“We must rid ourselves of the notion that in each day of practice, we make fewer mistakes than the day before.”
– Frances Clark
I believe that this idea is directly related to Frances’ knowledge of the importance of habit. From William James: “We are copiers of our past selves.” Frances often spoke of the first performance of any new piece. If the first performance is correct, there is nothing undo. If the first performance is accurate, practice is spent “repeating perfection.” If there is nothing to undo, the student is unencumbered, free to explore the musical meaning of the piece. If the first performance is not accurate, it takes many correct repetitions to undo this first experience.
As a young teacher, this idea was immensely appealing to me. Perhaps it was my somewhat chaotic mind that was seeking order. Perhaps I knew about how little control we can sometimes have in this chaotic world. But there is an extent to which we can have some “control” over what happens 45-minutes a week in a student’s lesson. We can help guide students to a state in which there is nothing to undo.
After I worked with Frances Clark and Louise Goss for a year in the New School’s certificate program (which was completed right after graduate school), I began teaching at Mount Holyoke College. Most of my students were at the elementary level. I was armed with this one big idea: accuracy from the start. I believe that this one idea guided my teaching more than any other idea. Twice a year, students were invited to perform at an informal noontime recital. Beginning students had not traditionally participated, but I had all of my students play. I was pleased when two other music teachers commented on the students’ musicality. They asked how I coached this aspect of a beginner’s performances. My first thought was that the secure and accurate playing provided a foundation that freed the students to express the meaning of the pieces they were playing. Now that I’ve been teaching for many more years, I’m not at all sure that it is a good idea to advise others to count on accuracy to result in musicality. But I’ll never forget how powerful Frances Clark’s ideas on how to introduce new pieces were, and how relevant they are to my teaching today.
This week, this topic will be explored in more depth, with a special focus on practice steps.