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September/October 2018: Questions & Answers

As students return to their studies this fall, we offer timeless advice from Frances Clark's book Questions and Answers, the compilation of her original monthly column in Clavier.1

Every fall I feel the need for a shot in the arm to get me motivated for the year's teaching. Do you have a list of incentives for better teaching that might help me?

The final assignment in my graduate pedagogy class this spring was for them to prepare a list of things they would do differently in their teaching this fall as a result of what they learned last year as student teachers. Following are a few excerpts.

  • I will begin the year expecting a lot more from each of my students. I have learned that my students' potential is far greater than I originally thought.
  • I am determined to create a situation in which all my students can be successful from the start and know they are successful.
  • I will talk far less during my lessons this year. Taping myself and listening to the lessons made me realize how much I talked. I sometimes said the same thing three or four times; if I had had the student's attention first, or if I had given the instruction more careful thought, once would have been enough. If only I'd stop talking, I'd have time to hear and work on the entire assignment.
  • I know now that asking the student to count will not necessarily solve his rhythm problems. I will be more aware of whether the student himself is counting or I am doing it for him.
  • I will not assume that a student has mastered a particular rhythm pattern just because he can play it correctly in the piece of music he is practicing. He may only have memorized the rhythm in terms of the melody. When he can play that same rhythm in other settings, I will know he has it.
  • I will try to listen to my students' playing with the same ears I use to listen to everyone else's students. There is such a difference between what I hear and want to hear in other students, and I should be detecting it in my own.
  • I will not work on everything at once for any one piece or any one lesson. Instead I will determine what is most important, concentrate on that, and see it through. 
  • I will begin to judge my success as a teacher by what my students can do on their own without any help from me.
  • I will keep in closer contact with my students' parents, informing them of their children's progress. 
  • I will make sure at the lesson that new concepts are secure, remembering that students have to be able to recreate them unaided at home.
  • I will try to do a much better job of preparing my students technically for their repertoire.
  • I will spend more time on tone production: on playing with full, rich tone and developing the ear to distinguish between harsh and rich tone. The student can't make a difference until he can hear the difference.
  • I will be more careful in my choice of repertoire for every student, in terms of balance of periods, styles, and forms. 
  • I will discover more ways to arouse my students' curiosity and develop their awareness of what to listen for. 
  • I will have a more definite idea of the piece I am teaching. I will not only study and analyze it more carefully, but I will be willing to sing it, conduct it, and verbalize everything about it: rhythm, phrasing, dynamics, tempo, touch, and tone. I will let my imagination do more in the process.

I feel certain that these excerpts from some very insightful year-end reports will trigger even more incentives and resolves for your own teaching. (September 1989)2

What suggestions do you have to help teachers make a big event out of beginning lessons in the fall?

The resumption of lessons in the fall can't be a big event if it represents merely the next lesson. So the first step in making it an "occasion" is to precede it with a vacation, both for you and for the students. The last lesson before such a vacation should include an evaluation of what your students have learned throughout the year, emphasizing the ways in which they have improved musically, technically, and in practice habits. This can be demonstrated most dramatically by contrasting what they are doing now with what they were doing a year ago. This evaluation should be followed by your great expectations for the year ahead.

The beginning of a new school year should mean new music, new approaches to technique, more advanced theory, etc. So, except for the most advanced students, the first assignment of the new season should include no "holdover" music, nothing they were studying before vacation. In the first fall assignment it is wise to include at least one piece that is short (just one or two pages in length) and that sounds impressive, so that students experience an immediate musical reward that satisfies both their ears and their egos.

We have been talking about how to make the first fall lesson a big occasion for the student. It is also important to make it a big occasion for ourselves. I have one suggestion that has worked well for our staff. We try to imagine that each of our students is moving out of town and about to transfer to another teacher. When each student is interviewed by that imaginary new teacher (who will see and hear them far more objectively than we can), how will the new teacher rate the student in musicianship, technique, and practice habits? Where will that teacher begin? What will be that teacher's goals for each of our students? A careful consideration of each student from this standpoint can add real zest to your plans for the coming year. (September 1979)3

1Questions and Answers (Clark, 1992) was originally published by The Instrumentalist Company. The Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy reprinted the book in 2015 and granted permission to reprint portions of the column. If you refer to the 1992 edition, page numbers cited may be slightly different.

2Clark, Frances. (2015). Questions and Answers: Practical Advice for Piano Teachers. Kingston: NJ: The Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, 19-20.

3Clark, Questions and Answers: Practical Advice for Piano Teachers, 35-36.

Questions and Answers: Practical Advice for Piano Teachers by Frances Clark is published by the Frances Clark Center and is available for purchase at

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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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