“Teaching is a growth, a natural process. It’s the way children grow. No one tells them to be an inch higher, they BECOME an inch higher.”
– Frances Clark
When I was the Admissions Director at the New School for Music Study, I would always let parents know that Frances Clark incorporated principles of educational philosophy into the art of teaching music at the piano. The beliefs of one such philosopher, John Amos Comenius (1592 – 1670), relates directly to the quote of the week. Comenius believed that a child’s growth should be natural and logical. I can still recall Frances’ analogy to the growth of a tree. No one looks at the tree and shouts: “Grow!” This is a silly image, but do we do this to children? Should they not grow naturally, as trees, flowers, and the like?
What are some practical ways in which this philosophy might apply to piano instruction? We can plant the seeds for growth by preparing concepts well before their appearance in repertoire. Perhaps the phrase: “planting the seeds” might seem a bit familiar to those who attended NCKP. Angela Triandafillou and I presented on this very topic; additionally, Craig Sale and Judith Jain explored this important idea in an effective presentation. Obviously, setting the stage for natural growth is an idea that is central to understanding Frances Clark’s approach to piano pedagogy.
The opposite to this approach: a teacher opens to the next page and “teaches” eighth notes: “This is an eighth note. It is half of the value of a quarter note. Let’s learn a piece with some eighth notes.” A more natural approach might be to approach the experience of this new rhythm a full eighth weeks before its appearance in repertoire. First, the rhythm is heard, felt in the body through movement activities, experienced in the fingers through playbacks, and as the final step, the notation is introduced. There will be no struggle, instead, there will be an ease and comfort. There are so many different ways to prepare new ideas and I’m always experimenting. The following example is provided to further illustrate the teaching philosophy:
Triads and inversions:
Week 1: Place chips on a C Major triad (C E and G ) on the keyboard. Ask the student to place the bottom chip up an octave. It is still a C Major triad! Again, move the bottom note up an octave. Play the triads and inversions for the student to illustrate the look and sound (this will take just a minute or so out of the lesson).
Week 2: Repeat the chips on the keyboard activity. Use a few different triads.
Week 3: Repeat the chips on the keyboard activity. Next, have the student play the notes with just the index finger: (C E G, E G C, etc.)
Week 4: Repeat the chips on the keyboard activity, play the notes with the index finger. Next, show the most natural fingering. Ask the student to recite the fingers you used.
Week 5: Repeat previous week’s activity. Play right hand triads and inversions on the keyboard cover to reinforce the fingering. Next, transfer to the keyboard, playing triads and inversions with the right hand, correct fingering.
Week 6: Repeat Week 5 activity and at last assign right hand triads and inversions for home practice. Introduce the left hand fingering.
Week 7: New: Assign left hand triads and inversions for home practice.
Check out some videos of these techniques here.
Some teachers might feel that there is not adequate time in the lesson to prepare new concepts. It really just takes a moment to gradually introduce new ideas over several weeks, proceeding from the known to the unknown. In my view, it takes much more time to make corrections than it does to prepare for future success. I would like to invite readers to share their own ideas about preparing new concepts in piano instruction.