Encore Music Tuition: an Improvisation (Guest Post)

This week’s post is a guest post by Liz Giannopoulos on how her successful music teaching practice, Encore Music Tuition came about:

Encore Music Tuition: an Improvisation

by Liz Giannopoulos

Improvisation: something that is created spontaneously or without preparation from whatever is available

I gave my first piano lesson when I was 16 years old to the young son of a friend of my parents. I was still in school and taking lessons on three instruments. I taught piano and clarinet sporadically throughout my university music degree but once I graduated, I had little access to a piano and drifted away from music.

Some 20 years after that first lesson, I found myself with a husband, two children and a very demanding, if moderately inspiring, career. I was in need of a change; my family needed more of my time, but I also needed creative and intellectual stimuli beyond pureed carrots and a 40 degree wash cycle! My husband asked me what I wanted to do when I was growing up. My answer was simple; “I wanted to teach piano”. And so began an improvisation that became Encore Music Tuition.

Liz Giannopoulos
Liz Giannopoulos

The opening motif

My original idea was to teach around half a dozen young beginners on a weekly basis. I offered half a term of piano lessons at a fund-raising “Promises Auction” organised by my son’s school. The child whose parents won the lessons enjoyed my teaching style so much he stayed with me for five years before continuing his studies at an eminent secondary school. This experience was inspiring to me and my first students. Word spread so that after one term of teaching my student list had reached ten (four of whom are still studying with me today).

Developing the skills

Over the next two years I gradually increased my teaching commitment and by 2011 I was working with around 25 regular students, children and adults, ranging from young beginners to Grade 4. All the new students came from personal recommendations and word of mouth. I had a busy timetable, regular performance opportunities for the students, some exam successes (thankfully no failures!) and a growing waiting list. I’m still not quite sure how I got there – after all, I had initially set out to teach half a dozen young beginners! Suddenly the students weren’t beginners anymore and there were a lot of them! I was filled with self-doubt; what did I really know about teaching and what made me qualified to charge people for my ‘expert’ tutelage? I realised I needed to meet like-minded people with an abundance of enthusiasm and creative ideas. I wanted to explore new repertoire and new ways of teaching. I wanted to learn and I needed validation.

So, in 2012 I completed ABRSM’s Certificate of Teaching and Diploma in Instrumental Teaching. I built a strong network of teaching friends and developed new teaching ideas. It was an enlightening experience during which I discovered new repertoire and teaching materials and started to develop my own personal teaching ethos centred around inspiring independent musicianship and a love of playing. I also began developing my own curriculum – it is still a work in progress and may never be finished!

“We teach best what we most need to learn” (Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah). I still enjoy regular piano lessons with Graham Fitch. I frequently pursue professional development and networking opportunities such as the annual Music Education Expo and ABRSM conference and new initiatives such as The Curious Piano Teachers. I also learn something new from my students every week!

Growing the idea

Slowly my reputation grew and alongside came additional demands. No matter how much I increased my teaching commitment (within the practical and social boundaries of my family and neighbours) my waiting list just kept growing; a good problem to have! Eventually, in 2013, I decided to expand Encore Music by bringing in another tutor to work with the students I couldn’t fit into my timetable. One tutor became two tutors, which became three and then four… the group now has seven tutors and together we are entrusted with the musical education of more than 100 students.

Of course, increased trust means increased responsibility and I am determined that the quality of teaching be maintained and hopefully enhanced. Aside from periodic lesson observations and feedback sessions with each tutor, we get together as a group regularly to brainstorm pertinent topics such as managing relationships with parents, teaching the latest exam syllabus and improving the way in which we teach notation. Being a piano teacher can be a lonely business and through sharing ideas, challenges and triumphs each one of us becomes a better teacher providing a richer learning experience for our students.

Establishing the theme

Fortunately for my team and our students, Encore Music has become very popular and enjoys a reputation for excellence, not only in teaching, but also in commitment and service. There are some principles about working with children and families that I hold dear, and whilst they are almost certainly not unique to Encore Music, I believe they have contributed significantly to our success. Most of our students are aged between 7 and 14, and are starting their musical journey. It is incumbent on us to nurture and protect their love of playing and listening to music by making it an enjoyable and positive activity.

We run regular initiatives to motivate effective practice, we present awards to high achievers and we report termly to parents on priorities, objectives and progress. We organise regular group trips to hear musical performances which have included the hit show Stomp! and a recital of contemporary composers performing their own works.

Encore Music tutors are always present at exams to help prepare the students and lend moral support. We host ABRSM exams on premises which gives our students the opportunity to take their exams on a familiar instrument in a familiar environment. All Encore Music students also undertake mock exams on the exam piano.

I firmly believe confidence in performance is an essential life skill and our students and their parents share my view that it is a positive and exciting experience in an informal, familiar and encouraging environment. In January 2010, I organised a recital in my home for my students to perform to one another. As the teaching practice was still in its infancy the repertoire list didn’t extend much past “Old MacDonald” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”! Since then, I have continued to run annual Winter and Summer concert series and I have hosted 38 events to date. In our latest round, Encore Music hosted six student recitals with performances from more than 80 students, and all the tutors took a turn too! Although “Old MacDonald” still made an appearance we also enjoyed works by Bach, Debussy, Kabalevsky and the like.

In 2015, we created a new performance opportunity which extends beyond the core of Encore Music students. The first Battersea Piano Festival welcomed more than 70 amateur pianists from around London. The classes were carefully chosen to ensure a fair competitive platform for all participants. A panel of respected adjudicators provided constructive feedback and performance inspiration to the performers. On 12 March 2016, the second Battersea Piano Festival will showcase the talents of more than 100 amateur pianists ranging from young beginners to accomplished adult performers.

So, that’s a short overview of the last seven years. Who knows what the next seven years have in store – I’m still improvising!

James hands vignette

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Some Exciting News…

Thank you, Liz, for telling your inspiring story. I am sure this is going to motivate others who have ambitions to develop their teaching potential and run a successful practice, or maybe even grow a business of their own. As for training programmes for piano teachers in the UK, our nation’s flagship course is the best you’ll find. I am privileged to be one of the principal tutors on the Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK, and can recommend it most highly.

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