Circles of Creativity, with Tim Topham

Today on the show we’re joined by one of our favourite people in the world of online music education, and maybe just one of our favourite people in general, and that’s Tim Topham, who heads up, the home of creative piano teaching online.

Tim’s really a thought-leader among piano teachers when it comes to making piano lessons fun and creative, getting off book and away from the dry rote learning and note reading, and into a world where the student is actually empowered to feel confident and creative on the keyboard.

We’ve long been fans of Tim’s work, and we’ve actually interviewed him a couple of times for our website in the past – so we decided it was long overdue to have him on the podcast and he kindly agreed.

Hearing him talk, it’s probably not surprising he’s as well known and well respected as he is in the world of piano teaching – but what maybe is surprising is the route he took to get there…

In this conversation you’ll hear about:

  • Why it may have been a good thing that Tim took a ten year hiatus from focusing on piano, and the impact that had on how he teaches
  • The value of getting “off the page” – and the part of this which is often glossed over but actually essential
  • The relationship between creative exercises in composing and improvisation on your instrument and “ear training” exercises for developing your musical ear

This episode will obviously be of particular interest to any piano teachers, or indeed piano students out there, but as always the topics and ideas we discuss can be useful to any music learner wanting to develop their musicality. And Tim shares some really cool ideas and specific suggestions, so we know you’ll get a lot out of this one.

Listen to the episode:

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Tim: Hi this is Tim Topham from and you’re listening to the Musicality Podcast.

Christopher: Welcome to the show Tim, thank you for joining us today.

Tim: Absolute pleasure Christopher, thank you very much for having me.

Christopher: So I was joking with you before we hit record that I was gonna have to try and stay on my toes, because you and I know each other pretty well at this point and I have to remember to be an interviewer and not just a buddy and have a chit chat with you. So I’m gonna stick to my traditional first opener question and ask you how did you first get started making music? Obviously you’re known as a very creative piano teacher these days, but was that kind of the spirit of your music learning from the outset or where did that come into the picture?

Tim: My training was real kind of traditional I guess at the start. It actually began with this … I know people can’t see but I’m gonna tell you, I’m holding up a Casio PT1. It’s about a foot long little plastic keyboard from the 90s.

Christopher: I totally had that.

Tim: And it made these beautiful sounds like bossa novas and things. I don’t know if I can … yeah et cetera. Anyway, drove my parents absolutely mad. I used to play in the car, on long trips, literally they wanted to throw it out the window. But they sort of heard me making sounds that were kind of musical and thought, “Maybe we should get Tim some piano lessons.” And so they asked around friends. I was put in touch with an amazing teacher, Rosemary McIndoe, who was just inspirational and wonderful at getting me playing and loving music.

But I guess having said that, there were certainly very traditional aspects to her teaching and I did do something exams and I did my scales, and I often really didn’t like performing. But what she always did, which has always stuck with me, and what I always do with my students, is if I brought anything into a lesson she would help me play it, regardless of just how wacky it was or how difficult it was. And so I can remember taking in something like Glenn Miller In The Mood and wanting to play that. Or actually I remember wanting to play Chattanooga Choo Choo at one stage. And I’d take this in and I’d fumble through it, and she’d say, “Great Tim, let’s work on it.” And that’s always stuck with me and always been something that I do with my students and I encourage other teachers to do as well.

Christopher: That’s awesome. And when your parents were hearing you playing that Casio keyboard in the back of the car, were they hearing it as musicians themselves or were your family non musical and you were the oddity who was bashing away at this keyboard.

Tim: Both parents, I’d say they’re musical but not musicians. Dad was known for dirge-like singing in church, and loved some very unusual records. And mum would love music and would sing to music. So they were very supportive of it but they weren’t musicians themselves. My brother did play trombone but nothing spectacular. So yeah there was always music in the family, and I’ve since learnt that there was a lot of music in my my history. So my grandmother on my mother’s side was a pianist, not an amazing concert pianist or anything but there was definitely a lot of piano in the family, because I’ve got some of the music handed down. So they were elements right back through as far as I can tell.

Christopher: Gotcha. That’s interesting because, I don’t know, you can interpret that in a couple of ways. One is you had the genes for it and there was some family genetics that helped you become a musician, but what you said really reminded me of my own family, where my parents are music lovers and would kind of casually sing but have never played instruments, and so they were nurturing me and my sisters as musicians very much from that just we love music let’s give it a try attitude. And I know with them, like they could point to family members or parents that were instrument players. And for them it would be more they could do it so anyone could. It wasn’t we’ve got the genes so you can learn music, it was more just music is something you can learn.

Tim: Yeah and I think it’s a really important point for parents to take away too, that you don’t have to know how to play or teach an instrument if your child is learning, all you have to do is be supportive and play music in the family, in the house. Just play records, well not records now. Play MP3s, put music on, take your children to concerts, outdoor, indoor, different music styles. Just immersing your family in it, having it playing, talking about it, talking positively about it, I think can have a big impact on a child whose learning music.

And funnily enough, I’ve got always students who want to learn jazz, and one of the first things I’ll ask them if they want to learn jazz, and I’m not a jazz specialist by any means, I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve but that’s about it. I’ll always ask them, “Well how much jazz do you listen to?” Because jazz is such an oral tradition, you have to kind of be immersed in it to really get it. And none of them listen to any jazz, they just kind of think … they think they want to learn it because it kind of sounds cool and it’s not classical.

But you know, a lot of times students these days are really missing and lacking just the time to listen to music. I mean they listen to music but it’s often modern music which really a lot of it is bereft of a lot of guts, I think. It’s very basic music. So it’s a little bit sad that they don’t have that wide variety of music that they’re listening to. So if parents can fill that void a little bit, I think it’s a great approach.

Christopher: That’s really cool. I am a lot more conscious of that parent influence these days, I mean obviously for you as a teacher, and a teacher of teachers, this would be front of mind for you, like how do you handle the parent-child relationship and that kind of stuff. For me it’s something I didn’t think about until the last couple of years when I had kids myself, and it suddenly made me really aware of this kind of thing, was why did I turn into someone who was happy to play an instrument and enjoyed music and considered myself capable of it, and how can I create that encouraging and nurturing environment for my daughters? And obviously it’s particularly tricky because I am now a trained musician and I have quite strong opinions about how this stuff should be learned, but you don’t want to push all that on your kid, right? You don’t wanna be the parent that’s just kind of forcing their kids to do music.

So I’m sure you’ve seen that from all kinds of angles with the parents of your own students and the teachers you teach.

Tim: It’s a really fine line to walk. How much do push them? How much do you nag? How much do you force them to just sit there and play their instrument? And how much do you back off, because if you back off will they just quit and that’ll be sad? It is really difficult and I … you know parenting is hard enough without throwing a musical instrument in there. And I, if you’d spoke to my mother, she would say she tore her hair out at times with me. I remember distinctly putting my foot down and not performing at the first concert I was meant to perform at with my teacher and all her students, and it was highly embarrassing for everyone. And I was just a real pain.

But we got through that, and somehow my parents kept encouraging and eventually I got to that point where I felt more comfortable doing it. But I must say, I never really truly enjoyed performing when it came to classical concerts. I was only really enjoying it when I got into musical theatre and playing in bands and things like that. So I guess what I would say to parents, any parents listening, there’s going to be ups and downs just like anything with a child. Hang in there and don’t give up too soon.

Christopher: Good advice. So tell us more about that trajectory. You went from refusing to play classical concerts to someone who now really excels in teaching the creative skills and the expressive skills, and helping other teachers to do the same. What did that journey look like? Were you quite early on sure you were gonna be a piano teacher yourself or where did the journey take you?

Tim: Far from it. I never thought I’d be a piano teacher. Goodness, what a funny job to have. No, I had a very rounded out route back to piano teaching. So I studied music after school. I did a bachelor in music but I focused on audio engineering and not performing at all. And I really was not interested in performing or composing, I just wanted to do engineering and technology and acoustics, and I quite like the physics and the science of music, and computer-

Christopher: I never knew that about you.

Tim: Yeah I’ve got an audio engineering degree. There you go.

Christopher: Wow, we could take this conversation in a very nerdy direction.

Tim: Let’s not turn off your listeners.

So I did that, and then I went overseas and I taught in a school in England. And that was my first experience of teaching, and I absolutely fell in love with it, I really really enjoyed it. So I came back to Melbourne and did a diploma of education, which is the qualification we need over here to teach. And I did that with a double music major, so it was all classroom music. And then promptly went to another part of Australia and for the next 10 years I really didn’t teach any music at all. I became a PE teacher, outdoor education, I taught maths, I did some … what else did I? I did some relief teaching. I just did a whole random variety of different things, ended up on an island off the coast of Tasmania running a school campus, residential campus for 15 year olds. And then eventually came back to Melbourne after all of that and decided to set myself up as a music producer, and try and make money from remixing 80s tunes. Can you guess how well that went?

I had some success, I had a lot of fun, I had some things played in nightclubs and on radio, but that really didn’t form an income for me. So I started teaching. And that’s when I really got back, because I had been teaching and I still played piano during that 10 year hiatus. I would play and accompany friends who might be singing and things like that. So I wasn’t completely disconnected from it but I was not immersed. And I got back into teaching and reconnected with my childhood teacher when I realized this teaching thing, I was really enjoying but it was over my head and I didn’t know what to do. And I just fell in love with teaching piano and teaching music.

So that was the roundabout route. And I actually think that it was because of the break that I had and all the different experiences teaching all these different subjects and different ages, that allowed me to come back to music with a completely different perspective to what students who perhaps go through the standard university conservatory performance teaching path, their outlook. And so I think that really shaped this creative approach that I’ve taken on.

Christopher: Yeah I can see that, and I wanted to ask, why did you find yourself out of your depth? I think a lot of people would assume you sit down with the student, you figure out what grade they’re on, you buy the method book for that grade, and you just kind of plod through lesson by lesson. Is it that simple?

Tim: That’s actually what I did when I was asked to teach maths. As long as I stayed a week ahead in the maths book, because I have no maths training, I was okay. And I got a lot of help from other teachers. Don’t worry, I was only teaching 12 year olds, it was nothing serious.

So I think the issue for me was that I took on a grade four student, and for people in England and Australia you understand the grade system, that’s a reasonably accomplished level. I mean grade eight’s kind of the top so they’re kind of half way there. And I just realized I didn’t really know what the examiners were looking for and how to teach that, and how to be really precise with music, because I’d always been someone who could kind of sight read okay and play some chords and get through things, but sitting down and playing a classical piece perfectly and interpreted the right way, I really had no idea about because I wasn’t trained in that. So that was why I really wanted to reconnect with Rosemary, and she just guided me through all that. That was the out of the depth feeling.

Christopher: And clearly it didn’t push you into a kind of shuttered view where you just did that kind of grade-led, exam-led teaching from there on out. So how did you manage to kind of balance those two, that you maybe had students coming in expecting that, and the exam board expecting that, but you had this background and this kind of desire to teach in a broader way or a more expressive creative way?

Tim: That’s a good question and I know it’s an issue that many teachers have, and probably students as well, perhaps with parents who are very focused on the exams, perhaps because they went through that system and they believe that’s the way music should be taught. So it’s a difficult line to walk sometimes.

I was very passionate about the need to teach students more than just dots on a page, because of the experiences that I’d had, and I should mention too that while I … pretty much from the time I left school to … well really to coming back to piano, I’d often done a lot of the accompanying of singers, and I’d conducted musicals and played piano in a lot of musicals. And so I had this knowledge that when you’re playing it for let’s say a musical theater company, and you have to play a reduced conductor’s score, which has pretty much every instrument written into a piano part. So you’re playing sort of 1- notes all the time, and it’s often sort of one two three, one two three, one … and then people have got to dance to this. The only way you can do that is to simplify it down to chords. So you have to know your chords.

And so I knew that from my own experience, and I instantly therefore wanted to teach that to students because I knew it was such a fundamental skill. And so for me, in regard to the parents and expectations and things, it was about managing both and helping parents see the value in giving this skill to their child, and not just trying to leap over the next exam hurdle. Because that can actually be an incredibly destructive process if it’s done the wrong way. Exams can be great, as long as they’re managed and are used for their purpose, which isn’t to be a step every single year, bang bang bang bang bang. So I won’t get on my exam high horse unless you want me. But that’s what I would just suggest, it’s about a holistic view, which I know you have with all the work that you do.

Christopher: Well let’s unpack that a little bit. You said there you were trying to help the parents see the value of teaching something like chord playing versus just playing dot by dot. What is the value?

Tim: Well the value is that a child can quickly see music for more than just the dots on the page, so they can start to see patterns in music. What that will allow …Oh and they can also notice chord symbols written above the music, which might, if they’re not taught about it, they won’t know what that actually means. What that gives them is an ability to learn music more quickly, for one. And it allows them to simplify music that’s hard, number two. And number three is if they can understand that chords are the root of all music, pretty much, then they can start to create their own music using chords and that’s where things get really exciting for students.

Christopher: Yeah well let’s talk about that a little bit, because one of the courses I love in your inner circle is your four chord composing course. And the idea of a four chord song or a three chord song even is something that’s come up on this podcast a few times from the perspective of playing songs by ear. And once you understand that pop or rock idiom of a four chord progression you can figure out the chords to songs much more easily. But your course isn’t four chord songs by ear, it’s four chord composing. So tell us a bit about that and how you can enable a student from early on to start doing something creative rather than just playing the dots on the page.

Tim: Well to the students I would say the fundamental aspect regarding chords and harmony in music, and it’s most notable in popular music which is why I like using that as an example, is that for the most part chords are all linked together. So there’s a certain set of chords that are used in each particular key, and they’re all shown on the circle of fifths. And I know you’ve got a great course on the circle of fifths, or you’ve certainly got resources about that, which I’d encourage anyone to to look at. Because the circle of fifths is basically my one page bible of piano teaching and music teaching, full stop. It just gives so much great value if you know what to look for.

And what to look for is the chords on either side of the key area. So if you take C major for example, the chords on the left, the major chord on the left is F, and the major chord on the right is G. They’re the primary triads. The relative minors of those, D minor, E minor and A minor. Those six chords tend to be the chords that are used when someone composes a pop song. So what I love doing with my students, once they unpack that and I unpack it by teaching them the three most common pop song progressions, the one, six, four, five … those ones, I’m sure you’ve talked about those before. There’s kind of three ones that are used in so many pop songs.

They can learn those, they can start to see that well actually these songs all use the same set of chords. Well let’s unpack that, why do they use these chords? Well they’re are all connected on the circle of fifths, they’re harmonically connected, and they work really well together. So why don’t we create our own? So I just give them a … I write the letter C, I give them three spaces, three dashes, to write chords on, and they just pick three chords, without playing anything, without listening to anything, just pick three of those six chords and let’s play them. And lo and behold, you’ve kind of got a pop song already written in the space of just a few minutes.

Now of course some chord combinations will sound better than others, and there’s some great talking points that I have with my students about the fourth chord, because the four … So normally we’ll go chord one, two, three, four, and then that will repeat back to the first chord. And so that last chord moving to the first chord will form a cadence, musicians out there will know that that’s a really fundamental thing to learn about, and certain cadences sound better than others.

So I don’t want to use too much jargon in case people listening are a little bit unsure, but what I would say is if this sounds interesting and intriguing and you haven’t explored it before, find the circle of fifths, and I know Christopher has copies in his membership, find the circle of fifths, have a look at the key C, which is at the top center, and the chords around it, and play a little chord progression using four of those and see what happens. And you’ll be amazed at the outcome.

Christopher: Very cool. Yeah we’ll pop a link in the show notes to our ultimate guide to the circle of fifths, there’s a free article on our site that has the circle and a bunch of kind of different variations and explanations that people can check out. But let’s get piano nerdy for a moment, because everything you just said is super cool for any instrument, but I know the pianists listening, or maybe the piano teachers listening, are thinking, “Okay so am I just playing block chords? Am I playing the triads? That’s gonna sound a bit boring.” How do you help students to turn this into something that actually sounds like a piano arrangement with two hands?

Tim: I tried start with triads, always. So triads in reposition. And what I find is that if … so I guess there’s a few steps that I skipped over. One is that I get students to play the chord in their right hand and a base note in their left hand, or octaves if they’re an adult and they’re capable. And I get them to use the pedal, and they need to play in rhythm. And those three things really come together to make it sound musical. If you don’t do those then it’s not gonna sound like a song.

So if you can picture let’s say a C chord and they’re playing C, C, C, C, then they go into A minor, A minor, two, four, and F, or whatever it is, and they’re using the pedal each time. It might take a couple of weeks for them to get their hands around it, to get used to moving, to using the pedal. There’s quite a few things that they’re doing. But that alone makes it sound really musical, and that’s one of the great benefits of piano because using that pedal, it makes things just blend and makes it rich, warm. So I would encourage you to try it with the pedal. And I can give you a sheet of my resources as well for my first lesson that I actually teach in regard to four chord composing, more than happy to share that with you. Christopher, we can put a link in your show notes and people can check that out.

Christopher: Very cool. And this all sounds really fun and interesting from the student’s perspective and, you know, it’s the kind of thing that looking back I wish my music teachers in general but also piano teacher had just kind brought in quite early on and didn’t. Why isn’t this kind of front and center in piano teaching, this kind of exploratory, creative, ear-based learning?

Tim: Well I hope it will become more and more, the more work we do, but I think it’s not currently because of the tradition of the classical traditional piano lesson. And I do a lot of work with classically trained pianists who are now teaching and who are really struggling to teach anything but interpretation, performance, and note reading, because that’s what we were all taught. And Forrest Kinney, who I know he’s been on your show, I’m pretty sure. He may have talked about the history. I could listen to him talk about the history and how we’ve got to this situation for hours, he’s just a superstar.

But that whole idea of the printing, the effect of printing presses and playing things as they were, as they should be played, and the recital formats and things like that, they’re all just this historical thing that’s happened in the last 200 years. Prior to that, Bach and all his buddies, they were teaching improvising galore. If you weren’t an improviser you wouldn’t get a job in a church or in a court or anything because that’s what they wanted people to be able to do. So I think we’re coming full circle, we’re starting to see the value in this.

And I always just think all this music that we’re getting our students to play, written music, it’s all being improvised and composed and created by someone. So let’s give our students some idea about how they can do that too, because it’s not some amazingly difficult rocket science type thing, it’s actually quite simple if you look at those foundational … the fundamentals.

Christopher: Nice. So obviously in your inner circle you have in-depth resources to help piano teachers step-by-step learn to teach all of this good stuff, but I wonder if we can just share any other kind of tid bits or ideas that … that four chord composing idea and taking the circle of fifths and a group of four chords and just kind of exploring and dabbling, I think it’s a fantastic one that anyone listening can go away and try.

And I say that because I’m sure a lot of our listeners can relate to what we’ve been talking about, that you come from a more classical background, whether you think of it that way or not, you come from this sheet music led, play the notes on the page, perform it note perfect, that’s what music is, mentality. And I wonder if there are any other kind of, not tips and tricks but any other exercises or areas you lead your students to that can be rich for helping them get into that other mindset to music.

Tim: Yeah there’s a plenty. One I can instantly think of is using the blues as well. The four chord composing is very much a pop style of playing music, and I use the pentatonic scale when … when they’ve got their progression they will start improvising melodies using a pentatonic scale, a five note scale that we know will work. I just like giving students things that will guarantee to sound good.

But if students are interested in more jazzy feel then using the blues is great, and the fun thing is that the blues is based on … if we do the 12 bar blues it’s based on the three primary triads. So in a key of C, using C chords, F chords, and G chords. So students can make this connection, “Oh well I was just doing pop music with these same chords and now we’re doing the blues.” So it starts to make connections and links. And so that’s why this approach of looking and exploring the fundamentals of chords, not just looking at them but getting students to create them, they can start to see connections in other music that they’re playing.

And you could take any piece of music by Christopher Norton, Dennis Alexander, these are well-known piano composers. And if a student has that understanding of what key it’s in, and therefore what chords are likely to show up in that piece of music, they can start unpacking it and start seeing those movements and patterns. So that’s one kind of thing that I like doing.

The other one I love doing is using pop music and asking students what pop they like at the moment and trying to help them learn something just through the chords. So I have a student at the moment actually who, he’s 11, I’ve just taken him on recently, 11 or 12. And he really loved The Greatest Showman music. And so in one lesson I asked him, I actually asked his mother to speak with him and email me some of his favorite songs that he wants to learn at the moment. And one of them was The Greatest Show from The Greatest Showman, and so I went and looked up the music before his next lesson. Sure enough, guess what the chords were. I think it was in C. So it was C, F, A, there might have been an E major in there.

And so what I was able to do is bring that into the next lesson and I demonstrated what I was doing, I played the song for him, and his eyes lit up and he went, “Oh my god. That was amazing. How can I do that?” And so I was able to teach him how to play that song with the four chords that it’s built on. And you know it doesn’t sound quite … it’s not quite perfect yet, but he’s also quite a strong singer, and so I’m gonna be getting him to … And the thing that he came to me wanting to do is learn to play and sing at the same time. He already plays cello, he’s quite a talented young man. So this is a great opportunity. I can teach him those chords and he can start singing over the top. So I love doing that.

And the last thing I’d say is regarding lead sheets, as well. Just teaching students that even if you download something let’s say from music notes. So I was talking to you just before we started, my dad’s 80th is this weekend, and I’ve put together this quite significant musical item list because we happen to have quite a few musicians in the family. My nephews and nieces particularly. And so I was looking through music online and having a look at the chord progressions, because I’ve got to learn quite a bit of music, I’m not gonna learn all the notes, but Hey Jude is based on about four chords as well. So bang, I can just look at the chord symbol.

So teaching students about that, and if the students … if you’re a student now, just yeah don’t get freaked out by all the black notes on the page, you don’t have to learn them all. It’s a great thing to be able to play them but you don’t need them at the start to be able to play music. Just have a look for those chord symbols and get some help about how to actually put them on the piano or on your guitar or however your … whatever instrument you’re playing.

Christopher: Very cool. So one thing I think we’re glossing over a little bit here, and partly why I asked you that question about how you actually arrange on piano to make it sound musical and not just straight block chords in four four time, is there’s actually a lot of ear work going on here, and this is something you and I have talked about a fair bit in the past, is how you develop your musical ear while learning an instrument. And for my own part, I discovered ear training as this whole separate thing, and I did drills and exercises, and then I had to try and kind of re combine it with the instrument skills I had learned over the past decade or two.

But what I love about everything you’ve been discussing there is this is actually a really organic way to develop your musical ear and develop that instinct. Because if we say something like, “I just look up the chords for Hey Jude and then I play them.” Well sure you know what triad chords to play, but turning that into something that sounds like the song is actually drawing on quite a lot of oral skill I think. How do you think about this stuff with your students and how do you help them develop their musical ear?

Tim: That’s a really good question. You’re right, if you do downloaded a lyric sheet, so let’s say you go to Ultimate Guitar and you’ve got the lyrics and the chords above them, it sounds nothing like what you want it to sound like unless you use your musical ear. You’re absolutely right. So you have to have an idea, if you’re going to take this approach to playing, you’ve got to have an idea of what the original song sounds like, and importantly the groove I call it, or the feel, the time signature. And you need to have ideally a repertoire of patterns up your sleeve, both for left and right hand eventually.

Now I think your question was more about helping students with this, and this is quite a long process. So it does take quite a bit of time to build up the skill to be able to play something convincingly without the lyrics or a backing track or anything like that, that people can go, “Aha, that’s Hey Jude.” So over time, what I do with students is I just introduce them to a new pattern, a new lick. So this is a cool thing you can do, let’s add a ninth to a chord and we can play it in a certain way that’s gonna sound quite cool.

And just take that home, try and add that to a chord progression that you’re playing at the moment. Can you add a suspension here or there? In the left-hand, let’s uncover a few really common patterns, and I love comparing things like the Alberti bass pattern, all pianists will probably be familiar with what that is, Mozart was famous for it. If you can picture the left hand, that’s all it’s doing. Versus something like the pop left hand, which tends to be root note or bass note, the fifth, and the octave, going up and down.

So giving students some of those skills I think is really important, but crucially and why you are doing such great things for helping musicians around the world, is you’ve got to be able to listen to the original and try and work out what it is about the style or groove or feel that you need to try and replicate on the instrument. And that’s a challenging process, it just takes time and it takes a lot of practice.

Christopher: And you’re presumably still doing some grade exams with your students. How does all this relate to what they call the oral skills section of the exam?

Tim: Well it doesn’t does it?

Christopher: I was trying not to phrase that as too leading a question there.

Tim: Well it depends on the exam, and I think you saw I did a little exam board oral test wrap up a little while ago. And the sad thing about oral tests in exams is that a lot of them are just so disconnected from musicality, using your word, that it’s just … I don’t know, it’s a bit sad.

So I think my my wrap up was the … I think the ABRSM actually, and Trinity do it quite well, the thing I want to see in oral tests do is get students to listen to things that are useful, and be able to talk about it. So things about style and dynamics and articulation, things like that, that’s great to be able to talk about, but can they hear a chord progression, an underlying chord progression? If they hear a four chord progression, can they replicate it on the piano? Can they play it back? Things like that, that that to me, they’re strong oral skills. And I mean there are many more.

So I laugh because a lot of the exam boards it’s like you’ve got to sing … okay here’s the notes, sing a fifth above it. And students just … it’s a bit like theory, Christopher. Theory is often so disconnected from the practice of playing an instrument, which I think is just such a waste and such a shame, and it’s again, if we go back just briefly to the four chord composing, I mentioned the idea of cadences. Pretty much every exam board asks you at some stage to write a cadence. And I remember sitting at a table, so I’d move away from the piano, I’d sit at a table with a pencil and a book, and I would have to write out a four cord … sorry, cadences in four part harmony. Did you have to do this?

Christopher: Yeah.

Tim: And I wouldn’t even necessarily play it or hear it, I’d just learn that the tonic rises to the thing and the fifth rises … you learn these rules and it’s just such a waste, and such a missed opportunity, which is why again, if I can help other teachers and students out there try and form connections and learn things through the music that they’re playing or exploring, then we’ve got a winning combination.
But oral tests, look, I hope they … They will change over time I think, but exam boards are often slow to move, not from their own fault it’s just part of the system. So if you’re out there and you’re a teacher and you agree then just look around, the exam boards are quite different, so find one that suits the student, that’s what I always say.

Christopher: Yeah and I think that pressure to change to a large extent probably has to come from the teachers, and I think when we first interviewed you for our website a few years back I asked you basically like why is it you teach teachers and don’t just teach students? And you said basically, “It’s because I can have a bigger impact. If I teach 30 teachers and they have 30 students each, I’m reaching a lot more students than if I just teach them one on one.” And that’s why I love what you’re doing with the inner circle because you’re getting these ideas about creative piano teaching out, not just to individuals but to the teachers who can then have a great impact and maybe even update our oral skills with a bit of fresh air.

Tim: Yeah I’ve got good relationships with most of the exam boards. So we’ll see what happens in time. But yeah, look I did put the inner circle together in order to support teachers and be able to form a community around it so that people can come together and ask questions and support each other, share their own resources. So I’m teaching an adult student, and one of my members recently uploaded a two piano … no it’s a duet version of Toto’s Africa. And so I’m like, “Yes, let’s try it, because we’re always playing duets together.” So she’s really excited about that.

So these kinds of things pop up in the community and it allows me to support more teachers. And I do know that there is a real lack of confidence in teachers who have that more traditional upbringing to just suddenly jump off the page. It’s literally a leap into the unknown. And so if I can provide demonstration videos, lesson plans, examples, notes, things to do, things for the students to do at home, then that gives them that confidence to go, “You know what, I think I could try this.” And that’s what I really enjoy.

Christopher: Great, well I think you and I have celebrated and commiserated and exchanged tips and woes on the topic of music education membership websites to a fair degree. And I just want to say if we do have any piano teachers listening in, the inner circle is seriously impressive. Like you have such a lot packed in there but I think you definitely … you have the edge on us at Musical U in that you manage to present it in a very clear and coherent way, something that we’re still working on. We do okay but-

Tim: Oh I think you’re being a bit harsh on yourself Christopher.

Christopher: The inner circle, every time I log in, I just feel like yes there is lots here that I can get great value from. So if anyone is listening and curious, do check out Tim’s inner circle.

Tim: Oh that’s fantastic. I’ll also just mention too, if there is anyone who’s interested I would be absolutely delighted to offer your listeners a discount too. So we can leave some information in the show notes but more than happy to give listeners $100 off an annual membership, which is locked in for as long as they’re a member. So yeah great great deal and yeah, it would be fantastic. And anyone that’s interested too, if you’ve got questions about it let me know, I’m more than happy, Chris can forward me comments or questions.

Christopher: Very cool, thank you. You also have a podcast to which I am a devoted listener, despite not being a piano teacher myself. I wonder can you just talk about the kind of stuff you discuss on that show and the kind of topics you cover that are the reason I’m such a devoted listener?

Tim: Well it’s obviously the Aussie accent firstly, but what we do is I tend to interview, it’s mainly an interview podcast. And I just love having conversations like we’re having now with other people who have cool ideas, and rather than doing it over a cup of coffee and we are the only people that benefit from it, recording it and getting it out there and sharing it.

So I’ve interviewed lots of people and am very excited that in just a week or so after this goes live, or couple of weeks, we’re getting to our 150th podcast episode and we’re doing a big launch of a very special little product that’s going along with that to celebrate. So we can put a link to that in the show notes too.

But yeah I just I genuinely love talking to people, as you can probably tell, and exploring ideas. And also having my ideas challenged and questioned and making me think about new ways that I can do things. And so we’ve focused on … we’ve had like a month long focus on group teaching and we did a focus on online teaching, and there’s pretty much any topic you can think of we’ve probably covered, and will continue to do so. I’ve interviewed composers. The highlight was obviously my first celebrity interview, John Schmidt of The Piano Guys. That was great fun to do and I’d love to do some more people like that.

So yeah, a little bit for everyone. Obviously directed at piano teachers, but I think as you’ve said, you’re not a piano teacher and you’re enjoying it. I think anyone that’s in music, interested in music, a student of music, will enjoy just hearing what goes on.

Christopher: Definitely. Well if you’re curious about the inner circle or that podcast I think the best place to head is, is that right Tim?

Tim: Yes. T-I-M-T-O-P-H-A-M.

Christopher: Fantastic. Well I am sure it’s been clear from this conversation but I am just a huge fan of the work you do Tim and the way you approach this, so just want to encourage anyone who’s been inspired and interested in the stuff we’ve talked about today to head to that website, and learn a lot more about Tim’s created piano teaching and the resources he might have for you as a student, a teacher, a music fan, and all of the above.

Thank you so much Tim for joining us on the show today.

Tim: Absolute pleasure, thank you Christopher, and thank you for all that you’re doing for the students of the world too, the hobbyists and the students and teachers. You’re putting out fantastic resources for that musicality, which I think is a great focus. So congratulations to you as well, and thank you for having me, it’s been great.

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