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Mary Bloom: About Onions, and Middle C

March 9, 2016


“Do not think that just because you’ve told a student something that he knows it.” – Frances Clark


Charles Heber Clark (1841-1915) was a widely recognized industrial economist, owner and editor of The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia, as well as member of the board of directors of the Presser Home for Retired Music Teachers. At the inaugural ceremony for the home’s new building, Mr. Clark shared his remembrances from his first and only piano lesson which were recounted years later in an issue of Etude Magazine:


Mrs Smythe (MS): Good morning, Charles.  My!  What lovely clean hands you have!  I can see these little fingers scampering up and down the keys like dear little kittens!  Don’t frown, dear; it’s not becoming to you.


Charles (C): Yes, Ma’am.


MS:     You see this key, here—right under the name of the maker of the piano?


C:        Yes, M’am.


MS:      Well, this key is known as Middle-C.


C:       Why did you have to whisper it to me?


MS:      That’s just one of my little tricks.  I don’t want you ever to forget that this is Middle-C.  Now strike the note several times and say, “C, C, C.”


C:       C, C, C, C


MS:     Now you KNOW that it is Middle- C.


C:        How do YOU know it is Middle-C?


MS:     How do I know it is Middle-C?  Well, I’ve just told you it is Middle-C.


C:       But why?


MS:     Simply because it IS Middle-C.


C:        Haven’t you any reason better than that?


MS:      What more reason do you want?  I say it’s Middle-C and IT IS Middle C.


C:       But who told you it is “Middle-C?


MS:    My teacher, or somebody. I’ve forgotten.


C:       Well, if you’ve forgotten, how can you prove it’s Middle-C?


MS:     You don’t have to prove it, Charlie.  I say that it’s Middle-C and therefore it is Middle-C.  How do you know your name is Charles?


C:       I don’t. I just answer to it when they call me.


MS:     Well, why wasn’t your name Bill or Tom or Dick or Jim?


C:       You’ll have to ask my Mother….. What key is this, Teacher?


MS:     That’s C, one octave above.


C:       Above what?


MS:     One octave above Middle-C


C:       What’s it doing up there?


MS:     ‘What’s it doing up there?’  Why, it’s just there, that’s all.


C:       But I thought THIS was C.


MS:     Well it IS C, and so is this C, and this C, and this C.  Do you understand?


C:       No, Teacher.


MS:      Did you have onions for breakfast, Charles?


C:       No.  I just ate one.  Can’t you play the piano if you like onions?


MS:     That is enough about onions, Charles.


C:       Well, you brought it up, Mrs. Smythe.


MS:     Let’s get back to our Middle-C.


(The Mysteries of Middle-C, A Reminiscence, by James Francis Cooke, Etude Magazine Vol 66, No. 1, January 1948)


Hilarious! Tragic! Score: Charlie 1, Mrs. Smythe 0. This agonizing scenario perfectly illustrates the concept that teaching is not telling. Charlie is ready for active and substantive learning, but unable to connect with Mrs. Smythe, even though she is eager to share her knowledge with him. Real teaching occurs when the student has direct experience with the subject, and had an opportunity to reflect and use it in a variety of different ways.  We cannot begin to understand something until we have personally experienced it. Teaching is therefore a ‘happening’.


If we change the subject of this statement to “half-note”, we get a pretty perfect example of teaching as telling: “This is a half-note; it gets two beats.” Clearly, there is no ‘happening’ going on here, but perhaps Mrs. Smythe has progressed a little in the lesson with Charlie. Let’s check in on his progress for a moment:


MS:     Now these notes in the four spaces on the G Staff spell Face—F-A-C-E.  Think of your face and you can always remember them.


C:       Whose face do they look like?


MS:     Nobody’s.  They just spell face.  Now this thing there that looks like an egg is a whole note.


C:       Yes, Ma’am.


MS:     Put a stick on the egg, like this, and presto.  It becomes a half note!


C:       Yes, Ma’am.


MS:     Black up the egg with the stick, and it becomes a quarter note.


C:       Yes, Ma’am.


MS:     Now what is this first note?


C:        An EGG.


MS:     But I told you it was a whole note.


C:       But you said at the same time it was an egg!


MS:     But you are not to call it an egg any more.  It’s a whole note!


C:       Yes, Ma’am.


MS:      Charles, I think you are making fun of me.


C:       No, honest, Teacher.  I want to learn.


MS:     Now, Charles.  I have a lot of notes written on these little cards.  I’m going to mix them all up on the table and see what we can find.  What does that look like?


C:       An omelette?


MS:     Charles!


(The Mysteries of Middle-C, A Reminiscence, by James Francis Cooke, Etude Magazine Vol 66, No. 1, January 1948)


Epic fail! Score: Charlie 2, Mrs. Smythe 0!  At least Mrs. Smythe is attempting to provide a descriptive explanation to make it easier for poor Charlie!  The problem is that without having any experience with the subject the explanation is meaningless, and Charlie knows it.


I am sure you see where this is going. Descriptive explanations provide better information for the student, but even the most detailed presentation about a new subject will be completely lacking unless the student has already had first-hand experience with the subject.


Imagine we could re-write that fateful lesson from Etude magazine using a more direct and natural route for real learning to occur:


MS:     I am very excited to be your teacher, Charlie!  Tell me what you know about the piano!


C:        It is big and loud and you play the keys.


MS:     What colors are the keys, Charlie?


C:        Black and white.


MS:     Have you ever noticed the pattern the black keys make?  Let’s find it!  Start here at the top; how many keys are in this group:


C:        Three.


MS:      And this group?


C:        Two.


MS:      Keep going. Tell me more!


C:        Three, two, three, two, three, two…………


MS:      That is fantastic!  Let’s learn a piece that uses the groups of three black keys. (MS plays a simple piece using two different groups of three black keys.  C is eager to play it and is able to play it readily).


C:        I like this piece!  Can I try it down here?  (He points to the lowest group on the keyboard)


MS:      Yes!  Let’s see what it sounds like!


C:        Woah!  It sounds really loud!


MS:      Try playing it softer!


C:        Cool!  Let’s do more!


MS:      Find a group of two black keys now.  Can you see three white keys that surround the group of two black keys?


C:        Yes!


MS:      Play it there! (C successfully plays the same piece on C, D, E)  We use letters to help talk about the white keys, and call these keys C, D, E.  Can you find another group of C, D, E?


C:        Here?  (He plays, and MS sings, C,D,E as he plays)


MS:      Yes!  Find another one and sing with me!  (They sing together as he plays)  Do you hear that these keys sound the same, only a little bit higher?


C:        Yes!


MS:       Let’s play your piece on these keys now!  (C plays) Let’s draw a picture of what we have just played.  (She notates the piece off-staff on a blank page)  Does that look like a good picture of the piece?


C:        Yes!


MS:      That was a wonderful first lesson!


C:        That was awesome!



Mary Bloom is the Head of Music Education and Piano Department Chair at Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, CT where she teaches individual and group piano, piano ensemble and piano pedagogy.  A graduate of the New School for Music Study and Westminster Choir College; BM, MM, Mary was the Coordinator of the Preparatory Division at the New School for Music Study before moving to back to her native CT.   Featured teacher at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy and the Fiftieth Anniversary of The New School for Music Study. Numerous articles and appearances at national conventions. Teachers include Phyllis Lehrer, Frances Clark, Louise Goss, Sam Holland and NMS teacher Helen Shafranek.

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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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