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Winter 2021: Fred Kern: A Pedagogical Giant


Fred Kern could light up any room. Those who knew him—and even those who didn't—couldn't help but smile anytime he was near. Dr. Kern, widely known as a clinician, author, teacher, composer, and arranger, published numerous texts on piano pedagogy and wrote more than 500 arrangements and original pieces for piano solo. Although Fred Kern passed away in August, 2020, his spark, creativity, wit, and inexhaustible contributions to piano pedagogy will live on. We asked a few of Dr. Kern's closest colleagues to write tributes to one of this generation's greatest contributors to piano education. The Piano Magazine thanks Martha Hilley, Sam Holland, and Pete Jutras for their memories of Dr. Kern.

You know, Fred and I got quite the reputation as the comic relief during the Saturday night banquets when Richard Chronister ran the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy (NCPP). We had some rare, wild, and wonderful times with that. But I tell you, there has never been a more dedicated teacher at a piano than R. Fred Kern. He was the kind of teacher that everyone wanted to study with, regardless of age or level of ability. I will miss him more than you can imagine.

Of all the music educators I've known over the years, Fred Kern was truly one of the most (if not THE most) creative at the process of teaching. The only other individual that comes to mind in the same thought is Lynn Freeman Olson. As an educator, Fred was a true virtuoso. He had an uncanny ability to understand a student's problems and then develop seemingly endless creative approaches to solving them. In the learning process, he and his students had great fun even as they worked on serious things. He always seemed to utterly enjoy music, learning, and people—able to be serious, but never take himself (or anyone for that matter) too seriously. Fred was known mostly in the adult group piano world, but he could teach anyone successfully including children. 

Fred was the first individual to research and write a dissertation on the life and work of Frances Clark. Early on, he recognized the breadth and depth of her contributions to the field, in particular in the education of teachers. He was able to look beyond the celebrity culture that surrounded her in the 1970s and 1980s and seek to understand the profound philosophical and psychological underpinnings that she introduced to piano pedagogy in her publications, workshops, and training programs. Whether they know it or not, most keyboard music educators since have been somehow shaped by Clark's teaching and Fred's dissertation is a seminal study in understanding that influence. 

One personal incident involving Fred endeared him to me for all time. It happened right around the time I moved to Dallas to take over the piano pedagogy programs at SMU in the early 1990s. One day Fred showed up at my office unannounced. He was driving a brand new Miata convertible and proceeded to take me all over town with the top down showing me the best restaurants, the best dive bars, and every place I might want to shop. It was a great welcome—and wholly unexpected. 

Sometime not long thereafter, Fred moved to a high-rise condominium in the posh Turtle Creek neighborhood of Dallas. From his balcony, there were expansive views over the urban landscape of Dallas, including the SMU campus. He was fond of reminding me that every day he loved to get up in the morning and look down on Sam Holland. I often would look up in his direction and smile. Just knowing he was there was good for my heart… And I truly miss him.

These are some of the words that come to mind when I remember Fred Kern. One could be around Fred for a few minutes and easily discern that he was funny, creative, and clever. When you got to know him over time, however, you learned that there were much deeper levels of these traits, and that this was truly a special person. 

Fred could instantly get to the core of things like nobody else, whether that was quickly seeing the easiest way to teach a chord progression, or astutely knowing exactly how seven-year-old boys would react to a piece. His wit was always acerbic, but there was always a keen truth behind everything—he knew human nature and he knew music, and he was able to expertly combine the two into pedagogy that was relevant and effective. His music and his materials speak directly to students, and his uncanny ability to empathize with anyone lies at the heart of his brilliant teaching. 

Fred could interject fun into any setting; I will never forget his side-splitting jokes about organists at funerals, and the Party Cat suit will remain one of the most legendary piano conference sights in the history of piano conferences. Fred understood the value of fun in keeping students (and everyone) engaged and motivated, and he could make anything entertaining. 

Fred, you are truly one of a kind, and you will be dearly missed. We are all so grateful, Fred, for your creative ideas, your kindness and caring, and your true dedication to helping others enjoy music at the keyboard. Party Cat will live on, and you will always be loved and remembered.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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