I arrived in Kingston, NJ, in 1977 after being accepted into the New School for Music Study’s Piano Pedagogy Certificate program. I lived right across the street in a house that had been the wheelwright shop in the 1800’s for stagecoach repairs, as Kingston is located just halfway between Philadelphia and New York. I had auditioned shortly before that, playing a Chopin Etude for Frances. I remember clearly her feedback that day. She beamed with a bright smile and said, ‘Isn’t that a perfectly exquisite piece!’ I knew immediately that this was musician code-speak for ‘...but there are a few things you may be missing in your interpretation!’ Always drawn to a challenge, I was hooked, and looked forward to learning all I could from this charismatic woman.
Frances would drop in on my private lessons with young students and I would get both written and verbal feedback. One precocious student of mine was playing his piece at a very fast tempo and I remember thinking, ‘Frances is going to be very impressed with his progress.' I was surprised when, afterwards, she let me know in no uncertain terms that I was going to ‘ruin that boy’ if I didn’t have him slow down! The written word does not do justice to the inflection and force in her delivery! I will never forget that lesson and I learned it well. Frances had a certain gravitas and command which made every lesson extremely memorable.
I remember how Frances impressed on us in pedagogy classes how critical it was to know what to do with ‘transfer’ students; those who came to the studio after already having lessons. She gave a definitive lecture on strategies to bring their reading level up to New School standards, which rarely was the case with transfer students. She also addressed the psychological issue of tricking them into thinking they were still playing advanced repertoire when they were actually doing remedial work. We were sent on exhaustive searches for repertoire that sounded harder than it was and also had good pedagogical lessons to teach, such as Toccatina by Kabalevsky, Contemporary Piano Literature level 4.
Her groundbreaking ideas on the black key approach and codifying intervallic reading have influenced every method book on the market today. No one knows this better than those who actually studied with her. We were able to observe and share her thought process daily, as the dual philosophy and music scholar she was. We marveled at her sweeping ability to see the big picture (think ancient Greek educational philosophy up to the present) and to distill the salient points into concrete, sequential steps that a five year old could understand. I have never met any teacher since, who could do this as brilliantly as Frances could.
One surprising thing that happened when I left the New School was how much I missed the daily criticism. Each day our mailboxes would be filled with these little sheets of paper with comments and criticisms from Frances, Louise, and other pedagogy students. Even visitors from around the world who were often dropping in to observe were required to leave feedback. At first, it was a soul-crushing experience to learn everything you had failed at that day. Over time, an odd phenomenon occurred. At the end of each day we would be found rushing to our boxes, poring over our comments like some kind of covert addiction we craved! It was exhilarating to be challenged and to receive any small sign of progress. When I left and entered academia I had an empty feeling at the end of each day for at least two years, wondering how I was doing and did anyone else even care how I was doing?!
The last four years of her life I gave birth to my son, Evan, and Frances shared a lively correspondence with me requesting photos and news about his development. After she passed a few years later, Evan, then eight years old, surprised me one day with a beautiful and dramatic piece he wrote naming it ‘The Ghost of Frances Clark.' Frances still casts a very long shadow.
Exactly forty years later now, Frances continues to go to work with me every day. She remains an inspiring presence that helps me solve a myriad of problems by asking the simple question, ‘What would Frances do?’ This has become my mental mailbox over the years. I have a large framed piano pedagogy tree that my college students designed with Frances sitting prominently near the top branches. It travels back in time through her teacher, Isidor Philipp and so on, down to the roots of the tree arriving at J.S. Bach in a surprising, mere eight generations of teachers. I feel both the weight and the warmth of that legacy every day as I pass along the inspiration of our art to my students.
Susan Bruckner is a pianist, teacher and writer with degrees from the Eastman School of Music, the New School for Music Study, and the San Francisco Conservatory. She has done extensive research on learning styles and neuroscience research pertinent to musicians and is author of the book, The Whole Musician. She currently directs the piano department at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, California. Susan gives frequent teacher workshops, most recently at the European Piano Teacher’s Assoc. in Helsinki, Finland. Her teachers include Frances Clark, Jerome Lowenthal, Estelle Pavia & Gary Amano.