Delighted to see that the Royal Ballet have launched a 9-month paid position for a trainee pianist at the Royal Opera House, named in memory of Ivor Guest. Please pass on the details to anyone you think would be interested.
It so happens that I was on the point of writing a blog post about training ballet pianists yesterday, because I’m halfway through Matthew Syed’s Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. Syed, a former table tennis champion, is basically reiterating and expanding on the 10,000 hours of practice rule, and the “growth mindset” theory: that you become expert at something through artful practice, not through innate talent (though genetics obviously has a role to play on what Syed calls the “threshold” for entry into a particular sphere). The take-home point is that there are no cases where people achieve skills by short-cutting the practice, and none where continued practice doesn’t lead to results (obviously, it has to be the right kind of practice).
It suddenly struck me, as I was sitting in a ballet class watching students go through some of the 10,000 hours that they would need to become truly expert, that it’s rare that pianists are given the opportunity to get the practice they need in order to become skilled. Many of my colleagues agree that it takes a ball-park figure of two years regular playing for class (and an intense amount of hard work outside class, finding and practising repertoire, or learning to improvise in appropriate styles), before you begin to feel comfortable—and then, anyone I’ve ever met in this field says “and you never stop learning.” It’s true: there’s always more to learn, and always that one teacher, regardless of your experience, who can freak you out and make you wonder whether you’re in the right job.
This is why whenever someone talks about “training courses” for pianists, I always sigh inwardly (even though I’ve taught on them myself), because as much as there are things you can teach on a course, background stuff you can learn that is necessary and useful, there is just no replacement for sitting on that piano stool, and being served exercises like Syed was served thousands of table-tennis balls by his coaches. That’s not just a sentimental “There’s no substitute for experience” —there really isn’t. Of all people, ballet teachers should understand this principle, because that’s how people get good at ballet, yet it’s very rare that teachers do give pianists opportunities to try for long enough to get better. It’s assumed that what is needed is some kind of training in music, whereas that’s like passing your driving theory test, but never getting in the car.