“Music is fun and learning should be too; music is for everyone”
Bingley-based Becs Leighton teaches piano and flute to children and adults. She has been accompanying, directing and teaching music since 1995 and, as you’ll see in her answers below, absolutely loves what she does.
Becs practiced as a speech therapist for 15 years, specialising in supporting people with learning disabilities. Again, she loved this work and describes how the experience has been of great value to teaching music.
Her passion for fun and for creating opportunities “for everyone to access music, no matter what their age or ability, because music really can change lives,” is evident throughout this interview.
We invited Becs to talk about her work as a music teacher because her commitment to inclusion, accessibility and enjoyment of music education is so clear. We also love how her website showcases her values and we were intrigued to find out more about how Becs’ work as a speech therapist has informed her music teaching career.
We hope you enjoy reading about Becs’ approach to music education.
Hi Becs. How long have you been teaching?
I started teaching in 1995, shortly after passing my Grade 8 piano. Back then, I taught a handful of young beginners, while I studied for my A-levels. At 17, I was trying to choose a career and decide what to study at University, and the only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted a job which helped people. In the end I chose Speech and Language Therapy, and specialised in supporting people with learning disabilities. This was a job I had for 15 years, and one which I loved. But the music bug never left me!
I worked as a piano accompanist for a local choir and gradually started teaching again, realising that music is an amazing way to help people, and that this too could be a job in which I could make a difference in people’s lives.
The connections we make through non-verbal interaction with people with profound learning disabilities, or through sensory interactions with people with dementia were some of the most wonderful parts of my job as a Speech Therapist, and overlapped so much with my work in music. Rhythm, pitch, movement, tempo, familiar songs and patterns …. All of these things are brilliant ways to create meaningful connections with other people.
Eventually I made the decision to leave Speech Therapy and focus fully on a career in music. Whilst this was a tough decision at the time, it has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’m certain I’m a better teacher for my experience as a therapist.
We musicians are the luckiest people – we can make a living from a hobby that we love and provide opportunities for other people to share the joy that music brings. I pinch myself all the time – teaching music doesn’t even feel like a job to me, it’s just the best fun ever!
Who do you teach? Children, young people, adults? What’s the balance in your practice between young and adult students?
I teach anyone who wants to learn! My oldest student is retired and my youngest is 4. Most of my students (around 80%) are children. I only teach 4 days of the week, which means I can keep my studio fairly small. I love this, as it means I have lots of time to prepare lessons, and make sure every student is getting a carefully planned learning experience that meets their own specific needs and goals. I really value the personal aspect of my studio – I get to know parents and students well and encourage a relaxed, homely feel to the music room and waiting area.
Do you teach as a private teacher, through a music hub, in a school or a mixture?
I teach privately in my own home. In the past I have taught through a local hub but have recently given this up to allow for extra time for caring for family members. I do miss the students and the supportive aspect of working with other teachers in the centre, but getting the right balance between work and home life is really important to me.
One of the many great things about teaching privately is the capacity to choose your own hours, and create a working pattern that is right for your and your family – and the flexibility to change that working pattern as the needs of your family change.
Do you have a specific approach to your music lessons?
Fun and inclusivity. Every lesson has to be fun, and everyone should have opportunities to engage with music on some level. Isn’t that what music is all about? Enjoying it and sharing it? I have very clear values that underpin my work, which I explain on my website, and which I make new students and parents aware of when they sign up for lessons.
I strongly believe that music is fun and learning should be too, that we are all different and therefore have different learning needs, that there is more to music than reading the notes (!), and that teaching and learning should be a collaborative process – not one in which the teacher makes all the decisions.
Above all I am passionate about creating opportunities for everyone to access music, no matter what their age or ability, because music really can change lives.
What is your philosophy about entering students for exams and preparing them?
I discuss the option of exams with all of my students and make the decision with them (and their parents) as to whether they want to sit an exam and if so, at what point they are ready. Some students love doing exams and are really motivated by the challenge. I have one student preparing for Grade 1 at the moment who said yesterday “I can’t WAIT to do grade 1!” – she is genuinely excited to do it.
On the other hand, I have some transfer students who sat exams in the past with previous teachers and found them to very stressful experiences. Some of these students have gone back to exams but with a different exam board, which we have chosen specifically to meet their strengths, rather than trying to shoehorn them into one exam format.
Plenty of students have chosen not to sit exams at all, and are motivated to practice without the pressure of exams. Opportunities to perform in recitals or open-mic events (rather than only performing in a formal exam) are encouraged and are often rewarding experiences that really boost their confidence and self-esteem.
Alongside teaching do you perform? Do you supplement your income in other ways?
I work as a Musical Director and accompanist. Some of this is regular work (for example, weekly rehearsals with three choirs) and some of it is ad hoc – such as my work as MD for local amateur operatic society productions, concerts and workshops linked to the choirs, and accompanying soloists in exams and recitals. I occasionally perform as a soloist at local events, but I view teaching and accompanying as my main roles, and my average working week is fairly evenly split between the two.
Are there any teaching resources (books, games, etc) that you find yourself returning to again and again?
Most of my beginner students use Piano Safari or Supersonics, depending on their age and learning preferences. I use the resources that go with each of these methods a lot – such as the Piano Safari sight-reading cards and the Supersonics backing tracks.
Beyond that, my iPad is a lifesaver! I have a LOT of apps! My most used apps are NoteRush, ABRSM Sight Reading and Blob Chorus, and I’ve recently discovered Decide Now, which is brilliant – you can create spinners with any labels you like and turn pretty much any topic into a game.
Speaking of games, this is my core approach to teaching theory with young students. I have apps and board games for every topic imaginable and I make time to play a game in every lesson. The simpler the better, and I’m a big fan of Nicola Cantan’s piano teaching games – they always target the theory at the right level and the games are always short enough to fit into a lesson.
The feedback I get from students and their parents tells me that teaching through games is fun and effective, and half the time the kids don’t even realise they’re learning!
What resources do you use to run your business, for example, software, apps or systems?
I use MuseScore for arranging music and to help students working on composition, but other than that I only use standard office software. As I’ve chosen to keep my studio relatively small, I never have more than 25 students and generally I can keep on top of the paperwork myself without any additional software.
Time management is essential and I’m quite strict with myself on this. I do my books every Monday morning and write reports at the end of every term.
Sometimes I consider using scheduling / financial software (usually when I’m invoicing 25 people at the beginning of a half-term!) and I know other teachers who use My Music Staff or free alternatives, so maybe this is something I’ll move onto in the future.
What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?
I don’t even know where to start with this! I love it all. Everything about teaching is fantastic and I feel like the luckiest person alive to have this job. I love the look on a student’s face when a penny drops, the smiles when they win a game or hit a target, the ‘likes’ on facebook when I shout about how proud I am of them.
I love that I am opening up their world and making music a possibility for their present and their future. I love meeting new people and getting to know them. I love my adult students who choose great repertoire, who make me laugh out loud every lesson with their anecdotes, who tell me learning piano is “like being a kid in a sweet shop”.
I love it when students bring me a new piece to learn that I’ve never heard before, when they start to express their own musical preferences and open my own musical world up even further.
I love the 4 year old who jumps into every lesson shouting “Come on! Let’s play this one!”, the 6 year old who works with steady and quiet determination and hugs me every week, the 9 year old who thinks broken chords are the best pattern ever, the 11 year old who asks me why we play it that way, the 14 year old who loves arrangements of 1970s pop… I love every single student and every single lesson. I really hope they do too.
How do you relax away from running your teaching practice?
As a family we go away in our campervan as often as we can, sometimes on our own and sometimes to meet up with friends. We love music festivals, and we’ve taken our kids to Glastonbury almost every year. There’s nothing better than live outdoor music! I switch off completely when we’re away from home.
And the other obvious answer is playing music. When I’m singing or playing flute or piano, I escape time. I can play something difficult or new and think only about what I’m playing, which is a great stress reliever and seems to stop time completely. Or I can play familiar pieces or improvise, and let my thoughts wander where they need to wander – often this is when I make decisions or explore my feelings about something. My music studio is my safe space, and just walking in there makes me feel at ease.
Which institutions and organisations are you a member of?
I’m a member of the Musician’s Union and I get a lot of support and ideas from local and online groups, such as Yorkshire Strings and Ivories, The Art of Piano Pedagogy, and the pages associated with methods I use such as Wunderkeys and Piano Safari.
How do you market your practice to attract new students? What have you tried and what’s worked best?
Mostly this goes on word of mouth these days. Initially I set up a website and listed my studio on general teaching sites, google business, yelp and so on, but I have never had to market myself in any other way. I am very active on social media and most families find me through that route, or on recommendation from current students.
Are you a social media user? If so, what platforms? Does this support your marketing or is it for professional development, connection with other music teachers or all of these?
I use Facebook and Twitter. I limit my social media to these two platforms, as I think you can all too easily be swamped with all the different platforms and quickly find you’ve spent most of your day adding posts and reading things others have written – all of which is relevant to my practice and assist with professional development, but there’s definitely a point at which information becomes too much information!
I think both Facebook and Twitter probably do support my marketing, but mostly I use my own accounts for sharing things my students have been up to, and the networking groups for receiving and offering support with other teachers.
Have you delivered any lessons virtually, for example through Skype or Zoom? If not, do you anticipate doing so?
I haven’t, but it has crossed my mind. It could be the solution to travel-teaching, or the answer to snow days! As we so rarely have heavy snowfall in the UK, I rarely have problems with weather stopping people from getting to their lessons, so I haven’t given any serious thought to virtual lessons. I wouldn’t rule it out though.
What do you know now, about making a living as a music teacher, that you wish you had known when you started? Or, if you prefer, what advice would you give to a musician starting their career as a music teacher?
Firstly, that music is one of the most powerful things in the world and that you are giving someone the most amazing gift my teaching them to play. You need to remember this so that you always value what you do.
Secondly, do your research into teaching methods before you start. Go sit in a music store and look through all the methods books they have. Find more online and look at those. Join forums and ask other teachers what methods they use and why. When you’ve found one you think fits with your style of teaching and your values, then try it out – but have others in mind, because one size does not fit all! You need to know what approaches there are so that you can choose the right one for each student, not just for you.
Overall, are you worried or optimistic about the future of music education? Why?
I worry that the government places little value on music in education and that the lack of funding has resulted in schools having fewer and fewer options available to them. Private music lessons are not affordable for everyone and I’m currently working with a colleague to develop local group-based music opportunities that children can access for a much smaller fee, in the hope that this builds community and increases access to music for a wider number of children.
How can people reach you to learn more about what you do?
My contact details are on my website (www.becsleightonmusic.com) and I can also be contacted by direct messaging on Facebook (Becs Leighton Music) and Twitter (@becslmusic) or by email: email@example.com
Thank-you Becs, for taking the time to tell us about yourself and your approach to music education – we’ve found it it fascinating.
- Take a look at Becs’ website, www.becsleightonmusic.com
- More interviews here on the YMTS website.
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