Rhinegold

Claire Jackson

Black and white

8:00, 10th October 2017

The role of touch in piano teaching has been under the microscope in recent months. Claire Jackson reports

Discussions about touch in the piano world usually focus on how best to press finger to key, the distribution of arm weight in order to create beautiful tone, and, in nerdier circles, the pros and cons of the Alfred Cortot style of pianism. Over the summer, a debate about touch resurfaced in the piano teaching community. This conversation, however, was related to the use of touch in music lessons – and specifically whether it was acceptable for a teacher to make physical contact with a student in order to correct and improve their playing.

Much of the conversation took place on social media, and included – perhaps unsurprisingly for that forum – some animosity. Teachers and pianists were highly engaged by the topic and many shared strong views both for and against the use of touch as a pedagogic tool. The subject is not new, of course: the issue of appropriate physical contact with students is part of ongoing discussions about safeguarding children, and is particularly pertinent in music education.

Two camps
The latest ‘to touch or not to touch’ debate saw musicians loosely divided into two camps. The first group focused on the fact that making music is a physical activity that is complex to teach without some tangible interaction. One commentator compared piano lessons to dance or pilates classes where teachers often make adjustments to posture. Making contact is also an efficient way of checking tension and improving technique; often using words to describe the action takes considerably longer. These teachers also recognised the need to respect the wishes of the student at all times, and ensure that permission was sought (although some people disliked the idea of asking each time before making a physical correction, again citing time and a need for reasonable flexibility).

shutterstock_379622257The second group pointed out that touch was superfluous: most teaching can be achieved via demonstration, discussion and description. There are students who would find any type of physical contact uncomfortable, including those with autism, and others may not feel able to speak out if they dislike the teaching style. The debate became particularly contentious when some people suggested that using touch in lessons could be a precursor to abuse.

The implication that any teacher who touched a student in the course of a lesson could be a potential groomer understandably caused offence to some, but it is clear that many teachers are passionately committed to protecting those to whom they have a duty of care. Some – such as piano teacher Pamela Rose, who wrote an impassioned Facebook thread entitled ‘do not touch children’ – believe the answer is obvious: a blanket ban on any type of touching in order to ensure there is no room for abuse (or accusation of abuse).

The latter was the subtext of the statement released by the European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA), which issued a revised Safeguarding Code of Practice, partly in response to the recent online fracas:

‘Any physical contact with pupils can be potentially subject to misinterpretation or even malicious allegations. The best advice is to avoid touching your pupils and to develop strategies for teaching through demonstration and modelling. If a teacher feels that touching is essential to their pedagogic style, they are to obtain prior permission in writing from the parent and pupil, and will encourage a parent/guardian to attend the lessons. However, it is not appropriate to touch a child on the trunk of the body unless there is a justifiable reason (e.g. to administer first aid).’
European Piano Teachers’ Association, 24 July 2017

Like several other commentators, piano blogger Frances Wilson, who writes as The Cross-Eyed Pianist, recognised that the EPTA statement overlooks the fact that abuse can be inflicted by other deeds. To some extent, all types of interaction have the potential to be abusive – words in particular can be hurtful, manipulative and laced with ill-meaning. Creating a link between using touch as a teaching device and serious abuse may also trivialise the very grave issue of grooming. The statement could be accused of being overtly cautious and causing unnecessary worry about potential ‘misinterpretation’ and ‘malicious allegations’.

Moving forward
While EPTA’s guidelines clearly have good intentions and are not wholly prescriptive – there are shades of grey between the black and white – it does include the words ‘the best advice is to avoid touching your pupils’. This is actually at odds with government recommendations, which state: ‘Schools should not have a “no touch” policy. It is often necessary or desirable for a teacher to touch a child (e.g. dealing with accidents or teaching musical instruments).’ This advice features in guidance for teachers on how to deal with bad behaviour. It may be helpful – particularly for peripatetic teachers – for professional associations and official policy makers to provide a joined-up summary.

shutterstock_376464577Of course, plenty of schools have their own ‘no touch’ policies, which music teachers must abide by if they want to work in that environment. Private teachers are encouraged to work transparently, and invite a conversation about teaching style that should include whether touch is acceptable or not. Parents should always be permitted to sit in on lessons, if they want to. Teachers need to buy into their association’s code of conduct – and in return, expect that association to advocate for them.

Although this particular discussion took place within the piano community, the issue of touch in music lessons is relevant for many instrumental and vocal teachers. The sense of touch is an integral part of pianism, because the discipline itself is so tactile, but that’s not to say it’s any more important in this field than in others. As we continue the debate, it’s worth noting that the art of teaching is complex and ever-evolving: flexibility and an empathetic approach are paramount. Unfortunately, banning the use of touch in music lessons would not guarantee that the teacher-pupil relationship is never abused. But if it does something to protect music teachers from allegations of abuse, then is it a bureaucratic move worth tolerating?

What do you think? Write to us at music.teacher@rhinegold.co.uk and tweet @musicteachermag

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