If you recall, I said that I wanted to describe various teaching techniques graduate students practiced during their basic training. The orientation session that preceded the school year was designed to give pedagogy students a summary of Frances Clark’s teaching approach. Here are just some of the activities that were practiced.
In addition to the exercises in the Clark method books, the Educational Director recommended that it is best to look ahead and prepare new concepts in other activities. New discoveries in reading are prepared by having piano students experience the sound “away from the score.” This approach includes the preparation of expression markings. To give but one example, after students listen to and compare the sound of piano and forte, they can play phrases with a soft and loud tone by ear; without looking at the dynamic markings, students play back short phrases that the teacher first plays. As soon as students experience the sound and feel of piano and forte, the signs and names are presented, and they are then ready to read the new markings in assigned music.
Preparing new discoveries by rote before the notation appears in repertoire for the first time is also very effective in teaching rhythm. With the exception of simple rhythm patterns, new concepts in rhythm should be experienced in activities several weeks beforehand. During the first week of preparation, piano students experience the rhythm through physical movement such as walking the rhythm, marching in time with the music while clapping the rhythm or playing the rhythm on rhythm instruments, etc. In the second week of preparation, new rhythms are verbalized. As demonstrated by the teacher, piano students tap or clap and count the rhythm or they tap/clap the rhythm as they say the names of people, places, etc. (e.g. in common time, dotted quarter note rhythm can be verbalized as “Ca-li-for-nia”). Play-back exercises are then performed to bring the feel of the rhythm down into the hands. Experiencing the rhythm in preparatory exercises is absolutely essential as students have to relate the notation to a specific physical response in order to play it correctly. Until a student is prepared to play both the notes and rhythm of a new piece, other repertoire needs to be assigned.
The faculty advisor who summarized Frances Clark’s methods for teaching technic explained that technical training begins at the first lesson when the teacher helps each student establish a good playing position. As a piano student progresses, the teacher should “talk less and do more.” Technic cannot be described with words. Children do not respond to being told “relax,” but they will relax if they experience how it sounds, feels, and looks to play with freedom and efficiency of movement. Regardless of age or level, playing without tension or excess motion is always the first step taken in preparation. For example, elementary students need to experience the sound and feel of a “crisp staccato” as compared to a fluent legato touch before they read the sign for staccato. Intermediate students should not attempt to perform a piece composed of rapid scale passages until they have mastered playing scales at a slow tempo. It is sometimes assumed that technical problems can be “fixed” through repetition, but if a student is incapable of performing the required technic, repetition serves no real purpose. Whatever the challenge, all students can succeed if they are well prepared.
Thorough preparation is also dependent upon an effective teaching presentation. Not only should the teacher prepare new concepts before the signs are introduced, but the teacher must then present the repertoire in a way that prepares for successful practicing. A practice plan, much like the one we use today, was recommended for teaching new music that needs to be worked out in detail. A consistent teaching approach that includes the following plan is reinforced once students do the same practice routine at home.
- Before playing, students first study the score and decide how the piece should sound based on the title, illustration, words, and corresponding expression marks.
- After a discussion of sound expectation, students are directed to look for parts that are alike and different, marking the form and dividing the piece into practice sections.
- The rhythm and keyboard moves in each section are practiced (e.g. students “float” silently from one position to another).
- Each section is played at a slow tempo. For complete accuracy, students play and count out loud hands separately and hands together (as applicable).
- Finally, the entire piece is played at a slow tempo. Students play and count out loud until the rhythm is steady and secure.
I enjoyed observing these specific teaching techniques taught by experienced faculty members and pedagogy students. I observed how a well-organized approach that progresses in steps does guarantee success. Piano students are actively involved in the learning process when they experience new concepts not in just one, but many exercises. In addition, a practice plan guides students as they learn to structure their time. Eventually, they also memorize the practice steps and begin to add or delete steps. In other words, piano students discover how to proceed on their own initiative. The student becomes the teacher.
I gained new insight throughout my research and then adopted techniques that I still use in my own teaching. I mentioned before that Frances Clark emphasized you have to do what works and discard what does not work. Because Miss Clark believed in being creative and flexible, she also maintained that you are never the same teacher day in and day out. Finding a better way that proves to be effective is a lifelong endeavor.