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Why we teach...and How

October 3, 2017


I don't do much collecting.  In earlier days I could not throw away a lovely special issue stamp, but that has long since lost its interest. 


However, I do collect two things:

         baseball caps 

         coffee mugs   


Scattered around the upstairs of my house are souvenirs of favorite trips in the form of a baseball cap or coffee mug. One of my favorite coffee mugs was found at the state music teachers association conference in Utah years ago.  It reads:


I touch the future – I teach


One could regard that as a rather glib professional statement, but to me there is something very serious about that message:  our teaching impacts livesforever …. and the quality of our teaching directly influences the ultimate impact.


That brings me to a rather simple question which I wish to pose for your consideration. 


Why do we teach?


If we were to have a general discussion about why we teach, and perhaps ask each reader to submit a minimum of two reasons we teach, there would be considerable variety but also perhaps some general consensus.


For many of us, we teach because there was a teacher in our lives who made a powerful impact, and we said figuratively "I want to model my life after my teacher and have a similar impact on my students."  That happened to me when I was in the 7th grade.  I suggested to my mother that I would like to stop piano lessons.  She asked why I would suggest such a thing and I replied that I was bored with my lessons.  My mother contacted the best teacher in the area, and after a couple of lessons with the new teacher I was convinced that piano would be a major part of my life.


You may have other reasons that you are a professional musician.  But your success as a music student or professional, your love of the sound and the ability to express life's emotions through sound has drawn you to this profession.


Perhaps we could refine our question Why do you teach? and ask more specifically…Why do you teach music?


What is there about music that is so important that we would choose to devote our professional lives to its education and proliferation?


Much of my professional life has been spent teaching college level courses in piano pedagogy.  In the first class of the introductory course I would typically ask my students to define "music."  These were all music majors, but none of them had ever been asked to define their major.  Although the definition would change somewhat from year to year, after considerable discussion the class would come up with something like Music is the expression of the total human experience through organized sound.


That definition served us well, for we would often evaluate the lesson in terms of that definition.  Did the student's sound project a feeling, an experience?  Did the lesson discussion reveal how the sound was organized?


D. H. Lawrence made a most compelling statement about the arts when we wrote:  The human being needs beauty more than bread.


So why do we teach music?  Our students need music lessons (at the piano) – more than bread, or soccer, or Facebook.


Let's refine our question one step further and ask Why do you teach young students?


Years ago, I saw a documentary on the Texas Boys' Choir.  In that film, one saw the choir in rehearsal, in concert, on tour, in recording sessions, interviews with the boys and their parents, etc.  I will never forget the conductor's answer when the interviewer asked why he chose to devote his professional career to a group of boys as opposed to an adult choir.  He said "I like to think of children as coming into the world with clean slates.  As preschoolers, indelible messages are written on the slates of their lives by family and friends, and early childhood experiences.  When I meet these boys at the ages of 9, 10, or 11 there is very little room left on the slates of their lives to write a message about the beauty of sound, the joy of making music together, and the fulfilling experience of expressing oneself through sound.  If I do not do it for them at this age, their slate may become too full."


When I meet with parents in a beginning-of-the-year Parents Meeting, I often justify the expenditure of time and finances by pointing out that we do many things to help young people develop 


• physical skills – athletics

•  to develop intellectually – school work and reading

•  music study involves both of those skills but adds another component which completes a balanced triangle and makes us whole human beings – the emotional component, the affective


Why do I teach music?  Why do I teach children?  These are important questions, for they help us maintain perspective.  We can easily bog down with incorrect scale fingerings, rhythmic difficulties, insensitive sound and allow those issues to cloud a much bigger consideration –


Why am I doing this? 


In the larger view of things, we teach music because we are in the life-saving business.  We are here to enhance and ennoble the lives of our students through involvement with the musical art.  We are in the business of creating artists, young artists, who can sit at the piano, lose themselves in sound and expression, and change their lives and the lives of their listeners.  Momentarily, perhaps, but, yes… change lives.


So, the picture is in sharp focus.

         •  we want to teach

         •  students want to make music at the piano


What could go wrong?


But, if the national statistics are correct, something does go wrong.  Seriously wrong. 


An accurate statistic is difficult to find, but indications are that within the first year of lessons over 50% of those students who begin lessons have already dropped out.  And by the end of the second year of instruction the percentage may be as high as 90%.  This does not happen in your studios, but it is a very sad, depressing national statistic.  What is so sad about these drop-out students is that they carry with them through life a scar that reads "I tried piano and I failed."  And there will probably be no other music experience in their life that will help remove the memory of that scar.


I do not worry much about a high school junior who drops piano lessons after nine years of study because life at school and with extra-curriculars is simply too complex.  I do not worry about that student because she has developed a skill that can propel her through a lifetime of enjoyment and involvement playing the instrument. 


On the other hand, I worry very much about a first or second year student who drops out with virtually no skill accumulation.  They will join the myriad of adults whom you meet at every social gathering who report to you, when they learn that you are a piano teacher, "You know, I had piano lessons when I was a child, but now I can't even find Middle C." 


Worry?  You bet!  There goes another life that does not own the experience of making expressive sound.


So what is behind that devastating drop-out statistic?  Is it all because of soccer?  or ballet?


I believe that Richard Chronister provided us a clue.  Richard Chronister was a colleague of Frances Clark, the co-founder of the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy and founder and editor of Keyboard Companion – the precursor of Clavier Companion.


In one of his earliest editorial in Keyboard Companion he wrote: "We piano teachers must realize that students enroll in piano lessons for one reason only:  to make exciting sound at the keyboard."  And then he continued… "Every lesson we teach which does not capitalize on that musical desire is cultivating a piano drop-out."


End of discussion.  Students want to make music.  And we want to teach.  So we teach with intense conviction…

         names of lines and spaces

         great hand position

         five-finger positions


         a chord here and a scale there…

See the disconnect? 


Let's look a bit more closely.


Remember our definition of music from the beginning of this article?


Music is the expression of the entire human experience through organized sound.


We would not go too far wrong if we were to put the period earlier in the sentence and focus on the first three words:  Music is expression.


So… if we were to evaluate one of our lessons … one of our music lessons … we would be sensitive to the amount of time the lesson focused on expressive sound. 

Did our questions focus on expressive sound?

What does the title tell you about the piece?

What is the composer expressing?

What do you want your listener to feel?

How can your sound be more expressive of that feeling?


May I ask a few more questions?


1.  Do you play for your students – model for your students the sound of their repertoire?

         Assumption #1:  their home piano is not as good as yours

         Assumption #2:  students do not listen to solo piano playing

         Assumption #3:  students learn most through imitation

         Conclusion:  the teacher must model beautiful, expressive, shaped sound for the student.  It is a process of ear-education.  The ear leads the process.  The fingers will find their way (with our help!)



2.  Do you encourage your students to compose?

You will be amazed what you learn. From the very first week of lessons, my students are given a “You the Composer” project on their assignments.  Their assignments at this level include

  • a title (purpose:  that their music expresses the title)

  • what to use (they feel free to compose only when they have parameters)        

Often in the first week, their “You the Composer” piece is titled Falling Leaves. The students are to limit their piece to black keys going downward to the left. In class I illustrate several different possibilities for their own compositions (it is important for the teacher to illustrate various possible solutions to the assignment.) 



3.   Do you play duets with your students?

You know how enjoyable this is.  You know how much your students love playing with you.  What you may not realize is how much you teach through duet-playing.

         a.  rhythmic stability

         b.  new level of reading – the eye must flow with the music

         c.  expression – which you model and they imitate.  It’s so important!



4.  Do you devise ways for your student to take the lesson home?

         Summarize the lesson at the end.

         Have the student record the lesson.

         "Rules of Thumb" sheet in every notebook.


5.  Do you have a file of Beautiful Pieces?

We keep in mind a number of “Boys’ Pieces,” “Pupil Savers” and showy “Recital Pieces.”  But our files may be sparse on pieces which develop special musical sensitivity.  Yet musical expression must be one of our primary goals of instruction.  “Slow” does not mean “easy,” or “boring.”  “Slow” may move the realm of musical expression from the obvious surface of fun and excitement into a profound penetration into the soul.


Our job is somewhat like that of a master weaver.  We take the golden threads of a student's native musical desire, weave in technical skill, and a strong thread of musical curiosity about the true musical nature of each piece.  The product is a fabric of wonder and great beauty.



Remember the coffee mug?  I touch the future… I teach.

May we all remember that, because of our teaching, we have touched the future lives of our students in a most profound way, for …


we teach music.


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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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