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Keep the same wheel; just spin it in a different direction

March 7, 2014

“Sameness is something to come home to.  There should be a balance between sameness and differentness in our teaching.”

– Frances Clark


I distinctly remember the moment in my teacher orientation at The New School when Scott Donald, then Administrative Director, first illustrated how a typical Time to Begin class worked. All of the 6-year-olds in the class would learn the very same repertoire. Then they would have follow-up private lessons, where each teacher would follow the very same lesson plan.


I distinctly remember how enthusiastic Scott was about this model, how he excitedly described just how much the students would love it.


And I distinctly remember how skeptical I was about the entire thing.

Everyone in the class learned the same exact pieces? The private teachers followed the same exact lesson plan? And everybody was happy? Everybody felt creative?


I had come to the New School to become a better teacher, and part of my post-graduate fellowship involved co-teaching these Time to Begin classes, either assisting in a group class or teaching some of the private lessons. I learned that by “some” of the private lessons, the New School meant 6 of them. Every week, I taught 6 six-year-olds the exact same pieces, using the exact same lesson plan, written by Scott. What happened was a major shift in my thinking as a teacher.


That sameness, that security, gave me the freedom to be more adaptive to each student’s personality. The student, secure in the sameness of the repertoire, in the familiarity of the concepts, had the freedom to be more creative musically. I heard music played so expressively, with such maturity, that I could not believe I was teaching six-year-olds. It was an honor to witness.


Up until that point I had equated differentness with creativity, and vice versa, sameness with limiting creativity. Scott Donald and a group of six-year-olds proved me wrong. I learned that first semester at The New School that teaching was not about reinventing the wheel. It was about using that wheel to explore different directions.

Keep the same wheel; just spin it in a different direction.



Finding the “sameness” from marketing to motherhood 

Two years after that first Time to Begin class, I left The New School to work with The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy and Clavier Companion magazine. Even though my roles with The Frances Clark Center have changed, though, I still seek that balance between sameness and differentness. A fairly textbook Millennial, I can quickly get overwhelmed setting goals and attempting to “change the world.” When this happens, when I realize I am feeling overstressed and uncreative, I look for the “wheel” I’m trying reinvent.


For instance, when I began designing emails for NCKP and Clavier Companion, I used the same template but switched color schemes and fonts for each email. The closer we got to the 2011 conference, the more exhausting this became. I was feeling out of ideas when it came to complimentary colors, and then I realized I was missing an important opportunity to solidify our brand image. Now we use one color scheme and one set of fonts with each conference, or for the piano magazine, for each year. A small change toward “sameness” gave me freedom to experiment with new tag lines, new ways to display important articles in the magazine, new directions for featuring exciting sessions at the conference. And our open rate (one of the main standards of success in the email marketing business) soared to 10% above what is considered “excellent” in the industry.


With social media planning, Natalie Gibson Grimes and I use the same template, with a similar rotation of categories, for mapping out content for our Facebook pages. We put a new spin on that content, but we work to keep important elements the same so that we maintain a balance. It may seem formulaic, but our following continues to grow.


To be quite honest, though, Frances Clark’s urging to tiptoe on the margin between sameness and differentness hits the closest to home when it comes to motherhood. My son does not just gravitate toward repetition—he delights in it. We sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” all day every day, the very same tune with the very same words, but two nights ago he was inspired to bring a colander from our kitchen to bath time and used it to craft a particularly creative “down came the rain.” He insists on taking the very same path home from preschool every day but finds new trees that need pointing out, new animals that need greeting, new cracks in the sidewalk that need jumping over. My son enjoys the same food, the same activities, the same stories more than any single person I know, and at the same time, he is the most imaginative, the most creative member of my acquaintance.

Keep the same wheel; just spin it in a different direction.



What’s your wheel?

Whether your current workday involves teaching, marketing, parenting, or for many of us, a combination of the three, take time once in a while to find your “wheels.” Maybe your sameness is the specific order of activities in a piano lesson. Maybe it’s the same way you introduce the dotted quarter rhythm for a set period of time. Maybe it’s the same bedtime lullaby you sing for your children every night. And I hope that sameness, whatever it may be, brings you to a new sense of differentness and creativity.

Keep the same wheel; just spin it in a different direction.

Lauren Thompson is the Advertising Coordinator for Clavier Companion and the Associate Director for The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy. She lives in Seattle.



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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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