Guildhall School of Music and Drama vice principal and director of academic affairs Helena Gaunt responds to The Strad’s article calling for conservatoires to place greater emphasis on teaching skills


Ever since I can remember, as a postgraduate student at the Guildhall School, and teaching there from the early ‘90s, teaching skills for conservatoire students has been a hot topic: do more; do less; stick to our strengths in one-to-one teaching; no, focus on group and classroom work…Teaching has been, and in many ways continues to be, contentious.

This isn’t surprising. The basic arguments - some of which conflict - go like this:

1) Educating and training of artists at the highest levels needs to be focused. Performance is at the heart of what we do; don’t dilute the offer.

2) One-to-one lessons offer some of the most intensive pedagogy you can experience - an apprenticeship which becomes a powerful means of learning to teach is more valuable than any teaching skills course.

3) Most professional musicians teach in some form, making an understanding of the following essential: the fundamentals of motivation and learning at different stages of development, group dynamics, and issues of power in student-teacher interactions.

Even those who aren’t actively teaching will be involved in assessing and giving feedback on exams, auditions or competitions. They need to be fluent with principles of constructive feedback and informed judgements about artistic achievement.

So there is a real dilemma about how best to tackle the question of teaching skills. And it would be completely wrong to think that conservatoires have been idle, far from it. Over the last 20 years, conservatoires have been refining and embedding compulsory modules for undergraduates and further optional modules for postgraduates. Several conservatoires have gone further than this, adding dedicated degree programmes. Nevertheless to say, there is more to do.

A key issue lies in revisiting the fundamental relationship between teaching and learning. If you start from the premise of teacher as learner, learner as teacher, the hierarchy of master and apprentice immediately dwindles, and you establish a more level playing field. You understand a musician-teacher’s life as one of continuous learning and from an early stage any student musician has expertise they can and should share. It’s a premise that I believe ultimately empowers musicians, whatever their age, to take ownership of their ongoing development as artists, forge their own careers and make a difference.

We know that the traditional strengths of instrumental teaching in conservatoires lie in the depth and intensity of exchange between student and teacher, sustained over time. At its best this equips students with interpretative understanding and virtuosic skill, and equally demands that they think for themselves and develop their own artistic voice. As pianist and pedagogue Boris Berman suggests, quoting a Chinese proverb: ‘Give a man a fish, that is dinner for the night. Teach the man how to fish, that is dinner for life’.

But to develop skills as a teacher, there is another step for students to take. However extraordinary their own learning, they still should reflect critically on core principles of pedagogy and teaching techniques, and work out how they can apply what they’ve learned in different contexts. This is not necessarily easy. Traditionally, the process of reflecting on your own experience of being taught, making sense of it and working out aspects that your want to use or adapt in your own role as a teacher, hasn’t necessarily been at the top of the agenda for a conservatoire student.

But things are changing.

Firstly, peer learning as a core practice is taking centre stage. Well, you may say, musicians have always worked together, learning from one another. Yes, but what is changing is the way in which this is proactively nurtured, with students being asked explicitly to develop their skills in peer learning.

Through performance classes, chamber music, and diverse workshops, students are increasingly finding themselves in situations where they are articulating constructive feedback and enabling fellow students to open doors. There is much less sitting around passively as an audience, waiting for your turn to perform and gaining a few minutes of the teacher’s attention. An active approach can transform problematic self-critical tendencies in musicians, and discourage immediate judgements before engaging with what may be interesting, touching, or thought-provoking aspects of a performance.

Secondly, the idea that becoming a musician is catalysed by engaging in a creative community of practice is steadily growing. At the Guildhall School one feature of this is the opportunity to explore across disciplines, to take risks, and to find out how to collaborate in unfamiliar situations, and then to commit to putting something on the stage. These are the sorts of opportunities which often challenge individual students’ perceptions of their own development, identity, or even question how they relate to audiences.

What I see is that these two dimensions of a conservatoire environment are helping emerging musicians to develop both as reflective practitioners and as creative entrepreneurs. They become more aware of their learning processes and how to take stock of artistic and professional choices. And to my mind these skills are an essential part of becoming an excellent teacher.

Teaching skills are about much more than a specific module or course; they are built on a musician’s fundamental ability to learn and to work creatively. This is not to say that explicit focus on teaching skills, in modules and dedicated courses, is not important. On the contrary, it’s essential to honour the depth of the craft that is involved in teaching.

We’re taking important steps in this direction too, launching a new PGCert in Performance Teaching (subject to validation). But my argument is that we are now evolving important aspects in the foundation of learning that can contribute significantly to long term teaching skills.

If nothing else, I hope that the changes we are now seeing bust old myths that teaching is a second rate option, for those who can’t quite make it as performers.

Read: Are conservatoires preparing young string players for the music world?