In 1981, the year I received my graduate degree in piano performance, advanced degrees in piano pedagogy were just beginning to appear. Thanks to the work of the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy, there would be a blossoming of pedagogy degree programs in the coming years, but at this point, performance degrees were the norm. My pedagogy experience in graduate school helped me discover my love of teaching but I felt there was much more to learn. So, I took a bold step and went off to New Jersey to study piano pedagogy at the New School for Music Study. My experience in the New School's two-year professional program changed my life forever.
Frances Clark was still very active during my two years at the school, and I was fortunate to receive much personal attention from her. For me, it is impossible to separate her from any discussion of the New School. Never before had I met a woman so focused and nearly obsessed with her vocation as Frances Clark. The intensity of her personality and brilliance of her intellect were both motivating and exhausting.
Living and working at the New School was an intense and unusual experience. Pedagogy teaching fellows, like myself, would give one year, two years, and even more to be part of the program that required us to arrive by 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. and depart around 9:00 p.m. (on good days!) Monday through Friday. There was additional teaching on Saturdays from 8:00 a.m. until late in the afternoon. Each hour at the school was spent in lesson preparation, classes, conferences, observations, or teaching.To attend the New School was to live, eat, and sleep piano pedagogy. As surreal as the experience was, I still count it as the most valuable and formative period of my life.
From the very first pedagogy class with Frances it was clear that the standards set at the New School were the highest one could imagine. Every minute of every day following that class was spent struggling to achieve those standards. The pedagogical ideas shared with us weren't just written down in a notebook to be considered on an exam. They were fleshed out in conversations with the other pedagogy students (usually no more than four of us) and in one's own mind when preparing every lesson. There was no getting away from it. Hoping for a break, I might go to the school's kitchen for a cup of coffee and there Frances would be, either eating peanut butter or smoking a cigarette (or both!)."Tell me about Nick Darnton!" she'd say. After pulling up that student file in my brain, I would proceed to summarize the student's lessons and progress and then be challenged by Frances to do something more, or something different. Without fail, I would pursue that new challenge—and it would work!
So, what was it that we learned in those pedagogy classes? What was it that we struggled to live out every day in every one of our lessons? During the classes, we were presented with pedagogical principles. We explored learning theories from the great teachers over the ages. We discussed repertoire and that week's lessons, always applying what we were studying and experiencing. If everyone who studied pedagogy at the New School made a list of what they learned there and then we compiled that list, we would have quite a pedagogical toolbox! I know that many of our lists would contain the same or similar items. And yet, there were differences in our experiences. For example, during my second year at the school, we were test-teaching the Musical Fingers books. So, every pedagogy class included an intense look at technique and how to teach it. That experience was unique to my time there.
I think most everyone is familiar with Frances' statement "There is music in every child." And yet, it was only by working with a student under Frances' guidance that one really experienced and understood what she meant. Frances always knew that there was more in the student than that student was giving. I remember working as her assistant with a talented, but very shy adolescent. Frances knew that this girl could play with more spirit and joy. Each week she would pursue this in a variety of ways. Progress was finally made when Frances succeeded in making the student laugh while playing, by popping up at the far end of the piano and waving with the silliest of faces! Frances also knew that there was more in the student than we, the teachers, were asking for. One time in a conference, Frances wondered why I hadn't pressed a student to play at a higher standard. I offered some defense of the student, questioning if they were able to do it. Her response was "Oh, come on...be a man!"
To study at the New School was to learn that the teacher was the one responsible for a student's success or failure. If a student had a weak technique—it was the teacher's responsibility. If the student accidentally came for a lesson during a vacation week—it was the teacher's responsibility. Likewise, we knew that we could take pride in our student's successes.
The challenge of taking responsibility and ownership of our teaching was best illustrated during a pedagogy session. Following a repertoire class in which a student had not performed satisfactorily, Frances was pushing
the student's teacher to recognize his responsibility. The pedagogy student kept trying to offer explanations for why he did what he did with this student. But Frances would not have it. She kept pushing him saying "Come on! Admit it! You made a mistake. Just admit it." Finally, he said, "Yes, I made a mistake." To which Frances answered, "Well, now don't dwell on it!"
Frances was brilliant with the reflection-action model of learning. She wanted us to be brutally honest in our reflection on what happened in a lesson, and then turn that awareness into a new, more successful action. To work at the New School was to witness Frances' unquenchable thirst for new learning. Each lesson taught her something new. Yes, one of the greatest teachers was always learning new things! And she wanted us to do the same.
All of this intense study and reflection would not have been bearable without the balance provided by the tremendous practicality and warmth of Louise Goss. Her demonstration teaching was the most expert application of all we were learning. Her guidance in private conferences showed us how to successfully and artfully apply all that we were learning into our lesson plans.
Ever since this formative experience, I have been committed to furthering the legacy of Frances, Louise, and the New School for Music Study. The most successful way to do this has been through my own teaching. Each lesson experience shared with a child, a piano, and good music is where everything that Frances taught me comes into play. It is in the lesson where the results have been the most meaningful. When a child of seemingly average capabilities (or less!) brims with excitement over the new sound of staccato, when they shape a phrase beautifully, when we make music together playing a teacher-student duet—that is where the legacy lives. That is what I cherish. That is what we must keep alive.