TTTV068: The Importance of Teaching Harmony with Tom Donald
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TTTV068: The Importance of Harmony with Tom Donald

By Tim Topham | Creativity

Nov 25

teaching harmony

Through his own musicianship and teaching, Tom Donald gradually came to realise that something was missing. There was a disconnect between what students wanted to learn and what teachers were teaching. Students were also coming out of lessons without a true comprehension of how music works.

Tom Donald at the piano

By teaching harmony first, students get a much richer understanding of music as a whole. They’re able to see inside all music whether it’s pop, jazz or classical. This also opens up students to the similarities between the different genres of music.

Teaching harmony and chord progressions to students gives them the skills to really dissect and approach all new pieces of music. No matter what type of music they want to play.

Find out how Tom approaches teaching, how his studio is structured and actionable steps you can use to incorporate more harmonic into your teaching today.

Transcript

Please find a full transcript of this episode at the bottom of this page. Alternatively, click below to download a PDF. If you are an Inner Circle Member, you can find the full video and transcript in the Member Resources AreaNot a member? See below for how you can get $1o0 off your membership today. 

In this episode, you’ll learn

  • Why harmony is the “ultimate roadmap” of music
  • How teaching harmony first takes us back to true classical music roots
  • How to embrace students who are learning from YouTube
  • What Pachebel and The Beatles have in common
  • Why students should be singing pop melodies not playing them
  • The role of classical repertoire in Tom’s school
  • How Tom finds teachers that align with his philosophies

Links Mentioned

Podcast Video

piano teaching podcast

 

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Full Transcript

Click here to read a full transcript on screen

Tim: Tom Donald, welcome to the show today.

Tom: Hi, Tim. Great to be with you.

Tim: So I found out about you from listening to a business podcast, which was quite unusual, and that's why I was very interested to speak with you, because we don't hear many pianists on business podcasts. The Podcast was called Eureka 14. It's a podcast called The Entrepreneurs run by a magazine called Monocle, which is a fantastic group that do a whole lot of different stuff, and they've got a number of podcasts. Just quickly, how did you end up on a business podcast called The Entrepreneurs as a piano teacher?

Tom: Well, yes. It's interesting. Firstly, I'm a huge fan of Monocle, so I was very happy for them to ask me to go on to their show. And I guess we were getting recognition for our movement, and the London Contemporary School of Piano has not just been providing great lessons, great service, but also being an innovative business structure. So it was great to get some business recognition, not just music recognition for a change. So that was nice.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. Tell us just a little bit about your music background without going into too much detail, but particularly as it relates to what you're doing now with your business and your studio and your teaching.

Tom: Well, as you could probably hear, I'm from Australia originally. I grew up in Tamworth. For the Australian listeners, you'll know that that's the country music capital of the Southern Hemisphere. These days, I'm a jazz pianist and a classical pianist. I studied piano composition at the Newcastle Conservatorium, and pretty much immediately after my degree, I felt I wanted to be in Europe. So I went to London, and I have been in the United Kingdom for 12 years. Though I'd like to see that as...though politically speaking it's a bit different these days...as part of Europe because I have done a lot of work in Europe and in the Middle East. Living in London is a real global hub, and that's been that's been a great experience.

Tim: Now, you actually grew up in the very funnily named town of Coonabarabran. Is that right?

Tom: Yes, I was born Coonabarabran, and yes... I was not far when they filmed that film "The Dish" actually.

Tim: People outside Australia are gonna go, "You Australian weirdos with your stupid place names." Coonabarabran. I mean what a name.

Tom: Well, yeah. I think I get...at airports I do get funny looks with them asking how to pronounce my birthplace. But I'm sort of proud of it now because most people are born in Sydney so it's a bit boring, isn't it?

Tim: That's right. So you mentioned the word "movement" just before. You've started a movement or that's what you feel like you're doing. So you better tell us, what is the movement all about?

Tom: Well, I started the London Contemporary School of Piano about five years ago. So I made that leap from just being a private piano teacher to building a school, and what has turned into a movement is probably our teaching methods, mostly related to harmony and the harmony method, which is a form of teaching piano that uses studying harmony as its core basis, and this includes beginners. So we would typically have even beginner pianists playing relatively complex harmonies and chords before they can even read music, and even before necessarily their fingers are even ready to play such harmonies to give them...

Well, let's look at the piano. It is an instrument of harmony. It's not just purely a melodic instrument, and I think harmony is its greatest feature. Certainly is historically, with the music that's been composed for the instrument, but I think it's probably the most under-taught aspect of piano education.

And certainly, I remember when I was a kid I was fascinated by chords and I felt like no one was saying anything about it. I sort of felt starved. And what I've discovered teaching this to... well, not just children. We have a lot of adult clientele who learned when they were children. I think they're feeling the same way, and I think that's sort of how the word has really spread.

Tim: It's really interesting to listen to you talk because I was just presenting workshops up in Brisbane yesterday, and my whole theory is that chords are the most important thing, pretty much hands down, chords and patterns particularly that we can teach our students because it gives them this vocabulary of music and a deeper understanding of it. So I'm 100% with you. I had a feeling that we would be on the same page. So that's why I wanted to kind of speak to you a little bit more about this, because this is part of the kind of movement that I'm trying to push towards as well. What do you think is so important about chords and harmony?

Tom: It's like the ultimate roadmap, not just of the piano, but of Western music. And not even just Western music, even a lot of non-Western music as well. And it guides people through musical contexts in such a more elegant way than... Well, it will make them understand things better, too. They will be able to look at a score and organize all these bunch of black dots on the score into a deeper understanding.

But I think, most critically, it brings you closer to the world of the composer, because... you know, I often say to all of our members that the harmony method isn't really my idea. I mean it goes back to Bach, and he used to put Roman numerals under his figured bases. And if that's the seed of his compositions, if it's good enough for Bach, well, really shouldn't it be good enough for all of us.

Tim: Yeah.

Tom: So I don't think it's that radical though. Obviously, some people say it might be, but I think there's nothing that radical about it.

Tim: Yeah, I was talking my friend Paul who I was presenting these workshops with just yesterday about the fact that, you know, back in baroque times, everything was about improvisation. We had Roman numerals, which was effectively like a chord chart, and pianists were expected to improvise vamp, create chords and harmony themselves, right? And then we entered into this 200 years of, "No, we must look at what's on the page, and that is what music education is all about." And I love to think that now we're starting to see a shift back to...

Well, actually, for one, if we don't have people that can compose and create stuff, and we're not teaching them how to do that, then we're not going to have any more music eventually. And two, that's what Liszt, Bach, Chopin... These people were creating music. They were improvising. They were phenomenal improvisers. Why on earth aren't we helping our students do the same thing? That's where I'm coming from. So it sounds like we're on the same mark.

Tom: Well, absolutely. And I would go one step further to even say that if us music teachers are not showing students the way, they're going to find the way themselves, and that's what's happened in the 20th century. I think, unfortunately, musicians have actually left behind the teaching establishment, particularly in popular music. They've got out and created all of these wonderful things. When you just look at that whole popular music history of the last 50-60 years, and it's like they've got out on a wing and just taught themselves how to do it because no one else would show them. And I don't know, that's sort of like an insult to our profession. We've got to play some serious catch up there.

It goes back to... I was reading a story the other day about John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They only knew two chords on the guitar, and they thought they were writing great songs, and that was somewhere in Liverpool, and they knew a guy on the other side of Liverpool who knew another chord and they jumped on a bus before the internet. And he showed them that other chord and... I mean it's just staggering, isn't it?

Tim: It is. I think I'm right in thinking that at least one of The Beatles -- maybe a number of them -- couldn't write any music or read music. They were purely ear players, I think.

Tom: Yes.

Tim: Do you reckon this is also related to the explosion of YouTube tutorials, and the fact that kids are trying to teach themselves more and more by that method?

Tom: Yeah, I think so. I think that's played a really positive role in just we are in the era of information -- probably information overload -- but I think that is bringing everything up to date very swiftly. However, I think the risk that goes with that, and whilst I still think there's more pros than there are cons, is that there is so much information. How is any kid going to be able to sift through all of that and find the diamond in the rough? So, yeah.

Tim: And so looking at it from your perspective, what you just said before, we could almost say is YouTube tutorials, a lot of teachers bemoan the fact that all their students are now watching YouTube tutorials, and isn't that terrible. Maybe we should be turning that back on ourselves and going, "Well, maybe it's because we're not filling a need for those students."

Tom: That's right. We shouldn't be bemoaning that. We should be contributing to it. We should be adding our own content. We're not very YouTube heavy, where that's deliberate, but I think it's absolutely wonderful when a student comes in and says, "Well, I taught myself this on YouTube." But actually, I often find they're teaching it to themselves the hard way when they do it on YouTube and I'm like, "That's fantastic. By the way there's actually a really much easier way you could have gone through that," and then next time they know that. So I think it's a wonderful collaboration with that wider world of information, and yeah, I think it's very exciting.

Tim: So let's unpack that a little bit more because there'll be teachers listening who are thinking "Well, what should I be doing with... How can I help that student do it more easily?" What is the easier way, Tom?

Tom: That's a very, very good question. And it does go down to the repertoire. I mean if you look at a contemporary classical soundtrack piece, something like that, that are very popular with kids and with adult students as well to go into YouTube and find, you'll find it's often very similar chord progression. So many contemporary pieces you'd call progressions like I'm putting in the piano right now, but... Things like that. That's called 6-4-1-5, and I'm sure most of your members know exactly what I'm talking about.

So what if instead of teaching the student that piece of music, they say, "Well, I really want to learn this song by Adele or Elton John, or whoever it is, or from this film." Why don't we teach instead the formula first? We say, "Okay, that's great you want to play that. By the way, let me show you this formula that is used in literally thousands of songs." And then go off and find that formula in all of this music. That to a student is profound, and to musician it is as well, because they're finding out the sounds that they are drawn to and they've been able to put a label on it, and so there's a lot of implications there.

Tim: It's the old teaching the kids to fish rather than giving them a fish, isn't it? It's unlocking a key to a whole world of things rather than them just struggling away on one YouTube tutorial or just learning one piece of music in isolation. It's not in isolation. All of these things even half of the method book music...

Tom: The classical.

Tim: Classical repertoire as well, you take it back. It's often a simple chord progression.

Tom: That's right. I mean one of our first lessons we teach, the progression to "Pachelbel's Canon" and then we teach the progression to "Let It Be," and we point out that the first four chords are identical. And we point out that the difference in the years between those two compositions, which a few centuries. And that's quite profound to point out as well that harmony has not really changed a great deal. Sure it's become more complex and chromatic in certain genres, but the essence of it is still very much the same.

Tim: Absolutely. When it comes to pop music, I'm always getting asked... I gather you teach a fair bit of pop and you encourage your students to do that. What's your take on singing for pop music to get over the hurdles of rhythm?

Tom: So singing as you play?

Tim: Yeah.

Tom: Yes, well, one very specific clientele we get are vocalists who want to learn to accompany themselves. So we run a lot of courses for singers who want to learn to play as they sing, and we encourage them to do it immediately rather than taking a linear like approach. "Well, let's wait until I master the piano, and then I'll accompany myself," and of course that will never happen. So we encourage the moment you're playing the chords, sing along.

Now, for singers, that's fine. They're quite happy to try that and plunge themselves right into it, but for some students they'll get a bit shy with that. So I end up getting a bit of singing practicing myself, which is not always the best thing for the student sometimes. Fortunately, we have a second piano in our studio so I can just jam along with them if my voice is distracting them.

Tim: It's always... One of the questions that I get in workshops and online is about how to teach the rhythm of pop songs. If kids are trying to actually play the rhythm, it's incredibly difficult because they're so complex. Often the arrangements that are written aren't necessarily all that precise, because it's about groove and feel. So I've moved more and more to... While some students will want to play the rhythm and they just won't sing, more and more of my kids, as I encourage them, are starting to sing, and realizing that that is just a hell of a lot easier way to play pop music. Learn the chord progression, keep a steady beat, and sing those challenging rhythms.

Tom: Yes. Well, the thing, too, the reason why it often doesn't work to play the melody on the piano for those pop songs is those melodies were not designed to be played on the piano. So if you get a song like Elton John, "Your Song," and you just play the melody, it sounds really dull as a piano melody because it's a vocal melody, and it's the harmony that's meant to be played on the piano. So that's one thing I'll have to often explain to a lot of our students. You don't want to be playing this melody on the piano. It's meant for a singer, and if you want to arrange it as a solo piano piece, you're going to have to really rework it and even make changes to the tune to make it work on a piano. So that enters another challenge then.

Tim: So I've realized after staying put in this podcast together that it's... Your business, your school is called the London Contemporary School of Piano. At first I thought it was the London School of Contemporary Piano, which is actually quite a different thing. Do you advocate teaching, obviously in your contemporary school, teaching the classical repertoire, romantic, all of the basics, all that kind of stuff, or is it very much focused on contemporary and popular music?

Tom: We teach a lot of classical music. We just teach it very differently. Most of our members will play classical music on top of popular and jazz. In our beginner syllabus actually, after we show them pretty much most of the major and minor chords, on every tone and semitone, we will then teach them how to play some very popular chord progressions with it. And then immediately, one of the first classical pieces they learn with dots is "Bach C Major Prelude," because it's a very graceful piece of broken chords.

And what's very magical about that is, very quickly, students see the relationship of what they've been playing with the Bach. And they're blown away by how contemporary the harmony sounds, the Major 7th that somewhere -- I forget which bar it's in -- but the 7th is in the base. And I think that when people realize, well, that piece was written in 1722, again, it goes back to what I was saying: How much has harmony really changed?

And so we use a lot of classical music in our syllabus. We've had some students who've achieved extraordinary things with their classical piano playing as well if that's the path they wish to focus on more. But we break it apart in a very different way.

Tim: So it's more about the contemporary approach to the teaching. That's what you're doing?

Tom: Yes, and the melting pot. So if a student who...

Tim: What do you mean by that?

Tom: Well, yes. The diversity, I would say... So if we had a student who came along, for instance, who was a jazz pianist, we would probably insist they play lots of Bach because that's something … and their finger control and a whole wide range of things. If we have a student who wants to play a lot of popular music, we would probably educate them with a lot of jazz to inform their understanding of groove.

So we really sort of make sure that we're giving everyone the chance to cross the boundaries and to experience a music that they were not necessarily familiar with.

Tim: Right. Let's discuss your school a little bit more before we come back into the pedagogy side of things. You've moved across the world to a place that is by definition a pretty traditional city where you've got the Royal College of Music and the ABRSM and all these very traditional older institutions, and you've gone, "I'm gonna start a more contemporary school." Tell us a little bit about the school -- how many teachers, what size it is. Whereabouts is it?

Tom: So we're based on Baker Street, so we're very close to the Royal Academy; just about a 5-10-minute walk. We're very close to the ABRSM headquarters. I think London is, as I was saying earlier, it's a real international hub, and so whilst there is that very traditional world in London, there also is... it's still the city of Bowie, and it's the city of the punk movement in the '80, and Pink Floyd. I mean London is a very diverse place. It's probably the most diverse city in the world. Certainly, I haven't seen a city that outstrips its diversity.

And we actually have some students who work for the ABRSM, who come and visit us. So I think that this time in our history, in the 21st century, I think both the traditional world is realizing it has to play catch up. A lot of institutions, the very more formalized institutions, are changing their structures because they realize they need to prepare students -- professional musicians -- to be more equipped for the real world, not just the idealistic classical world.

Now, as for the size of our organization, we try not to be huge, and massive, and by admin. So at the moment we have five staff. Next year, we're expanding to eight, and we're going to lock it at that. We're expanding to only 150 students. After that there's no more places left.

But we are expanding in a different way. We're starting up a new magazine. We have people who come from about 10 countries every year for our retreat courses and our crash courses. So we have a lot of clients that are not regular clients, they just come for a week. We have a lot of music teachers that just come for a week, or just people who want to experience something new. So we're looking sort of in a more outward way, not just to grow and become bigger and dumber, like some companies do. So that's the sort of aim we're looking forward next year, and it's all very exciting. We have some fantastic musicians that are training students, and it's a very exciting time.

Tim: I would imagine that you'd get quite a few older students coming to you and going, "Oh, wow. If only I was taught this stuff when I was younger, I would have kept playing." You mentioned you had adult students who come back to piano.

Tom: Yes.

Tim: Is that quite a common thread?

Tom: We hear that all the time, and actually I often say that to myself. I'm like, "That would have been nice." I was very lucky, I had a very good teacher actually when I was a child. But yes, I think a lot of people say that.

Tim: You've obviously got a very particular style of teaching that you do. You've called it the harmony method. I assume that's one aspect of it. How do you go about making sure you're finding teachers? This is one of the hardest things to do, I would imagine -- finding teaches that have the same philosophy and can follow the same process as what you're teaching.

Tom: Well firstly, in London I am completely, and we are completely spoiled for choice. There are so many phenomenal concert pianists and musicians from all different musical backgrounds. So firstly, it's going through all of the CVs and the applications and...

Tim: You don't necessarily want a concert pianist, do you? In fact, you almost don't want a concert pianist, I would have thought.

Tom: Well, you'd be surprised. I mean a lot of concert pianists are even reaching out for a new approach. Our staff are all amazing. We have one amazing concert pianist. We actually have two amazing concert pianists on our team. One of them, she specializes in contemporary classical music, so she played Steve Rush at the BBC proms this year.

One of our other concert pianists, he's also a great violinist, so he jams a lot with the students on the violin. But I think the critical thing to all teachers that are looking to build a school and expand, yes, you want to get amazing musicians in, but once you've got them in to work with you, it needs to be an ongoing training process. We meet up every week. We discuss elements of the method we feel that could be improved from the feedback we're getting from students, from the results. We work together all the time, and I think training and working together as a team is the most important thing. It's probably even more important than the qualifications of all the people you're working with. Of course they've got to be very, very good. They've got to be flexible musicians, but it's the training aspect and the collaboration aspect that is important to make sure everyone's on the same page.

Tim: Do you have a couple of like things that a teacher must demonstrate to be part of your crew?

Tom: The list is quite long. And I...

Tim: Give us just a couple of important ones for you.

Tom: I think what means a lot to me is that... And we are very lucky, we have fantastic facilities. So we have two grand pianos in our studios. So I think it's very important that the teacher can give the student a collaborative musical experience. And what I mean by that is that when a student comes in to play a chord progression, song, or even a classical piece, that we're playing together a lot and we're creating a feeling around the student that they can try new things, they can let go.

A lot of people... and you would see this in your own students. I think every member you would have would probably be able to relate to this. A lot of students overthink when they play, and that creates a halt. Just when they're making some beautiful music, they stop and go, "Oh, what's going on here?" I say, "No, don't stop."

We want to create an environment where a student feels that they are capable of achieving anything they want, and that wrong notes don't exist, because if you have this right and wrong, black and white view of music, it's very destructive. I had it many years in my own playing. So it's being able to create that experience, and I think that's what all of our teachers... that's the one thing I really look for in other teachers.

Tim: And isn't it funny that so much of a traditional piano education is about teachers correcting mistakes?

Tom: Oh, yes.

Tim: And here we... This is exactly the opposite.

Tom: It's like we're secretaries.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. And it's just...

Tom: "That's an A flat, not an A."

Tim: And it's just so unhelpful. I don't know how people can do it day after day. You send them home with a piece, come back. "Here's your mistakes. Correct them. Fix them up. Here's another piece." I mean it's such a negative way to teach, too. So I'm with you, I agree. It's those moments of mistakes with the kids, you have to go, "No, no, no. Play that again, that was great. What did you do? Let's have a look. Oh, you played the wrong..left hand note with that chord. But how cool does that sound? Let's work with that." That's what I like doing, too. It sounds like it's very similar. Those moments of accidental brilliance, someone called them once.

Tom: Yes, and asking questions. So rather than... so if a student is doing something a little odd with a piece of music that's not quite working, rather than saying, "Oh, that doesn't really work. Why don't you phrase it like this?" Just asking them, "Play that part again. Can I just record you playing that?" We record them.

"So what do you think of that. What do you think works and doesn't work about that?" Just asking, coaching. I think we actually have a rule. We actually don't call ourselves at school, piano teachers. For this podcast, I didn't want to confuse anybody. We actually call ourselves coaches because we try and elevate the process to a coaching process, which is beyond teaching. It's making the pupils complete...trying to enable them and empower them to be completely self-aware of what they can do, rather than telling them what to do. And that's actually a very hard thing to do. I can't say I've completely mastered that yet, but that's what we aim for.

Tim: Ask more questions rather than tell or give your opinion, I think. Yeah.

Tom: Yes.

Tim: So the harmony method that you've mentioned, is that a written book, like a series that all your teachers use, or is it the philosophy behind what's going on?

Tom: We have so many exercises and sheets and handouts regarding the harmony method. We could probably make four or five books. We've strategically decided not to turn it into a book at this stage, mainly because one thing I find is that so many people go out and buy books, and just leave them on the shelf, and don't implement them. There are plans to release the harmony method series, but it's going to be a full DVD video series. We have some free teasers that we send out to the public where they can sign up and get it over the website. And for your members, that'd very useful for them to download some of it because... you know, go and use it. It's fantastic stuff. But at the moment we are very much focused on giving our members as much as we can, rather than trying to just publish these couple of books to the whole world. But that's going to change at some stage as well.

Tim: Yeah, it's great. I mean we need more information out there that supports this kind of method of teaching, because we know it's creative, it's effective, and it deepens people's understanding as we said right at the beginning.

Tom: Yes.

Tim: Do you use technology in your contemporary school?

Tom: Yes, we do. We have a course for people or students who are interested in music production. That's not an area I would call myself a huge expert in, but we have a few staff who run some fantastic courses with that. That is a fantastic attachment to the harmony method because harmony is in lots of songs. So it moves beautifully into production.

We do record a lot of what students are playing in our retreat courses. The whole week is recorded and packaged into 10-15 CDs so they have a constant reference of what they've been immersing themselves in. So recording is something we take very seriously, and to that extent modern technology is amazing.

Tim: I'm talking, I guess as well, backing tracks and things for modern music, or using GarageBand or software to create arrangements for things. Do you do that so much or not so much?

Tom: Yes, we use some... yes. On the iPad we have GarageBand. iReal Pro is used as an app we've used a lot. It's fantastic. So we use all the beats to make backing tracks on that. It's what I call a glorified metronome, because it's got some fantastic drum templates on there. But because also we have two pianos in our studio, a lot of the time we don't even use that in the lesson because we could play together. So it's the live interaction of...

Tim: That's great.

Tom: ...which is really fun.

Tim: Apologies if you're able to hear noise in the background. There's some other movement going on at my house, so excuse that if you can hear it.

So what about exams? Obviously, London is a hub of a number of exam but what's your take on the place of exams in contemporary music education?

Tom: That's a very good question. I think... I'm not going to be completely dogmatic and say that they're a complete waste of time, which would be a very easy answer to give. There are a lot of cons to exams. I think the worst thing about them is learning three pieces for the year. I mean this is the way the exam syllabus is often used. The student learns three pieces a year, and then does that grade. And of course they'll get up to grade 8, and we see this... most grade 8 students probably couldn't even figure out how to play "Happy Birthday" at a birthday party because their music education has been so wafer thin. But when used properly, the exam system can be very useful. It can give a student something to aim for. We also founded the ABRSM Jazz Exam Syllabus.

Tim: Oh, yes. That's got some great stuff in it.

Tom: It does. It is in a bit of a need of an upgrade because it came out in 1997, so I don't think they have had enough students take it to upgrade the syllabus. So I would encourage all teachers to go out and use this syllabus. It's very easy to use. You don't have to be jazz pianist to be able to teach it effectively because it's so well explained. I've just gone through some of your previous podcasts today, and there's already some amazing wealth of advice on improvising, so that's fantastic.

So yes, we do use the exam system, but we use it very carefully and precisely. So for instance if a student is, let's say, 10 or 11 years old, and they're going through a big musical breakthrough, we pull them out of the exam system, give the music that's much harder, and then they skip three or four grades the next year. So we don't use it in a linear way. We use like grade 2, grade 3, no more exams, grade 6, grade 7.

So most of our students who might take the grade 8 exam, they've probably only taken three or four piano exams in their life. They've skipped through the system. We've substituted with material that's more appropriate to them.

Tim: Yeah, and I tend to agree with what you said about exams. I think there's a great place for them. There's a need for them in certain areas, but it's the way that they're approached. They're not a syllabus, and if you're only teaching three pieces we've got a problem, a big problem, so I'm with you.

Well, let's talk about some tips for piano teachers who are listening. Let's say they totally get what we're saying, they think it makes a lot of sense. Maybe they have dabbled a little bit in the improvising and the composing stuff that I've given them online or that they've found in other places. Can you give us maybe five tips that you think should be at the top of the list for piano teachers to take action in the next few weeks, to try some of what you've talked about?

Tom: Well, yes. Five tips, and that's a fantastic question, and I put together a couple of notes about a few tips because you did hear me speak of Monocle and that was a business interview. So I do want to give a few bits of business advice as well. Not that the business world should be completely separate to the music world; you actually want them very closely integrated.

But firstly on a musical perspective, I think teaching harmony. Even if you don't play much jazz or popular music, you can incorporate harmony into your lessons. And I'm not talking traditional sit down and do polyphony arrangements in four-part chorale, but getting students aware of that 1 and 5, 7. It's Christmas time coming up now, so they're all going to want to play carols, so rather than going straight to those archaic carol books, get the student to hear the 1-4-5 in "Silent Night." Get them to hear the 1-4-5 in all the Christmas carols. I mean they're all pretty much the same.

If you're sort of not so confident with your ear, this is a really good opportunity for you to realize it's not as hard as it might appear to be. So you can get your own musical confidence right up there. But I'm sure all of your members are very clued up on all of that.

Tim: Oh, and just in case they aren't, when you say 1-4-5, can you just confirm what you mean by that?

Tom: Yes. So 1-4-5, the degree of the scale. So let's say we have a C major scale C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Chord 1, C major, chord 4, F major, and chord 5 G major, the dominant chord. This is the staple of Western music.

Tim: Yeah, and Christmas carols?

Tom: Yeah, a lot are built up of using C major, C, F and G chords. There's heaps of music that only uses three chords. And if anybody is still a bit unsure of how to incorporate harmony into their teaching, visit our website londonpianolessons.co.uk, enter your details, and we're going to send you about five or six videos over our Vimeo channel to your email address. And there is tons of ideas. Please steal them, they're all yours. Harmony is universal. Harmony is actually not under copyright. You can actually nick a whole harmonic progression of a song and not get into any trouble, which is very strange in the music industry. It's most odd.

Tim: Well, we can all use the Pachelbel Canon chord progression quite...

Tom: That's right, yes.

Tim: All right. So tip number 1, use harmony, right?

Tom: Yes, use harmony. Yes, that's right. I'm going to give some more business type of advice, but this will, I think for a lot of teachers, give them much more satisfaction in their work, and help the target market.

Target a demographic. Don't just try and teach everybody for the sake of teaching everybody. We all actually have clients that we would prefer to work with. If you're tired of teaching lots of children who you can't motivate to practice, maybe you should be teaching adults. This is a huge movement around the world. So many adults who have been in that job for 20-30 years they don't like, and they are dying to play music. And they're dying for somebody to reach out to them and say, "I will show you how to play music, and we can make some great music together." Actually, some of our best clients are adults, and we actually limit the amounts of children we see to only the Saturdays because we want them all wide awake and not after school.

So we are predominantly an adult-run school, institution, but we do have about 20% children. There are loads of very interesting demographics you can actually think of. Three or four of your favorite students, you'll probably find, are all the same demographic. So they're not the only ones in the world. You can copy them and you can make a practice that niches.

I think a lot of piano teachers make this big mistake of thinking that they're going to lose clients if they're not trying to talk to everybody, but the actual truth is when you try and talk to everybody, you talk to nobody. And if you focus on the people that you're going to create a better collaboration on, you'll have a much more prospering business. And your website copy can change and your whole message could change, to talk to that group of people. With technology out there, targeting is very easy; easier than it's ever been anyway.

Tim: Yeah, that a great tip. That'll be good.

Tom: Just one more thing to it. I'm just going to just switch something on my computer, one second.

Okay. The third tip would be, review your fees. I feel most music teachers are not charging enough these days. I think so many other industries have taken over ours in fees. And if you're a very dedicated musician, you've spent your whole life studying this, just ask yourself the question, "Are you really charging what you're worth?" I think there's a lot of fear in the music community that we have to be so charitable, and we end up being cheaper than everybody else, and poorer than everybody else as a result of that.

What we do which works extraordinarily well is we give our clients fee options. So we don't just charge everyone the same rate, because different people have so many radically different needs. Some people want to pay as they go, some people want to pay for a whole semester, and some people want a subscription option which comes with extra benefits and features. And that will immediately tell you who your best students are, not just in terms of how they'll feed your business and your studio, but how they respect your work, and then you can focus more on them. And that will bring huge satisfaction to your work, and it's such a simple thing to put in place. I see so many of my colleagues not doing that and struggling as a result of that.

We're up to number 4, aren't we?

Tim: Yeah. Just before we go on, you mentioned subscription. What did you mean by that?

Tom: So we have a subscription option where for a monthly fee, a student will get access to our entire team, they will get access to our practice room. So it's a bit like a gym. So they can come to our practice rooms. They get access to workshop events. They get concert tickets. We just really look after them. It's called the Maestro Course. It's extremely popular.

Now, if you're running a studio with just yourself teaching, you can have your subscription work a little bit differently. You could for instance provide sheet music every month, things that arrive in the mail. Use your imagination a bit. Maybe you could arrange their piano to get tuned every six months. Just make your customers' life easy for them. People are so busy these days. Don't just tell them to go out and buy the sheet music from Amazon, because they won't, and that just wastes time, so do it for them, and just those little small details make people really treasure your work even more and it creates more of a value in what you're giving to their life. And that's how it works. You're giving value to other people with the wisdom that you have in your music.

Tim: Yeah, well said.

Tom: I think the last thing is it's very much related to that. Just really simple things that so many musicians get wrong and it just bothers me, because I'm a jazz musician so I see this all the time.

Punctuality, so important. And I've been burnt with this before. I mean when I was younger in my early 20s, I was probably the latest person on this planet, and I just didn't show up, and didn't move anywhere with my music career. It's such a simple bit of advice that's almost like a secret. If everything runs exactly to time, people take you so much more seriously.

The second thing that goes with punctuality, it's almost like a magic pudding that's so simple and we overlook, is dress. When a student shows up, dress beautifully. Now, I actually didn't know this podcast was Skype, so I'm looking a bit odd. Well, I've got my skivvy on, but...

Tim: You're wearing clothes. That's fine.

Tom: That all right. It's cold out today, but I think these two things... And when I say... I'm not talking about wearing a tuxedo. Though you should try that. Maybe that would do some amazing things, if you want to, but it's about just really taking this work that you're doing to the fullest integrity in these things. The general public out there, they notice these things. In our music world we're so close to music that we don't always pay attention to these things, because we're a special breed. We're musicians.

Tim: Yeah, good tip. I don't know if that was a number 4 or number 5, but you've given us plenty of great value so I appreciate that.

Tom: Yeah, that's more than enough.

Tim: Look, it's been really, really good talking to you. I'm going to kind of wrap it up now. Is there anything that you'd like to cover that we didn't get a chance to talk about so far that you think is quite important?

Tom: Well, I think we have covered a lot. I had a great time talking about harmony. I think it's great to always speak to like minds about that.

Tim: Yeah, we're definitely on the same wavelength.

Tom: For all of your members who live in London, I'm giving a concert at Conway Hall in a couple of days from now, on the 22nd of November.

Tim: This will actually be going out on Friday so I'm afraid it will have already happened by that time.

Tom: Well, okay. Everyone can wish me luck then. That's good, and...

Tim: We'll trust that it's gone well. Go on.

Tom: Yes, just for more information and all about work, just visit londonpianolessons.co.uk, leave your details and we'll send you a few emails with some great content, which will really enrich your classes.

Tim: Right. And that's just as relevant to teachers as it is. I assume you've actually designed it for students, but for teachers it'll be great, too.

Tom: Yeah, I think it's universally great. And they move nice and slowly so they really are very thorough and very applicable.

Tim: Brilliant. Well, Tom, thank you very much for your time. I look forward to catching up with you when I'm in London at some stage in the future, so we can hang out.

Tom: Yeah.

Tim: Yeah, and it'd be good to have a look at the school. So for anyone that's interested, The London Contemporary School of Piano, not the School of Contemporary Piano, run by Tom Donald. Thank you very much for being on the show today, and we'll speak to you again soon hopefully.

Tom: Great. Tim, thanks a lot.

Tim: All right. See you.

Tom: Bye.

What role does harmony take in your studio?

Do you agree that harmony should come first? What was your favourite part of Tom’s approach to teaching and business?

Which of Tom’s business tips resonated with you?

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About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at timtopham.com and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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