A Piano Teacher Who Left a Lasting Imprint…

How many of you have had a piano teacher(s) who has made a lasting imprint and influenced your musical training? Or perhaps you or your students never realised that you may be an inspiring teacher?

Many of you may have had more than a handful of piano teachers or professors since perhaps the age of five right through to your adulthood. I am certain that some have found their piano teacher is someone very dear to you. Your piano lessons may only be one hour per week, for 40 lessons a year, but if you had one great inspiring teacher who you regard as a true master  for a decade, that can amount to 4000 hours of your life!

You may find some teachers not only share their musical expertise but also teach you life lessons. Sometimes, learning music isn’t always about the music itself, an inspiring teacher can exemplify some life experience that can be related to the music by demonstrating some analogies.

As I was creating my website, in the midst of writing my biography, I did some research about the latest news of my previous piano teachers. It saddened me to have found out that my last piano professor, Mr. Peter Element who was with the Royal College of Music, UK had passed away from cancer at the age of 84. He also used to be an examiner for The Associated Board of the Royal School of Music (ABRSM), UK.  I came to study with Peter Element after an incident in 2001 where my student visa came close to expiration in less than two weeks. I have lived int he UK for seven years up to then and had intended to remain in the country indefinitely. One of the ways to apply for the indefinite leave to remain in the UK is to complete a consecutive 10 year student’s visa requirement. I had to extend my student visa status for the remaining 3 years. There was a piano teacher who was supposed to accept me as a student but it turned out she was leaving for her summer holidays and could not accommodate my request. Through a referral from a fellow music associate, I turned to Peter Element out of desperation.

Mr. Element was kind enough to accept me as his private student and he issued an authoritative letter to the UK Home Office to extend my student visa.  During my early days of piano lessons with Mr. Element, he was very thorough with his teaching principles. He was very determined to unravel my bad habits and taught me the fundamental principles of piano playing which stays with me vividly to this day. Even though these principles now seem very basic to me they built the foundation to the elements of playing the piano. It taught me:

  1. Freedom in your movement which allows you to express the music
  2. Understand the rational of each movement and the impact of the touch
  3. Sound management
  4. Confidence in playing during the recital or exam
  5. The practice processes and many more

When I was his protégé, every time I arrived at his beautiful country cottage house, the first thing he did was to gauge my mood and somewhat able to guess what may have been happening since I last had a lesson a week ago that may affect my practice and ability to focus. At times, after my performance of a piece, he expressed his disappointment that I lacked focus in my practice. My slips, stumbles and fumbles were the consequences of lack of focus.

Over time, he heightened and sharpened my focusing level to an unprecedented level. I became aware of how much it takes to be focused. I remember him telling me that once he sent one of his students home because he missed the train station to get off for his piano lesson. The lesson he impressed was that if you can’t even pay attention as to when and where to get off, you are not prepared for your lesson.

The grand piano that Mr. Element owned was particularly hard to play unless you are were equipped with high level of pianistic skills. Any loophole would clearly manifest through your playing on his piano. It serves a great purpose as it made students/pianists refine their listening and motor skills. To make things even tougher, Mr. Element was visually impaired due to his cataract, so his acute hearing compensated for his partial blindness. For the two aspects put together, I often at times failed to pass his assessment for the day. Nevertheless, it never stopped me from striving for perfection until I mastered the skill.

Many occasions, I attempted to conceal my flaws by trying not to express it through the music and hoped that he would not detect it, but no matter how I manipulated my playing, it always manifested in my performance. Referring to piano: ‘Art requires honesty and you will not command my respect until you have properly acquired what I imparted on you’, a voice that resonates with me from Mr. Element.

The life lesson that I learnt from Mr. Element was that learning comes from a place where one must be very humble and modest. The presence of these two virtues will make the teaching and learning receptive. Even if you have a teacher of a high calibre, if the student is not receptive, the learning will never transpire.

I am saddened about the loss of this characteristic pianist and teacher from the Second World War. From this inspiring teacher, not only did I learn about pianism, I also learned about perseverance and the importance of laying the correct foundation right from the beginning.  As the old saying goes ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ along with the life lesson that was imparted to me. His teaching is so ingrained in me that it left a very profound imprint in my life and my piano journey to this day!

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