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Teaching in other cultures

In today's diverse world, piano teachers - even those in the U.S. - increasingly require special insight and compassion to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by working with students fro m a variety of cultures. Government and private industry employees are routinely required to complete diversity training on an annual basis.

As the U.S. becomes even more diverse, should independent studio teachers expect any less of themselves? Some of the surprises that can impede and enhance a multicultural teaching experience can be best learned from someone who jumped into the deep end of the mu lticultural teaching pool.

Sarah Lyngra, an American teaching piano in Saudi Arabia, learned first-hand how to better understand and be under- stood when working with cultural differences. In this issue, Sarah Lyngra shares her experiences of teaching in two other coun- tries - Denmark and Saudi Arabia. These experiences have required curiosity, a creative spirit, and resilience. Teaching many different cultures in the same studio presented her with additional challenges. Her experiences magnify traditional challenges and solutions for piano teachers, offer insights that can be helpful when working with students in different cultures, and remind us to appreciate the everyday opportunities that we often take for granted. 

The challenges of different worlds

by Sarah Lyngra 

Twelve years ago, I got married and moved to Copenhagen, Denmark. My husband is Norwegian and he wanted to be closer to his family. I was fresh from teaching piano in the United States with its abundance of music stores, teaching materials, and support system of professional colleagues. My students had per- formed in several recitals and competitions each year, and I had been an active member of the local piano teachers' organization. I was soon to discover that teaching in a different country is different.

Starting up a studio in a different country took a little getting used to. Just a simple thing like paper became a challenge. All my materials and binders were 8'h by II inches. Europe uses A4-sized paper. It may sound like an insignificant issue, but materials from the U.S. don't fit in A4 binders. Letter- sized binders are difficult to find in Euro- pean shops, and expensive to ship. I had no choice but to adapt and create all new materials for A4 binders.

At the time, Danish music stores did not cover the needs of my multicultural studio. There were very few American piano meth- ods available, and what was in stock was very expensive. French teaching materials were even harder to find than American ones. The British books were expensive and needed translation for some of the British conventions used to describe music. I ended up forming very close relationships with mail order companies from the U.S.

Filling the studio

Finding students in Copenhagen was never a problem. There are so few English speaking piano teachers in many parts of the world that they are considered very valuable in any place where there is an expatriate community. After we found an apartment and my piano arrived, I placed several advertisements in the local expatriate women's organization newsletters.

In addition to Danish schools, Copenhagen has a German school, a French school, and two international schools - one with a British curriculum, and one with an American curriculum. International students who were not German or French attended either the British or American schools. I found that, in general, Europeans wanted the British education system; Asians, Africans, and North or South Americans preferred an American-style education.

Because our apartment was close to the French school in Copenhagen, my studio filled with a large number of French students. I had studied French in high school and thought this would be an interesting challenge. Four-year-old French children with non-English-speaking parents do not speak English. And, they do not speak the French taught in American high school. "Do you miss your mommy" was not a phrase they covered in high school! In order to be able to communicate with the younger children, I had to learn a large amount of colloquial "kid French."

By the time of our first Christmas in Copenhagen, I had approximately 30 students; half were students from the French school. I was so excited because most of my favorite Christmas carols are French. I imagined that these kids would be eager to learn carols such as "Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella" and "He is Born, the Divine Christ Child." I was quickly set straight by my students. Not only did they not know any of my favorite carols, but I learned that the Christmas carol tradition does not hold the same popularity in France as in the United States. Jingle Bells ("Vive Ie Vent d'Hiver") was hands down the most popular, and it was the only carol that most of them knew. Actually, in all my years of teaching overseas, the two most popular pieces that nearly every young student wanted to play were "Jingle Bells" and "Für Elise." Regardless of the student's nationality or religious background, these two pieces rule. T he third most popular song for younger students abroad is "Happy Birthday."

We stayed in Denmark for almost five years and by the time we left, I had been teaching piano in English, Danish, and French in a studio of45 students. To continue my own education, I had studied with the head of the piano department at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory, Jose Ribera.

From Denmark, we moved to Saudi Arabia. My husband arrived there a month before the September 11th attack on the Twin Towers. I was still in Denmark finalizing the move when I watched the towers fall on CN. Nevertheless, a month and a half later, my son and I joined my husband. 

Finding students in Saudi was even less of a challenge than in Denmark. I had students lined up before I arrived. My husband's boss said at the time that there was more of a demand for piano teachers there than for petroleum engineers! In Saudi Arabia, I currently have a studio with fifty students. If I kept a waiting list, it would be unmanageable.

Sarah Lyngra's students after a recent studio recital in Saudi Arabia


One of the biggest adjustments I had to make in both Denmark and Saudi Arabia was the instruments. In a perfect world, everyone who is learning to play the piano would own an acoustic piano. Often in expatriate communities, families are not permanent residents. Assignments average three years in length, but they can also be as short as one year. These families generally do not want the expense and hassle of moving a piano around the world. In large cities, and especially when on temporary assignments, people routinely live in apartments. Not everyone appreciates the per- son who practices the piano next door. 

My idea that a student could only learn to play the piano by having an acoustic piano was challenged in Denmark when my neighbor retired. He went from being home none of the day to being there all
day. The fact that I taught so many students meant that our relationship soured quickly. I ended up buying a top of the line digital piano and taught from both my grand piano and the digital one. Then, when we moved to Saudi Arabia, the rest of my reservations about electronic pianos (ones with weighted keys and full sized keyboards) disappeared completely. 

Few Saudi families have acoustic pianos. Actually, only a few western families living abroad have acoustic pianos. In addition, the culture of taking piano lessons and practicing at home has not developed in Saudi Arabia. To convince a parent to buy an expensive piano when he has no idea of what learning the piano entails is a challenge. As a rule, I do not accept a student unless he or she has access to an instrument and is prepared for regular practice. Digital pianos offer a viable option as they are generally far less expensive than acoustic pianos, are easy to move in this transient society, and they have the major advantage of always being in tune, which is a big issue in the Saudi climate.

At the moment there is only one main company selling musical instruments in Saudi Arabia. They only sell a few brands of keyboards and pianos, and they do not sell sheet music. Their showroom is small, so

they do not carry much stock. If someone wants to buy a piano, it often must be chosen out of a catalog and shipped from Japan. Shipments are not regular and some- times get stalled in customs.

There are no music teacher associations where I live. At the moment, I know of only five piano teachers. Nevertheless, regular professional development is something an independent teacher must add to the long list of things that must be managed alone. The internet has been a wonderful resource. Teach- ing in Saudi is a lot like teaching in a small community where having a peer group is limited by the lack of numbers. On the internet, I can be part of teacher forums even from Saudi Arabia. I can also find information about new technology and new music, research historical information of composers, and download music. 

Sarah Lyngra's husband and son climb a sand dune in Saudi Arabia

Parent education

In parts of the Middle East, there isn't a strong tradition in pianos in the home, and since there are so few piano teachers here, teaching the students also means educating the parents much more so than in the U. S. These parents don't come from a tradition of daily practice, recitals, and regular lessons. The music that is listened to at home is usually quite different from what the child learns in the lesson. Once every two months I host the parents of my students for an information session. I ask several of my more advanced students to play at the beginning of the session to help focus the parents on the value and outcome of regular practicing. After the performance is finished, there are usually one or two discussion topics, such as ideas for motivating kids to practice or developmental exercises used in the lessons that can help kids focus when practicing. These information nights are helpful because just as in any country, parents often feel as though only their children fight about practice, and, they get to see the results of perseverance when they hear my advanced students at these sessions.

I am also a member of a concert commit- tee that arranges between four and six con- certs with international artists each year. I strongly encourage my students to attend the concerts with their parents so that they get exposure to live music. I performed in one of the concerts and made attendance mandatory for my students if they wanted to continue lessons with me. After going to the first concert, many of the families who had never been to a live music performance before are continuing to attend concerts. 
Sarah Lyngra's students enjoy an ensemble piece.

The written language of music is not always universal!

The notation of music is relatively universal - give anyone who reads music a Beethoven Sonata, and it will sound more or less the same, regardless of where the performer is from. T he descriptive language of music, however, differs greatly from country to country. For example, while Solfege is used for pitch identification in most Latin-based language and Asian countries, Germans use the letters of the alphabet for naming pitches as Americans do. When Americans do use Solfege they say Ti for the last scale degree, instead ofSi, which is used in many other languages. I was teaching beginning piano to a Brazillian woman, and we had a lot of trouble finding the Cs on the piano - she was busy finding Sis! The Germans use an alphabet system, but they use H for B and B for B flat. There are also differences in the names of the types of notes that must be heeded, and they can be easily confused. While the British use the term "crochet" to describe what Americans call quarter notes, the French eighth note is "une croche."

In Saudi the piano culture is limited. Publishers need to get permission from the Ministry of Information in order for their products to be sold in Saudi Arabia. To my

knowledge, there are no music publishers in Saudi Arabia and no sheet music stores. Arabic music often uses quarter tones, so most of the music I found does not play authentically on the piano, though it does well on stringed instruments, like the Oud and violin. Arabic reads from right to left. One of my friends went to Lebanon and while there, attended a Catholic Mass in Arabic. He plays the piano, so he asked the priest to show him the music that they were using. Imagine his surprise when he saw the keyboard parts reversed so the music and the Arabic language were printed in the same direction! 

The "Musicland" Piano has plexiglass allowing students to see the hammers and strings. Sarah Lyngra had the keys painted in colors that correspond to a beginning piano method she authored.

Cultural differences

Teaching in the Middle East has made me much more sensitive to cultural issues. As anywhere, small things, such as how we dress, make a difference in the impression that we leave. In Saudi, I do not cover my hair, but my clothing is more conservative than when I taught in the U.S. Ramadan is an important month for Muslims; I reschedule students from Muslim families when their lessons conflict with breaking their fast. While many of my students are boys, the majority of my Saudi students are girls. I have had young adult students who, according to Muslim tradition, covered their hair, and were uncomfortable when my husband came in the room. One student brought her father to the lessons until the family was more comfortable with me, the house, and how I teach.

When I interview a potential student, I make a point of telling the parents that in December, I generally teach Christmas music, and that the history of music is tied to the western church. I ask that the family let me know if this is acceptable. I can teach alternative music or secular seasonal music and not go into the history of written music if the parents prefer. Perhaps because I anticipate, address, and explain in a relevant way to music history why I believe learning Christmas music is valuable, I have never had a family in this Muslim country complain about the music that I have assigned their children.

I made a mistake by referring to the Koran when teaching a teenaged Saudi girl. I was explaining how there are many publishers who publish the same piece of music, and the importance of differences in scholarship among editions. I initially used the example of various editions of the Bible that are considered to have errors. Taking the analogy one step further, I suggested that an inexpensive version of the Koran printed in Pakistan could have mistakes that one printed in Makah or Medina by Islamic scholars would not. The idea that a Koran printed anywhere would have a mistake was unthinkable. I learned here that using analogies that compare aspects of religion to other topics is not a good idea. One westerner was escorted out of the country within two hours for doing so in a Saudi Arabian classroom!

There is also the issue of driving. Women on the compound where I live can drive on the compound, but if I go into town, I need a taxi, a driver, or my husband to get there. Th is makes arranging meetings difficult. Any meeting where there are both men and women present must be held in a private residence because, for example, single men cannot go into the family section of restaurants and cafes, and women cannot go into the men's section. During Ramadan, there is the added complication of many business establishments such as restaurants and coffee shops being closed during the day. 

Sarah Lyngrawilh her adutl piano students in Sauda Arabia.

Rewards remain

It has been my experience that people are irresistibly drawn to a piano keyboard whether they have had lots of cultural exposure to it or not. A piano in a room attracts people. My students have the same challenges learning their pieces as kids everywhere. Their parents have the universal get- your-kid-to-practice challenge. Teaching people to play the piano in this multicultural environment brings together a diverse group of families, united by a common love of music. There have been many unique challenges, adjustments, and problems that I would not have encountered teaching in the U.S., but the rewards of sharing music and making a difference in people's lives are universal, no matter the location or culture. 

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