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Making the Grade

March 11, 2015

It has been more than a few weeks since my last posting, and I am eager to start writing again.  I need to remind readers that I gave a description of how graduate students at The New School worked side-by-side with faculty members as they completed their teaching internship.  Throughout the school term, group teaching and private lessons were observed by faculty advisors, and feedback was discussed.  The following suggestions were often made in a critique that served as a definitive guide for all teachers.


First and foremost, graduate students were told that a successful lesson motivates practice.  After having made some exciting, new discovery, the pupil should leave the lesson feeling confident and capable of playing the assignment at home.  A successful lesson is also productive in that every minute of lesson time is time well spent.  Teachers should adjust hand and body position, correct reading problems and poor fingering, list practice steps, etc. without spending too little or too much time on any one activity. “Talking, instead of doing,” is always a great waste of time and effort.  When talking does take place in a lesson, the teacher should be asking questions in lieu of giving answers.


Frances Clark and Louise Goss recommended a practice plan for teaching new pieces that use new concepts or combined skills, but they also recognized it is difficult, if not impossible, to work out all repertoire in detail due to limited lesson time.  Some instruction, however, can be offered for other assignments.  A student should never be ordered to “go home and practice.”  A section or phrase may be practiced in the lesson.   At the very least, a teaching presentation can involve a discussion of sound expectation or stylistic interpretation.  Repertoire that the student prepares without much help from the teacher should not include new concepts or new skills (supplementary music reinforces discoveries already understood).  Assignments also have to be manageable in order to be practiced well.  Too many or too few pieces either overwhelm or bore the student.  Repeated assignments become frustrating if they are reviewed for an extended period of time.  This problem of having to assign the same pieces over and over is avoided by choosing repertoire students are able to play.


In addition to these helpful observations by faculty, self-evaluation was considered a necessity for thorough training.  Most teachers want to improve their teaching skills once they have discovered for themselves that a different approach is needed.  Along with tapings of group lessons, graduate students were asked to videotape or tape-record private lessons periodically during the year.  Private lessons that were taped at the beginning of the school year were compared with lessons taped at the end of the year.  In response to being asked if students noticed an improvement in the way they were teaching, Ted Cooper replied “they are often pleased as well as surprised to learn that a great deal of progress has been made.”  Mr. Cooper acted as Educational Director for several years.  He knew from experience that graduate students had to take a good look at what they were trying to accomplish.  Mr. Cooper pointed out that graduate students could also determine if they should change their teaching approach by observing how well their assigned pupils performed in class.  A piano student who was having difficulties in his class was most likely experiencing the same problems in his private lesson.


Self-evaluation was ongoing as graduate students observed lessons taught by artist faculty.  Through comparison, they were able to make an accurate appraisal of their own approach.  As a result, ineffective teaching techniques that might otherwise become routine were discarded in favor of effective methods demonstrated by teachers who had many years of experience.  Artist faculty members taught classes of intermediate and advanced students enrolled in the “Program for Excellence in Piano Study,” an accelerated performance program that required an audition.  Demonstration lessons with students from each class were usually held before the class meeting.


Outside specialists were invited to the school so that graduate students could observe other master teachers.  For example, The New School sponsored an alumni residency program.  For one week each term, a former Clark student who had attained recognition as a distinguished pedagogue visited the school and took an active role in teaching.  Apart from lecture presentations, they conducted observations, taught private lessons and elementary classes, coached performances, and consulted with the faculty.  Sam Holland and Elvina Truman Pearce were the first associates of Miss Clark to participate in this program.


I am happy to report that faculty members at The New School still benefit from the above mentioned programs.  We are fortunate to observe Marvin Blickenstaff teaching intermediate and advanced students, many of whom participate in what we call “PEPS.”  As most of you know, Mr. Blickenstaff is a well-respected pedagogue here in The United States and abroad.  He mentors our faculty by giving much needed guidance.  Specialists also continue to visit the school.  After each presentation, we acquire new teaching skills that further our endeavor to become better teachers.


In my next blog, I will summarize content for the pedagogy classes that were listed as requirements for the degree program and certificate course.  Frances Clark believed class instruction could never replace hands-on teaching, but she did acknowledge that pedagogy classes were important since graduate students needed to study “the how and why” of teaching.

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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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