In the spring of 1980, I arrived for my audition at the New School along with my college piano professor, Sister M. Immaculate Severino. We were shown into the school’s “living room” teaching studio where we awaited Frances’ arrival. And what an arrival it was – “Who closed that keyboard cover?!” Frances’ contralto voice tunneled into the room before she even materialized in the doorway. Both Sister and I startled upward in a flash at her sudden, dramatic appearance. As in the pictures I’d seen of her, Frances was smartly dressed, complete with her signature coiffed hair and deep red lipstick. As she came through the foyer towards our room she had spied something which was a bit of a “pet peeve” of hers – a closed keyboard cover. She beamed an impish grin at us and launched us into a lively (but intimidating) exchange of ideas on whether a piano’s keyboard cover should ever be closed (No). No formal introductions had taken place, and just moments earlier, I had been contentedly sitting on a sofa with barely a thought in my head - I knew in that instant that I had better be wide awake for Frances.
My study at the New School was the most dramatic period of growth in my academic life. We pedagogy students were in awe of Frances’ genius, but petrified of her incisive criticism at the same time. It didn’t take long for us to learn that she had little patience for a student who didn’t apply himself 100%. There were four pedagogy students in the program that fall, and during one of our earliest orientation period pedagogy lectures, Frances directed us to retrieve “Technic Tunes” from our teaching studios. We flew from our seats and bounded down the hall, soon realizing that we owned “Technic”, and “Tune Time,” – there was even a “Playtime” ( was it A, B, or C she wanted?), but we knew of no book in the Frances Clark Library entitled “Technic Tunes.” We dreaded going back to her empty-handed, so after a frenetic hallway huddle, we flew back to the classroom laden down with just about every book in the Frances Clark Library -roughly 60. It was a rare mistake for Frances, who knew every note on every page of every piano book in that collection. I’ve long since forgotten which book she had wanted us to get, but I do remember that we all exhaled into breathless laughter when after realizing her mistake, Frances quipped, "Well, I intend to, but I haven’t yet written Technic Tunes!"
Frances taught us to hold ourselves to the highest standards in our teaching:
“If the student doesn’t put the assignment in his binder at the lesson you are assigning him not to do it.”
“If the student hasn’t learned it, it’s because you haven’t taught it.”
“Our most important task is to become dispensable to the student.”
Frances “lived” highest standards too – in professional settings she was always flawlessly groomed and exquisitely dressed. But because she lived in a small suite on the 2nd floor of the New School, during “after hours” you might bump into her as she was clad in her housecoat and slippers. During these times she didn’t shy away from you, rather, she would likely engage you in conversation, usually about one of your students about whom she had been thinking. She was comfortable being the teacher no matter where she was or how she appeared.
On one occasion, Frances appeared for our early afternoon pedagogy lecture dressed in a stylish blouse. Our class took place immediately after lunch, and, unfortunately, Frances hadn’t noticed that a sizeable food crumb had lodged squarely in the middle of the neck tie. None of us even imagined pointing it out to her, of course. Frances lectured for about half an hour when Louise Goss entered the room to prepare for a lesson and abruptly shrieked, “Why, Frances, you’ve got food on your blouse!” Without a moment’s hesitation, Frances plucked the crumb and popped it into her mouth, replying, "I know - I put it there to enjoy later as an afternoon snack!” We were slack-jawed for a moment before collapsing into peals of laughter.
In my second year at the New School, a pedagogy student by the name of Craig Sale arrived to begin the professional certificate program. He and I hit it off immediately, and before long we decided to co-host a Halloween costume party. We decided to invite our fellow teachers and Frances and Louise, and secretly make it a “Music Tree Halloween party,” complete with a “Look & Listen” theme. Signs were to be strategically placed around the venue pointing out the way to the event - -
LOOK! The party is up these stairs!
LISTEN! Can you hear the beat of the music playing?
LOOK! The tasty food is over here!
I believe it was Craig’s ingenious idea that we should dress up as Chip and Bobo! Naturally, Craig at 6’5” would be “Bobo” the dog, and I, at 5’3” would dress as the chipmunk “Chip.” For days we giggled with excitement as we planned the details of the party, but it was a risky plan - we weren’t sure how Frances would react to our personifying her beloved characters. We practically exhaled in unison as Frances and Louise arrived in costume and immediately delighted in our creative use of the theme, and lavished warm praise on our costumes. This was momentous validation for us, and it further impressed on us Frances’ philosophy of enlarging your common experiences with a student so that communication can occur.
Frances called teaching a study in the art of communication. Since music is a temporary art which cannot be adequately described in words, she insisted that we teach with as few words as possible. She modeled this daily in her teaching. She might simply use facial expression, gestures, or pure sound - singing or playing and having the student imitate, for example. She also knew that a student’s new discovery or a change in their playing had to be made in a dramatic way. And, of course, Frances could be a drama queen, and she certainly did revel in it - often she would begin a lesson with a jarring slam of the door and a robust “Hello!” Just like that day I first met her, I was never expecting it, but I knew it meant that something exciting and very memorable was about to happen.
Joan Fasullo is a graduate of Marywood University and the New School for Music Study's Professional Certificate Program. The former owner of Clear Lake Piano Studio (Houston, TX) and Brandywine Piano Studio (Wilmington, DE), Fasullo has been Faculty with Distinction at The Music School of Delaware since 1986 where she initiated the group piano program for children and adults. Fasullo is the founder and former president of Northern Delaware Music Teachers Association. She and her husband are the parents of four young adult children.