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Music teacher interviews: Chris Foley – pianist, teacher, examiner, blogger …

Chris Foley is a pianist, piano teacher, collaborative pianist, senior examiner for The Royal Conservatory, and blogger all rolled into one. Part of the challenge of his career is how to fit everything together, do his best work, and still have time to grow as an artist. 

Chris and I go back a ways. I met Chris in my second year at UBC, when I switched over to music. He was this extremely tall, goofy, friendly guy who engaged in highly intelligent conversation; I knew we’d be long-term friends. When I switched from piano to voice – more out of curiosity to understand the mechanics of singing – Chris was kind enough to be my collaborative pianist and thank god, too, because switching from an instrument (which you can blame) to voice (where you blame yourself) is scary and you’re super vulnerable. Chris talked me in from the ledge many times, and even managed to push me in front of legendary vocal coach/collaborative pianist Rena Sharon to sing for her. Chris was also a member of the UBC University Singers, and our adventures on tour include water gun fights on the BC Ferries and a long, epic trek in the snow to the small town White Spot for hamburgers.

These days, Chris is my go-to for questions teaching related, RCM exam-related, and just if I need a solid sounding board. I was curious to know how his teaching is going these days, as Toronto is now in Phase 2. I began by asking him where we can find him online: I can be found at Collaborative Piano Blog at and Foley Music and Arts at .

How long have you been a teacher, examiner, and adjudicator for festivals? I’ve been teaching since 1993. I started slowly, as most of my career in Vancouver was performing and coaching. But not too long after I came to Toronto in 2002 I got the piano pedagogy bug, and eventually gravitated towards teaching piano at all levels. 

My first adjudicating gig was at the Vancouver Academy of Music’s Senior Secondary Competition alongside Ellen Silverman. The pianists there were very strong, and Ellen and I eventually awarded the first prize to Alana Chan. Years later when Alana was training to become an examiner, I mentioned to her that I still remembered how beautifully she had played Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse in the final round. Now that’s the mark of a great performance – when someone in the audience still remembers how a performance moved them decades later! 

I’ve been examining for The Royal Conservatory’s Certificate Program since 2008, and this engagement has taken me across Canada and the United States. It’s always a pleasure to hear so many musicians of all ages perform at vastly different levels. My work as an examiner gives them only a snapshot of what they’re actually capable of, and only time will tell what they will eventually accomplish in life. My goal is to give them the most positive experience possible, along with honest feedback that they can work with as they grow musically. 

One day I was strolling down Philosopher’s Walk when a young man came up to me. “I know you,” he said. “You were my examiner in Etobicoke in 2009!” I asked him if I had given him a good mark. “No”, he said, “you failed me. But you did it so kindly that I decided to keep going, and now I’m studying trombone at the University of Toronto!”

I love that you motived him to continue with music despite failing him. Tell me the biggest difference between how you were teaching before mid-March of 2020, and how you’re teaching now. It’s actually not that different than before! My overall philosophy of piano playing and teaching is the same. The big difference is that, whereas before the pandemic, my students were completely overstretched in terms of their extracurricular activities, now they are starved for things to do. The result is that many of my underperforming students are practicing more, whizzing through repertoire, and experiencing higher motivation than previously. 

In the online teaching studio, I need to be able to respond to that motivation on a screen, and keep them fully engaged. There is less downtime when teaching online. No longer can I pace the room thoughtfully when they play their Bach – I need to be in the frame, listening intently all the time. My language is a lot more focused. No more can I tell long-winded, name-dropping stories about graduate school at Eastman. We need to be continually focused, choose our words carefully, and be much more cognizant of how we utilize time in the studio than ever before. 

What do you miss most about your previous life? Travelling! I love to explore, and being able to visit places all over North America, especially in conjunction with my musical activities, has always been a pleasure. Most of my closest friends are people who live far away from Toronto, so I need to travel in order to see them in person. 

I also miss barging up to my students at the piano and furiously writing fingerings in their scores. With online teaching, there is a lot more delicate negotiation and thought involved with communicating what is the best fingering in any given context, and this is something that has resulted in a lot more listening, thoughtfulness, and understanding from both my students and myself. 

Omg, I miss grabbing the music and putting my own markings in them. What do you miss the least? The commute into Toronto. 

Interesting – what you miss most and least involve travelling in different ways. Are you keeping to a regular schedule these days? Yes! Going into the pandemic, I already had a full studio, and only four students are currently on hiatus. Since my students’ online school hours are much freer than before, I was able to switch around some of my lessons throughout the day. If anyone has tried to teach online for 5 hours in a row, it can be quite exhausting. 

It’s exhausting in person, too! If someone were to ask what you accomplished during the pandemic, what would you say? My life since the beginning of March has been one of the busiest periods of my life, with non-stop teaching, examining, and webinar appearances. Not enough personal time. Nowhere near enough time spent outdoors. 

But above all, everyone at Foley Music and Arts (Wendy and Isabella Foley, Natasha Fransblow, and myself) was able to make the switch to online teaching pretty well instantaneously in early March, so we were able to weather the storm. In addition, I’m proud that we’ve been able to help other teachers and institutions learn the skills needed for online teaching. 

Your blog has become a popular resource for musicians and teachers. Tell us how it all got started. Back in November 2005 I had a few weeks with absolutely no work. Rather than get bummed out about it, I decided to start a blog, which back then was one of the up-and-coming online forms of expression. There were only a few classical music blogs at that time, but the Collaborative Piano Blog has stood the test of time and is still going strong 15 years later!

What writing a long-running blog taught me is how to market myself in new and interesting ways, what people really look at and need when they look at a website, clever ways of selling my services as a piano teacher, and representing both the collaborative piano and piano pedagogy professions over time as the cultural scene changes. 

Your wife, Wendy, is working on so many paintings! They’re so colourful. When did she start painting, and how is it going for her during this time?  The toughest thing for Wendy to manage during the last few months has been sourcing canvases. When people went into quarantine, they started buying up art supplies, so the wait for obtaining new canvases has been as long as five weeks. It’s better now, so Wendy is back at work in her basement studio. She has been painting for several years now (you can find her complete works here), and has been able to sell her work right from the beginning. She’s had two sales in the last few months, one to a pianist in Wisconsin and another to a buyer here in Oakville. 

The Radiant Cello

Tell me about the challenges of online teaching. I’m teaching mostly young kids and beginner repertoire, so my challenge is more about the attention span of the student. What about you? In the days following the beginning of quarantine, what I noticed above all was the lack of structure in kids’ lives, especially with the slipshod nature of online learning from public schools. What I felt kids needed was a strong sense of structure, and online piano lessons are a safe and easily accessible way to deliver that kind of structure. 

So in many ways, I continued in the same way that I had been teaching before, helping students achieve short, medium, and long-term goals through music. The massive pivot by The Royal Conservatory to offer online exams this spring saved many studios across North America, as it enabled us to prepare our students towards a clear objective at the end of the school year in a remote exam setting. 

But in terms of challenges, I find the focus of being online for a full teaching day to be the most challenging, although I find that it’s getting easier and easier to manage. 

What, if anything, are you enjoying about this time? More than anything? Having the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my wife and daughters. My girls are growing older, and it won’t be long before they’ll be moving out of the house in order to pursue their education and careers. So I’m thankful that I get to spend time with them now. 

What do you tell your students about performing opportunities in the future? Our notion of what a performance can be is changing rapidly. Split-screen asynchronous videos (which I’m creating with the wonderfully talented mezzo soprano Alia Amad from Edmonton), Zoom recitals, YouTube recital playlists, and eventually a return to in-person performances are now all part of our performing culture. The more ways we can find to bring our musical art to people in the midst of unprecedented adversity, the more robust will be our future as musicians. 

And how to find you on social? I spend way too much time on Facebook, a bit of time on Twitter, and almost no time on Instagram. For me, the value of spending time on social networks is directly related to how much I interact with those I value.

Chris, thank you so much for this!!

Again, you can find Chris at Collaborative Piano Blog at  and Foley Music and Arts .

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