When I taught on the college level, I would frequently assign my freshman and sophomore students a composition to be learned on their own. No help from me. They might listen to recordings and would sometimes play for friends, but the preparation was basically independent study. Junior and senior level students would be assigned one of those independent study pieces in preparation for teaching the piece. In our weekly repertoire classes these independent study pieces would be performed and would be coached by the older, more experienced students. Invariably, the prize went to the freshmen and sophomores who had learned the pieces on their own. The older students were inarticulate and vague in their comments, lacking in specific help and identifying musical and technical problems. But for everyone, it was a learning experience.
Recently in two of my PEPS (Program for Excellence in Piano Study) classes at The New School for Music Study a similar project has been undertaken. The younger PEPS C students were assigned pieces by their private teachers deemed to be within easy reach of the student’s capabilities. Teachers were not allowed to coach these special assignments. The older PEPS A class (high school students) were given the same pieces, knowing they were responsible for preparing the pieces to teach. Canceled classes because of heavy snowstorms interrupted the schedule, but eventually the classes joined together and performance and teaching took place.
Most of the independent study pieces were well prepared. Titles and expression marks were evident in the interpretations. There were virtually no rhythmic errors, although some of the performances lacked a consistent flow. The PEPS C students read their scores with amazingly few misreadings. Several of the students had their pieces memorized and two students played fast, full tempo performances.
It did not surprise me that the teaching of those pieces by the PEPS A students did not match the level of the PEPS C students’ independent preparation. The PEPS A teachers were imprecise in their articulation of basic problems to be solved. In most cases, their suggestions did not change the student’s performance in any significant way.
The project seemed especially valuable in assessing what our students have learned from us about practice, accurate reading of a score, and effective interpretation. My inclination is to make such assignments more frequently in class and private lessons. For the student teachers, the project needs further work. One does not become an effective teacher overnight or without training and supervision.
Let me share with you a document which I provided the PEPS A students as they were preparing their teaching assignment.
How do you teach a student you do not know?
1. The first step is to know the piece thoroughly. You need to have a carefully defined impression of your ideal performance of that piece. (Practice the piece. Know about fingerings, accidentals, ornaments, etc.)
2. Hear the student play through the entire piece. Enjoy the performance.
3. Start your teaching of the piece with positive statements about successful elements (sound, balance, mood, rhythmic accuracy, etc.).
4. Think: what one thing would improve the student’s performance the most?
dynamics? tempo? balance? rhythm? note accuracy?
Pursue that issue and change the performance.
Do not “window shop” your way through the piece – a picky little correction here and a little comment there. Make substantial changes.
5. Use direct and specific language: avoid “OK” “little bit”
6. Illustrate for the student. Illustrate the sound you want, illustrate how to practice, illustrate technical gestures, etc. Your sound and technical illustrations are more effective than a ton of words.
7. When correcting a problem, do not leave the issue until the student has experienced the correction several times
8. Help the student understand how to practice. Have the student illustrate the practice technique.
9. Use direct eye contact (on their level). Use the student’s first name.