Starting as a New Piano Teacher
Last year, I was interviewed by Hugh Sung for his podcast A Musical Life on my musical career and how I got to where I am now.
If you’d like to know how I went from early piano and jazz lessons, to 10 years of no music and immersing myself in outdoor education, IT, maths and PE teaching, to my music production career and finally a return to music and the start of my piano teaching career, then make sure you listen to the podcast below.
It was a pleasure to join Hugh on his podcast. I hope it shows you that every new piano teacher has a different experience. There is no set way of starting, consolidating or changing your career path. Some of us will have formal training, others will just have a heap of experience. Some of us will go from school to university to a career. Others, like me, will take a much more circuitous route!
You can listen to the full episode down below via YouTube (it’s just audio, no video) or read the interview right here. Make sure you leave a comment at the bottom about how this is similar, or completely different, to your own experience and, even more importantly, how your life experience has shaped your own teaching.
My Teaching Journey with Hugh Sung
Hugh Sung: Now, you’re the host of a very popular blog and podcast, Tim Topham TV Podcast, as well as a special membership site called the Inner Circle that provides a supportive online community for piano teachers. Before we get into all of your amazing online activities, tell us a bit about yourself. Tell us about your musical upbringing. How did you get started in music?
Tim Topham: I started formal lessons when I was eight. I think the story goes that we used to travel in the car to Sydney from Melbourne, and that’s a good 10 hour drive, for holidays.
Hugh Sung: Oh my goodness.
Tim Topham: If you can imagine, those are the days without air conditioning, and in summer daytime temperatures would easily get over 80 Fahrenheit here, probably more. I’m not sure exactly the conversion. We used to pack everyone up in the car.
I had a brother and a sister, and I was given at some stage this tiny little Casio electronic keyboard (check it out in this Facebook Live Video). I can still picture it. It’s about a ruler length long, tiny little keys and an incredible array of incredibly annoying sounds, including the old bossa nova. Do you remember all those old rhythms that used to be in these little keyboards?
Hugh Sung: Absolutely. Sure.
Tim Topham: Anyway, and so I don’t know who gave it to me, but mum and dad used to hear me playing around with this all the time, and then they thought, “Maybe there’s something in this.” They asked their friends for a reference to a piano teacher, and I ended up with this amazing teacher called Rosemary Rhodes who we’ll make sure listens to this at some stage.
She was living near me. She’s been one of my mentors all my life. She’s retired now from teaching, but still is great for my own counsel and a chat every now and then. She took me through until I was about 14.
I did a whole lot of grades of music, and then I did some study of Jazz piano. I had enough of the classical piano, and I went over to Jazz and studied with one of the best Jazz teachers here in Melbourne, who’s also still a friend of mine, which is great, and lives just down the road, funnily enough.
Then, actually, my life took a complete turn.
I went in and studied music at university, so I did a bachelor of music, majoring in audio engineering. It wasn’t performance. I knew that performance wasn’t really the thing for me.
I didn’t particularly enjoy getting up in front of people and playing, but I loved music and I love conducting or being in a band for a show, or doing those, you know répétiteur for musicals, those kind of roles. I used to love that at school.
I went in and did that course, but in the same time as doing that, I really got the bug for PE teaching and what we call over here outdoor education, which is when schools, a lot of these private schools have camp programs, so whole year groups go out and go and abseil and rock climb and hike and all this kind of stuff. I really got into this.
The music really took a backseat for literally, you’re not going to believe this, Hugh, but about 10 years.
Hugh Sung: Oh my goodness.
Tim Topham: Yeah. From when I left school at about 18 until my late 20s. I still would play and I even taught a few students, but it was very ad hoc. I had some great friends who were singers, and so we’d get together and jam and I’d play piano. I kept my chops up, but I wasn’t really into it as much.
Hugh Sung: What were you doing during those 10 years? That’s really fascinating.
Tim Topham: Yeah. I moved. I went overseas. I did a bit of IT teaching and I did a little bit of music teaching, and then I came back to Australia and went over to Perth and I was head of outdoor education of one of the private schools over there.
I was running the camp program from grade two to twelve, and just spending all my weeks camping and four-wheel driving, and abseiling and rock climbing and all this kind of stuff. I loved it. It was fantastic
Hugh Sung: Oh my goodness.
Tim Topham: Yeah. There was always this draw to music, and so I would end up running the battle of the bands for the school, even though I wasn’t a music teacher there. I’d play for singing practices and things like this. It was always there, Hugh, but it wasn’t a feature of my life during those eight or ten years.
Hugh Sung: It’s fascinating, because we wouldn’t even think of that because of your incredible presence in the piano pedagogy world, so it’s really fascinating to get this background insight to you.
Along the way, of course, you picked up all of these amazing skills in technology, teaching IT, and education, and just you sounded like such a really well-balanced, happy individual growing up.
Tim Topham: I think a lot of the time that I spent away from music has actually dictated my approach to music now and everything that I’m doing now. I think had I gone to university and gone to a conservatorium and then become either a performer or a teacher, or whatever, straight away, there is no way I’d be doing what I’m doing now.
I wouldn’t have the view about music education that I do now. It was actually really foundational in my current approach that I went and had all these life experiences, I did all this different stuff, I taught and ran camps with hundreds of kids at a time, and moved around. I also lived in Tasmania on an island, if you can believe it. I ran a residential camp program there.
All these different experiences, which has really shaped the modern approach and the different approach that I have to teaching these days.
Hugh Sung: You really think outside the box, and it comes from quite literally having been outside the box, and that’s a credit to you to be able to bring the kind of fresh perspective that’s so difficult to have when you’re immersed in music and never have an opportunity to be away from it as you so fortunately did. It’s really eyeopening.
Tim Topham: Yeah. I think it absolutely was, and so when I look back sometimes I think, you know, I could have even more amazing piano playing skills or something if I’d played all that time, but I wouldn’t be having the impact that I’m having around the world with my educational and pedagogical ideas as I am now if I hadn’t had that experience, so I’m really thankful now looking back.
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Hugh Sung: Going back to the end of your 10 years away from music as a profession, what was it about music that drew you back? There are other fields and it certainly sounds like you had the acumen and the skills and technology and education to do almost anything else.
It’s probably a different perspective, because here in America it’s really tough to make a living as a musician, but maybe it’s different in Australia. What about music drew you back in or drew you to consider putting more of your effort into it, considering all the amazing talents and abilities you had to do almost anything else?
Tim Topham: It’s a great question. I smile and I almost laugh at that, because it really came back to income. As I was wrapping up my outdoor education work, I got a new idea that I wanted to be a music producer, specifically of dance music, so nightclub music. I wanted to remix and I wanted to produce dance music.
Hugh Sung: How cool?
Tim Topham: Yeah. I started doing this under my name, which was Fourth Nation. You can still find me on iTunes, by the way. I started producing in my studio, in my bedroom effectively I started learning how to remix and how to produce dance music.
I had a good idea of the technology of music and things, but I’d never actually done this before. I started doing this, and I thought, you know what, I’m going to make a career out of this. This was my next plan.
Reality hit pretty quickly, and a year into it I was having to go back and be a substitute teacher, so I was doing a lot of that work to pay the bills, and then I picked up a piano student.
I still remember him. His name was Henry. He was about 14 at the time, and he was doing what we call over here grade four. He was intermediate level playing, and he was about to do an exam. I’d just taken over from his previous teacher. When I had my first lesson with him, I was so out of my depth that I went, oh my goodness, I need help with this.
I reconnected with Rosemary, my teacher, my childhood piano teacher. She single-handedly just taught me everything I know now about teaching. It was just an incredible … We literally spent six months together.
I was over there at her house all the time. We were going through scores. She was showing me. She was doing everything she could to help me get this student the best mark possible and teach me in the process.
I just started loving it more and more and more. That’s when I started moving across to teaching piano students and thinking about it being a full-time proposition.
Hugh Sung: Wow. What was it like trying to get your first students after Henry? What were some of the strategies you used? I’m just curious because musicians, I think we rely a lot on word of mouth, and we rely on perhaps our education or our accomplishments.
I tend to look at other music teachers bios or websites, and they’ll list they won such and such a competition, they went to such and such a conservatory. What were some of your strategies to get students to work with you?
Tim Topham: I put ads up online, on a lot of free sites. We’ve got a free site over here called Gumtree. It’s also in the UK. It’s just a free classifieds site, a little bit like a Craigslist, I guess.
I was able to pick up a number of new contacts through that for people looking for a local teacher in my area. I made sure I was on any online lists of teachers, and I also started looking for work in a school, which was what I really wanted to do.
I really wanted to get a role in a school that would give me a number of days work without me having to worry about it too much. That’s when luckily the position at the school I was substitute teaching at the most at the time, which was called Whitefriars College, they ended up having an opening for their piano teacher that was there, only piano teacher at the time. I went for it and I got it.
I actually at that stage didn’t need that many private students, and having worked a lot in institutions now, I haven’t had to do a hell of a lot of marketing myself, because of the nature of my role.
Hugh Sung: That’s fantastic. Now, jumping ahead you are now currently the head of keyboard at Xavier College in Melbourne, which I understand is a prestigious Catholic day and boarding school predominantly for boys. How long was it from your first college or your school teaching position before you got that position, and how did you get it?
Tim Topham: I think I was at my previous school for about five years or thereabouts. I’m just trying to think. Probably five years altogether, about three years in the piano teaching role at the first school, and then I always just keep my finger on the pulse, as you do as a musician, to see what roles are going where.
I saw the job at Xavier College came up. This is my third year, so about three years ago or a little bit under. I went for the job as per the interview process.
Hugh Sung: That’s really fascinating. I’m wondering if you’re comfortable talking about this, because I would imagine that there would have been a lot of teachers perhaps who had had more formal training who had applied for the job. What do you think it was about you and your unique mix of experiences that helped you get that position?
Tim Topham: It’s a great question. The interview process was actually … It involved a lot of playing, so we were given a piece of music to prepare for about 24 hours. It was an accompanying role, so I was accompanying a student. It didn’t have any title or anything. I just had to learn the music, and it wasn’t easy. I had to do that very quickly.
Then on one of the interviews, I had to sight read and accompany a student at a high level on the spot, on the stage in front of the panel as well.
It turns out that a lot of my experience that I had when I was learning piano and through those years of when I was doing the outdoor ed but still playing on the side, a lot of that was accompanying and a lot of it was sight reading.
The skill, I think, that they were most interested in was my ability to connect with a student when performing, and to be able to sight read a whole lot of music. That has been the case. I have to sight read all the time.
I think a lot of these kind of roles in schools revolve around the right personality, the right person that’s going to connect with other staff, going to work together well, connect with students and be able to engage and motivate. I hope that was part of the reason.
I imagine that having my business studies and my skills of running large-scale programs in different states was also a factor, even though it wasn’t necessarily specifically about music.
This is an edited extract from A Musical Life: Tim Topham, Piano Pedagogy Pioneer. You can listen to the full episode below or find it on your phone’s podcast player.
If you liked my music, you can grab it from iTunes!
November is dedicated to looking at how new teachers can get started on the right path. It can be daunting starting off as a piano teacher, so we want to make the process as easy as possible for you.
On the blog
This month on the blog we will look at…
- How to find a teaching method that suits you
- The importance of support networks and how online communities can help you when you’re starting out
- Some common mistakes new teachers make and how to avoid them
- Advice from a range of piano teaching experts, looking at their journeys from new teachers to education specialists
On the podcast
We will be discussing…
- The life of new piano teachers with Joe Harkins
- Effective lesson planning for new teachers with Leila Viss
- A brand new beginner teacher blueprint course designed by Nicola Cantan for my Inner Circle community
What was your teaching journey like? Did you have a break like me or did you continue music all the way through?
If there is anything you would like us to address this month, please let us know by leaving a comment below.
This Month’s Resources
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