If you ever played piano competitively before and were used to rigorous instruction, be ready for a humongous drop in pace. At first, I was frustrated because I wanted somebody who was more demanding and would give me more challenging pieces instead of putting a Bach prelude in my hand and putting what I was currently learning (from my previous teacher) on hold. I wanted to be able to perform and the pace seemed so slow that at times, I almost thought it was a waste of time. But, the more lessons you take from Niels, the more that you realize that there are a few basics about music that you wouldn't have looked twice at before and that going slowly is actually beneficial. Things also started to look up when I finally finished the Bach stage (which is personal preference, because as much as Niels tries, I will never fully appreciate Bach. It's personal). I started the semester feeling like I had fallen back a few levels to realizing that I learned more from Niels about music than from many of my previous instructors who focused more on getting a piece ready for competition than the actual history and musicality of the work. He was also generous enough to find time to give me hour-long lessons, which I am incredibly grateful for. Basically, if you're looking for a hard-pushing teacher that will have you constantly preparing for performance, you should probably look somewhere else. But, if you're looking for an easy-going guy who likes to discuss many things and will teach you an incredible amount about the history of a composer or the foundations of music - Niels Ostbye is a great choice.
I could not have imagined a more pleasant pianistic experience than the one I had under Michael Skelly my first year here. I arrived in New York bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about the music department and the music community, which I later found respectively sucked balls and did not exist. Throughout the semester, then, Michael acted as an anchor of sorts, reaffirming my faith in humanity and music pedagogy through our weekly chats and lessons. I disagree with the review that says Skelly is too lax; outside of a competitive, conservatory setting, this is how piano should be taught, with a laissez-faire approach that emphasizes the student's individuality in his or her interpretation. His goal is to excite you, and to that end lessons are largely self-directed, as is your musical oeuvre: you can pick your own pieces and work on them for as long as you want; if you're not enjoying your studies, then it's your own fault. By the end of the year, guided by Michael's huge yet adroit fingers, I had learned two tough Beethoven sonatas and made a good friend, which is more than I can say for some other classes I've taken here. My only quibble is that the technical instruction was a little limited, which is a blessing because technical Nazis belong elsewhere, but a curse because having the notes solidly in your fingers is so empowering. Other professors would do well, though, to emulate Michael's friendly and nurturing style.
Personally, I did not find Skelly to be that great of a teacher at all. He seems to think that a piece is completed simply because the notes and the rhythm are fine, without pressing further into the more musical aspects of the piece. Simply because I don't wish to become a piano virtuouso does not mean that I wish to produce mediocre music! Much more was expected of me from my previous instructor. Something else that I disliked was his constant questioning of what I believed the piece should sound like- as though I were the master! He was definitely not as good as my piano teacher in high school, and I was very disappointed with the level of instruction given to piano students at Columbia University. Also- 30 minutes a week is certainly NOT enough time to achieve pretty much anything.
Yeah, Skelly is just a great guy. This is my third year taking lessons with him, and I've really learned a lot from him. He allows the students to be pretty independent as far as repetoire goes, but he also has good suggestions if you don't know what you want to play. He's pretty positive, but he's also able to criticize you and point out things you're doing wrong without it making it seem like he's questioning your worth as a human being. He realises that for most piano students at Columbia, the piano is something we love and take seriously, but it's never going to be the only thing or the most important thing in our lives. As a music major, but not a virtuoso pianist, this was the exact attitude I needed in a teacher.