In a series of interviews, pianists and piano pedagogues share their inspirations, influences, performance, teaching, concerns, and other thoughts with us. The interview takes the form of a questionnaire.
I have known Mario Nell since 1993. We both studied music at the University of Stellenbosch at that time and our careers followed quite a similar path thereafter. We also studied together at the University of Cape Town in the late 1990’s. We taught at the College of Music as part-time lecturers and were colleagues at the University of Stellenbosch’s Music Department from 2002 to 2004.
Mario is at present a senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch’s Music Department. He is well-known for the excellence that he brings to piano and organ teaching on a national level. He is much-loved by all his students, ex-students and colleagues. He is a passionate teacher, making a difference in so many young lives with his ongoing search to finding ways in making every student reaching his/her full potential.
Interview with Mario Nell
1.When did you start playing the piano, and what or who were your early passions or influences?
I started playing the piano at the age of three. I grew up in a house with three older siblings who all took piano lessons and I started to play their pieces by ear. By the time I started with formal tuition at the age of 5, I could already play quite advanced pieces, so the challenge for my teacher was to take me back to the basics and encourage me to actually start reading and not only playing by ear.
2.Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
My siblings. I started to teach at the age of four (yes it’s true!) as I usually sat with my brother and 2 sisters while they were practicing. As soon as I heard the piece once, I started to play it with them and started teaching them “how it should be done” (according to me off course!). I have always been excited about sharing knowledge, and teaching was never a choice that I made - it is a calling. I have never encouraged any of my students to “choose” music as a career. Music should choose you! It’s not a career – it’s a way of life.
3.Who were your most significant teachers?
I was extremely privileged to have had outstanding and thoroughly dedicated teachers from day one. I really respect each one of them for different reasons as they all influenced me as the pianist, organist, teacher and ultimately the person I am today. If I had to highlight only one, it would probably be the first one, Mrs Hester Bezuidenhout, in Uitenhage. Mrs. Bezuidenhout emphasized all the essential basics from day one: despite her attention to fix all technical difficulties, on the musical side she required absolute attention to detail, tone colouring, phrasing, character etc. in every single note I played. Every note had to tell a story. I only realized many years later what a phenomenal teacher she really was. On another level, a very important lesson was taught to me rather late in my studies, by one of my most important mentors, Dr. Barry Smith, who finally brought home to me the truth - that my most important teacher and critic should always be my own two ears. With that in mind, until today, I feel as if I am always learning every time I listen to or experience music in any way.
4.Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
I have somehow developed my own personal teaching “method”, which is probably a combination of all my mentors’ ideas, of a lot of reading and observing of other teachers, and one that is still in progress and is developing with every lesson. Every student I work with has his or her own personal challenges and I see my duty to them as being their guide in problem-solving. So, I would have to say that my students ultimately end up being the most important influences and instigators of progress on my teaching.
5.Can you share with us your most memorable teaching experience(s)?
Teaching piano to individuals is such a privilege – every single lesson is a unique experience! One of the mistakes people often make is to think that my most advanced or accomplished students give me the most pleasure or satisfaction – that is completely untrue. My greatest joy in teaching is derived from seeing constant progress and development happening at any level.
6.What are the most challenging aspects of teaching piano?
The first challenge is to overcome the body’s natural discomfort with this strange and foreign instrument, by giving each student the necessary technical tools and stylistic information to realize a musical score into beautiful, artistic sound. But the most exciting challenge is possibly to help each student become a unique and individual artist and not allow them to simply absorb and copy my own personal tastes and ideas.
7.What do you expect from your students?
First of all, I expect a balanced lifestyle. I expect them to work hard in all facets of their daily life, but also enjoy life to the fullest. I try to teach them how to use their time efficiently and not to waste time with unproductive hours at the instrument.
8.What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
I encourage my students to do examinations, but within reason. I don’t think an exam should challenge the student’s most advanced technical and musical skills. Therefore I prefer the pieces and technical work presented for an examination to be on a lower level than the student’s abilities at a given time. Competitions are great platforms and opportunities for public performance for the students who are so inclined. However, I think that taking part in too many competitions can take the focus away from the necessary development. One should be cautious of taking the outcome of a competition as a benchmark for the student’s “level” of performance. I have never queried the outcome of any competition that my students have taken part in, as I believe that the adjudicator(s) give their own honest personal opinions on what they experienced at a specific moment in time. I always tell my students that if they are not willing to accept any outcome, they should not enter in the first place.
9.What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?
I think they are exactly the same. I believe the ultimate goal at all levels is to create a default physical relationship with the instrument that is healthy and pleasurable with a technique that is reliable and effective. This relationship should enable the player to produce whatever results his or her musical imagination requires, as well as avoiding injuries and promoting minimum exertion and unnecessary expense of energy.
10.Consider a general rule, something which you think can generally be applied to most piano students. What would this ‘rule’ or idea be?
If something is difficult, you are doing something wrong. We (the student and teacher) just need to find the solution. The composer’s intention (if it’s a good composer of course…) was not to make it difficult for the performer.
11.How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety?
To feel comfortable during a performance, you need to have experienced a similar “situation” before so that the stage becomes a comfort zone and not a danger zone. Every lesson is therefore a performance. I usually start every lesson with a performance of the work that the student brings to present. Only after that I will choose the weakest aspect(s) and focus on that. My students usually say that the lesson is much more scary than the stage! I like that.
12.Who are your favourite pianist-teachers and why?
Each of my students is a favourite piano-teacher of mine in his or her own right, as that is what I encourage. I always make it clear to my students that their own ears are the best teacher in the world. I can only make them aware of things in the lesson, but their own ears have to do the work when they practice.
13.What do you consider your greatest asset as a teacher?
The fact that I believe in every student as an individual artist and I never compare any of them with one another.
14.What kind of discipline do you require as a teacher?
I require a great sense of dedication to the art of making music, but more important, I insist on their dedication to a balanced life.
15.How do your students describe you?
I am not sure what they say behind my back! The most interesting remark I have heard, however, was that some parents say I am like a “drug” – the students get addicted to coming to lessons! I am not sure if I should take this as a compliment…
16.How has your teaching changed in the past 5 years?
My teaching is a work in progress. It is literally developing with every musical experience that I have.
17.Tell us about your style of teaching, and what kinds of things are important in a piano curriculum?
My teaching style is different with every student. I believe it is important to create a style or even vocabulary that each student can relate to as an individual. Even my curriculum is totally different for each student. I believe the curriculum should focus on the individual student’s weak points and not what they can already do well. Only then there will be constant development.
18.What is the role of singing in piano teaching?
I find the role of singing extremely important. It is the easiest and most efficient way of communicating musical ideas. Also, it enforces some of the most important aspects of music, namely breathing, phrasing, articulation (with text), tension and relaxation as well as the most important aspect of silence.
19.Do you use beginner method books? If yes, what method books do you use? And why?
Yes, although I combine it with my own material. I use different methods for different pupils, but I also create my own technical exercises for each individual pupil according to their technical needs. It is important to take all factors into consideration when choosing a method, for example age, physical size of the hand etc. It is important to be in touch with all the newest courses and trends, but never to look down on the “old school” and rather chose the most appropriate material at the time.
20.What, if any, rhythm and/or tonal syllable systems do you use in your teaching?
I specifically refer a lot to different consonants (eg. the difference between t, b, p, f etc.) when teaching effective sound production. I also use text in solving rhythmic difficulties. Of course, I will always use some text that the student can relate to as far as possible.