Two Types of Teacher

The other day I was reading an interview with the pianist Stephen Hough in which he was asked about his relationship with Vlado Perlemuter. (If you’re interested, the March 2014 BBC Music Magazine’s cover mount CD features Perlemuter playing Ravel and Fauré, and the album notes include the interview with Hough.) This got me thinking about two types of teacher.

Perlemuter, according to Hough, was very kind and encouraging, and he loved receiving advice from him. But, he added, “His approach was always ‘this is it’… In one sense it’s invaluable hearing him say ‘The composer says this’. But the reverse issue is that there isn’t just the one way to play …”

Hough compares Perlemuter, whom he played for at a few masterclasses in the late 70s, with another of his teachers, Gordon Green. “…Gordon … would never demonstrate anything because everything was about the student’s own personality being developed.”

Two different types of teacher, then.

Vlado Perlemuter had an international reputation as one of the 20th century’s finest interpreters of Chopin, Fauré and Ravel, whom he knew well. What an opportunity it must have been for a young pianist to spend time with him learning first hand how he played. But, because of Perlemuter’s insistence that his way was the only way, Hough decided not to study with him permanently.

Gordon Green, on the other hand, wasn’t a famous international soloist or recording artist, but if you spend any time reading English pianists’ interviews and biographies his name will crop up over and over again as an influential teacher who encouraged his students to develop their own personalities. I’m sure some star virtuosi also have Green’s teaching ability, but, as it’s a totally different skill, there’s no reason why they should all possess it.

If you’re an ambitious young pianist you’ll benefit from both approaches: regular lessons from someone like Gordon Green and occasional masterclasses with top soloists like Vlado Perlemuter. A less experienced pianist, though, will probably only need the regular lessons with a gifted teacher. Although she might enjoy a session with an international star, any advice might only leave her confused. Listening to the star’s CDs or attending concerts along with her teacher might be more useful.

If you’re an ambitious young chess player, you’ll probably also benefit in different ways from both types of teacher: a regular coach who encourages you to develop your own style enhanced by occasional sessions with a top grandmaster who will show you how he plays. Chess teaching, though, is rather different from piano teaching. By its nature, piano teaching usually happens one to one. Chess tuition, on the other hand, usually happens in groups, although many learners also have one to one lessons. Group lessons, by their nature, tend not to be personalised. Looking at how Kasparov or Carlsen plays might be confusing. Looking at how Morphy or Greco played would be more useful, but can still confuse beginners.

So, if you’re a chess teacher doing one to one tuition, which type of teacher are you? Do you show your students how you play, or how grandmasters play, and tell them, or at least imply, that’s how they should play as well? Or do you build on your students’ prior knowledge and encourage them to develop their own personalities and styles?

If you’re looking for a chess teacher, either for yourself or for your children, ask yourself which type of teacher you’re looking for and, if you have someone in mind, ask questions to find out his approach.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.