First Steps on the Path toward Self-Reliant Learning

Mary Bloom

Mary Bloom is the Head of Music Education and Piano Department Chair at Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, CT.  She is currently celebrating her twenty-fifth year on the NMS faculty, where she teaches individual and group piano, piano ensemble and piano pedagogy.  A graduate of the New School for Music Study and Westminster Choir College; BM, MM, Mary was the Coordinator of the Preparatory Division at the New School for Music Study before moving to CT to be near family.   She was a featured teacher at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy and the Fiftieth Anniversary of The New School for Music Study. Bloom has published numerous articles and appearances at national conventions. Teachers include Phyllis Lehrer, Frances Clark, Louise Goss, Sam Holland and NMS teacher Helen Shafranek.

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“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 the first, most basic objective – to help my students grow by and for themselves.” – Frances Clark

 

This quote is written, underlined twice and highlighted in the well-worn pages of my pedagogy notebook.  I can still remember the day Frances shared it with our pedagogy class because it fell on the group like an ambush!  At first, we felt a moment of rapture!  Enlightenment!  Then, dead silence, followed by nervous laughter.  How were we to ever measure up to her expectations of us as teachers? Where does one even begin to implement such an objective into their lesson plans?

 

Frances never finished a day’s teaching before taking time to reflect on each lesson she had taught that day.  She would ask herself how she had moved each student closer to this objective and note what needed to take place at the next lesson.  Frances lived what she taught, and was a firm believer in Dewey’s philosophy regarding experience being the forerunner of knowledge and that the desired definition of teacher is not as authoritative figure, but guide.  Her philosophy and day to day teaching habits provided a framework for the type of intentional teaching that never lost sight of her primary objective.  As the simultaneous enlightenment and terror of that memorable pedagogy class blended into the days and weeks that followed, Frances guided us through our own fledgling teaching experiences until we began to get our own footing with the notion.

 

Imagine the following scenarios (same student, same lesson, the first scenario with a teacher pre-enlightenment, the second post-enlightenment):

A teacher opens her student’s book and asks her to play a piece.  As the student is playing, she struggles to hold the half-notes for two pulses.  The teacher says “Remember when we talked about this rhythm at the last lesson?” and proceeds to count for the student as she plays.  The student continues to struggle with the half-notes, playing some correctly, some not, and ultimately coming away from the experience feeling slightly put down and having no sense of ownership of the rhythm or understanding of how to practice at home.

 

The same student is instructed to open up her book to the same piece and is guided through her practice steps before playing.  She and her teacher discuss the piece and how they imagine it will sound.  They read the words in rhythm, then swing and say the words out loud, and walk the pulse while saying the words in rhythm.  They have great fun together with these activities!  Next, they come back to the piano and tap and say their hands before the student prepares her hands on the keys she will be playing. The student sets a strong pulse before starting and because she has experienced how the rhythm feels in the larger muscles in her body, she plays rhythmically throughout the entire piece.  Success?  For the moment, indeed it is, but it is only a snapshot of one moment on a long journey together.  Many similar snapshots will be necessary before handing over the car keys.

 

In the early years, it is critical that the habit of practicing the practice routine be a part of every lesson, for at least one new piece per lesson.  Equally important is the need to send the student home with consistent, clear and specific written practice steps for practice each week.  It is this intentional instilling of a routine that establishes a framework in which students will learn to become self-reliant learners. This is but one footstep toward making oneself dispensable in the process, but it is a solid foot forward!  And in this spirit of teacher as guide, the journey promises a profound ride.

1 thought on “First Steps on the Path toward Self-Reliant Learning

  1. Great article. Teaching these practicing habits leads teachers away from the role of pointing out mistakes, and instead toward the development of independent musicianship. I think the former is responsible for why a whole generation of would-have-been-pianists walked away from lessons with such a bad taste in their mouth. Bring on this new generation of excited, well-molded musicians!

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