Last week’s post traced the development of the piano from the early days to its emergence as the instrument of choice for many from the late Georgian period onwards.

The story continues as we turn our attention to the rise of the Victorian piano teacher and we take a glimpse into the Victorian piano lesson considering tutor books, both good and the uninspiring along the way!


To satisfy the increasing demand for piano skills there was a complementary expansion in the number of music teachers. It is thought that at the end of the eighteenth century there were about 2,000 professional musicians in Britain who both performed and taught [1]. Their teaching was based on the master/apprentice model [2] and young students learnt the skill and craft of playing an instrument through a variety of approaches. The development of musicianship was often paramount and instrumental skills were nurtured through improvisation, playing by ear, sight-reading and composition [3].

As the appeal of learning an instrument increased, the numbers of teachers rose rapidly. The 1871 census showed 18,600 individuals purporting to be musicians with further rapid increases evident during the remainder of the century [4]. It is likely that at least a third of these were involved in teaching and that over half of all teachers were female. Moreover Fisher, writing in 1888, states that:

A few musicians pose as conductors, a very large number hold appointments as organists and choirmasters, but almost everyone teaches’ [5].

It could be surmised from this that the classification between musicians and teachers in the census is rather an academic one and that the vast majority were engaged in teaching to a greater or lesser extent. This is supported by Golby who cites an edition of Musical Tuition from 1824 as stating that: ‘almost every performer on the violin, violoncello, double bass, or flute will give you lessons on the pianoforte or singing’ [6].

The master/apprentice model of teaching that was mentioned earlier quickly became a thing of the past although the one-to-one relationship between teacher and student remained in place. The rapidly expanding market opened the door to many less well developed musicians and a concurrent rise in music publishing, in particular technical exercises and tutor books, meant that playing the piano soon became concerned with reproducing music rather than its creation [7].


Playing the piano was largely a female activity (see last week’s post) and it seems that a few women musicians were able to: ‘achieve levels of financial success and professional status which they could not attain in any other occupation’ [8]. Yet the world of the concert pianist remained predominantly a male one with the majority of women discouraged from becoming professional pianists, instead being persuaded to remain happy with their amateur status [9]. Johanna Kinkel, a German intellectual and piano teacher in the mid 1850s recommended against the teaching of difficult repertoire to women as marriage and babies inevitably got in the way [10]! Furthermore, Hildebrand argues that any woman who had aspirations of emulating women like Clara Schumann and becoming a concert pianist was risking:

‘the worst of all possible fates: lifelong servitude as a piano teacher’ [11].

Yet this was a time when women were still not admitted to university and were often regarded as having weaker and more feeble brains than men! For many Victorian women therefore, piano teaching offered a relatively secure way to earn a living and it appears that by 1861 60% of all piano teachers in London were female [12]. Golby [13] points out that: ‘their domestic and school pupils were generally from their own or a similar social class. Music therefore became a rare respectable source of income, most often on a temporary, pre-marital basis’.


By the last decade of the nineteenth century, women piano teachers were even to be found in what Percy Scholes refers to as ‘the lower ranks of society’ [14]. Cheap pianos, now widely available, were affordable in working class areas; a survey in 1917 of manual workers in Sheffield found that many owned pianos and those that didn’t aspired to buy one [15]. The corresponding demand for lessons developed:

‘a new class of teacher… one with no real qualifications, and no professional standing’ [16].

These teachers were prepared to offer lessons at a very cheap rate with easy and quick ways of learning the piano advertised for just 6d per lesson (in 1882, now equivalent to approximately £1.21) with some advertisements going as low as 3d [17].

Teaching the piano was an unregulated activity (despite calls for its regulation and even a proposal to parliament) and no matter how basic the musical skills and knowledge of the so-called teacher, it had become a popular way of earning a living. Fisher, in his guide to the profession [18], points out that any young man (and presumably young woman) could buy sheet music, put a brass plate on his door and become a professor; no qualifications were needed. Golby [19] comments that: ‘there were no safeguards in place to ensure standards and competence’ whilst Ehrlich [20] argues that this inevitably led to a cycle of ever decreasing standards of playing and teaching. The distance between the professional, well trained pianist and teacher (quite a rarity in Britain) and the amateur became ever wider.


It appears that, with no qualifications needed and no safeguards in place the Victorian piano lesson was often a haphazard and ill considered affair often based on printed material; tutor books for beginners and books of technical exercises for more advanced students. The creative and ear-based approach that had been used to teach instruments until the early 19th century had all but disappeared and lessons were predominantly concerned with learning to read notation and the development of technique through specific technical exercises.

Fisher’s book The Musical Profession (1888) gives us some understanding of the profession at the time and represents information gathered by the author in response to a questionnaire. He comments on its ‘scattered nature’ and the resulting individual approaches to teaching being largely based on their ‘moral consciousness’.

Most Victorian piano teachers preferred to teach in their own home although young teachers often considered it an advantage to visit pupils instead. A whole chapter is devoted to guiding the young teacher, just starting out in the profession. Fisher advises him sternly that the first thing he should do is: ‘consider, seriously, exactly what he wishes to accomplish in the lessons he hopes to give’ [21] and furthermore that his intentions should be ‘to impart a maximum of instruction with a minimum of discomfort’!

Lessons, he recommends, should consist of two main ingredients, theory and practice, not dealt with separately but integrated with each other. Fisher also spends some time describing the ‘Teacher’s Art’ and cites John Curwen’s Teacher’s Manual as containing some fundamental principles for the teacher. These include:

‘let the easy come before the difficult; teach the thing before the sign; let each step rise out of that which goes before, and lead up to that which comes after’ [22].

These maxims however were rarely found in piano tutor books with a few rare exceptions.


Today, Fisher’s book gives us a glimpse into the world of the Victorian piano teacher. A similar perspective is found in Mrs Curwen’s Pianoforte Method [23] first published, complete with a ‘Guide’ for teachers, in 1886. Click here to access an online version. Her method puts many of the principles just described into practice and indeed the book is based on the principle of putting the sound before the symbol through the use of sol-fa. Designed to give a thorough grounding in the art of playing the piano the book was created to help guide the teacher through lessons.

Mrs Curwen however admits in a later edition that she had underestimated just how much help teachers needed in giving the first few lessons and that it was in:

‘the apparently simple matter of teaching the staff and giving first lessons in Time, that teachers made the most frequent mistakes’ (p. iv).

In addition she points out that this is just where skilled teaching is needed the most.

Many of the tutor books available at this time did not follow the excellent principles laid out by Mrs Curwen. Fisher [24] described the average tutor book indicating its lack of musicality and pedagogical principles. He argued that many spent the first two pages describing how notation works on the staff, how this related to the piano, explaining what the rhythm values were and finally how the fingers were numbered. He pointed out that this approach had many problems and that as a result:

‘each lesson, instead of being anticipated with pleasure, is looked upon with loathing and aversion by both teacher and pupil’ [25].

The combination of ill-prepared piano teachers and uninspiring tutor books led, on the whole, to low standards of piano playing and musicality throughout the nation.


Find out about how the various examination boards were established in an effort to raise the musical standards of the country.

Click here to download the references

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


  1. Deborah Garren

    ‘let the easy come before the difficult; teach the thing before the sign; let each step rise out of that which goes before, and lead up to that which comes after’ [22]……..This sounds a lot like the simultaneous learning from Paul Harris.

    Is Mrs. Curwen the same lady who developed the Curwen hand signs that Kodaly educators use?

    1. Sally

      As the saying goes Deborah, ‘there’s no such thing as a new idea’! These foundation education principles have been around for a long time.

      John Curwen (who was Mrs Curwen’s father-in-law) was responsible for the development of the Curwen tonic-solfa system (from a system established by Jane Glover) and the hand signs that Kodaly later adopted.

  2. Philippa Rose. ARCM. ATCL Musicianship.

    Brilliant idea on this subject. Today tutors of all kinds do not touch upon improvisation leading to composition. After all the moment a child touches a piano, s/he is improvising and goes on doing it until the parent takes s/he to the first piano lesson. From then on unless the teacher has had a diploma in musicianship/improvisation in particular, it is all downhill. No longer is the child using its imagination to make up pieces of its own however awful it may sound to the people around, but it’s imagination to make up its own compositions guided by a professional piano teacher no longer exists and s/he forgets why s/he ever wanted to play the piano as the ABRSM takes over its life 99% of the time. Fall out is huge…….

    This is the modern way of learning the piano since I was a small child. I was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music at 6 years old in 1951.. All my personal skills were already frowned upon and the notation system and ABRSM together with the usual boring easy graded steps called theory exams put it its place no harmony ever surfaced. Not until I was nearly 40 did I luckily take a diploma in teaching Composition and Improvisation to young children at Trinity College for two years. I also took up composing. Unfortunately only Trinity College Exams offer an entrant the opportunity of presenting a piece composed by themselves (only about 10 entrants in piano do this each year) We have ABRSM stifling not only the teaching profession but the child. I wonder whether we would have had Beethoven Chopin and all the Company of wonderful composers if they were taking just piano lessons without proper improvisation and harmony lessons alongside. Big business by ABRSM has pushed out and spoiled any creative musicianship and until they realise this and change their syllabuses more and more youngsters will revert to pop and jazz….. Sorry, but I have seen this happen over 20 years in my profession. My grandson who has played to HM Queen and the Duke violin las year had to compose for his GCSE a ‘rap number.’ Can you believe that!!!

    I do love your blog.


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