On musicianship, technique and practice habits: “It is important to keep these three areas in balance. If these areas of what we teach are not developed hand-in-hand, this leads to frustration.” — Frances Clark
March 14, 2014: Driving to school this morning, it is eighteen degrees and the ground is still snow-covered (more accurately, it is ice-covered tundra). Long Island Sound has a film of ice floating on the waves. It has been a difficult winter in New England and the locals generally don’t believe spring is ever going to arrive. Ever the optimist, however, my thoughts turn to my garden, and my annual renewal to a commitment that I will be a better gardener this year. I just wish I knew how to be a masterful gardener.
The above quote from Frances Clark provides a useful structure to help guide us in our growth as masterful teachers. The categories within the structure are as important to teaching as the elements sunshine, water and soil are to gardening. She stated:
“We all need a framework by which to think, and by which to evaluate our students’ progress and create short and long-term lesson planning. No matter what we teach, we teach in three categories:
1. Musicianship: Knowing how the score should sound.
2. Technique: Knowing how to bring our hands to make the sound.
3. Practice skills: Knowing how to do it as directly as possible with minimal steps.
It is essential that Musicianship, Technique, and Practice Skills proceed hand in hand.”
Frances expected her pedagogy students to ask themselves how each of their students improved in these three areas after each lesson. In addition to providing pedagogy students with a framework by which to think about each lesson, the expectation fostered a culture of consistency and excellence among all the teachers in her school. Let’s face it: students who lose this delicate balance are at risk of becoming frustrated at best, dropping altogether at worst. But to put a different spin on it, students who keep and continue to refine this balance stay healthy and joyful, and ultimately are free to reach their potential.
Frances clearly stated we all need this framework. After more than twenty-five years of teaching, I can testify she was spot-on. I must confess, however, that I have often forgotten to practice daily reflection using this lens, but rather have tended toward semi-annual reflection during larger planning sessions. Over the past few weeks I have decided to go back to my roots to reflect daily on each student. Here are some things I have learned through this exercise:
Seedlings are fragile…handle with care…
In the quest to develop really strong habits with my youngest students (my seedlings, if you will), I was relieved to realize I was already giving attention to regular evaluation during the first two years of study. It seems natural their fragile nature as beginners calls out for attention to their growth. Side note: Much credit should be given to The Music Tree series, which provides consistent opportunity for growth in all three areas. The richly varied and programmatic repertoire, warm-ups, and musical and practical tips from Chip and Bobo provide the perfect climate to nurture a well-balanced student, building on what the student already knows.
Transplants require special attention and care…
I realized it is pretty natural to constantly evaluate transfer students (transplants) as well, but that using this specific framework is a much more efficient and thorough way to make effective change. This group is also pretty fragile, and most come with habits (good and bad) and expectations. It is no wonder so many transfer students arrive with one or more of these categories needing improvement. There is a good chance it is the reason the student may look to transfer in the first place. If any of the three is out of balance, frustration follows, and is soon followed by lack of confidence and diminished interest. Imagine a transfer student whose imagination is sparked by a piece, but she doesn’t have the technical skills to support the sound she wishes to make, or the practice tools to learn the piece free of mistakes. The sentiment “I can’t do this”, or worse, “I’m no good at this” is a natural consequence. A different transfer student may come with strong technique, but he lacks a musical sense of how the piece should sound. This student may not feel as acute a sense of frustration as the former student, but at the same time may not feel a sense of joy in playing, which could later lead to frustration and diminished interest. Fortunately, with help from the above structure, we have guidelines that truly help such students get back on track.
Don’t forget to tend to the perennials…
The biggest surprises I found were among my long-term students (perennials). I learned I tend to take this group for granted (just like the perennials in my garden!). This exercise helped me look at these students through a refocused lens, illuminating the areas they need to be “shored-up”. There were more than a few weeds choking at their roots, too. Among the “weeds” I found students playing technical drills in a cursory manner, not thinking before playing repertoire, going through motions of practice routines without awareness of purpose, playing with lifeless dynamics and balance and more. Nothing was terrible, but this exercise showed me a way to look at these students with new eyes. I became keenly aware that I was making assumptions about my students’ understanding based on their past experiences and began to circle back to provide more opportunity for experiential growth. I became aware I tend to rush students through activities I view as repetitious without taking time to make sure they have mastered the activity. I realized it is essential to continuously and intentionally look to really see what is going on with this group of students, because it is so easy to take them for granted.
John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) was an educator, writer and innovator Frances referred to often. In his book The Great Didactic, he wrote “It is now quite clear that order, which is the dominating principle in the art of teaching all things to all men, should be, and can be, borrowed from no other source but the operations of nature. As soon as this principle is thoroughly secured, the processes of art will proceed as easily and spontaneously as those of nature.”
Sunshine, water and soil are nature’s counterparts to musicianship, technique and practice habits. With a renewed focus on daily observation to ensure the three elements are proceeding together, wonderful growth has started sprouting up in my studio already! I can also imagine what a renewed focus on daily observation will do for my garden, too. And wouldn’t you know while driving home today I spied my first robin?! Bring on the spring thaw!
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.