“Remember that children take lessons for one reason: to make exciting sounds at the piano. Anytime our lessons do not emulate this goal, we are nurturing a potential dropout.”
- Richard Chronister
Richard Chronister’s wise words simultaneously intimidate and excite me as a piano teacher because the truth of them is apparent in each lesson I teach. When a student learns with great momentum and approaches lessons enthusiastically, expressive and artistic music making is the core of our lessons. The reverse is also true: when a student struggles and experiences frustration, a loss of confidence, or a poor attitude, there is little exciting music making happening in our lessons. With most certainty, all my difficulties and successes as a teacher can be tied back to Chronister’s fundamental truth. In the footsteps of Ebeneezer Scrooge, the three Ghosts of Piano will visit my piano teaching: Present, Past, and Yet to Come.
The Ghost of Piano Present
My current student Isabelle is filled with fire right now. She is preparing for a state audition and loves her performance repertoire (a Bach Short Prelude, Clementi Sonatina, and the Khachaturian Sonatina). Our lessons have been spent in increasing the artistry of each of these pieces, and each week her enthusiasm grows. Her knowledge of theory and keyboard patterns continues to expand; this is a major goal for us because it was quite delayed when we started together this fall. She realizes how much she has learned, is gaining command of this knowledge, and feels a boost in confidence.
In addition, I have been able to expand her definition of “exciting sound.” She walked into my studio saying “I hate anything kinda modern. I only like beautiful melodies.” We played some Mendelssohn and Clementi as our first repertoire together. I pondered how to expand her tastes and decided the Khachaturian Sonatina would be ideal; it’s fun, playful, flashy, and has some adventurous sonorities and rhythms. It is now her favorite piece, and her mind is open to exploring more modern music. Chronister’s statement confirms the positive progress for Isabelle.
Another student Sara came to me this fall having three years of piano study as an 8 year old, but one would hardly know it. Her fundamentals were lacking and she was barely able to learn early method repertoire. Farthest from her definition of piano study was “exciting sounds;” Chronister words provide me inspiration to grow her musicianship and skill while keeping an expressively-focused mission. This is what I have aspired to do, but it has been far from easy. Sara had learned in her prior years to equate practice with frustration. On top of this, her parents have not been able to provide the necessary structure at home for routine practice. So, despite my attempts, frustration often continues in her spotty practice.
The obvious question becomes: why has she not dropped out? Chronister’s statement requires me to look hard at myself in the mirror: teachers actually can “nurture” a drop out! Is this what is happening with Sara? Am I laying the ground work for her to quit!?
Sara loves piano. Her dad wants to give her the best education and all the opportunities possible. I have been honest and given consistent feedback to Sara, the father, and the aunt (who brings Sara to lessons). They have heard me say many times that routine practice causes growth of skill, which improves her confidence, self-efficacy, and enjoyment. But, this has only happened in small, sporadic spurts this year. What do Chronister’s words remind me to do? They remind me to side-step and give Sara repertoire that will spur growth in mini-steps. We can explore mood, title, sound, expression, right away. Her big-dimpled smile and joy in this process gives me hope in every lesson; she often leaves the lesson exclaiming, “I am going to practice five days this week!”
I know that practicing once or twice a week is not enough, but at the same time my lessons “emulate” expression through music making. Obviously there is a larger question I must ask: how long will I continue with this student, given the lack of routine at home?
The Ghost of Piano Past
Gulp… Sam was my student for five years, long ago. He started with me, his second teacher, already in mid-elementary methods – he has graduated from college by now. He was a playful, sarcastic student, who would often make jokes in piano lessons. Sam was definitely the “class clown” in school who thrived from dramatic attention. He improvised and composed, and enjoyed anything with a jazz or blues style. Initially he learned a lot of music in this style to augment our method book studies. He, like many transfer students, was deficient in technique and reading. Our lessons were filled with reading, technical drills, and theory games, which I often tied to improvisation. We made excellent ground our first two years.
Junior high came for Sam and I lost connection with him as a musician; Chronister would say that I began to cultivate a dropout. Piano was becoming a battle ground, in the lesson and at home. Now I suspect that the down fall occurred because improvisation and jazz were auxiliary and traditional repertoire because our overwhelming focus. Occasionally I would hear something he created at home. Only once in summer lessons did we actually compose and notate his music. But what was most exciting about piano to Sam? Composing original music and jazz styles!
When the final decision to not continue next year was made, his mother came into the lesson to thank me for my dedication with Sam. She shared with me that he took three more years of lessons than she expected. She attributed this to my group classes, the spring-time duet lessons, and the music he played with another pre-teen boy in my studio. It was kind of her, and perhaps she is right; these group classes and duet lessons were always filled with music making, and their duets were always jazz-based. But, I still can’t help but wonder what latent talents Sam had that I neglected to explore. Perhaps I should have found him a teacher in improvisation, if I couldn’t do it. There had to have been a way to keep his desire to play piano and music burning bright.
Bigger gulp. A student Amadeus (with this name, music seems his destiny!) left my studio for another. This was quite painful for me, as I was quite a young teacher then. He was not a total dropout, but what did I do wrong? Amadeus was immensely talented. He was 9 years old and already reading intermediate repertoire with ease. He had a well-developed technique, knew an impressive amount of theory, and had encyclopedic knowledge about composers and music. For Amadeus, “exciting sounds” at the piano were already the masterworks of great composers.
The problem is simple. I was boring him. Part of cultivating talent is providing appropriate challenge to inspire growth; Chronister tells me again I was nurturing a drop out. I remember giving him the Invention No. 13 in A minor by Bach, thinking, “Oh, this will really challenge him!” He came back at the next lesson with it memorized. No joke. But I kept thinking: he’s only nine! I scrambled for repertoire, giving him lots and lots of music, which he always accomplished with artistry in a week. I have a suspicion now he practiced very little too.
His parents dropped from my studio and joined another, and today I am thankful his parents were this aware of their son’s needs. What should I have done? I should have shot for the moon! I should have kept moving up that ladder of intermediate repertoire, given him repertoire that seemed impossible, and find where his potential lay. I should have found a network of similar students and helped his family connect with the artistic community in the area. This is a mistake I vow not to make again.
The Ghost of Piano Yet to Come
I have a firm belief that I will teach any student with an inclination to learn (regardless of “talent”) and that making expressive music at the piano is the core of my curriculum. These two tenets result in many philosophical and practical questions that I must face. For other teachers who share these beliefs, these are questions that they will have pondered as well:
When my lessons do not center around the goal of artistry and expression, how can I refocus my curriculum? Is it really possible for me to accomplish this with only a private lesson (30, 45, 60 minute) each week?
Can a student’s potential for learning and growth only occur with a structured, regular, and consistence routine for practice? Does the sole musical, educational value of piano study result from this kind of traditional study?
Must a student have an acoustic piano (not a keyboard, not a digital instrument) at home for practice? Is exciting and expressive sound only possible with a good instrument?
If a potential student is inclined to study piano and the family cannot afford to take piano lessons, is it possible for this child still to learn piano? What if a student is inclined to study piano and has a special need or physical limitation, is it still possible?
What kind of learner and musician do my lessons nurture week-to-week and year-to-year? Am I cultivating the kind of musician and learner that is relevant in today’s world?
Is my definition of “exciting sound” the same as my students? When it’s not, how do I help the student engage with piano and music study in order to avoid them dropping out? Or, should I just let them drop out or find another suitable teacher?
Piano teaching is indeed a rich profession: one in which teachers spend their days growing relationships with individuals and exploring music, learning, and expression. But it is true that this profession carries a profound responsibility. It results in many questions that challenge conventions and standards. These are questions that will indeed face me and others in this profession in the days and years yet to come. Are there right answers? I don’t know what Chronister would say, but we can find answers through much reflection, sharing of ideas, and thus discovering creative solutions to difficult problems.
To conclude, I’d like to reverse Chronister’s quotation to the underlying, positive truth that inspires and challenges me: My students take lessons for one reason: to make exciting sounds at the piano. When my lessons emulate this goal, I am nurturing potential life-long musicians who love piano and learning.
Sara M. Ernst, PhD, NCTM, is an active piano pedagogue, teacher of all ages, and pianist. She currently is professor of piano and piano pedagogy at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Prior to her position at USC, she served as the Administrative Director of the New School for Music Study in Kingston, New Jersey, where she also taught piano lessons and group classes to all ages. Dr. Ernst has taught at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan and piano and piano pedagogy at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her teaching was honored with a campus-wide Graduate Teaching Award at the University of Oklahoma and with the Studio Fellowship Award from the Music Teachers National Association. She received a PhD in music education with an emphasis in piano pedagogy from the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Ernst completed her dissertation on the teaching philosophy of Mr. Marvin Blickenstaff, a widely admired piano teacher. Her other degrees are from the University of Missouri-Columbia and Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Her former piano and piano pedagogy teachers include Jane Magrath, Barbara Fast, Karen Larvick, and John Strauss.
Dr. Ernst’s research in piano pedagogy includes investigating teaching effectiveness, the use of language in instruction, and successful parent-teacher interactions. In addition, she frequently explores pedagogical music of the 20th and 21st centuries and examines the pacing of instruction through the intermediate years. Her presentations have been featured at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, regional conferences of the College Music Society, and many state and local conferences.