April 21, 2010 Three sixth grade girls shared two benches pushed together in front of the piano keyboard as they rehearsed “Spring Violets” for the upcoming New School recital. All three private teachers gathered in the studio to listen, observe, and coach. “Who is the steadiest?” one teacher asked during a conversation about tempo and control. Few verbal instructions were given to allow students time to play and self-correct. Responsible for defining their practice at home, each student was asked, “What is your specific homework for this piece?” Similar to previous observations, students verbalized their practice work as the teachers made notes on their assignment pages.
The trio rehearsal was only the first part of the lesson so the students dispersed with their respective teachers after 15 minutes. I thought I would be able to tell which teacher taught which student; due to the collaborative nature of the faculty’s approach, however, I was unable to differentiate. I remained to observe Todd van Kekerix with student, Emma. Todd was very soft-spoken in his approach and he often paused in reflection before asking a question or offering a suggestion. Great emphasis was placed on phrasing in the piece, “Barcarolle” from Accent on Gillock. “Analyze what you heard there,” Todd asked. After discussing sequencing and shaping, Todd queried, “How are you going to apply what we just did to the second page?” Assessing Emma’s understanding, Todd had her mark the “mores” and “lesses” of each phrase.
Amy Glennon and first-year student, Sophie began with a review of technique: a 1-5-3 pattern in B-flat Major. In a span of five minutes or so, Amy discussed leaning to reach extreme registers, rotation of the wrist, graceful register shifts, and transposition (to C Minor). Next they reviewed the scales of D Major, G Major, and F Major with the piece “High Dive” from The Music Tree. They added A Major by expanding the already familiar five-finger pattern. Sophie’s “special piece” for the recital was well-prepared and very musical. Last week, Amy introduced the idea of voicing an inner melody within the right hand and Sophie incorporated this very well. This week, the new concept was pedaling. Sophie was introduced to the sound and feel of pedaling by listening to Amy’s demonstration, pedaling along with her performance, and then matching the sound she created. “I’m going to give you your own special ‘Sophie’s Warm-Up,’” Amy stated. She demonstrated broken fifths between the hands, pedaling every four beats (i.e. C-G [left hand], C-G [right hand] while chanting, “Up, down, hold it”). This was intended as a practice exercise to prepare Sophie for the pedaling demands in her recital piece.
The Music Tree 1 group classes meet for an hour each week. This particular class, taught by Amy and New School interns, Judith Jain and Lis Malcolm, had a full lesson plan of activities to accomplish. As students found their seats in the classroom, the teachers checked practice logs and written assignments from the activity book. The first activity, called “Take a Trip” reinforced intervals and direction through sound and feel. A volunteer played the piano at the front of the room while the rest of the class participated by raising their hands, wiggling the first finger to play the exercise, and playing along in the air. All patterns took place within a five-finger position and were often taken from new song material (another aspect of preparation).
Each student performed a “special piece” in preparation for the recital. Great emphasis is placed on ensemble playing at the New School: Every student performed a duet with the teacher. Class members followed along in their books and some played along on the wooden keyboards set at each place. New songs were introduced by singing and speaking the text in rhythm, preparing hand movement (staccato vs. legato rotation), arm-swinging, walking, and clapping while counting. Additionally, new concepts such as ties and upbeats were introduced in rhythmic activities–preparation for seeing the song notated in a few weeks. At the end of class, the students were given a composition assignment: Rearrange a given, familiar piece for performance in next week’s class.
PEPS students meet in small rotation groups every few weeks and in a larger group class of eight students once per month. Currently, there are 24 students in the program. I observed two small group rotations and one group class, each an hour in length. Marvin began each class with scales, often asking two students to play in ensemble: one ascending and the other descending. The students had fluency goals for June posted in the room: 100-160, depending on age and ability. Repertoire included Debussy, Clementi, a Mozart minuet (where Marvin led the students in an impromptu minuet around the room while singing words along with the melody), a Bach invention, a concerto by Vandall, and Sibelius’ Romance, to which Marvin stated, “Begin warm, soft, calm, and with a feeling of moonlight. . . .Music that is calm is even.” Musical discussions included historical influences, theoretical considerations such as the importance of the cadential 6/4 progression, and phrasing decisions supported by careful pedaling. Students were challenged in thought, touch, and sound.
Previously: Notes from the New School - Day 1