This week we return to The Social History of Piano Teaching, rejoining it just after the First World War when everything, including the piano, was about to undergo enormous change.


The end of the First World War meant the end of life as many people had known it. Changes in the structure of society itself began to slowly take effect, gathering pace as the century progressed.

As a means of entertainment the piano had survived the war reasonably well. Ehrlich [1] comments that more people were able to afford one at this time, due to rising wages. The quality of the pianos being produced, however, severely deteriorated whilst the cost rose dramatically. The banning of all things German led to a complete reliance on British makers but neither the materials or workmen were available to make the most of this. In the 1920s the piano making industry struggled to regain its footing and status as other forms of entertainment began to take hold.


Inventions that had appeared before World War 1 became increasingly affordable. For example, during the 1920s the motorcar gained in popularity amongst the middle classes. Instead of a piano in the parlour the main ambition of many households became ownership of a car. In addition the gramophone, which had been steadily growing in popularity for the last twenty years [2], now started to become a familiar feature of many households, superseding the need for home entertainment.

Furthermore, gramophones were a great deal cheaper than pianos and the performances to be heard on them were always top quality, which often acted as: ‘a deterrent to amateur fumbling’ [3]. However, even more serious for the popularity of the piano was the advent of broadcasting in the early 1920s. The wireless became the rage during the decade and by 1929 three million radio licences were issued yearly [4]. As Rainbow and Cox point out quality music-making was being heard in homes: ‘which had hitherto heard very little apart from the sketchiest amateur performances’ [5]. The effect was devastating for many musicians in the UK, indeed an article in the Stage declared that: ‘Broadcasting has indeed disintegrated the musical profession’ [6].


The radio, or BBC as it soon became, also played an important part in the development of music education in schools. From the 1930s onwards, music programmes were regularly produced specifically for classrooms. This followed a general trend in schools towards a broader music curriculum which included music appreciation and the inclusion of some instrumental teaching. For example, the recorder became increasingly popular following its re-discovery and promotion by Dolmetsch in 1927 [7]. As the century progressed the range of instruments for children to learn became increasingly varied although ‘music lessons’ for the most part predominantly still meant the private teaching studio [8] with the piano by far the most popular [9].


As society changed so gradually did the role of women. It has been argued earlier that ownership of a piano was seen as an important social statement indicating both a man’s wealth and a woman’s role in the home. The rise of the suffragette movement and the need for women to undertake hitherto inaccessible jobs during WW1 presaged a fundamental change in the role of women. Many were less prepared to stay at home, looking after the house and their husband and whiling away their time with hobbies and past-times. As women’s independence grew the demand for activities, like the piano that had previously occupied them, correspondingly decreased.


In 1921, there were over 21,000 music teachers working in the UK [10] and, continuing the trend from the previous century, women teachers dominated the piano teaching profession. With the piano’s loss of popularity came a reduction of students wanting lessons and it appears that the profession became increasingly overcrowded with too many teachers chasing fewer and fewer pupils.

At the 1928 Incorporated Society of Musicians conference one delegate called for a decrease in the number of teachers and also argued that entry to the profession should be: ‘made more difficult by making the gate more difficult to get through’ [11]. The profession was unable to respond to changing conditions quickly enough and, by 1931, the numbers of teachers had risen to a peak of nearly 23,000 with women teachers mainly accounting for the increase. It was only after World War II that pupil and teacher numbers eventually became better balanced.

By 1951 figures suggest that there were nearly 12,000 music teachers and 15,000 musicians in England and Wales [12]. With no reason to suppose that previous trends were being reversed this is probably a very conservative estimate and as argued previously, it is likely that many of the musicians also taught their instrument in a private capacity and that the majority of them taught the piano.


Throughout the first half of the twentieth century it seems that most teachers were self employed and worked from home teaching the piano to beginners [13 & 14]. Most earned a very low wage and a survey of fees in 1920 showed a range from 1s to £1.5s. Moreover Ehrlich suggests that this figure probably dropped during the 1930s and that it became common for lessons to cost just 1s [15]. However, by 1946 it is suggested that £3. 3s for 12 or 10 lessons is: ‘quite a good fee for teaching children’ [16].

Later on in the 20th century a report into the training of musicians [17] highlighted the issue of low pay and the various problems associated with the private studio. The report argued that easy access to the profession led to a wide range of teaching standards. Whilst acknowledging the existence of excellent piano teachers it pointed out that: ‘For the most part, piano teaching is in the hands of the private piano teacher, and these teachers can be of varying quality’ [18]. It returned to this theme in several places each time emphasising the point about: ‘unacceptably low standards of instrumental teaching’ [19].

Importantly, the Vaisey report argued that variability in teaching approaches was a critical weakness when it came to teaching young musicians. It pointed out that the private instrumental teacher had more influence than class teachers over young instrumentalists at vital, developmental periods.


The authors of the report made the case strongly that it was the teaching of beginners that was often most open to the amateur and untrained teacher. In addition they commented that: ‘beginners need the best teachers but under our present system of training the vast majority of children have very little chance of getting them’ [20]. The detrimental result of poor, initial teaching it argued, was a long-lasting one with many music students arriving at college often having to be re-taught basic elements of technique.


It was an attempt to introduce more professionalism and improve the standard of piano teaching in the UK that led to the formation of the European Piano Teachers’ Association by Carola Grindea in 1978. EPTA (UK), as it became known, quickly grew and by the end of the century had become an established part of the musical community, representing about 1,000 piano teachers. Members became part of regional groups with regular meetings and discussion groups. A regular journal, annual conferences, a teaching course and access to a Piano Teachers Information Centre were all part of the Association’s drive to raise standards.


Join us next week for the last installment of our story, when we bring the social history of piano teaching right up to the start of the 21st Century.

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This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Director & Co-Founder The Curious Piano Teachers


  1. Singapore Piano Teacher

    I really agree with the part on Problem with Teaching Beginners. Many beginners here in Singapore do not have a good foundation as they have not been properly coached while starting out. It’s always more important to set the expectations and directions right before diving into the piano teaching for beginners! 🙂

    1. Sally

      It all starts with beginners doesn’t it? Get that bit right and the foundations are then firm to build on. You might be interested in the blog this coming Friday when we are launching ‘Let’s Play’ which focusses on songs, games and teaching strategies for use in those early instrumental lessons!

  2. Carol Okeeffe

    Interesting. Not sure I agree with all of it. What happened depended partly upon what state a person and his teacher lived in and if he was from a large city and if his teacher was trained outside the USA.

    1. Sally

      Hi Carole, thanks for leaving your comments. Just wanted to point out that this is the social history of piano teaching in the UK only. I don’t know if anyone has done anything similar in the US at all?

  3. Marian Smales.

    Excellent and interesting article.
    [Note: Under “The Changing Role of Women”, I believe the word should be “pastimes” not “past-times” – something rather different !]


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