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A Week of Reflections: Pedagogy in Practice

June 19, 2017

In an effort to get back into posting on pianopedagogy.org, I challenged myself to write “a thought a day” about basic pedagogy principles that inform teaching decisions I made this week. Each day, I added a new thought.  This week-long journey took me in unexpected directions, including a bit of research on learning temperaments.


Day 1: “DOING”

An adult student was playing “Celebration” by Roger Grove, from Music Tree 2B (Clark, Goss, distributed by Alfred Publishing). I was so pleased with her preparation. She mastered the left hand moves in one week and played at a completely steady tempo. There was just one thing to improve: she was lifting the pedal prematurely, therefore, there was a gap in her sound.


I began to type into her assignment sheet: “Hold the pedal longer, until the staccato.” I knew right away that this practice instruction could be improved because it wasn’t… a practice instruction! Better: “Practice the left hand alone with the pedal. Lift your foot when you play the staccato 5th.” Normally, I’d specify the number of times she should play the left hand alone, but I think once will do it, as this figure is repeated again and again.


My next student, a very, very sleepy 11-year old, was playing “Knights Tale” by Jon George (Students Choice 2, distributed by Alfred Publishing). Again, there was a pedal issue, but this time, the heel wasn’t on the floor, but she was pumping up and down from the knee. Hadn’t we worked on proper pedaling before? What was going on? For one thing, flip flops weren’t the best pedal gear and this muggy, dark, depressing New Jersey day wasn’t helping her mood, sitting position, etc. In the practice instructions part of the assignment, I began to type: “Keep your heel on the floor!” Again, this wasn’t a practice suggestion, it was an order, which might be ignored. Instead, I chose: “Practice moving the pedal up and down, without playing the piano. Keep your heel on the floor.” I thought this was a better idea and might help her to isolate and fix the heel issue. I also suggested practicing with supportive shoes on the feet.


None of this is earth-shattering, but I do think there’s something important about giving students instructions about DOING, the more specific, the better. Other examples:

  • Instruction: “Fix the rhythm in measure 5!”

  • Better: “Tap and count measure 5, Play and count measure 5 3X a day.”


  • Instruction: “Listen for dynamic contrast!”

  • Better: “Circle all of the dynamic markings. Play the first measure of each new dynamic mark, exaggerating each dynamic change.”




In this second day of the “blogging every day” challenge I made for myself, I am realizing that teaching (and life in general) is full of “material.” No definite thoughts presented themselves with my first few students, but a teacher question caused me to think a lot about how subtle differences in the language we use with students can make a difference.


The teacher I spoke with was struggling with the apparent conflict between fostering student independence and efficient use of lesson time. During a recent lesson, a student in level 2A recently used the incorrect finger. Instead of “telling” the student the correct finger, he directed the student to “check your fingering,” with the goal of the student thinking vs. the teacher telling. This instruction was followed by silence… and more silence. Throughout my conversation with my colleague, I kept on thinking of the Venn diagram, one circle representing the teacher, the second circle representing the student, and the intersecting area representing the area in which we can teach effectively.


In the teacher’s “circle,” fingering is a term that is used so often, and the word itself means a great deal. After all, pianists can spend literally hours finding the perfect fingering for a piece. The word “fingering” is part of our vocabulary, but not necessarily part of the general population’s vocabulary. In the student’s “circle,” it might be unlikely that he cares as deeply about correct fingering as his teacher. He may not even be all that interested in pleasing his teacher, certainly not as eager to please as a pianist pursuing a music degree in college. So how can we teach in the area of common understanding?


I shared with this teacher some questions I used in the past year with students: “What finger are you playing?” followed by “What finger number do you see in the book?” “What key are you playing?” followed by “What note do you see in the book?” I believe that these questions  focus the student’s mind on what is happening at that very moment, helping with awareness.


The conversation with my friend continued with his wondering why another student fails to come in to his lesson with correct notes and rhythm and without a halting quality to the playing. Again, this was an issue with independence: the student by now should be able to prepare pieces independently and correctly. As we discussed the situation further, we realized that the repertoire level is probably generally too difficult for this transfer student. For now, pedagogical repertoire with lots of patterns might be more successful. In my own teaching, I have needed to check in on this: Am I choosing the repertoire level by where I think the student should be, or by where the student is?


Today’s thought: independence is a very worthy and important goal. Finding common ground, asking the right questions, choosing suitable repertoire, and drilling important musicianship skills are just a few ways to get to this goal. In other words, even though independence is a student-centered goal, the teacher’s role is paramount.



Wednesday’s group lesson is always a highlight of my week. The students are bright and energetic. Today, we had fun preparing eighth notes. The preparation of new concepts follows this sequence described by Frances Clark:


  • FEEL

  • SIGN

  • NAME

Today, our students experienced the sound and feel of 8th notes through a nursery rhyme:


Peas porridge hot,

Peas porridge cold,

Peas porridge in the pot

Nine days old.

Some like it hot,

Some like it cold,

Some like it in the pot

Nine days old.


In the previous week, the students memorized this rhyme through “say-backs” and then said the rhyme while tapping the pulse on their laps. Next, students performed the rhythm with rhythm sticks, thinking of the nursery rhyme but not saying the words. This week, we followed up on this activity with some improvisation on the pianos. Student one played blocked fifths on C and G in half notes, student two played whole note E’s, student 3 alternated between left hand C and right hand C in half notes, and student 4 played any notes he liked in a C major five-finger pattern. (Since this class hasn’t yet learned major five-finger patterns, I just showed him where to start).  Students then switched parts. This was a lot of fun, and students got to experience the sound and feel of eighth notes.


Several nursery rhymes can serve as the basis for improvisation and composition, and many are useful in feeling compound meter.


Day 4: LEARNING STYLES (or Golay – Hurrah!)

Back in 2014, the following quote was posted on this site:

 “Teachers tend to do what is comfortable.  Thus, they tend to teach others as if they were like themselves.  Yet, what may be natural for one person, may be devastating for another.”


A reader recently responded, wanting to learn more about Golay. Just as I was finishing my teaching today, I came across a book in the teaching studio: Golay, K. (1982). Learning patterns and temperament styles. Newport Beach, Calif.: Manas-Systems. (a side note: if one were trapped inside The New School for Music Study, there would be enough reading material for literally months).


Obviously, it is best to get this book, but I thought I would outline the four types of learners Golay describes:

  1. Actual-Spontaneous Learner (ASL)

  2. Actual-Routine Learner (ARL)

  3. Conceptual-Specific Learner (CSL)

  4. Conceptual-Global Learner (CGL)


The Actual-Spontaneous Learner (roughly 38% of students):

  • Hands-on

  • Wants to learn from experience

  • “Knowledge only has significance when it has immediate relevance.”

  • Wants to live “as freely as possible” in an unrestricted environment.

  • Tends to become restless and have behavior issues.

It seems to me that students these days are more likely to be diagnosed than described, for example, being diagnosed with ADD vs. being described as having a particular learning style.


The Actual-Routine Learner (38% of students):

  • Seeks a structured environment

  • Follows rules faithfully

  • Can be distressed if the schedule is changed or there is a disruption in routine

  • Eager to please the teacher

  • Takes report cards seriously

  • Desire to be helpful to the teacher

  • Some difficulty with creating something spontaneously


Conceptual-Specific Learner: (AKA “The Little Scientist,” 12% of students)

  • Wants to know how ideas are put together

  • Not as interested in “isolated facts, but wants to use theories and principles to explain the facts.”

  • Desires to learn through experiment.

  • Creative thinker

  • Very curious

  • Can become bored with routine tasks, repetition, drills

  • High standards, can become “hyper-alert to shortcomings.”

  • Frequently has difficulty relating to others, difficulty showing emotion or affection.


Conceptual-Global Learner: (12% of students)

  • More interested in “what could be than in what was or is.”

  • Reality is subjective.

  • Tends to work on hunches or impressions, not as much by step-by-step solutions.

  • Sensitive, “creations tend to be extensions of the self and are strongly tied up with their identity. Thus if their product is rejected in the slightest way they are apt to be devastated. To reject the creation is to reject the person.” (I included a longer quote here, because I think this is particularly relevant when working with music students.) “Hypersensitive.”

  • Excellent communicator.

  • Seek to be unique, yet also want to please, tend to seek attention.

  • Friendships are important.

  • Empathetic and intuitive.

  • Thrive with an empathetic teacher.


My instinct is usually to reject putting people in categories, but I couldn’t resist seeing my students, family members, and myself in these descriptions. Understanding learning styles might help teachers work more productively with students, particularly, those students with different learning styles from their own. As a CGL I hope the readers of this summary are pleased to learn more about Golay’s work!



Today I’m beating myself up a little bit. I have a wonderful student who is performing in a special recital for more advanced students on Sunday. Today, her piece wasn’t sounding as secure as she would have hoped. It wasn’t a “train wreck,” but there were a few places where she restarted a passage. My mistake: choosing a “stretch piece” – something a bit more difficult than her previous repertoire at a time of year when students tend to be very busy. My student had just scored very high marks in an assessment program and I wanted to “reward” her with something big and bold… some reward! She’s now stressing out and I should have known better!


We worked on the difficult spots for some time, practicing very slowly and with great attention to technique. By the end of the lesson, she played the piece fluently, so there shouldn’t be the same level of worry, but a friend once told me: “In order to prepare for a stressful situation, I need to make sure I am at 125% so that I can give 100%.


Before my student’s last lesson performance, the more successful one, I told her how I felt about her. I see her as a life-long musician; she will love the piano her whole life. No matter what happens on Sunday (and I assured her I thought it would go well), it is just one performance of many past and future performances. No matter what, it’s a great thing that she studied this piece – she is learning so much about relaxation and tone production! After the lesson she gave me a long hug. I hate feeling I’ve failed a student, but I suppose that as well as taking the long view of the student, I have to take the long view of myself as a teacher, one who will love teaching her whole life.


***NOTE: The student did well with her challenging recital piece. She was nervous beforehand, but played with energy and style.







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