Learning To Teach

Jennifer Gibb

Jennifer Gibb is a piano and singing teacher from New South Wales. She graduated from The Masters University in California in 2017. While living there she both toured internationally through Europe and Israel singing in a choir and also toured California playing keyboard for a worship band. She enjoys taking long walks with her dog Arlo and writing and arranging music with her church band. She takes both singing and piano lessons with Helen Perris and is working towards her Grade 8 singing exam and Certificate of Performance for piano. This is the story of Jennifer’s Journey

I started taking piano lessons when I was five years old. When I was 12, I began teaching piano to my younger brother and sister. While it didn’t go horribly, we all shed tears during the process, and they were my only students during high school. I took my Grade 8 exam at 17 and decided I didn’t want to study music any longer. I didn’t want to become a music teacher, and I didn’t think I was good enough to perform. Beyond that I didn’t see any point in continuing to learn, so I stopped altogether. Music never disappeared from my life, but I pursued other dreams. I travelled, wrote, sang, and only played piano for myself.

Five years later, I started teaching again. It began with a cousin, then a friend, then (due to recommendations and my ridiculously low prices) the students began pouring in. I told myself it was a “side thing” until I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life, but after a year I was teaching over 40 students a week and to my surprise, I loved doing it!

I’m not the only person who’s had this journey. Piano teachers come to teaching from many different avenues. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a piano teacher or maybe you’re teaching piano for extra cash as you study. But if you’ve picked up this magazine, then you’re already admitting that being a piano teacher is part of who you are. I used to think that “Jen the Piano Teacher” was someone who came alive as my students rang the doorbell for their once-a-week lesson. But when I started to realise it could be more than that, I knew that I needed help – I couldn’t go on teaching as I had been. To become the best teacher I could be, I needed to become a student again.

“To become the best teacher I could be, I needed to become a student again”

Back To Basics
When I first went back to piano lessons, I was incredibly nervous. I hadn’t played for another piano teacher in so long, but my mentor Helen Perris made it easy. She had so much wisdom to share, and I had so much to learn! The techniques and teaching styles I had grown up on were upgraded to better methods that I had never even heard of before. Before going to Helen, I would teach my students by going over the piece they learned from the method book the week before, and then assign them a new piece if they passed the old ones. Everyone looked forward to the smiley face on the page at the end of the lesson, but that was about it. I had no clue that there was more to a lesson besides pieces from the method book. I didn’t realise that the teachers of my childhood taught me more than piano. They had opened my eyes to the world of music with its own language, cultures, histories, creations, and magic!

To this day my lessons with Helen are an integral part of my work week. Once a week I come to her with new questions about running a business or a tricky student issue, and she always has ideas for me to take back to my students. She taught me that a lesson doesn’t need to be 30 minutes of just playing pieces. Off-the-bench games can make lessons much more fun and teach fundamental concepts in new ways, like building rhythm bars out of flash cards or teaching students to sing their piano pieces.

Helen explained the value of rote learning, which to me was an unheard-of, mind-blowing concept. This completely changed the way I taught. Previously, when students got stuck on a piece, I would feel awful asking them to just play it again and again. If they didn’t learn this piece perfectly, wouldn’t they be set back for the next song in their method book? But once I started teaching my students extra-curricular pieces, many by rote, it took away the pressure to learn each piece in their method book perfectly before moving forward.

With the mounds of resources my mentor suggested for me, my music library doubled in size. Some books like the My First Piano Adventure series and the P Plate Piano books are standard in the libraries of my young beginners; other series like Seventy Keyboard Adventures with the Little Monster I will pull out to play for fun in their lessons. And if they want to learn a challenging pop song, I see this as an opportunity to play by ear or learn chords – not “a waste of time” like I considered it before. I now get so happy to see them owning these projects by learning more of the song on their own at home!

“Piano pedagogy is constantly under revision and I don’t want to miss any part of it.”


Pedagogy And Professional Development
In July of this year I went with Helen to the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference (APPC) in Brisbane. I was so scared to attend this conference and be surrounded by people I didn’t know, especially as a beginner teacher with hardly any training. But I met so many amazing teachers with a variety of skills and specialities. Some ran massive businesses, had doctorates, were published composers, technique gurus, or performance masters. As a beginning teacher I was awed by these incredible people, some of whom spoke on subject matter way over my head.

Each morning before the conference, I went to the “Breakfast Club” hosted by Hal Leonard Australia and the relaxed environment put me at ease. I was able to meet other teachers, some in a similar stage to me, others being the teaching experts I admired. These breakfasts, along with the workshops in the Hal Leonard Solutions Stream, helped me see that while every teacher is at a different point in their journey, we all face similar struggles – and similar delights.

In their session about difficult parents, Samantha Coates and Carly McDonald talked about their own experiences and how they learned to deal with all different types of parents. This was a challenge shared by every teacher in the room! Phillip Keveren’s sessions on improvisation made me excited to teach my students how to create – previously a daunting task. I took copious notes when Samantha talked about her How To Blitz! Rote Repertoire book and other sight reading essentials – all of which, including the use of her book, I have introduced to my own studio this term.

“I had no clue that there was more to a lesson besides pieces from the method book. I didn’t realise that the teachers of my childhood taught me more than piano. They had opened my eyes to the world of music with its own language, cultures, histories, creations, and magic!”

In between sessions I could explore the different retailers who set up book stalls at the conference. I brought home so many books, including Angela Turner’s Exploring series, the Piano Adventures Disney books, and the new I Want to Play That series.

I know that I’ll go back to the next conference, not just because I want to, but because it’s a necessity. Piano pedagogy is constantly under revision and I don’t want to miss any part of it. Seeing expert teachers equally engrossed tells me that this won’t change for as long as I teach. Even Phillip Keveren, who I thought was the most amazing pianist, said he was inspired by what others at the conference had to share. Maybe in future years as I make teaching discoveries and grow in experience, I will get to share my own ideas with other teachers at a similar event.

“We explore, create, and play with a passion that leaves the bench and goes home with my students. I hope they never stop learning”

Putting The Pieces Together
At first, I struggled to condense all that I had learned into practical uses for my home studio. The information needed time to process, and being back in my own studio made it hard for me to change old habits. But looking back on the past few months, I can see that the energy and inspiration I carried with me from the conference has been soaking into my studio over time. We explore, create, and play with a passion that leaves the bench and goes home with my students. I hope they never stop learning. Now that I’ve realised the joy and necessity of being both a student and a teacher, I will never stop learning.

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