Frances Clark

Making the Intangible Tangible

My piano studio is officially up and running and I have nine students enrolled for the fall.  I have quite a spread at the moment with students ranging from age 5 to retired adult.  I am also teaching seven students and staff members at Fitchburg State University.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to teach at so many different levels but I must confess, Kindergarten and 1st Grade is still my favorite age. Yesterday, I had a lesson with 5-year-old Lily.

With a head full of curls and always decked out in the latest fashion, Lily is bright-eyed and full of energy.  As such, we started our piano lesson with “warm-ups” a.k.a “get the wiggles out before you sit down on the bench.”  We wiggled our arms, we bobbed our wrists, and we wiggled all of our fingers (what a great way to promote large-body movements to fine motor skills and relaxation – something we all should practice!).

We spent the beginning of the lesson reviewing the pieces we started last week: chanting the texts while keeping a steady beat (for the following piece I used an imaginary oar as a variation of the arm swing), tapping the rhythm on the keyboard cover, singing, and looking for musical patterns.

Crossing the lake in a canoe, Paddling along enjoying the view!

“What do you see when you’re paddling across the lake?”  “Umm,” Lily said, cocking her head to one side.  “I see some trees, and a blue sky… and some clouds, and – this is silly.”  “What is it?”  I prodded.  “A bread-tree,” she replied, matter-of-factly.  What is a bread-tree, you might ask?  In Lily’s words, “It’s a tree with slices of bread on it!”  What an imagination!  If only we could look at the world through the eyes of a five-year-old every once in a while.

The second half of the lesson was spent on new material: We walked in place (keeping a steady beat while chanting the text), swung our arms, tapped our hands, and identified the starting hand position.  After demonstrating the beginning of the piece, I said, “Can you copy me?  Do you have it in your head?”

Immediately, Lily’s facial expression changed and I knew this was a concept difficult for her to grasp.  Think about the question literally – imagine the notes swirling around or maybe the printed page crumpled up in your head.  Quick – improvise!

“It’s not in your head?  Well, open it up (pretending to open a door into the top of my head) and put it in!”  She quickly copied my motions, smiling.  I knew she had heard me play the piece and we had spoken the text in rhythm several times as preparation.  Once we overcame this intangible gap, she played the piece just fine.

I learn so much about myself as a teacher in these kinds of lessons.  I can’t help but come home beside myself with excitement and eager to share my creative experiences with Steve – it’s the five-year-old in me.

Notes from the New School - Day 3

April 22, 2010 Logan, a student from yesterday’s Music Tree 1 class returned for a private lesson with Lis.  Because the group class is the primary lesson for these students, the private lessons follow the same lesson plan, reinforcing the activities from the class.  Logan began with his recital piece.  In classes and lessons alike, I was struck by the fact that every time a student played through a piece it was called a “performance.”  In this manner, Lis let Logan play through the piece completely before making suggestions about phrase-shaping and playing with a nice, firm sound.  The remainder of the lesson reviewed content from the class (Take a Trip, two new pieces, two rhythmic preparation activities, and a review piece of Logan’s choice).

Lauren Thompson taught another group of Music Tree 1 students in the afternoon.  I imagined that the content would be very similar but thought I might observe some difference in teaching approach.  “We begin each class with singing,” Lauren said, as the students gathered around her at the piano.  Immediately, the classroom was a different environment from what I observed yesterday.  The familiar melody from the students’ book was transposed to an appropriate singing range and Lauren smoothly segued into an echo activity with three-note tonal patterns using sol, mi, and do.  Soon, Lauren performed the patterns with a neutral syllable and had the students determine the direction and solfege syllables.  “I have pictures of these patterns,” Lauren said as she arranged four flash cards on the music rack.  “Which one do you think goes like this?” she said, demonstrating.  In addition to selecting the appropriate pattern, students were asked to name the intervals and direction notated on the card.  The next activity was a circle dance incorporating movement, form (counter-clockwise rotation, clockwise rotation during the repeat, and in towards the center during the B section), and singing in a minor key.  This easily segued into an echo activity using minor three-note tonal patterns with la, do, and mi.

The first playing activity was a review piece.  Two volunteers played the instruments at the front of the room while the rest of the class sang and played along on the wooden keyboards set out on the tables.  In order to build ensemble skills, Lauren appointed one of the volunteers as the leader responsible for cueing the beginning of the piece for the whole class.  “When the notes go higher do you think we should get louder or softer?” Lauren asked.  Following this discussion, the class performed the piece again with beautiful phrasing and lifts.  Drawing attention to the white board in the room with two rows of rhythm notated, Lauren said, “I forgot where the barlines go!  Can you believe it?”  Students took turns adding barlines for a duple example and triple example and together they performed the rhythm (clapping while counting).

One of the new pieces for the week was taught by rote before students looked at the notation in their book.  Lauren played the piece multiple times and asked a different question at the end of each performance.  “Was it smooth or bumpy?  Soft or loud?  Am I playing on the white keys or the black keys?  Which hand played first?  Raise your hand if you hear me play two right hand notes together.”  After several repetitions, Lauren asked one student to play the piece while the rest of the class played “air piano.”  Following this experience of sound and feel, students were invited to look at the score.  Lauren guided their study by having them circle the signs and add check marks after each slur.

The warm-up assignment from last week was peer-evaluated in what the School calls “players and checkers.”  Two students play the exercise while another two students check for crossed ankles, good posture, a relaxed arm, and a good hand position (space under the hand and strong knuckles).  After evaluating the performances, the students switch places.  Reading and writing activities preparing new concepts were also included during class time.  For reading, students were asked to identify the starting landmark of a notated phrase, name the intervals, and point out any repeated material.  For writing, Lauren drew a note on a line or space of the grand staff and asked students to “spot-place” the nearest landmark, naming the direction and the interval.  This activity reviewed seconds, thirds, and fifths.  The class concluded with work on another new piece and performances of the students’ recital pieces.

My final observation was a private lesson with Natalie Gibson and Kaelen, a second-year student.  In an effort to include me in the exchange and assess Kaelen’s interpretation, Natalie asked him to describe his recital piece prior to performing it.  Afterward, Natalie made a few suggestions regarding dynamics and phrase-shaping and the second performance was polished and musical (four weeks in advance of the recital).  Kaelen played his most recent composition–a waltz.  In preparation for the upcoming faculty’s “all-dance” recital, the New School students were learning about different types of dance music.  In preparation for Kaelen’s newest piece, “Star Wars,” Natalie asked him to transpose the familiar “High Dive,” a piece from last year into the key of G Major.  This was a way to reinforce the tonality and key of the piece and work on phrasing considerations.  This was the second lesson on “Star Wars” but surprisingly, the difficult rhythms and position shifts were fairly smooth.  Natalie assessed Kaelen’s self-awareness by asking him to identify ways to practice and particular measures that needed the most attention.  “Thank you for your great work on this piece,” she said.  “Next week, I can’t wait to play the duet with you because you’ll be ready!”

The remainder of the lesson was spent on activity book assignments reviewing tonic and dominant and triplets.  The four sight-reading series were studied at home so Natalie asked, “Which one of these is your favorite?”  After selecting one series, she asked, “Can you name the intervals?”  Next, Kaelen played on the keyboard lid while counting the rhythm followed by a successful sight-playing performance.  The last few minutes were spent reviewing a piece from Side by Side, a duet book by Ted Cooper and Amy Glennon.  Together, Natalie and Kaelen discussed a few considerations and identified practice steps for the coming week.

Previously: Notes from the New School - Day 1 Notes from the New School - Day 2

Notes from the New School - Day 2

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

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.

Road Trip

I am spending the week in Kingston near Princeton to conduct research on piano pedagogy at the New School for Music Study.  So far, it’s been quite an adventure – including a hotel fire alarm, a parking ticket, and plenty of GPS excitement.  My days have been full of observations and discussions on teaching approaches and curriculum.  I look forward to sorting through my notes and writing about this experience over the next few days. In the meantime, what is your philosophy of pedagogy?