Whenever I visit the New School, my trip is filled with memories. My most recent trip was no exception and stirred some long-forgotten images. As always, at the center of these memories was Frances Clark.
When I auditioned to enroll on the New School’s Certificate in Piano Pedagogy program in January 1981, I did not meet Frances because she was ill with the flu. I had seen her at a pedagogy conference but only “knew” her through The Music Tree. The following August I arrived in the parking lot of the New School after a long hot drive from Illinois. My possessions were loaded in a U-Haul trailer that I was going to leave in the lot. It was a Sunday. No one was there except for Frances, who lived in a small apartment upstairs. She came down to greet me and my parents and to welcome me to the school. Because it was not a working day, Frances was dressed in her casual attire - a house coat and knee socks. I was in a rumpled t-shirt and jeans. As I parted that day she said with gusto, “I will see you tomorrow! I won’t look like this and you won’t look like that!” I wasn’t sure if that was a statement of fact or a warning. But it certainly let me know that life with Frances would keep me on my toes.
I soon came to learn that studying with Frances would be the most intensely focused experience of my life. Pedagogy class was held in the classroom with 2 or 3 others; Frances sitting directly across from us at one of the low tables. The brilliance of this amazing woman inspired awe, excellence, and fear. There was no “getting by”, even when we were doing well. In one private conference with Frances following a private lesson observation, she challenged me as to why I had done something with a student. After I gave my reason she replied with an engaging sense of delight, “Well, you are good. But…” and proceeded to challenge me to think of other options.
When you had done something unsuccessful in a lesson you dreaded her criticism. It was not just an error. You had fallen short of your immense responsibility to the student and the music. Once, another pedagogy student was being challenged about what he had done in a lesson. He was not owning his responsibility or his error. Repeatedly, Frances said, “You made a mistake. Admit it. Just admit it.” Finally, after several rounds of this he sincerely said, “I made a mistake.” Frances immediately responded “Well, don’t dwell on it.” It was comical and yet represented a truth about teaching. Even when we have the best intentions we make mistakes. We need to recognize them and then move on to understanding why it happened and what we need to do next.
On my most recent visit to the New School, I noticed the burning bushes outside the classroom window just beginning to turn red. On the grayest day, Frances would come into the classroom and marvel at the magnificent color. “Who needs the sun?!” she would exclaim. Once again, she was so right.
Frances was a larger-than-life personality who, in the end, inspired us to be better teachers than we imagined possible and to take time to marvel at the beauty of life. The New School was and remains a special place of inspired teaching and intense living.
Craig Sale, of Tucson, AZ, is a pianist, teacher, workshop clinician, author and editor. For thirty years he served as Director of the Preparatory and Community Piano Program at Concordia University Chicago, where he taught university courses in piano pedagogy.
Craig holds performance degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign, and a Professional Teaching Certificate from the New School for Music Study where he studied piano pedagogy with Frances Clark and Louise Goss.
He serves on the Board of Trustees for the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, is an Associate Editor for Clavier Companion magazine and served as editor for the highly praised book, The Success Factor in Piano Teaching by Elvina Pearce (www.keyboardpedagogy.org/publications).