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Graduation Day: When a student demonstrates understanding

June 3, 2014

“We must be sure they really understand.  If we say ‘do you understand?’ and the student is almost playing correctly, then he DOES understand.  He understands how to ALMOST do it.”
– Frances Clark


Jyoti Hench’s excellent essay addresses the second part of the quote.  Today, I’d like to address the first part, “We must be sure they really understand.”


As a young teacher, Frances’ emphasis on the ambiguity of language was illustrated during a private lesson that I taught. For several weeks, I had been emphasizing the importance of not buckling at the fingertip joint.  I probably even asked:  “Do you understand?”


It was a long time ago, but I can imagine the student nodding in the affirmative.  Finally, finally, I asked the student to show me where the joint was that I was asking not to buckle.  The student pointed to his knuckle bridge.  He had no idea what it was that I was trying to correct.  

Fast forward to the present:


“Cara, I’m going to show you two different ways to play.  What is the difference?”  (Demonstrating buckled tips and straight tips)


“How would you describe the way that it looked it the first way?”


Using the student’s own description, I then direct the student to play with a “wiggly” fingers (for example) on finger 3.


Next, the student demonstrates the correct way.  The student alternates between the two ways of playing so that the image and feel is clear.


I don’t ask Cara if she understands.  She has demonstrated that she understands.


This illustration highlights the importance of not assuming that the student understands because she says she does.  The student must demonstrate ownership of the concept or skill.  I believe that teachers must also take care not to assume that a student “understands” the concepts presented in a method book.  We progress to the next level at our peril if we do not assess whether or not a student can independently demonstrate ownership of each concept presented in the present level.


For example, if a student is in Music Tree 1, I do not progress to the next book until the student can independently clap and count any rhythm using ties, upbeats and rests.  The student must be able to also identify and play any note from the B below Bass F to the D above Treble G.  If a student is about to “graduate” from Music Tree 2B, he or she will demonstrate the ability to perform any rhythm using quarter, eighth, and dotted quarter notes in compound meter, and truly have command over the construction of major scales up to two sharps and two flats.  Sight playing should be fluent at the Music Tree 2A level.  Though these illustrations are from a method that not all readers use, the idea of “testing” a student on important skills particular to the method will translate to any method book.


Only when a student demonstrates understanding can we be assured that learning has taken place. Even in this happy circumstance, we must not take anything for granted and reinforce!

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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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