Dr Michael Spacie’s Vocation of Teaching

Students are always welcome and encouraged to achieve their best in music.

There can be few occupations more rewarding than the teaching of music privately. There is a distinct reward and gratification that comes from watching your students fulfil their potential. Very often playing the piano or singing with musicality and correct technique can overcome lack of belief in oneself and unlock a personality. It can help to give a person strength and joy that in turn helps to overcome any shyness they may have. I always encourage students to play or sing in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere where they can have fun whilst learning. My lessons, however, are meaningful music sessions and not therapy per se. I am not a qualified counsellor or music therapist.

I use my own musical skills to get the best out of the learner whilst not encouraging emulation but development of individualism. I understand the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and often will use humour and different styles of music to help find the answer to unlock the piano or singing technique I am working with.

Many students of all ages cite a lack of confidence as a very real problem, sometimes putting off taking music lessons for years as a result. Most young adults, to coin a word from modern parlance, are ‘streetwise’; however, many lack personal and/or intellectual confidence. The fear of some kind of failure can resonate, which unless overcome, may stop them fulfilling their true potential. My teaching practice aims to give students a positive musical role model and teaches confidence through music. Encouraging results are always achieved, as indicated in the student testimonials to be found on this website.

I believe very much in encouraging students to play the piano or to sing, as I feel the benefits it brings are widespread into many areas of existence. Nothing gives a tutor greater pleasure than to see a student grow through their musical studies.

This growth can be achieved by helping students to enhance their understanding of the nature of music and apply this to their music-making, thus achieving a greater shared understanding of music and its journey of progression through rich musical encounters which support and sustain a student’s developing relationship with music and musical knowledge and vocabulary. I use topic based teaching which provides the student with a deeper understanding of what they are playing or singing with a new world of colour and sound. Technique, interpretation and note-reading are all worked on and much more and so that a student’s natural abilities in music will be encouraged and improved.

I do not indulge myself in teaching the piano or singing on a purely superficial intellectual level favoured by many teachers. Instead, I always try to communicate the emotional raison d’etre of the piece or song in question by feeling the harmonies and structure within the music and pursuing these aspects fully, together with a technical understanding of how the music is put together and the importance of the focus of the notes on the page and the musical understanding of them. I always encourage students to study and feel intuitively the expression of music which should include the subtle underlying emotions inherent in a piece of music or musical phrase. Music is a transient art, not a standardized product.

A student’s motivation to learn can be increased by the triggering of a positive emotional response to the relevancy of music they like, a kind of musical catharsis, giving rise to a musical self-awareness with valuable and rewarding human endeavour which in turn inspires and motivates further achievement and success in music studies with stronger levels of belief of ability which, for the student of piano or singing, ensure persistence and progress, with learning always deemed to being fun – even for exams! Encouraging students to take ownership of their playing or singing whilst being able to accept guidance in a positive way and creating the right structure for students to go forward and solve musical problems is important for student growth. Learning, understanding and appreciating music can certainly help to build not only confidence but also self-esteem which is thankfully not the same thing as ‘ego’. Furthermore, self-belief enables the student to access and make use of all their inner resources and to discover the freedom of ‘letting go’ through the realization and experience of real musical achievement.

I am not judgmental about anybody’s differences, but help each student to develop whatever musical potential they may have. I cannot give musical expression in piano playing or singing, but I can give the tools to achieve it by not ‘suspending students from some kind of great height of perfection’, but ‘floating’ them above a very solid basis – a bit like dancing on a good strong floor – it generates and encourages freedom. This, together with the student’s enjoyment of their own success and ongoing achievement whatever the level, be it Grade 1 or Grade 8 and beyond, should be facilitated with a process that is absorbing, engaging, enriching, and with encouragement of real personal and musical growth.

I am passionate and enthusiastic about wanting to help the student discover for themselves how wonderful music is and to assist them to achieve their best and to help them to realise that music is worth it by igniting and sustaining their passion, enabling them to channel their communicability through music.

I constantly try to expand the horizons of students by stretching them beyond their perceived technical limitations by guiding them towards a profound understanding of music and encouraging each student to find their own musicality, for instance by asking a student to practise a particular phrase in a manner that enhances musicality, for example, to imagine a vocal line being sung with breathing points when a pianist plays a piece on the piano, or imagine an orchestra playing with many different instruments in order to encourage beautiful musical colours in the tone and to perform notes with full dynamic ranges etc.. I also enjoy developing a student’s touch on the piano, so that the softest playing feels great and still retains that sometimes elusive quality of tone. No two students will ever sound the same.

I constantly challenge students on interpretive insights and how particular pieces or songs might sound. It helps to achieve this by enjoying and thinking of the music – and ultimately, whatever level of ability, to ensure the student’s technique is sufficient to be able to forget it and focus on communicating the emotional content of the music, giving a musical performance – even if it is not totally accurate technically, as no performance is ever perfect. But you do have to be true to the music and believe in your own capability, your own beautiful tone and above all, your sense of individuality whatever level you have achieved – foundation musician or professional musician. A deeply understood performance is music per se. There are plenty of student and professional musicians who can play all the notes, but to become a great performer on whatever level, you have to produce an interesting, individual and beautiful tone and with a sense of individuality. Moreover, that the sound of a piece of music, when played, is in keeping with its mood and message in terms of providing variety and satisfying contrast. Beauty of sound is required in music performance, but often strikingly different sounds are also required and should be communicated as and when appropriate.

A student’s pianistic technique or vocal ability can come musically alive by always being related to the music. There is no technique without the student knowing why they are learning to do a specific thing for a specific piece of music. Moreover, the student is encouraged to allow the music to come through them, without them getting in their own way with unwanted distractions – so eliminating any technical difficulties will allow the music to flow with a concentration and focus on performance and interpretation. Most mistakes are caused by playing or singing at a speed at which security has not been obtained. The student can help to avoid this kind of derailment by thorough learning and slow practice. A student’s technique should ideally develop the freedom to listen as they play or sing and to be relaxed as they perform. To equip with the essential tools for this, the student is taught to play or sing phrases which give music meaning, using for example, where appropriate, ‘question’ and ‘answer’ ideas, various dynamics, incorporating build-ups to musically climatic points, and for repeated sections and sequences the useful maxim is applicable: ‘if you say something twice, make the second time different.’ All this helps to guard against students reading music from note to note or bar to bar and also helps student musicians to explore and express their own personality by hearing music as emotions expressed through colour and sound with a realisation of the endless possibilities of music’s subtle nuances whilst not losing an intellectual grasp of the wider picture and structure of the piece of music and also not losing sight of the composer’s thoughts in terms of what they are trying to achieve and how they are doing it and how we can best represent that in our own playing or singing. Music is not fixed in some way: performers can contribute remarkably to what is heard. For instance, to play or sing through musically climatic points of intensity – build-ups of the music’s inherent energy, so they can be heard as part of a natural musical line with proper intrinsic shape, always being aware of how any listeners may understand such adjustments of colour and meaning to the sound, or what their expectations might be together with consideration as to whether the interpretation is faithful to the composer’s assumed intentions of expression, character, atmosphere and musical meaning. In particular, piano music has strong forward propulsion and therefore students are guided to avoid a play through approach where problems are ignored with the belief that it will be better next time – the so-called hoped-for end result. Students are encouraged to analyse difficulties focusing on short sections so that a fault is caught early on and does not become ingrained or entrenched. Students are encouraged in learning how to learn and that real practicing should engage both the emotions and the intellect. And furthermore, a student has to take responsibility for their own practice remembering that musical ability is perennial and not just for the young and also bearing in mind ‘naturalness’ arises out of ‘uniqueness’: no one plays or sings alike – no one else can play or sing like any of us – that is a cause for celebration. ‘Feeling’ in music can be imitated but not replicated – the genuine expression being the performer’s ‘take’ – not anyone else’s. Recognising potential and providing the conditions in which that potential can flourish is the ultimate aim of the teaching practice; it is essentially about opportunity and encouraging a desire to learn, and hence, to practise. Of people with enthusiasm and commitment to learning music, the opportunity is given to develop that potential through piano, singing or music theory – to develop individuality and foster a natural love of music, whatever style of music that may be.

I always encourage students to look ‘inside’ the music to understand the meaning, and to look at what composers have to say about their own music, their attitude to the music and what was actually meant when they wrote it. Music can be full of ambiguity, of many emotions, of humour etc, but at the same time it requires thought and restraint, and the balance – not always easy to achieve – gives rise to beauty in terms of, say, subtle pianistic touches and resultant sounds. In teaching and performing, there is no absolute definitive guide for how to play or sing a musical phrase: you simply have to ‘feel’ it, not just with appropriate technique, but also with specific regard to musical communication, musical sense, imagination and characterisation. It is these qualities that will help to develop the potential of students, leaving a lasting legacy and a lifetime of enjoyment and satisfaction in their musical lives. However, such details can only be considered within the context of the overall meaning and emotion embedded within the music and in turn within the context of the overall structure and outline of the piece of music being performed.

Gaining progress in musicality, artistry and technical grasp, for the student, arises from striving to be convincing, consistent, and with a focus and commitment in both preparation and performance with everything played or sung musically phrased with differing shapes and meaningful contours and always with linkage to the next musical phrase in order to yield an expressive power and ultimately to realise personal development, potential and confidence.

For anyone who wishes to learn to play the piano or to increase their pianistic skills or to learn to sing, you are very welcome to attend for an introductory lesson and sample the enjoyment and freedom that music can give to you.

I wish you all the very best in your individual and collective journeys in this great subject we all share – music.

Dr Michael Spacie

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