“Teaching beauty should be our highest priority.”
– Marvin Blickenstaff
I’d like to start this article with a question; a question that was posed to a group of teachers by Marvin Blickenstaff during a recent workshop in Austin, TX. He asked the attendees of this workshop about our most recent lessons. Would we consider our last lesson a “music lesson”? It seemed funny to hear that question but it made me think. If I was sitting in my last lesson as an observer, would I leave thinking that I had experienced beautiful music-making and the celebration of music-making in that lesson? Would a parent sitting outside the door hear wonderful sounds coming from the room and feel the joy that their child is experiencing during their time with you?
I think we all know that every moment of every lesson is not going to be the most incredible musical experience. There will always be some stumbling block that will persist in various lessons from week to week. But, can we as teachers set our students up for beautiful music-making even when they haven’t had the best practice week? I left that session with a reaffirmed mission. My goal was to make sure that there was a significant musical moment in every lesson and that we celebrated that moment. Another point that Marvin made later during a master class was that all music has a story. Any performance should be realized through finding the story and conveying that to the audience. I mention this because it is through engaging our students in the creative thought process that leads directly to the beauty that we seek for each lesson.
Get to the “good stuff”
Another wonderful musician and pedagogue that I have had the opportunity to work with is Robert Duke at The University of Texas, Austin. While working with him during my Doctoral program at UT, I adopted an important aspect of my teaching philosophy; that is we have to “get to the good stuff” sooner in our teaching. By “good stuff” I mean the actual music-making with our students. It is very easy to get bogged down in the minutia of detail it takes to play the piano efficiently and beautifully. Most students are not interested in that necessary detail. What do most of our students want to do? Play music that is enjoyable and feel like they are successful and accomplished at playing the piano. Our job as a teacher is to balance the mundane detail with the excitement of the music. When we engage them in the creative process, they are more invested in their progress and it becomes an intrinsic enjoyment of what they are doing. They get to the “good stuff” sooner and begin the musical process from the beginning. How do we do that in every lesson? Start with capturing their imagination with the story and the sound of the music they will be playing.
I love to work with students by investigating what I call “sound expectations”. Each piece has its own set of sound expectations based on what is seen in the score. By having students scan the score for clues to the mood and character of the particular piece, we encourage them to be independent-thinking musicians. Once they begin this journey, we can encourage them to create that story behind the music. The musical “landscape” becomes what I call the “soundscape” of the piece. Just as any landscape, there will be valleys and mountains, highs and lows, and variety to the eye. Our job is to guide our students through the soundscape of the piece. This naturally leads us to experimentation with sound to create the physical realization of the music. Here is where our most important contribution to the process will be needed. We must be very consistent with our physical approach to the instrument and have adequately prepared our students technically to play with ease, good tone production, and awareness of the relationship between physical gesture and sound. The technique needs to be in the fingers. If the work with sound is a part of every lesson, this will be just another step in the learning process that leads us to the “good stuff”.
But I teach mostly average students….
Now this sounds all very advanced level playing and with incredibly gifted students but I would argue that it is not. All of this is possible from the very first lesson with most average students. Just this past week, I had a wonderful lesson with a precocious 5 year old boy named Cormac. He can be a handful sometimes, with boundless energy that I want to encourage and yet focus during his lessons. I have worked systematically in every lesson on developing a beautiful supported hand position. The imagination and stories that this young student relates to me is infectious. Cormac just learned this beautiful little piece in Time to Begin (Clark/Goss, Alfred Publishing) called “Clouds”. It is a piece based on the whole tone scale. Our time on this piece began with a simple question, “What do you expect to hear in this piece?” “What kind of sound?” Cormac was quick to answer “floating”, “quiet” and “smooth”. I had him explore the soundscape by improvising on the whole tone scale that he would be using in “Clouds”. I asked him if he heard the “floaty” sound that he talked about. I had him adjust his hand position a little so that it was flatter and not so “notey”. When we finished exploring the soundscape for this piece, I had him play it. I have to say that it gave me chills it was so beautiful. I just whispered to him, “Oh my, Cormac that was absolutely beautiful.” He got this adorable smile that 5 year olds get when they are so pleased and proud of their work and realize that an adult has just given them an honest compliment. It made my afternoon. There was one improvement I wanted to suggest. The last note of the piece was slightly accented so I asked him where he thought the softest moment would be. He answered saying the last note. I had him play it again and it was even more beautifully played with the last note the softest. You would have thought that I had just heard the most incredibly gifted student play “Gaspard de la nuit”.
After that lesson, I thought about the question that Marvin had posed during his talk. The answer was “YES”… it was a music lesson. I’m sure that Cormac felt how successful he was at playing the piano. That success will more than likely translate into practice at home because he feels that he is good at the piano. When we feel like we are good at something, we tend to want to do that activity more. Therefore, teaching beauty in every lesson equals students that are engaged, happy, and eager for their next lesson. Let’s make it our highest priority to teach beauty in every lesson.
Dr. Scott Donald is on the piano faculty at the Orpheus Academy of Music in Austin, TX and The University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the former Administrative Director for the New School for Music Study in Kingston, NJ. His teaching duties have also included group piano at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, NJ and he is also on faculty at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Interlochen, MI. Dr. Donald received his Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance from Furman University in Greenville, SC where he studied with John Roberts. He received a Master of Music in Applied Piano and the Doctor of Musical Arts in Music Education/Piano Pedagogy from The University of Texas at Austin where he studied piano with Danielle Martin and pedagogy with Robert Duke and Martha Hilley.
Dr. Donald maintains an active schedule involving performance, research and pedagogy presentations. In 2010, he made his Carnegie Hall debut at Weill Recital Hall in New York City. His research has been presented at the state, national, and international level and has published articles for Texas Music Education Research, Piano Pedagogy Forum, Keyboard Companion, and American Music Teacher. Dr. Donald is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music.