CRAIG SALE has served as Director of the Preparatory and Community Piano Program at Concordia University/Chicago in River Forest, IL since its inception in 1986. He also teaches courses in piano pedagogy at Concordia where he helped establish a Certificate in Piano Pedagogy curriculum. He was a member of the preparatory faculty at North Central College in Naperville, IL for five years.
Sale is the co-author of The Music Tree 3: Activities and The Music Tree 4: Activities (Summy-Brichard/Warner Bros.) and is an Educational Consultant for the Frances Clark Library for Piano Students. He has presented workshops for piano teachers throughout the upper midwest and served as panelist for MTNA’s “Pedagogy Saturday”. He has written a course of theory study for intermediate students called Projects in Music Theory (Books 1-3) and has contributed articles for Keyboard Companion and Lutheran Education. He appears regularly as soloist and collaborative performer and frequently serves as adjudicator for various music teacher organizations. Sale is on the Board of Directors of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,— practical, emotional, and intellectual,— systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.” – William James
Studying piano pedagogy with Frances Clark was a one-of-a-kind experience. Unique to her teaching was the incorporation of discussions of the educational philosophies and techniques of great teachers throughout history – Socrates, Jesus, Comenius, Dewey, etc. Included in this sequence of classes was a discussion of William James and the laws of habit.
As we sat around a student’s table in the classroom, Frances shared this quote with us and then dramatically demonstrated how habit is formed from the very first action. She asked us to fold a piece of paper and then try to smooth it out in order to make it lie flat. We saw that although the paper could lie flat again it would always have a crease. Such is the way we learn, she explained. Once an action is taken an imprint is made in the brain; the habit has begun. Even with the strongest attempts to undo that first learning, the seed of the original, unwanted action remains.
There is an up- and a downside to this theory. The downside is that all habits are easily begun – including bad habits. If we allow a student to have inaccurate or faulty first experiences with a concept, they will then have something to fix – they will have a bad habit to break. An elementary and basic example is the manner in which the student places their hands on the keys. If we do not, from the beginning, guide them to think first, knowing the name/location of the keys and fingers to use, the poor habit of searching with gliding hands, as if operating an Ouija board, hoping for mystical guidance, is begun. The result is a lack of confidence in approach and the use of lots of lesson time to now break the habit. On another level, if we allow students to simply stumble through new pieces without a clear process for successful practice, we are creating in them one of the worst habits of all – bad practice habits! If our presentation of a new dynamic or articulation is flawed, we help the student create a bad habit which will keep them from musically conveying these expressive concepts. The list of negative possibilities goes on and on.
The law of habit can best be seen in some of our transfer students. We can work and work to improve something like a poor technique. Then, after a vacation or when under pressure in a performance situation, the faulty technique comes back as if it had never left. That crease is still in the paper!
However, the great upside to be found in James’ law of habit is that we have the opportunity to create GOOD habits from the very beginning. Then, with consistent follow-through, these habits can become reinforced so that the habit is more deeply ingrained. Imagine the possibilities! We have the ability to establish in our students (and ourselves!) good habits in practice, reading, technique, musical expression, etc. that will never leave them – even after a vacation or when under pressure.
I will never forget the powerful image of that paper with the remaining crease. It conveyed the overwhelming responsibilities that fall on all teachers. No one was better than Frances Clark at communicating the power and responsibilities that teachers hold. I have no doubt that her presentation of James’ writings on habit was her way of ensuring that her pedagogy students would establish good teaching habits from the very beginning.