Thembi Shears is a name synonymous in Australian teaching circles with engaging and inclusive teaching. She holds a degree in Primary Education and has worked with many students with specialised learning needs. We wanted to find out a bit more about Thembi and what makes her tick!
When did you have your first piano lesson?
I was 4 years old and had just started in Reception (equivalent first year of school in England). The teacher lived in the next street over so we used to walk there, and I remember being mostly excited that she had cats I could play with afterwards! I also remember Jelly on a Plate being my favourite song, and that all friends and relatives were subjected to concerts upon visiting our house.
What was the catalyst for deciding to become a piano teacher?
It was definitely not a direct career path for me, but I’m certainly glad I ended up here! I initially set out to study Medicine, but when my father was very ill and hospitalised for over a year I saw how much time his doctors spent at the hospital and decided to pursue another option. I had always loved working with children so I switched to a Bachelor of Education (Primary) and thoroughly loved the course and the placements. I had been teaching piano part-time while studying and in my final year realised that I just didn’t want to give it up. I had around 35 students then and decided to take the plunge and devote my efforts to building a solid studio. I’ve never looked back! I also had a wonderful teaching mentor in my own teacher, who educated me and encouraged me no end.
How many students do you generally teach a week?
I only teach private one-on-one lessons and currently have 64 students. I know that can seem like a lot but I have two half days off a week, I have long lunch breaks, I never teach past 7:30pm, and I don’t have children of my own so my downtime after teaching is really quiet. In future I will lower that number when I feel the need, but I don’t feel burnt out and I really enjoy my work so for now it’s working well for me.
That’s a big studio! What advantages are there having a large student base?
I know we don’t really like to talk about money but for me the biggest advantage is financial! The disadvantages are simply that if I’m tired or sick the week can feel very long, and I do miss out on weeknight social occasions but I think that’s the nature of the job. I certainly wouldn’t trade it for a different one!
If you could sum up the way you teach in 5 words, what would it be?
Passionately, imaginatively, conceptually, individually (for the students’ needs), and kindly.
You’ve been presenting fantastic workshops for Australian teachers to learn more about the way you teach in your studio. What are your favourite things about these workshops?
It’s been wonderful to meet so many passionate and motivated teachers around the country, because this can easily be an isolated profession. I have loved seeing photos of how teachers are using some of my ideas and suggestions, and getting inspiration myself in return! I firmly believe that teaching is about sharing, and that should be between teachers themselves and not just students.
Your students seem to play from a broad range of repertoire. What are some of your recent new finds?
I really love Animal Crackers by Eric Baumgarter that I discovered this summer. The pieces are very descriptive and a lot of fun. Kaleidoscope by Faina Lushtak also has some gems for the Preliminary level, introducing semiquavers and acciaccaturas, but always remaining comfortable for small hands. I particularly like Running and Skipping, and The Cuckoo Bird. I really love Eugenie Rocherolle’s music for Grades 4+ and have previously written an article about some of her great collections with Parisian Promenade, Rainbow’s End and Continental Suite remaining a few of my favourites.
Are there any pieces that are your current favourites?
I really love You Dirty Rat by Sonny Chua (from The Collection). It’s a fabulous piece on the manual list for Grade 6 AMEB Piano For Leisure. I am also enjoying Rawahi by Elissa Milne (in Getting to Grade 2 The New Mix), and Mashed Potato Clouds from Diane Hidy’s Attention Grabbers series.
At the end of the teaching day what book would you pick up to read and unwind?
Now that’s a tricky question! I read a lot so I’m not sure how to pick one. I’ve recently enjoyed some of Carl Hiassen’s books, and would never say no to re-reading Harry Potter.
What’s sitting on your piano right now?
1. Animal Crackers – Eric Baumgartner
Animal Crackers – This book is my favourite recent discovery for early intermediate repertoire. Descriptive titles such as Donkey Dance, Fruvous the Ferret and Cat and Mouse evoke imagination and a sense of play. The pieces use a wide range of articulations that let students bring the animal characters to life. The more peaceful Gentle Giant (Song for the Manatee) is quite beautiful and is popular with my tweens and teens. The difficulty level is around AMEB Grade 2, with a little sway either side. There are some lovely options for Own Choice / Extra List pieces, and all pieces would be entertaining recital choices.
2. Classic Piano Repertoire – William Gillock
This wonderful collection of solos would suit a student in the lead up to Preliminary grade level. Descriptive titles such as Spooky Footsteps, Stormy Weather, Little Flower Girl of Paris and Sliding in the Snow help students create stories for the music, inevitably resulting in better phrasing and attention to detail. Gillock’s pieces, while always holding teaching purpose, are musical first and foremost. While we love the range of articulation, and the opportunities for teaching phrasing and expression, the students love the sounds they are making. These 8 solos would be wonderful recital pieces, and an excellent precursor for exam performance.
3. Piano solos in Lyrical Style – Carolyn Miller
Listed as early intermediate, and averaging at around Grade 3, these pieces have proved popular with my teen and adult students. The final piece Remembrance has a film-music style reminiscent of the ever-popular Yiruma pieces, but a little easier. There’s a variety of styles to suit changing moods, with the rhythmic Tango Espanol, the bold and majestic Knights of the Castle and the delicate Falling Snowflakes. Carolyn has deliberately written lyrical melodies that need to be shaped, allowing students opportunity to learn how to phrase and play with a beautiful tone, and create sensitive and artistic performances. A lovely collection for developing pianists, advancing or transfer students who need ‘quick win’ pieces while working on phrasing, and adult students looking to play beautiful expressive music at an easier level.
4. Spirituals – John Thompson
Beautiful rich and soulful arrangements of pieces such as Deep River, Heav’n Heav’n, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, for students Grade 6 and above. Pieces could definitely be used as extra lists or own choice pieces for exams, or simply for enjoyment and supplement for advancing students.
Thembi’s studio can be found at: