, before in my teaching, stuff was going wrong. I knew stuff was going wrong. I didn’t know how to fix it because I basically didn’t have the tools in my teaching toolkit to fix the problems. The tools just weren’t there. What I was doing was I was just sweeping, brushing all of this stuff under the carpet and just going on. It felt very much to me like muddling on in the best way I knew how.

The MTPP course was the first course that really helped me understand reflective practices. It’s basically where, if I can just take it as an example, you teach a lesson, and one of the best ways to reflect on a lesson is where you video record it, obviously with the people and the parents’ written permission. Obviously, that’s very important. Whenever I’m talking about that, I always say it. You watch that lesson back and you see the things that you never realized.

Without the course, I still would’ve struggled, but of course with the support of the course, I understood how to dig into that. I knew the sorts of things to look for, and I think it was again being given that license to go, “Yes, that’s going all wrong, but it’s okay,” and being given that license to say, “It’s far from perfect, but that’s okay,” is actually the first thing that actually lets your brain just open up and go, “So let’s take a look and see what’s going on in here,” rather than all those thoughts of, “I’m a rubbish teacher, so I’m just going to close it all down,” because I’m just so scared of where this is going to go, feeling like an imposter, so you just close it down. Instead, being reflective is where you’re just going, “It’s fine. It’s fine to be wrong, not to get it right,” because that’s the first step in actually moving it all forward and improving it.

For me, reflective practice is where you’re looking at what you’re doing in practice. You are using the tools and the resources that you have, and obviously the sorts of resources that we are providing as piano teachers, to be able to go, “Okay, so what is it that I need to do to move that to the next level and to improve that?”

I think yes, we’ve got to be open, first of all. Again, the helpful way through is going, “It’s fine to be wrong. It’s fine for it to be going completely out the left,” because that gets you into a place of being really honest as a piano teacher, and then it’s having the tools where you can go and dig in and start to see improvement.

Christopher: Fascinating. It’s amazing how much of that I think applies to the individual learner, too. We’ve talked before about how you should record yourself practicing and listen back, and it’s going to be uncomfortable, but there’s so much you can draw from it. I haven’t really thought in the past about teachers doing that for the practice of their teaching, but it makes perfect sense.

Sharon: Yes. It’s exactly the same thing. It’s actually exactly the same thing for again, whether you’ve got people, again, listening to this show who are learning the piano by themselves again, go out there, record, record. Again, for teachers, students, again, what I encouraged my students to do is record themselves because you very often get them saying, “Do I really sound like that?” You can take that either as a positive or a negative.

It’s so important because it gives you the space that when you’re actually in the activity, whether you’re in the activity of playing the piano or in the activity of teaching the piano, where you just don’t get that wide open space to sit back and listen, and again, ideally video because you get to see, as well.

It’s very interesting, again, for pianists listening or watching back. You get to see, “What’s my posture like? What am I doing? Am I tensing my lips as I sit and play? Am I breathing?” You get so much feedback, and a video is an excellent place as a starting point for reflection.

Christopher: Amazing. You were someone who was at the point of considering quitting teaching piano. Fast forward, you were launching Evoco to help other people in northern Ireland become piano teachers, and you went on to co-found Curious Piano Teachers and take this mission internationally online to teach even more people.
Somewhere in there, you must have transformed from one type of piano teacher to another. Maybe you could just paint that picture for us of what the lesson looked like from the students’ perspective before and after that transformation.

Sharon: Oh, okay. That’s a great point. Okay. Yes, if I cast my mind back to my previous teaching, I think actually first of all, it was mainly about me as a teacher. Of course, as teachers, they’re learning we are never the hero of the story. It’s our students. I’m going to say that that’s the first main distinction.

Pre-reflection, I was very much, it was all about me checking is my teaching good and feeling very stuck and very stifled. Back then, it was actually, again, I was teaching very notation-based. I had students who did not enjoy practicing. I did not have a lot of practice strategies.

Oh my goodness, goodness, there were just so many things that when I fast forward to think about my teaching now, where yes, I am the teacher, but the piano lesson is not about me as the teacher. It’s not about my teaching. The focus is on the students learning, and that’s a really important distinction.

If you like, I’m not the hero. This learning journey belongs to my student. It’s their story. They are the hero. The focus is again, shifted, and again, I think this only can really come when we become more confident as a teacher, because when you lack that confidence, when you feel a bit of an imposter, you’re always trying to prove to yourself that you’re okay, my teaching’s okay, as opposed to then having the confidence in yourself as the teacher.

There are still areas. There will always, goodness me, there will always be areas as teachers where you go, “Oh yeah, I need to dig into that more.” Of course, that’s coming back to being curious. There will always be a quest of, “I need to improve on this and this and this.” The more we are curious, the more we unearth and dig up to explore and expand on. I think that is the main distinction. It’s where I’m obviously so much more confident and skilled as a teacher.

That toolbox that I referred to previously, that was really quite empty, it’s now jam-packed with things. That comes from experience, but it’s not just experience because you could be teaching for a long period of time, and if you haven’t been putting into your toolbox, the tools still aren’t going to be there. That’s an active process that teachers need to do. Yes, so looking at my teaching today, the student is the hero. It’s all about their learning. It’s where, again, I have the tools at hand to be able to develop and move them forward.

Christopher: What kind of tools are you talking about there, because I can imagine someone listening thinks, “Well, if you’re qualified as a piano teacher, you must be able to get them to doing the things that the exam requires, and if that’s what the exam requires, surely that’s what it means to be a pianist.” What extra tools would you need?

Sharon: Tons. Okay, so to give you an example, if I just dig into, for example, the art of questioning. As piano teachers, there are lots and lots of little if you imagine pockets of things that we need to have awareness and skillsets in, so questions. What sort of questions do we ask our students? You get skinny questions, fat questions, high order questions, low order questions, meta cognitive questions.

I didn’t always know about these sorts of questions. When I started to understand more about the way we enter into dialogue with our students, and the fact as well that music making is actually what should make up most of the lesson, not the teacher talking, which again very often hinder the students’ learning.

Again, just to dig into one of those examples, I remember once watching back a lesson, looking specifically and knowing to look for these things, like again, how am I interacting with the student? In this particular case study, there was something like I spent about four and a half minutes talking her through what she needed to do, trying lots of different ways. Wasn’t working, and in the end, I just demonstrate it, and that was it. 10 seconds later, she got it. You look back and you go, “Okay, so stop the talk. Stop talking, Sharon. Just demonstrate.”

Again, going back into questions, we know again from the research that we’ve done, we know from research that other people have done, not even necessarily in the music education profession, it’s about asking good questions. What is a good question? I was talking earlier on about skinny questions and fat questions. If we’re asking questions like, “Do you,” you’re going to instantly get an answer, a yes, no.

Basically, what you have done is you have shut down the opportunity to really figure out if the student understands, but if you ask a question that begins with, “How could you practice that? What might you do?” You’re instantly going into, again, open, closed. It’s either questions shut something down or open something up, and just understanding that makes such a huge impact.

Again, just really quickly, to share an example of one of my teaching students, she taught a lesson recently. She watched it. She gave it to me to watch, and it was really interesting that she, again, asked a question, got the right answer, but decided to ask another deeper question, and then realized actually, no, the student doesn’t understand this.

Again, that’s just an example of one of the tools, so again, knowing how to ask questions in a piano teaching lesson. Is it important? Yes, it’s important, because you may have a student who doesn’t get something. If you’re asking the right questions, you’ll realize, “Okay, they haven’t got that.”

That’s I think what can happen so often in lessons is where we talk to the student and we assume, and it’s something that a guy called Lee Lefever has referred to as the curse of knowledge. We’re a 10. Our students are a one and a two. We try and communicate what we know, and we so often miss and we get a seven. There’s this gap, and it’s because we have learned the stuff so long ago, we have just forgotten the possibilities for confusion.

That’s why we need to be asking those questions. We need to be interacting with our students, because otherwise, there will be stuff that they won’t understand. It’s the same way that if we have a conversation with a lawyer or an accountant, we don’t live in their world. We don’t understand. They will say things, and we can so often nod our head as if to say, “Yeah, okay, I understand,” but I don’t. Again, it’s the same with our pupils. That’s going to be a very long-winded question, but that’s just one tiny, tiny area that it can make such a transformative difference if you understand.

Christopher: I think you’ve painted a great picture there of how thoughtful you can be as a piano teacher and how easy I’m sure it is if you’ve never encountered these kinds of tools for your teaching to be oblivious to that possibility and be a very thoughtless teacher inadvertently. You used a different word then, thoughtful though in creating your company. Tell us about Curious Piano Teachers, where that came from, and why you chose that word, curious.

Sharon: Curious, I remember using the word curious on my very first Evoco banner. On the banner was, “How do you eat an elephant? Curious?” Of course, the follow through with that was, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” because as with anything that can seem challenging, again, piano teachers can look and again, when they hear about questions or when they hear about any of these little pockets that I’m talking about, they go, “Where do I start?” It seems there’s so much to learn about. The whole point is that you don’t try and get your mouth around the whole elephant. You just take it one bite at a time.

Sally, again, just to put you in the picture with Sally, Sally and I met on the MTPP course one very hot sunny day in 2003, I think it was, at Reading University. Subsequently, she was my master’s supervisor, and then we worked together as the principal teachers on the PTC, the Piano Teachers Course, that runs at the Purcell School.

She then, back in 2013 I think, she came over and did some work for me at Evoco. Again, then, she started up the Curious Piano Teacher blog, and then obviously from there, when we had a good chat, joined forces, we decided, “Okay, let’s become the Curious Piano Teachers,” because essentially, you can’t be curious about something that you don’t know about.

Of course, for example, that whole concept of questions. If you’re not aware that questions are so massively powerful, knowing all the questions to ask, unless you’re aware that questions are a transformative element, you’re not going to.

Again, the idea with the Curious Piano Teachers is that we again put out little things where teachers go, “What?” That’s really where the whole word curious, and of course, piano teaching, anything in life, it’s always evolving, constantly. Like I said earlier, there’s no point. You can sit back, fold your arms, and go, “Okay, that’s it. I’m done.” The more you dig in, the more you unearth. The more you follow a trail, the more it breaks off into all these other trails.

Again, Sally and I at the Curious Piano Teachers, we’ve got research backgrounds. We understand the importance of research. We understand that all this amazing, wonderful research that has been done very rarely actually filters down to piano teachers out there. If it did, we would actually be realizing, for example, having this focus on notation was actually not the way to go in the first lessons.

Again, research fuels curiosity, so yes, curious is a very important word for us because in essence, it talks about asking that what if question. Again, we did that. What if we could help piano teachers online? We didn’t know if that was going to work, because before then, we were only doing it in a one to one setting where we had a piano in the room, where we had teachers physically in the room with us. We didn’t know if it was actually going to work. Again, that was us being curious, going, “Well, what if? Let’s push the boundary here.”

Christopher: You mentioned something there, which I think is characteristic of your teaching philosophy or your approach, which is not going too heavy on the notation-based learning. I really enjoyed looking at your Let’s Play course, which, I don’t know if it’s fair to say, kind of equips teachers with a lot of different interesting tools they can bring to their lessons and unpack music in a very different way for their students.

I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that course and in particular, what jumped out at me was that you are unashamedly or unabashedly putting singing front and center, which is I think quite unusual for a piano teacher.

Sharon: It is, it is. Okay, so we have an online course called Let’s Play. It’s for piano teacher who teach beginners, so obviously that’s quite a lot of piano teachers. The idea is when you get the course, you get to see Sally and I teach lessons. Now, it’s not just one to one lessons. We’re also doing small group lessons.

Again, reflection is very much the center of this because you get to watch a lesson, and then you get to hear us talk about it, so you actually get to hear our reflections of what went well, what didn’t go so well, and subsequently, what would we do instead. We follow through with that, because again, no lesson’s perfect.

Again, the underlying premise of this course is that we develop musicians first and pianists second. If you think about it, one way that I will talk to parents about this is it would be absurd to get your child to learn to read and write without having first learned how to speak. Piano lessons that start with a cheater break, so often, it’s kind of a similar thing.

What Sally and I are very passionate about is that we develop musicians first of all, and the natural way to do that is through the singing voice. Sally has done a huge amount of work for the Voices Foundation. Again, it’s something to look at and Google. They do a wonderful course, and it’s actually where I did a course. That was one of the courses that I did whilst I was in the MTPP course and where I was struggling to get the practical side of this whole idea of sign before symbol, because it was presented quite theoretically, and I thought, “But how do I apply this in a piano lesson? What do I do? How do I develop musicianship skills for my piano students?”

Basically, I went in this Voices Foundation course, and it was for classroom teachers. Again, it’s being open-minded, it’s being curious. You could think, “I’m not a classroom teacher, so this will not apply to me,” but I came home with again, a toolbox full of what I needed to do in my piano lessons, developing singing.

Again, for example, you teach your beginner student a simple song. They then will be able to let’s say understand how to tap the rhythm, understand how to play that by ear, understand how to write that down. Obviously, the scope of this podcast, I can’t go into that, but again, that course looks at that.

It’s really developing musicianship and oral skills. It can work perfectly as something alongside a piano teacher book. It’s a way of songs that you can teach and then how you can break down the elements, so how do you teach students to understand rhythm and pulse. It’s broken down step by step in that particular course, with again, lots of songs and lines and examples that you can use in lessons.

Christopher: Terrific. Just to play devil’s advocate for a second, why do it that way? What’s the advantage of developing those skills away from the piano or in conjunction with the method book?

Sharon: Again, music needs to come from within. We can’t sit down at an instrument and bring music out of that instrument without the music first being inside, so the rhythm, the intonation, all of that. Again, people, again, singing, it’s maybe less obvious for singing to be used in piano lessons. People might say, “Well, a tuner comes in and that’s their job to tune the piano. Why do piano students need to learn to sing in tune?” Do you know what?

Again, from having done that Voices course myself, I developed so much musicianship skills and I realized the importance, where before I struggled to play a phrase musically, if you start with singing, the problems just dissolve.

Again, going through and understanding the approach and all the nuances of that approach, which is what I learned in the Voices course, and again, which is what the Let’s Play course is very much infused with, it’s this where we all need to have these musicianship skills. Music insight has to develop first, then internalization, then we can go to the instrument. We have got the full sound in our head. That’s why it makes sense.

Christopher: Fantastic. Well, as you say, unfortunately there’s only so much we can pack into a podcast. I feel like we can do a whole episode on that approach and helping students be confident singing and all of that good stuff, but I think for now, we’ll put a link in the show notes to that Let’s Play course. Anyone who’s interested to see what this might look like or what that toolbox contains, definitely go take a look at that course.

You mentioned earlier the importance of community, or from a different angle, we could talk about support and ongoing training and advice and help when you’re trying to learn something. I’d love to hear about your online teaching diploma course, because that’s something that I think a lot of people would assume needs to be done in person in an old conservatory somewhere.

You guys are taking a very different approach to preparing the next generation of piano teachers, and you’re putting community front and center as part of that. Tell us why you’re taking that approach and what that overall program looks like.

Sharon: Okay. Just to backtrack a little bit, we obviously set up a community, which is our online membership site back in 2015. It’s a big part of what we do. Again, prior to that, with Evoco, my focus was on offering courses to piano teachers. Again, these were courses where they were physically, again, in a building with me with a piano.

A year down the line, having started the membership site and realizing, “Yes, we can make a difference. We can do this online. This is working,” we then went back and looked at the idea of an online piano teaching diploma course. Again, there’s that ongoing element and varies the accountability. Again, there are the assignments, which we do have challenges for our members in the community, but again, we’re not chasing everyone out to make sure they’ve done their homework, as it were.

With this course, especially for teachers who either struggle to know what to do or who get started something and it just falls by the wayside because there isn’t the ongoing impetus, then this is what this course is designed to help them keep going to where they’ve actually got an accredited teaching diploma.

At the moment, we are currently offering the ATCL and the DipABRSM, so it’s a course that helps piano teachers prepare for either one of these teaching diplomas. Again, we’ve just launched the 2018 brochure. The deadline for applications is the 30th of June, and that course then, it’s a 15 month course. It starts in September and runs right the way through.

Everything, yes, is online, so we’ve got eight modules. We’ve also got a Facebook group for curious people who are curious to know more, because again, we’re in there answering lots of questions and actually diving a lot more into the module content a lot more than what we can actually put into a brochure.

What was really important for us was that we knew that piano teachers very often want to feel that they have a recognized teaching qualification, as opposed to a performance one. Of course, you learn a whole new set of skills, because I started out teaching, fairly soon after I started teaching, I got a performance diploma. There isn’t pedagogical skills that you then will learn about when you go and you do a teaching diploma. You’ve got another whole set of skills, and that’s what we dig into in these eight modules.

Again, we didn’t want people just to go away with a piece of paper. Obviously, in the same way that as piano teachers, we don’t want to use the exam syllabus as a curriculum, that’s again what we’ve done. We have gone, we have looked at the requirements for these two accredited piano teaching diplomas, and then we have created this eight module course around that.

It’s so that piano teachers don’t just get a piano teaching qualification when they follow through and they do the work, they also get, if you like, that toolbox of skills. The idea is that it’s transforming their teaching, so we have I think some sort of a tagline somewhere where it’s a piano teaching diploma for life.

Again, from what people are saying, we had a pilot course initially. We then ran, are currently running a small course, and then this year is a proper full run of the course, which we have also added three complementary live days, so we’re really excited about that.

We had our first Curious live event, one event in Belfast and one event in Oxford, where I had speakers from the US and Australia earlier this year. The amount of sheer enthusiasm, from bringing, it was largely members who attended, the energy was just awesome, just awesome. We thought, “We’ve got to bring our teaching diploma students together, as well.”

We have a day in London at the beginning of January just as they’re starting module three, and then later on, there’s two days in the summer where we’re also going to be delivering, Sally and I will be delivering with people from the ABRSM and Trinity. I know for sure, I was in touch with Peter Wild, chief examiner for Trinity Village, so he’s going to be working alongside me and delivering the content in one of the days. Again, we just haven’t confirmed who the person is from ABRSM.

Again, the idea is to connect with our members at those points because we know that bringing people together in a live setting is just very, very powerful. Now, we know that it’s in London. We do have applicants. We have people from Australia who have done the course, so obviously if you’re based in the US or Canada or Australia, you’re very welcome to take a flight to London, but of course, we’ve decided, “Okay, we’re going to make this complementary.” We haven’t increased the cost from last year.

This is another element not because we can’t deliver it live. We have had our first batch of students who have gone through the course and who have successfully completed the course, passed the course, but the idea is we’re just from Curious live, we’ve realized bringing people together is awesome. For students that can make it to London, it will be a rocking experience is all I can say.

Christopher: Tremendous. Well, I have to say on the podcast here, occasionally the topic of instrument exams and the traditional way of teaching comes up. I have to admit that it’s often a fairly negative narrative that the old way doesn’t work and the exams do more harm than good and the dry notation-based approach isn’t much fun. It’s just really refreshing and encouraging and exciting to hear about the work you’re doing at Curious Piano Teachers.

I think that there could be a whole new generation of teachers coming up now. I’m sure you also have some people retraining or taking their diploma even though they’ve been teaching for 10 or 20 years. To think of them going out and teaching in the way you’ve been describing that actually puts the student front and center as the hero and brings in musicianship from day one rather than just robotic playing, that’s all tremendous and very exciting.
If anyone listening has thought about becoming a piano teacher, or maybe you are a teacher and you want more of these tools and ways of thinking about your teaching to improve, definitely do check out the Curious Piano Teachers. We’ll have a link in the show notes and you can get that brochure for this course. It’s TheCuriousPianoTeachers.org.

If you’re not in that category, don’t avoid checking out that website. Don’t miss the opportunity because there is a ton on there. Whether you are thinking about teaching or thinking about learning, there is a back catalog of blog posts that will expand your mind in lots of interesting ways and no doubt give you a ton of new things to be curious about.

Sharon, it’s been such a pleasure having you on the show today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Sharon: Oh, it’s my pleasure. It’s been absolutely wonderful to be here. Thank you so much for having me, Christopher.

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