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One Step at a Time

May 2, 2015

I have to confess.  Conducting research can be challenging, especially if you are trying to describe a program of study that was comprehensive in scope.  Besides interviews and information from school literature, I had to find another way to summarize classroom instruction since I could not attend pedagogy classes every week.  There was only one option.  I had to look at lecture notes.  Much to my surprise, these notes were detailed.   After reading the notes, I was able to piece together the puzzle.  I should mention that I feel fortunate to have concluded my observations in 1998 and then finish writing my thesis as the last student graduated.  Because the pedagogy curriculum evolved over decades, documentation that described the curriculum as it existed at the end of Frances Clark’s long and impressive career was needed.


Along with hands-on teaching, all pedagogy classes were considered essential, but “The Teaching-Learning Process and the Piano Teacher” was the heart and core of the curriculum.  Graduate students discussed the reasons for why the nature of learning dictates a step-by-step progression (i.e. the known leads to the unknown).  In addition to a review of learning theories set forth by William James, Alfred North Whitehead, and other educational psychologists, lectures included other topics such as developing practice skills, organizing lesson plans, preparing for recitals, and teaching memorization.  As a continuation of the orientation program, the intermediate series of The Clark Library and Keyboard Musician for the Adult Beginner were also examined. In the past, both Frances Clark and Louise Goss taught this class.  Miss Goss was teaching when I observed pedagogy classes.


Before I move on, I need to reiterate what I have said about the design of Frances Clark’s piano course.  In previous blogs, I have explained how Frances Clark and Louise Goss changed the way instructors taught by organizing a course that introduced just one new concept instead of several concepts at once.  This teaching approach that proceeds in steps is still a feature of the Clark method books.  As soon as one concept is understood, a new concept that relates to what has already been presented is introduced.  All new concepts are also prepared for presentation by following a sequence that begins with the sound and physical feel of that sound before the sign and name are revealed.  Piano students who are taught this way have an immediate response to the sign because they have learned to identify the sound and sign as being one and the same.  Ear training is combined with reading insofar as students listen to the sound first.


In class, Louise Goss emphasized that a pupil’s initial experience with a new concept has a long lasting effect that can be good or bad depending on how the concept is introduced.  Doing the right steps in the right order makes a strong impression, but a presentation that lacks structure is confusing and ineffective. Having to reintroduce the same concepts because of a weak presentation can become tiresome. To avoid remedial teaching, Miss Goss recommended that teachers reinforce the sound-feel-sign-name sequence for each discovery.


During orientation and throughout their training, graduate students were taught that they could reinforce the sound and feel of new concepts in preparatory exercises (e.g clapbacks and playbacks).  Following thorough preparation, they could then use an “editing exercise” to reinforce the presentation of the sign and name. First, the teacher performs a composition from The Music Tree or a short four to eight measure phrase as piano students listen and look at the music notated on the board.  After the teacher plays the piece/phrase a second time with a change made, students describe the new sound, the sign is written in the music, and everyone plays the edited version (preparatory exercises can be repeated before playing).  For example, pupils listen to the teacher play “Landing” from Time to Begin.  This piece that is composed in 4/4 time is then played again in 5/4 time, and each group of four quarter notes is changed to three quarter notes and a half note.  The new discovery of a half note is also the rhythm for the next piece titled, “In a Canoe.”  With exercises designed like the Clark course, piano students make discoveries based on prior experience, and eventually, they take the lead in finding what is new.  Miss Goss demonstrated how the exercise can be used to reinforce the initial presentation of a sign as well as discoveries already presented.


Immediately after preparation and presentation, new concepts should be reviewed in playing and writing assignments for follow-through.  In addition to supplementary repertoire and other playing activities, composition exercises should be assigned at every lesson so piano students can apply what they have learned while they also explore the keyboard.  Workbook assignments have to be completed as each unit is studied in order to be effective.  The teacher should finish one workbook example with the student during the lesson to make sure the exercise is understood.  It may take several months of repeated application before a concept becomes acquired knowledge.  Miss Goss stated that teachers have not taught a new concept until the student can do it naturally.  Ending with success is always the rule.


Although I will have to I write several blogs to summarize course content for this one pedagogy class, I believe you will want to keep reading because the information is interesting and helpful. Questions are answered as to why a specific teaching technique is necessary.  In addition, those of us who did not complete our training at The New School can certainly benefit from learning more about Frances Clark’s teaching approach.  As a matter of fact, you may be teaching using Miss Clark’s approach right now.  The design of her piano course as well as her teaching philosophies have made their way into the mainstream.  Look closely at your teaching materials, and you will recognize her many innovations, including intervallic note reading and black key compositions that allow students to move up and down the keyboard with freedom of motion.  Because Frances Clark’s influence is pervasive, we should continue to study her unprecedented achievements.

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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.

February 13, 2018

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