How Tim Topham Teaches Piano (and Piano Teachers) Differently

How Tim Topham Teaches Piano and Piano Teachers Differently
Tim Topham is changing the way piano students learn—by changing the way they’re taught. His piano teaching website guides piano teachers to teach creativity, curiosity, and competency. Followed by over 8000 teachers, Tim’s innovations have impacted tens of thousands of piano students worldwide.

We found his website to reflect much of the philosophy about learning music that we hold at Easy Ear Training and Musical U so we were thrilled to speak with this kindred spirit about a wide range of topics.

In this first part of the interview we cover:

    • musical creativity
    • the state of piano education
    • online vs. in-person lessons
    • business education for musicians

… and more!

Q: Hi Tim, welcome to EasyEarTraining.com and thanks for joining us for this interview today.

I know a little bit about you from your site, but please tell us more about yourself and how you got so passionate about this mission of helping piano teachers to bring that spark of creativity to their teaching?

Tim TophamI had a very roundabout way of coming to music education. After I finished my formal music training, I spent ten years teaching a whole lot of other subjects before I ever taught piano. In that time, the common thread was teaching—teaching the student what and how they would best learn, whatever the subject matter.

When I came to piano teaching. I came at it with very fresh eyes. There’d be a kid in front of me, and I simply asked myself, “Okay what does this kid actually need?”—rather than any preconceived, conservatory trained model of what teaching should look like.

I started blogging in 2010, sharing the ideas that had come to me in my teaching. The biggest thing that really took off right at the beginning was something that was very simple to me, but was very foreign to most piano teachers: and that’s simply teaching students the 12-bar blues progression and the concept of improvising with a blues scale.

This came very naturally to me because I had had some jazz training, and I was often accompanying and did a lot of musicals and things like that. So it was quite normal for me to sit around and improvise. For most piano teachers this was really foreign material, and so I quickly gained quite a bit of interest in my writing and the things that I was doing in my studio, simply because it was different.

For me, teaching is all about preparing students for what they want to get out of piano—not dictating anything from on high as to what they should be doing. When a student comes to me, I love listening to what they can already play even if they’re a complete beginner and supposedly don’t know anything. They will have all been on YouTube, and they’ll all play Chopsticks, or whatever it is, and I’m like, “Fantastic we’ve got a starting spot, let’s go from there.”

Q: It sounds like you have such a great time with your students at every level. Why did you focus your website on piano teachers rather than piano students?

I made the choice purely because there are so many other people teaching students online. If I teach 30 teachers how to teach their 30 kids, then I’m having a much bigger impact across the globe than I would by teaching my own 30, or even several hundred in an online course.

It was a very conscious decision—not right from the beginning—but once I got traction, it was a very conscious decision to go to the piano teachers. They need help, and I think I can provide it. That was why I took that approach.

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Q: How do you see the modern situation for a musician who wants to learn, in terms of whether they should trust their in-person teacher for everything, or go to YouTube and find those tutorials?

As for the students themselves, I don’t think that there’s any way to avoid the reality that a piano teacher can teach them things that they cannot learn online.

That said, I think the online offerings are incredibly supportive, inspiring, and motivating for any student of any age. I think it’s fantastic! I encourage my students: “In the holidays go on YouTube and do some tutorials. Learn some stuff while I can’t teach you.”

Piano teachers need not fear online resources: in-person teachers will always have a job, because there’s only so much about musicality—particularly phrasing, shaping, and so on—only so much of the human and the emotive side of music that can be taught in online tutorials.

Q: Sharing your ideas about piano teaching is more than just a passion. It’s a business. For musicians, the gap between the amount of musical training, talent, and commitment and the ability to actually make a living is staggering. I don’t know if you’re similar to me: music and technology are my passion, but the business side of things has been a learning curve.

I think I’d probably be in a similar mindset. I love business as well, but I’m having to learn a lot as I go, as you probably have too. As all of us do, really, because none of us get any training in business. It’s just a huge problem. In my speeches, I always go into the topic of business training for musicians.

“We create these amazing musicians who can perform anything, but how will they get paid? We need people who know their way around a business and can build a career.” 

We create these amazing musicians who can perform anything, but how will they get paid? We need people who know their way around a business and can build a career. Yeah—I’m very passionate about it, so it’s good to connect with other people like yourself who are doing the same kind of things.

Q: I’m also excited to see the emphasis you place on the creative side of music making, a topic that we address frequently here at Easy Ear Training and Musical U. Our audience tends to be passionate musicians. We’ve noticed that many are learning, or have learned, their instrument with a teacher. But they’re kind of self-taught when it comes to the creative side of things.

Yeah, how sad is that? Isn’t it sad that people have to go elsewhere to find people to help their creativity? It’s a real disgrace in many ways.

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Q: Maybe you can tell me what you think about why creativity is so often overlooked. In the exam-based music education system of the UK, and I presume in Australia too, this idea of creativity, of enabling the student to express themselves, is kind of left by the wayside.

It’s because we all teach how our teachers taught, and 95%, probably more, of teachers, were trained through a classical approach. Most teachers simply do not have the skills to take another approach.

It’s interesting, we’re exam-based in Australia as well. Yet the same classical, non-creative approach pervades the whole American system as well, even without an exam focus.

The question is, what are we trying to create at the piano? My answer: someone that loves music and is empowered to be able to create it and play it for the rest of their lives.

“The question is, what are we trying to create at the piano? My answer: someone that loves music and is empowered to be able to create it and play it for the rest of their lives.

It almost seems like we’re only trying to create performers of written music, and that is the highest possible level that we can attain.

If we can play Liszt’s “La Campanella” we’re at the top of our game. If that same person can’t play “Happy Birthday” for their friend’s party then I’d be saying, “What the hell?” We’ve missed something absolutely crucial.

I always come back to the irony that all of these amazing composers whose music we love, and cherish, and play to death—Liszt, Bach, Beethoven—these guys were all, every one of them, formidable improvisers and creators of music.

It seems totally bonkers that we don’t understand that all of this music that we’re playing and loving and enjoying has come from a creative process—that all of these composers spent their lifetimes honing and training this creative process.

I think Bach would be tremendously disappointed if he saw the reality of what students can—and cannot—do today. He’d be amazed at their virtuosity no doubt, but he’d be pretty sad that they can’t create something themselves.

Q: That’s fascinating. Tell me more about that. It’s maybe a straw man question, but why is creativity important? Why does it matter that our piano students are coming out of their lessons being able to create their own music rather than just perfectly perform Liszt?

Because we are inherently creative animals. Humans are a creative species. We want to be able to leave our own legacy, to give something to other people that we’ve developed and created. It’s our nature. We grow up doing it. You only have to look at kids—their amazing paintings, and the visions of the future they have.

Unfortunately our school system—and this is the whole topic of another conversation—just rips creativity out of students and instead drums facts and figures into them, which is just such a shame. Even though it’s innate in us, for many people creativity becomes a latent part of their abilities. School and education don’t value it nearly as much as it should.

Absolutely! Tim, we’re hoping more educators start thinking like you…

Tim has an unstoppable passion for his work. Later in the interview, he went into more detail about his teaching techniques, chord progressions, and how to give today’s music students what they’re truly looking for. We’ll be posting more of it soon. In the meantime, whether you’re a piano student or teacher, or just looking for fresh inspiration for how to approach music learning, TimTopham.com has plenty of blog posts, resources and more for you so head on over!

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