The story of how Samantha Coates came to be one of the most creative and innovative piano teachers in Australia is quite a story.
A truly delightful and engaging woman, Samantha opened up about her musical journey, her top picks for pieces that challenge and inspire her students, her thoughts around teaching pedalling to young students and how much joy it brings her when a student “didn’t practise this week”.
Welcome to the 10-minutes with series at The Piano Teacher. We’re here today with fabulous, Sydney piano teacher, theory, sight reading, rote repertoire and aural extraordinaire, Samantha Coates!
When was your very first piano lesson?
Well, apparently it was when I was five years old and it was with a wonderful, wonderful piano teacher named Irene Skoblin, who happened to live around the corner from my grandmother’s house in Bondi. I do not remember my first few months of lessons, but the story goes that I started piano when I was five. I had been taught to play a few things by my grandparents, so I had definitely had some piano experience before I had formal lessons. But about six months into my lessons (when I was five and a half or approaching six) I just wasn’t practising, like most normal almost six year olds. My mother decided if I wasn’t practising that I wasn’t interested. So, my mother stopped my piano lessons. My teacher was horrified. My grandmother was horrified. Everybody was horrified and now as an adult, I am now horrified because I now write blogs about parents like my mum! That’s the whole thing,children generally don’t naturally gravitate towards practising an instrument. Then apparently, when I was almost 7, I just went to the piano because there was a piano in our house and I just started tinkering around. And my mum said, “Oh, Samantha, would you like your piano lessons back?” And apparently, I said, “yes, please!”
Thank goodness that happened. Otherwise, I would not be here talking to you today. I feel very lucky that those lessons were reinstated. My mantra now is, ‘do not mistake a child who doesn’t want to practice, for a child who doesn’t want to play the piano.’
Do you have a very favourite memory of a piano teacher of yours?
Well, I had the one piano teacher, Mrs. Skoblin, all the way through until I went to the conservatory in high school when I was 12 and my absolute favourite memory was arriving at her house prior to the piano lesson. We would go into her kitchen, and she would serve me a cup of Milo and give me a Mars bar!!
Another memory I have, which is kind of apropos of the session that’s coming up at The Piano Teacher Summit is our chats about pedalling, because I remember starting to use the pedal and I remember her saying, “oh no, I have not taught you, how to use pedal yet.” And I said, “oh, I know what to do. You change the pedal after you play the note!” and she went, “Oh, okay!” and somehow I had worked out pedalling by myself.
The other thing I remember about that is that it was not until I was eight or nine years old. So there was a lot of piano playing that went on without pedalling and that’s not how I teach now. I start my students on pedal very early on because it sounds so good. Why would you delay this beautiful experience of what the piano can do? It’s much much more exciting and especially when you’re doing a lot of elementary pieces and exploration of the keyboard sounds terrible without the pedal. I’ve found ways to incorporate pedalling and I’ll be talking about it at The Piano Teacher Summit. Especially how to start pedalling early and not sacrifice posture and how to get the coordination going and of course all the considerations we have with digital keyboards and their pedals now!
How did you come to piano teaching?
That’s a really good question. I did not set out to be a piano teacher. I set out to be a concert pianist like a lot of people. We learn to play piano, we become quite proficient and we practice a lot. I did a Bachelor of Music, majoring in piano performance. I didn’t major in piano pedagogy. I came to teaching out of necessity. Now – oh my gosh – teaching is my absolute love. It’s my absolute passion, music education is my absolute passion. I’m so glad that I came to teaching out of necessity because I feel it’s going to be my legacy. I love the thought that my contribution to this world is to give music to future generations.
How many students do you teach each week? And what are their ages and abilities?
I currently have 26 students and I feel like I’m just in the sweet spot. I’m not teaching too much, not teaching too little. I only teach four days of the week and I have two days of the week that are Blitz Book days, doing all the publishing and writing things.
I’ll teach any age student and I’ll teach any ability student, but I have to say, I beginners scare me a little bit. I tend not to take beginners because I just feel the weight of responsibility. I love taking transfer students that have covered a few basics and then they might need a bit of rescuing or a bit of fixing. That’s what I love doing. I love teaching all ages and when I say don’t take beginners, I love adult beginners. Oh, that’s probably my absolute favourite because they love to grasp everything. They just want to know everything. They want to know the theory of everything and I love it. When the light bulbs go on for them.
What are your go-to winners for your intermediate students, when it comes to repertoire?
Jason Sifford has great collections. The Weightless and Beware the Jabberwocky books, the KeyBop selections, just everything, Jason Sifford. They are really, really accessible for intermediate pianists. My own stuff. I do use my Rote Repertoire material with every single student and the intermediate ones in particular, like it because they’re just zooming through them, their sight reading is improving and their creativity is coming out. I do use the Exploring series by Angela Turner and the Getting to series by Elissa Milne as graded repertoire collections too. I’m also really into the Assorted Fairies books by Sonny Chua.
For more advanced students I like the Pepperbox Jazz books by Elissa Milne. I make sure that all of my students really learn those warhorses of piano pieces. I think everyone should play Bach Prelude number one, and other pieces like Solfeggietto, Rondo Alla Turca, Clair de Lune and everybody should play the Paderewski Minuet in G major. They’re sort of go to pieces for fifth to seventh grade. Students should play them because that’s what their parents and their grandparents are going to love to listen to, that’s what they can happily play in an aged-care facility and give all the residents such joy.
Are there any pieces that are your current favourites?
I love everything, Philip Keveren. The Abba for Classical Piano is just wonderful for the intermediate or early advanced pianists. ABBA is so retro for them. They just all love it and they’re really fantastic arrangements.
Do you do any musical things for yourself?
Well, I have in the last six months because I joined Jeremy Siskind’s jazz course. I am now enrolled in Fullerton College, California as an international student and I’ve just completed the first semester and it has been the most wonderful, fulfilling, eye-opening thing. It is the beginner jazz course, so I’ve learned so much and I get to see Jeremy teaching the rest of the class each week too.
What is the first album you ever bought with your own money?
Oh, that would be ABBA’s Arrival.
At the end of a teaching day, what is your dinner winner?
Shiraz! Dark chocolate and shiraz!
Who’s your favourite performer of all time?
Probably Harry Connick jr. I went to see him live and he did the most unbelievable improv and he actually also danced on top of the Steinway on the stage. I’m not sure how the sponsors felt about that. But that was incredible.
Well, thank you so much for being with us today and doing our 10 minutes-with Samantha! We can’t wait for your sessions at The Piano Teacher Summit in Melbourne on July 8-9!
Tickets are still available for The Piano Teacher Summit 2022.
Click here for more information