Teacher focus: Imogen Windsor

Instrumental teaching: Getting to know your pupils

Instrumental teaching has so much to do with personality. To some extent, teachers need to become friends with every one of their pupils, or at least understand what makes them tick.

During my 20 years of piano teaching I came across an array of characters. Hand on heart, I can’t say I truly liked all of them, but each one brought something new and interesting into my life.

Some of my most talented pupils had personalities I struggled to relate to. Equally, I had some extremely rewarding lessons with less promising pupils that I liked enormously as people, both young and old.

As a teacher, my job was to find a means of communicating appropriate techniques and musical ideas to each pupil, which would enable them to progress at their own pace and enjoy the music. I did this through explanation, gestures, demonstration, or sometimes even excessive enthusiasm: anything to get my point across. But always uniquely tailored to the individual in front of me.

In days gone by, more draconian teaching methods were sadly not uncommon. Many adults lament how they were put off piano lessons at a young age by a fearsome old lady, who rapped them over the knuckles with a ruler when they played a wrong note. Possibly an exaggeration, but something clearly wasn’t working for either party.

Inconceivable as that approach sounds these days, it can be hard to motivate a student who clearly doesn’t want to learn, but is persuaded by a parent who may have the very best of intentions - perhaps some transference of their own musical aspirations? One such pupil springs to mind, who was not only paid to practise at home, but was even paid to attend the lessons. And they still didn’t come!

You can’t teach enthusiasm. You can inspire it, but only in someone who has a spark of interest to start with. You certainly can’t teach through fear; if you tread carefully, you can tap into someone’s desire to do their best, who sets their own personal goals and thrives on achievement. But they have to care about what they’re doing in the first place, which comes back to the individual’s personality.

The best scenario is when pupils feel at ease and are happy to communicate with their teacher. Pupils always know when they haven’t worked as hard as they could have, but this isn’t easy to admit when you’re face-to-face with your teacher. One reason I particularly enjoyed teaching adults was their frankness: being honest when they hadn’t practised as much as they would have liked. They invariably made the most of the lessons, not least because they understood and appreciated the financial implications.

Teaching or ‘helping’ my own children in the last couple of years has presented a whole new set of challenges. I’ve learned that I should keep critical observations to an absolute minimum and, most importantly, I mustn’t annoy them. Once that happens, there’s no going back; perhaps we know each other too well.