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Elvina Truman Pearce: Teacher “Talk and Tell” Vs. Student “Discover and Do”

January 15, 2014


During my fourteen years as an instructor of piano pedagogy at the collegiate level, one aspect of my work was to observe the teaching of interns enrolled in the course and then follow-up with one-on-one conferences in which the lesson happenings were discussed.


I recall that one of the major issues which was addressed in nearly every post-lesson conference was the tendency of the teachers to do too much talking and telling rather than creating student-centered environments in which children could discover for themselves whatever concepts were to be learned and then successfully demonstrate them at the piano. It seemed that the “talk and tell” approach was especially prevalent whenever a new concept was being presented. Scenario “A” (below) describes a fairly typical example of a lesson segment in which this occurred.



Scenario A: The presentation of staccato


At the lesson, the intern teacher tells her nine-year-old student, Michelle, that today she is going to learn something new. “It’s called staccato.’“ She  goes on to tell Michelle that staccato is an Italian word that means “short” or “detached,” and then she shows Michelle a new piece about popping corn. Pointing out the dots above or below the notes, she tells her that this is how the symbol for staccato looks in music. “The dots tell us to play these notes staccato like this.” She then illustrates the sound of staccato by playing a bit of “Popcorn” and then asks Michelle to do the same. At the end of the presentation, the teacher circles all of the staccato dots in the piece, telling Michelle that she hopes that the circles will remind her to play these notes staccato.


Had I observed the above lesson segment, then the post-lesson conference would have focused on two things: 1) finding a more pedagogically sound order for the steps used in the presentation, and 2) finding ways to minimize the amount of teacher “telling” and ways to maximize the student’s participation in the actual presentation of the new concept. Using Scenario “B” as a frame of reference should be helpful.  



Scenario B: The presentation of staccato


She selects one piece about sailing, and after her performance, she and the teacher agree that her legato–playing produced a very smooth sail. Next, the teacher tells Michelle that she is now going to play a bit of “Sailing” herself, but she’s going to make a change in the sound. Michelle is asked to close her eyes as she listens, and the teacher performs several measures of “Sailing,” but this time, plays it all staccato. “What was different about the sound?”  Michelle says that it sounded ‘bumpy’ – it wasn’t legato. Then the teacher asks her to also play a bit of it non-legato.


Because Michelle has now experienced both hearing and playing staccato, she is ready to see the notational symbol for it which is introduced in a new piece about popping corn. The teacher first plays “Popcorn” for her and then asks her about the sound –“What made it sound like corn popping? (It was jumpy – not legato.) So what do you suppose these dots above or below the notes mean? (Don’t connect.) They’re called staccatos. How many staccato notes do you see in ‘Popcorn?”  Then the teacher asks Michelle to circle each dot. (Note: The student does the circling and not the teacher!) The presentation ends with Michelle playing several measures of the new piece and listening for the staccatos. 


In the post-lesson conference following the observation of the teaching described in the Scenario “A” segment, we would compare that presentation of staccato with the approach described in Scenario “B.” Hopefully, the point would be made that presentation “B” was more pedagogically sound than that of “A” because 1) it began with something the student already knew (legato) which was then used as a springboard for discovering the new concept (staccato), and because 2) it began with  the student’s experiencing both the sound of staccato and how it feels to technically produce it at the piano before seeing how the symbol looks in musical notation, or being told its name and definition.


In summary, we all comprehend sooner and learn best those things which relate to something we already know, and which we discover for ourselves as opposed to things that we are told. Teaching is not telling and it rarely results in learning because the latter depends on a student’s thoroughly understanding, internalizing, and repeatedly using a concept until it becomes part of his/her habit and can function effectively even when placed on “automatic pilot.” When this occurs, learning has taken place and  lessons can focus more on making music instead of on making corrections.

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