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Stay composed under pressure

Gerald Haigh looks for a music teacher. Is your school going to be looking for a music teacher this year? If so, how much of a priority will you place on an applicant's ability to play the piano?

Many heads try hard to find a pianist. You can understand this, of course - assemblies are so much easier if someone can bash out a hymn, and then there is the Christmas concert to consider.

But let me suggest to you that to search too hard for a pianist is to risk placing far too much emphasis on one skill. A good classroom music teacher might hardly touch the piano. There might not be one in the classroom, and the job is much more to do with using classroom instruments, voices and good recordings.

There is obviously no guarantee that the best pianist on the list will be any good at all that. And if you end up with a brilliant pianist who cannot deliver the classroom goods, you are in trouble.

In fact, you may be worse off than you thought, because even the piano skills that are on offer may not be of much use. A really good school pianist needs to be something of a busker, able to produce accompaniments from nothing, play new hymns at sight, read chord symbols, transpose into different keys, turning round all the while to jolly the singers along.

There are, I assure you, many superb classically trained pianists who can do none of these things. To give a job to someone just because he or she has Grade 8 is a monumental gamble, as you will find the first time you put a new hymn, melody line only, on the piano five minutes before hymn practice, or ask for "Just a snatch of the Coronation Street tune to illustrate my talk."

Of course, most specialist applicants will offer an instrument of some sort. It could prove both refreshing and educational to have, say, an excellent flautist or euphonium player on the staff. A cello, which produces sustained and beautifully shaped sounds, is a much better model for the human voice than the percussive character of a piano.

Imagine your children singing beautifully, accompanied only by a delicate counterpoint played on the cello by their much-loved teacher. What a contrast to "One More Step" yelled out yet again over a thumping piano. And, for that matter, what has happened to the guitar that in my early teaching days used to feature so strongly in school assemblies?

Which brings me to perhaps the most important point of all - that the applicant really must be able to sing confidently, clearly, and in tune. This vocal role model is crucial, as I found when, recently, I was asked to go into a school to accompany some singers. The teacher, although able to play the piano, did not feel up to a public performance. Her children, though, sang beautifully and with great confidence. The secret was that the teacher taught songs by singing to them - "Like an angel" as the head said.

But what if you really do need the sound of a piano, for a concert or a special production? There are two answers. One is that, increasingly, rehearsal tapes are available from publishers.

The other is that there is usually somebody in the locality who will either provide a tape, or come in and play, or both. You can even ask me. I have had some lovely times helping to prepare schools for concerts.

Gerald Haigh is a National Festival of Music for Youth Adjudicator, a Council Member of the British Federation of Young Choirs, a composer of children's songs, and editor of the forthcoming Primary Assembly File Songbook.

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