Marvin Blickenstaff

NCKP 2013: Part I

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy.  In this series, I'll share my notes and a few favorite quotes from the sessions I attended.  You can read more about NCKP here. Beauty and the Beast in the Piano Studio Marvin Blickenstaff


1.  "Beautiful music has the power to change human beings." 2.  "Beautiful music nurtures souls; it enriches lives." 3.  "Momentarily, our lives are changed by beautiful sound." 4.  The human being needs beauty more than bread. 5.  Teaching beauty should be our highest priority.

Here are a few assignments for piano teachers:

Monitor your use of the word "beautiful."  Limit your use to 2-3 times in any given lesson.  Use it with discrimination and discipline; use it sparingly, use it meaningfully.  Students need to hear a beautiful sound and know the standard of what you consider to be beautiful.

Avoid using these words: "Okay" - lacks meaning; be more specific with your responses "Little bit" - you'll get a better response from your students when you exaggerate rather than diminish "Sort of" or "Kind of" - like "little bit" "But" - use "and" as a transition from positive to constructive "Good" - lacks meaning; articulate specifics; document praise with your perspective as a teacher (you only hear the student's performance once a week; students hear their own performance every day of the week)

Improve your teaching vocabulary with adjectives that describe sound.

Start a file of beautiful pieces, things that nurture the "musical soul" of your students.  Here are a couple of examples: "Echoes of November" (Stephen Chapman) "The Lake" (Alec Rowley) "Northern Winter" (Lynn Olson)

Believe in modelingPlay for your students.  Your sound is worth a thousand words.

Play duets with your students"Duets are a pedagogical gold mine;" they teach rhythm, balance, ritards, accelerando, and diminuendo.  The teacher part guides the inflection of the piece and it's a great way to teach beauty.  Beauty, after all, is shaped sound.  "Our emotions are touched first and foremost by dynamic inflection."

When teaching a phrase, give students one thing to listen for, one hint for shaping the phrase.  Say something like, "In between phrases, we take a breath" and experience this in singing.

The Beast: Negative Teaching Attitudes

1.  Repertoire: a teaching year that is focused around only a few pieces

When repertoire is limited to only a few pieces, the student's reading skill is not developed, there is no excitement of new pieces, the narrow focus becomes boring and stagnant, and there is a loss of the student's sense of accomplishment.  Remember, "variety of repertoire is the spice of our musical lives" and "short-term accomplishment is tremendously encouraging to the student."  Instead, focus on building repertoire.  Try beginning one lesson each month with a mini recital of repertoire.

2.  Studio atmosphere that is strict, harsh, critical or unstructured

The "we're just here to have fun" mentality does not work for most students.  Also, type-casting (i.e. boys only like loud and fast pieces and girls only like soft and melodic pieces) does not promote learning or musical development.  "Music is the expression of the entire human condition, through organized sound."  Aim for a wide selection of repertoire for all students

3.  Musicianship skills: getting bogged down in analyzing every note and nit-picking technique

"Keep the magic of the piece alive in our students."

4.  Practice: not teaching the basics of successful practicing

"We don't practice enough with [our students] in the lesson."  Teaching effective practice should be a part of every lesson

5.  How we celebrate success:

Our students are desperate for affirmation; they need to know when they've done a job well.  Communicate this well and often.


Look for more of my notes from NCKP over the next few weeks!

Teaching Inspiration: Marvin Blickenstaff

Two years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Marvin Blickenstaff at the New School for Music Study in Kingston, NJ.  I was in the second year of my masters at Eastman and was researching piano pedagogue and innovator, Frances Clark (Co-Founder of the New School) for a final project.  As part of my research, I visited the New School for several days, met with the faculty, observed lessons and classes, and experienced truly excellent teaching.  At the end of my first day, after observing a lesson with Marvin, I wrote this reflection:

Marvin Blickenstaff, and high school PEPS [Program for Excellence in Piano Study] 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.

At the end of the second day, I observed one of PEPS group class with Marvin:

PEPS students meet in small rotation groups every few weeks and in a larger group class of eight students once per month, each an hour in length.  Currently, there are 24 students in the program.  Marvin began each class with scales, often asking two students to play in ensemble: one ascending and the other descending.  The students had end-of-the-year fluency goals 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 that fit the melody), a Bach invention, a concerto by Vandall, and lastly, 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.

These few days had a profound impact on my teaching.  I love reliving the experience through my notes and recollections of those lessons and classes.  I was thrilled to discover last week – the NSMS’s newest venture!  Complete with teaching videos, tutorials, and a blog written by New School faculty, this website is a great source of knowledge and teaching inspiration.  Enjoy this glimpse of a lesson with Marvin as he coaches an early advanced student on Edvard Grieg’s “Notturno” at the New School:

Previously: Notes from the New School – Day 1 Notes from the New School – Day 2 Notes from the New School – Day 3