I'm sitting in a café waiting to hear my one and only student (Mohamed Shams) give his debut with the RSNO playing Rhapsody in Blue. For a while I've had a good association with the Royal Conservatoire Scotland, giving a masterclass every term, but over a year ago I became curious what it would be like to teach more regularly. So I approached Aaron Shorr, the head of keyboard, with a view to taking on a single student (my frequent absences made me reluctant to take on more). In fact, it has been intensely rewarding, and challenging in a really good way.
The issues surrounding teaching force one to engage with music more broadly. It's not enough for the teacher to feel the music strongly - you have to engage with someone who might feel it in a totally different way. Do you let them go their own way, playing in a way you feel unconvinced by, do you try to push them towards your own ideas, or do you find a way to encourage them to strengthen their own ideas? Of course, teaching is partly about practicalities - technical questions of how the fingers work, how to create different kinds of sound, and also the practicalities of interpretation, how one gesture leads to another, how to create a sense of structure - but for me the central question is how to encourage someone to find in themselves an intensity of engagement with the music. Otherwise, what is the teaching for? To get them to play like you? I feel this temptation: when one has a strong vision of the music, it can feel like 'the truth'. And indeed, there must be some place in teaching for leading a student in the specifics of interpretation, showing them possible solutions to interpretative difficulties. But the student's individuality also has to be respected and nurtured. If they play like me, it will sound false; they have to find their own voice. So, there must be an open space where the answers are not yet clear, where the student is confronted with their own indecision. Every time I learn a new piece I find myself in this place, struggling to find my way towards a sense of deep conviction about the music. It's so much more rewarding than being spoon-fed the answers, which is why I very rarely listen to recordings of pieces I'm learning. I feel it's the job of the teacher to show their students what this place of indecision is like, to encourage them to go deeply into it, and to trust that they can find their own answers. I'm sure this is harder with some students than others, but as I sat in rehearsal this morning listening to Mohamed playing Rhapsody in Blue, alongside my own suggestions I heard things I had never imagined in the piece, beautiful things. For me, those are the most rewarding bits of all.