Notes from the New School - Day 1

“Frances Clark made piano teaching into an art and a science. . .Something to pursue in a professional and thoughtful way,” said Amy Glennon, Educational Director for the New School in response to my first question, “What was Frances Clark’s greatest impact on the field of piano pedagogy?”  Faculty member Tracy Grandy added the following to the list: intervallic reading, the inclusion of educational learning theories (creating a student-oriented pedagogy approach), experiential learning, and the emphasis on preparation. Marvin Blickenstaff, faculty member and PEPS Director said “the concept of preparation-presentation-reinforcement. . . .Most materials lack the preparation and the reinforcement so they really only present material.”  He also noted the unique approach to reading with landmarks and intervals.  Indeed, the primary aspects of effective and innovative teaching I observed during my time at the New School were intervallic reading; educational philosophy; and the complete cycle of preparation, presentation, and follow-through.

April 20, 2010

My first observation was a private lesson with faculty member and Admissions Director, Rebecca Pennington.  The student, Christina was in her seventh year of piano study.  Rebecca began the lesson with technique exercises: a diminished five-finger pattern progression, a tapping and counting activity in preparation for scale playing, major scales with cadences, and a one-octave arpeggio with review of when to use the third and fourth fingers.  Next, Rebecca played a series of blocked and broken intervals and asked Christina to name them.  “Is this a second or a fifth?” was soon followed by a more thought-provoking question, “How can you tell the difference?”  The teaching style was very student-oriented; Rebecca asked questions rather than giving answers, incorporated historical and theoretical contexts, and addressed the student by name frequently.  Practice techniques were taught and rehearsed in the lesson allowing Christina to learn through experience.

Next, I observed a private lesson with faculty member and Administrative Director, Scott Donald.  Sally was in her first year of study.  The lesson began with technique: a B Major scale, a discussion on thumb-crossing, and a review of the key signature for Sally’s “best” scale.  Scott asked many thoughtful questions such as, “How would you rate that performance?” and when working on pedal changes, “Was there a gap in the sound?”  Two measures of rhythm were reviewed on a white board in preparation for their musical context–Sally’s newest song.  As seen before, practice strategies were experienced in the lesson and Sally verbalized ways she would practice each piece in the days to come.  In preparation for the supplemental book, Jazz, Rags, and Blues, Scott introduced a five-finger blues pattern with swung eighth notes.  First, Sally copied his melody but then she had the opportunity to improvise in the same style and within the same five-finger pattern, accompanied by Scott’s walking bass.  This was a great way to introduce Sally to the sound and feel of jazz, rags, and blues.

Angela Leising teaches a bi-weekly repertoire class for eight 11-year-old students.  Structured in the form of a masterclass, each student brings a prepared piece to play and students who are listening study copies and extra scores.  Angela guided the students’ listening by asking questions: “What will you listen for in this performance?”  Following each performance, students were asked to provide comments (positive and constructive) and were encouraged to be specific.  This is an excellent opportunity for students to gain performance experience, work under another teacher, and gain feedback from peers.  Additionally, it provides a forum for students to articulate musical comments–a skill too often left to collegiate study.

Marvin Blickenstaff, and a high school PEPS student, Grace, were already in the midst of Chopin’s Etude in C Minor when I snuck in to observe.  Together, they identified the salient motives, determined the differences between the lines of each hand, rehearsed the rhythmic structure, and discussed Chopin’s individualistic thoughts on trills.  Similar to the other faculty members, Marvin sought answers from Grace by asking questions and engaging her in conversation about the music.  Comments such as, “Talk to me about the fingering in this scale” when working on the first page of the Pathetique Sonata and, “What are four ways you are going to practice this?” assessed Grace’s understanding and encouraged dialogue.