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Practice, practice, practice

November 11, 2014

Okay, here goes. I did say I would give a description of the orientation program at The New School for Music Study obtained through research in the last few years prior to 2000. At that time, the school offered both a Master’s degree and “Certificate of Professional Achievement.”


Graduate students did not begin teaching until they had completed basic training.The orientation program was scheduled immediately after Labor Day, three weeks before the piano department opened. First-year graduate students were required to attend all sessions. Second-year students attended at least six classes in addition to helping faculty advisors with orientation activities. By taking part in the orientation program again, graduate students who had already been through the program could assist in the training of new student teachers, a cycle of training that was repeated year after year.


Frances Clark’s teaching philosophies were discussed as graduate students became acquainted with the school’s teaching methods. Then as now, the faculty at The New School believed that everyone can learn how to play the piano. In Miss Clark’s own words: “There is music in every child.”  The potential of each piano student can be realized if the student develops as a complete and well-rounded musician from the first lesson. This involves an ability to communicate the meaning of the music that comes from a secure understanding of notation and form, a strong sense of rhythm, and control of technique.  For students to accomplish what they are capable of achieving, they also need to feel comfortable in the lesson. To build self-confidence, teachers should praise students when praise is earned. Each lesson should begin and end with success.


Besides believing in the rewards of a well-rounded approach and positive reinforcement, the faculty guaranteed that piano students will succeed if they experience what needs to be learned. The sound-feel-sign-name sequence affords the best opportunity for success because students learn the symbolism for new concepts after they have already experienced these concepts in preparatory activities that progress from ear and hand to eye. Completing all three steps of the learning process is also fundamental in teaching. Although the Clark method structures preparation, presentation, and follow-through of new concepts so the teacher does not have to do this, graduate students were told to reinforce each step as much as possible.


Throughout the course of their training, graduate students were reminded that the teacher must never do anything for their piano students because it is so important that students learn by doing.  Asking questions in lieu of telling students the answers is always the better approach since students have to understand how they are learning before they are able to work by themselves. Eventually, Frances Clark’s method of teaching piano students to be self-reliant makes the teacher dispensable.  If a student fails to learn, it is because the teacher has failed to guide his or her development as a self-motivated learner.


In preparation for teaching The Music Tree, graduate students filled out a series of charts, identifying new discoveries in every unit of the lesson books, and the Educational Director provided an analysis of course structure. The workbooks were also examined.  As the faculty suggested special teaching techniques, graduate students practiced many of these new techniques. For example, they performed the rhythm studies in the Clark course to learn how to demonstrate the exercises. To experience how to demonstrate technic, they played the warm-ups and selected repertoire from each lesson book with correct hand and arm movement. An overview of the intermediate course followed this detailed analysis of The Music Tree. A thorough study of the intermediate series was completed in pedagogy classes.


Faculty advisors demonstrated effective presentation of new concepts in lessons with pupils who were registered in the school’s piano department. Following observation, graduate students were asked to describe the learning process: e.g. “List the steps completed in rhythm preparation.” They then practiced suggested teaching techniques in lessons with each other, and the faculty pointed out what needed to be improved. The same format was repeated as every lesson book in The Music Tree was examined; after activities were discussed and rehearsed, presentation was demonstrated, and teaching was practiced.


During the orientation session, graduate students performed the repertoire they would be teaching in ensemble classes supervised by Phyllis Lehrer, artist faculty member. Ensemble procedure was rehearsed—hands “float up” to the keys, eye contact is made, an upbeat is indicated with a breath, and hands “float down.” A Music Tree recital was held on the last day of orientation. The recital was videotaped for later discussion and review.


I plan to finish this overview of the orientation program in my next blog. I will begin by giving examples of other preparatory activities that graduate students practiced in their initial training. In addition, I will focus on what they needed to do in order to teach new music with ease and efficiency.


As you can see, my blogs are not brief because there is a vast amount of information to reveal. I am trying to describe the art of teaching students how to learn by following a step-by-step approach. Frances Clark and Louise Goss did assert that artistry can be attained, but only if teaching is practiced often and well.

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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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