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Questions & Answers

Probably not all current subscribers can remember the original "Questions and Answers" column by Frances Clark, that ran in Clavier for 26 glorious years. It always appeared on the last page of the magazine and the editorial staff told us it was universally the favorite column in each issue. We heard, over and over, "I always turn to the back page first."

In tribute to that great legacy, I'd like to begin by quoting the answer that I consider most significant of all those Frances provided over the years.

Question

Is it possible to state in one sentence your idea of our main goal as piano teachers?

Answer

My primary goal as a piano teacher is to create a climate in which my students can experience continual musical, intellectual, and emotional growth, and to become increasingly dispensable to them in the process. Everything I do as a teacher, and every other teaching goal I have, relates directly to this first, most basic objective - to help my students grow by and for themselves. 

I consider it a great privilege and a greater challenge to sign on with Questions & Answers, beginning with this inaugural issue of Clavier Companion. My goal will be to attempt to answer questions that today's piano teachers consider most significant for their 2lst-century teaching.

Question

I have heard about a workshop you gave on the subject, "Complete musicianship from the very start." May I ask what you mean by "complete musicianship" and how you include it in every lesson, especially with beginners?

Answer

If I were to choose a favorite subject from all my years of teaching, I think this would be it. Complete musicianship at every lesson is probably the greatest secret of successful teaching. It includes everything we do with every student at every lesson at every level and in every piece of repertoire. 

In essence, complete musicianship means:
  • facility in reading
  • security and freedom with rhythm
  • well-developed technique and beautiful tonal control
  • knowledge of theory, and all the concepts and skills that implies
  • and, most important, the synthesis of all these areas in artistic performance.

Can we possibly fit all this into a piano lesson, especially with beginners?

I think we can - by very careful planning and by spending the majority of the lesson time not talking, but actually making music.

How might the lesson begin? Philosophically, I believe that every music lesson should begin with music. But practically speaking, every private lesson should be a model of the way we want our students to practice at home. This argues in favor of starting with warm-ups, because we certainly want every practice period to begin with warming up!

All teachers have favorite ways to warm up. It's not so much what you do, as that you do something to prepare the mind, body, arms, hands, and fingers for the lesson to follow.

A toolbox of efficient practice skills is a piano student's best friend. The first goal of all practice is to find ways to work out new music so that the result is a secure and accurate

first reading. In this way, subsequent practice can result in gaining security, tempo, dynamic and tonal control, and greater musical expression.

Let's say we're working out a brand new piece with a begin- ner, following the student's steps for home practice. For example:

  • Discuss title, mood, and dynamics. o Mark the form.
  • If there are words, read or sing them with a strong rhythmic pulse.
  • Point and say direction and intervals.
  • Find the position and practice any moves.
  • Prepare the rhythm in one or more ways (point and count, swing and count, clap and count, tap and count).
  • Work out the first (or most difficult) section, playing and counting in a slow, secure tempo with a full, relaxed tone. The goal is complete accuracy on the first reading.
  • Point out and mark anything tricky in other sections so the student is prepared to work them out alone at home.
  • Finally, and most important, ask the student to review the practice steps.

Much of the rest of the lesson will be work on new and review repertoire. But to keep the lesson rolling, I like to mix other activities in with the heavy-duty effort of "work-outs" and musical coaching of repertoire. These refreshing activities take only 2-3 minutes each and provide a way to touch on the various components of complete musicianship. Some possibilities:

  • Rhythm drills: count-backs while walking, counting, clapping or tapping rhythm patterns (no reading); later, respond to rhythms on the board by adding meter, completing incomplete measures, editing rhythmic changes played by the teacher, etc.
  • Reading drills: point and say direction and intervals; mark intervals, both stacked and broken; write intervals, etc.
  • Sight-reading short "flashes" on the board: point and say direction and intervals; find position and practice any moves; do a slow two-measure count-off; play and count, slow-secure with 100% accuracy. Sight-reading should gradually include sight-playing (without preparatory steps) and eventually sight-singing.
  • Ear Training: sing-backs, tracing direction and shape in the air; play-backs; recognizing intervals by ear; singing intervals from a starting note.
  • Composing: make short, imaginative assignments, based on the student's recent discoveries. This is one of our students' favorite activities, and perhaps the best form of review and reinforcement.

Summary

  • Did your lesson plan touch on every aspect of developing musicianship, how- ever brief?
  • In every possible activity, was your emphasis on beautiful tone, shaping of phrases, and musical expressivity?
  • Did you talk as little as possible, spending most of the time making music?
  • Did the student leave with a clear plan for home practice?
  • Did you and the student both finish the lesson "on a high?"

If your answers are "YES," I think it's fair to conclude that your lesson did cover "complete musicianship from the very start." This is by no means a formula, and no two weeks would be exactly alike. But I hope these few suggestions may help to answer your very important question. 

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About Piano Magazine

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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