Over recent weeks, thousands of you have been following and reading our blog series The Social History of Piano Teaching.

This is the last part in our series which provides an insight into the content of private piano lessons during the 20th century.

… complete with an example of how not to play the piano!


As has already been noted the decline in the piano’s popularity was dramatic and swift. However, a corresponding fall in the number of teachers offering lessons was slower to take effect. Despite dire warnings in the late 1920s regarding the eventual demise of the piano [1], the fall in student numbers eventually levelled off. The piano, however, remained the first instrument of choice for many parents who wanted their child to learn. First hand facts about content of the private piano lessons during C20th are rather elusive, but some evidence can be pieced together from various sources.


According to Scholes [2], the examination grade system had become so popular that by the 1920s and 1930s grades dominated the music studio with many teachers exclusively teaching the exam syllabus and preparing pupils for exams. The examining boards had doubtless achieved one of their original aims, that of raising the standard of playing overall. However, Scholes points out that by now there was a: ‘tendency of pupils and teachers to regard examinations as an end rather than as a means’ [3].

By 1947 grade exams were deeply embedded in the music education system in the UK with over 133,000 candidates [4], the majority of these taking piano exams. A major report into the state of the music profession argued that: ‘External examinations play a formidable part in the early stages of instrumental training’ [5]. By way of contrast, the Pianoforte Teacher’s Vade Mecum [6] argued that the examination system had much of value to offer and had helped to improve the overall standard of piano playing by allowing players to find their own level. In the same way Ching [7] stated that: ‘All teachers are dependent to some degree upon the successes of their pupils at Examinations, Festivals and Concerts’.

Part of the examination syllabus consisted of technical exercises and scales and it appears that technical matters dominated much of the piano teaching of the time. The Musical Times of 1928 criticized the prevailing trend for all young pianists to be all technique with limited amounts of expression in their playing. Dalcroze and Rothwell [8] supported this and argued that: ‘many teachers of the piano tell the child to move his fingers according to the rules’ whilst Egerton-Lowe warned against lessons containing: ‘too much dry drudgery and too little merry music’ [9].


Learning an instrument, particularly the piano, continued to remain popular with parents and with their children through the second part of the C20th [10]. Although the world of music education was changing quite rapidly with a more creative approach emerging in the classroom, led by the work of John Paynter and his contemporaries, the piano lesson continued to be a place of tradition and often poor teaching [11]. From the writer’s personal recollections piano lessons in the 1960s were about learning to read music, participating in festivals and taking exams.

Now established for over a century there were four major examination boards (ABRSM, Trinity College, Guildhall and London College), with most of the others having succumbed eventually to the diminishing numbers of piano pupils and teachers. All the boards offered much the same thing and provided both teachers, pupils and parents with a way of measuring progression on an instrument that was understood by all. The numbers of students taking examinations continued to rise for the most part. After a slight fall apparent in the mid 1960s, by 1976 over 190,000 candidates annually took practical examinations worldwide with the ABRSM, the piano accounting for 58% of these [12]. This had risen to 268,000 entries by the end of the century.


The style and substance of tutor books continued in much the same tradition as before WW1, containing pages of finger exercises and written explanations. Smallwood’s Pianoforte Tutor [13], first published in 1900 and still available today, was one of the most popular and is typical with its exhortations to play exercises slowly until thoroughly learnt, taking care to read every note! The tutor book begins with careful explanations of the theory behind the symbols, introducing, in turn, rhythm values and note names. This theoretical approach to learning seems to be quite typical of its time. It is interesting to find that, despite the prevailing emphasis on notation in early lessons, several writers of the period declared that the ability to sight-read was woefully neglected and was often an area that students struggled with [14].

Towards the end of the century there was a steady move away from the worthy wordiness of tutors such as Smallwood’s, although the teaching of notation and technical skills continued to dominate first piano books for the most part. Piano tutors such as At the Keyboard by Joan Last [15] and Piano Lessons [16] demonstrate this clearly in the first few pages. Although Last encourages teachers to introduce ‘a little piece by rote’ [17], before the end of the first lesson the pupil is also to learn about semibreves, the staff, clefs, notes on lines and spaces and more.

As the end of the century approached UK tutor books became more colourful and some even had CDs attached, however, they were still, for the most part, designed to teach reading skills and develop technique.


The reason that tutor books remained highly popular as a way of starting to teach beginners was partly due to the continued lack of training for most private teachers. Despite the proliferation of diplomas many teachers were still effectively unqualified and untrained for teaching. In 1949 the Arts Enquiry into Music [18] reported that: ‘Music teachers can acquire a bewildering variety of diplomas, some of them of a very dubious nature’. In addition it also commented that much of the teaching in private studios was not of a good standard. It appears therefore that major changes were taking place in the lives of many people but in the private piano studio the status quo was being maintained.


The Arts Enquiry, a report on the musical life of England [19], was commissioned by the Dartington Hall Trust. The report gave a broad picture of the state of music and music education at this time. It identifies two fundamental problems within the music teaching profession, particularly addressing instrumental teaching.

First, it indicated that most of the training at conservatoires up to this point was aimed at musicians who would become private music teachers. Yet it reported that graduate courses were not providing the all-round musicianship required for either private teaching or class teaching. Furthermore, the Enquiry believed that: ‘the teachers’ courses have little or no prestige in the eyes of the students’ [20] and many considered teaching to be a second-rate career.

Second, the report highlighted the lack of high quality teaching for children who had musical potential. Although acknowledging that excellent teaching was to be found and that most teachers were genuine enough in their intentions, it nevertheless considered that many lessons were not of a high enough standard. Developing the argument the report found there was little incentive for teachers to continue their own musical development and improve their standard of playing. It identified the need for more top rate musicians to become teachers as it believed that only in this way would teaching be seen as: ‘an honoured branch of the profession’ [21].


It took until almost the end of the century for teacher training for instrumental teachers to become available with various professional development courses established in the 1990s. The only one dedicated to training piano teachers was run by EPTA (UK) who pioneered annual five month long courses. The ABRSM began to address the issue in 1995 when it set up a certificate course for teachers leading to CT ABRSM. At a higher level, the Incorporated Society of Musicians and the University of Reading joined forces to create a distance learning course which led initially to a diploma but was then expanded to masters level. At the heart of all of these courses was an effort to develop a more holistic approach to teaching instruments, an approach that looked beyond the examination syllabus for its momentum, and that considered the development of a wide variety of musical skills.

Of these three courses at the time of writing (July 2016) only the EPTA (UK) course still exists having developed, through a series of stages, into the Piano Teachers’ Course.


A number of significant threads that have relevance today can be traced through this social history. The open access nature of the work, the blurring of the line between a hobby or a profession, the variable levels in quality of teaching especially of beginner pianists and the predominance of the instrumental exam boards all have their part to play in the current situation.

The importance of this heritage in the UK cannot be overstated. Rostvall and West [21] argue that tradition strongly influences instrumental teachers and many are unaware of the historical antecedents. Furthermore, they assert that it is difficult for individual instrumental teachers to break free of historical moulds and start to: ‘develop alternative ways of acting’.

This idea of being stronger when we act together as a professionals was one of the driving forces behind the formation of The Curious Piano Teachers – by reading this blog you have also become part of the movement towards much needed change in our profession.

Click here to download the references


Sally is presenting two papers based on her PhD research at the International Society of Music Education conference in Glasgow. You will be able to read all about the conference highlights in next week’s blog so do sign up if you haven’t already done so.

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


  1. ruth

    I was hoping to determine what the ‘graduate’ level exam in 1962 was equivalent to now. I found my mother’s old exam forms and saw this as a grade for her own Piano assessments. can anyone advise? Thanks

  2. Andrew Claxton

    Very interesting series! Over the last few years I’ve been trying to piece together my grandmother’s story. She was the local private piano teacher in Northwood 1910-1945 a classic Metro-land suburb in NW London. She died 5 years before I was born but her working life would be instantly recognisable to practitioners today. She came from a very modest background and was living with her large family in a Central London tenement (74 Wells Street, W1) age 14 (in 1898) when she gained her ‘Certificate of the Third Standard for Pianoforte Playing’ from the ‘Society for The Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce’ (the forerunner of the RSA). The pieces she played makes this equivalent to an old LRAM. I am intrigued by how she could’ve achieved this given the overcrowding at home and my guess is she would’ve taken herself off elsewhere for lessons and practice. She married in 1908 and received a very large Chappell upright as a wedding gift. I have no idea what she charged as a private teacher and accompanist but evidently she was always very busy

    1. Sally

      Thanks for letting us know about your grandmother’s story Andrew. How fascinating. I love hearing the real stories behind the history.

  3. Rosie Cross


    I have just read this with great interest but regret that I seem to have missed the first few installments. we have been in Vancouver for a long time and have missed a lot! Is ther any way I can catch up?


    Rosie Cross

    1. Sharon

      Rosie, if you hit the ‘back’ button at the bottom of this article (which points back to ‘The Social History of Piano Teaching Part 4’) and keep clicking on subsequent back buttons – you’ll be able to access all 5 parts of this blog series 🙂


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