There’s that lovely Oscar Wilde quote about cynics being people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I suspect that piano teachers are the very furthest thing from being cynics, but in regard to print music they certainly exhibit cynical tendencies.
I frequently hear piano teachers telling me that they simply cannot ask parents to buy music books for their children, as the cost is simply beyond the reach of the family budget. On the other hand, I’ve never (ever) had a parent protest that they want their child to learn to play the piano without having to purchase music.
It is a fascinating dichotomy: the teacher who is convinced it is beyond the means of parents to provide print music for the student, and the parent who enjoys providing musical opportunities to their child.
Leaving aside the psychology and the economics for a moment, let’s take a look at the function served by a book of music in the education of a pianist.
Firstly, the book of music provides material for the student to explore, perform, think about and talk about. The only other way a student can access musical material is by listening to music, and learning by ear. As beneficial a skill as this is, ‘playing by ear’ is almost entirely outside the skill-set piano teachers are either trained, interested or willing to impart. And even when piano teachers do work on playing-by-ear skills they, almost without exception, do so working from their own printed score.
Secondly, when a parent sends their child off to piano lessons they generally expect that child to return with a the ability to read (as well as perform) music. It’s just not possible to learn to read without having reading material. Children at school learning to read are given new reading material every day, and this is the learning-literacy experience that parents have as their touchstone for all other literacies. Playing (and reading) a lot of music is well within parental expectations and aspirations for their children, if the purpose of taking piano lessons is educational (which in some instances, it is not).
This second point is one of students needing to learn new music all the time, not just one or two pieces every month. This is not quite the same thing as saying that students need new books of music every month, as fabulous repertoire collections of between 15 and 30 pieces will keep a student occupied for between two to six months (if that is their sole source of musical material). But this second point does lead to the third: to develop musical literacy students should be reading and performing a wide range of musical styles in the course of their lessons and practice.
Parents would be mystified if their children were assigned poetry only for a whole year’s worth of reading, and even more mystified if their 9-year-old were required to only read English prose from the 18th century or novels (in translation) from 19th century Germany. And yet on the piano these kinds of restrictive and era-inappropriate choices in material are not simply common-place but de rigueur. And the reason given by piano teachers for not using either a wider range or a more contemporary choice of material is almost always that the cost to the parents would be too great.
Meantime, parents scour print music shops hoping to track down music of the current day that their children might be able to play, and the parents and children arrive with eager anticipation at the lesson to present their findings, usually mis-graded for the current skills of the child, and often mis-chosen due to the unpianistic nature of the purchased arrangements.
Parents don’t have a problem with buying cool stuff for their children. This is a mantra I recommend to every piano teacher working today. Parents recognise the value that books of music can bring to their child’s education and enjoyment. Parents like the idea of providing excellent resources for their child to use, of giving their child happy and worthwhile learning experiences.
So where does the problem lie? I suspect the reluctance to purchase new books lies entirely with the teacher, and for some very sound reasons.
Piano teachers are not business people, as a rule, even though they are running their own small business (as a service provider). Further, and I generalise, they have neither the training nor the inclination to work their teaching practice to generate profits beyond a modest annual income. This may not be true in every country and every culture, but this is certainly true of the vast majority of piano teachers I have met around the world.
Nearly every piano teacher I have ever met does not have making money as their motive for teaching the piano. Piano teachers teach because they feel it is an important contribution they can make to the lives of children and their communities. This is the foundational principle that drives piano teachers the world around.
So we have an altruistic motivation associated with a lower-than-average annual income coming together in the psyche of the typical piano teacher. Piano teachers find themselves trying to save parents money, in the same spirit that they are helping bring music to the lives of their children. But in this situation this is not altruism of any kind, as using less music as one learns to play the piano simply means that one has learned less.
Teachers are renowned for getting out of this learning bind by providing photocopies of music to their students. What a wonderful solution: for a token fee teachers can provide students with music that would have cost some significant amount more when purchased at the shop. Well, it’s wonderful in the same way that shoplifting is wonderful. Sure, you end up not having to spend much money, but what you are doing is completely illegal, and completely immoral.
Assuming that as piano teachers we wish to deliver both a musical and a behavioural education to our students, handing out stolen music is just not on.
So we are back to print music, and its price. This does vary significantly from one country to the next. Here in Australia a book printed in the United Kingdom retails with a significant surcharge built in – currently a book retailing in the UK for £6.95 and in the US for $9.99 retails in Australia for $27.95*, an outrageous discrepancy. But even so, it is a rare book that costs in excess of the price of a single half hour lesson, and many books come well below that figure. Buying books to the value of say 5 half-hour piano lessons over the course of a year (in whichever country you are living) does not seem an exorbitant ask, and this figure will purchase a pleasing variety of musical styles and learning opportunities.
Piano teachers, wherever you are, please consider the value of the book of music when you are planning your students’ repertoire for the year ahead, and leave the worrying about the price to the people who actually have to pay.
* In early 2011 prices in Australia were lowered dramatically, both in response to the sustained high value of the Australian dollar and to the impact of internet music purchasing; these days a book of music retailing for $US9.95 is unlikely to cost more than $A15.