In retrospect it amazes me that I chose my piano teaching career so early on in my life—I had already made my mind up about teaching piano when the idea of continuing my further studies in the UK was brought up by my parents. They asked me whether I really wanted to pursue it, and gave me some time to think about it. I have to admit part of me was itchin’ to get away from Penang, perhaps my rebellious side. However, I was pondering a lot over it. Although I was just 17 at that time, I had enough insight and maturity to realize that this was a big decision I had to make. And I went for it. Fortunately a few of my parents’ friends gave me sage advice about what to expect when I went over to the UK.
So I spent a few years in the UK and then four more in the US (read more about it here) When I came back in the summer of ‘84 I was raring to start teaching. I didn’t have a set agenda, but I guess a few folk were doing the “publicity” for me, and I was very grateful for that. Pretty soon I had my first motley batch of students—big ones, small ones, and everything in between. Experience is the best teacher, as the saying goes…and that’s something that one has to be patient with, you can’t gain experience in a few weeks or months.
My father had an old Wagner upright piano in the house so I used that. After playing all those wonderful Steinway grands in the US, this piano with yellowish keys felt like a total let-down, but I had to take what I had, at least in the beginning. Several years would pass before I was able to purchase my new Young Chang upright piano. Besides, the Yamaha Clavinova was still in its infancy in those days, so no thoughts of a digital piano flashed through my mind yet. I bought myself a metronome, brushed up on the piano-teaching books I’d brought home, and then there was nowhere else to go except to get my toes (or rather fingers) wet.
A good piece of advice I had from an uncle of mine (who also taught piano) was that when first starting out you can’t be too picky. In other words, I’d get good students as well as the not-so-good ones. I’d get beginners as well as advanced students. You also need to focus on getting the experience first, instead of monetary gains. I was guilty of this at the start, because fees for advanced students were naturally higher than for beginners. But as my uncle reminded me, the best experience I could ever obtain would be to teach students when they were at the beginner level, and then nurture them onwards. If I gave them good quality teaching there was a good chance they would stick with me as their musical needs grew.
A suggestion to those just starting out in the field would be this—get as much advice as you can from experienced piano teachers. Don’t be shy or too proud to ask. Do what you will with the advice they give you, and remember you can change or modify it to suit your own teaching. There is no one correct method, you have to go with whatever works best for yourself and your students.