Category Archives: Pedagogy


Time to re-post this entry from two and a half years ago:

I take my work as a piano teacher very seriously, and part of my job is to teach how to perform. Most students and parents underestimate what it takes to perform successfully in public. I have very high standards for myself and for my students, and dismissive comments about a proposed performance, such as, “oh, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just for church …” are unacceptable.

I enjoy teaching all ages and levels, and my goal is always to teach towards mastery. Mastery is different from perfection. A piece may be “perfect” but the skills necessary to perform the piece may not have been mastered.

People tend to think that the first year or so of piano study is not as important because the student is “only” a beginner, but they couldn’t be more wrong! Having to re-teach and re-learn after the student was allowed to acquire bad habits is not only frustrating for both teacher and student, it is highly unfair to the student.

The following is from an article by Bruce Berr, first published in the Autumn 1999 issue of Keyboard Companion (which has since changed its name to Clavier Companion), a professional journal published by The Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the support of keyboard pedagogy in all its varied aspects:

Newer teachers sometimes assume that because students are at an elementary level, they cannot play their pieces with mastery and artistry – this is not true! This is a matter of confusing standard with level. Instruction on any musical instrument is based on mastery learning. This hinges on the highly-successful completion of each unit of study along the way, especially and particularly the first few. Since students have varying levels of aptitude, and learn at different paces and in different ways, the main variant should be how much time and reinforcement is needed for that mastery, not the degree to which that mastery occurs.

To be more specific, when a well-taught student at any level successfully learns a piece, the student’s performance is virtually as good as the teacher’s:

  • The physical approach is reliable and natural.
  • Fingering is consistent and secure.
  • Tone quality and rhythm are solid.
  • Legato and staccato are clearly played and differentiated.
  • Dynamics and dynamic differences are boldly projected.
  • The performance authentically communicates the title and mood to a large degree, to any music listener (not just the trained ear of the teacher).
  • There is flexibility in all of the above (except fingering!); one slight change in something, intended or unintended, does not cause a cascading failure and meltdown.
  • Playing the piece is enjoyable.

This is true even for the beginner’s first few lessons! Yes, perhaps there are subtle nuances of shaping and timing and other aspects that a more advanced player might bring to an early-level piece. And an older player may understand the music on a deeper intellectual and emotional level, but these are not absolutely essential for each piece to shine and express. If we focus too much on these exceptions, they can become a smoke screen that hides from us an essential fact: if students’ final playing of most of their pieces is not excellent or very close to it, we are in effect building a structure whose foundation is of questionable strength to support what will be added on later.

Setting a goal of complete mastery right from the start, communicating that goal repeatedly to the student, and giving the student the means for meeting that goal – all of this acts as a springboard for many good habits: efficient practice, careful listening, etc. Conversely, if our initial goals for each piece are not set to the highest standards, we sell students short before giving them a chance to fully blossom into what they can become.


The following is from an article in the K-State News Insider (online).

By playing the video game Rock Band for an hour, K-State students were able to help a pair of psychology professors with their research to understand how people can achieve flow while at work or while performing skilled tasks.

Clive Fullagar, a professor, and Patrick Knight, an associate professor, found that — like Goldilocks — most people achieve flow with work that is neither too easy nor too hard but just right.

“For those students who have a moderate level of skill at Rock Band, the song has to be moderately challenging and match his or her skill level for optimal enjoyment to occur,” Fullagar said. “That has broad implications for teaching. It means that if we want students to enjoy or get a lot of satisfaction out of classes, we need to assign them challenging tasks but make sure that they have the skills necessary to meet the challenges of those tasks.”  [Emphasis added]

The researchers wanted to see how people achieve flow — a state of mind that occurs when people become totally immersed in what they are doing and lose all sense of time. It’s an intrinsically motivating state, which means that people are engaged in the task for the pure enjoyment of performing the task and not for some extrinsic reward.

Posted in Research


This is “RESEARCH”??   News-worthy research??  Please show me one teacher for whom the above is news. 

The difficult part for every teacher is of course to find “challenging tasks” while making sure that the student has “the skills necessary to meet the challenges” – and that’s where even the most experienced teachers once in a while fail.  Perhaps not because they weren’t paying attention but because students have a habit of learning not in a straight line but in phases:  it is perfectly possible for a student to struggle with a concept for quite a while, and then suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, they get it.  Sudden change of skill level.

Or, your beginning piano student suddenly doesn’t even remember where Middle C is because “we got a new puppy!!” …  Sudden, if temporary, change of skill level.  

But, please, do we really need “research” to prove what every teacher already knows and aims to incorporate in his/her teaching??

songs on white keys

In the course of discussing ideal first pieces for beginning piano students, one of my teenage students suggested “the Do-Re-Mi song from The Sound of Music”  – not so much because it is easy but because she loves it, and “everybody knows it.”  She proceeded to quickly play through the tune – melody only.   She started from C, and curiously, played the entire song on white keys only.  She didn’t seem to notice? or mind? that it didn’t sound quite right.  There are a few modulations in this song which necessitate a few sharps here and there, and a chromatic passing tone (B flat) at the end.  As this song wasn’t really the topic of our discussion I didn’t want to spend too much time on this, so I just quickly played the tune for her, correctly, and pointed out that she had missed some black keys.  We proceeded to other pedagogical issues and then her repertoire. 

On my long way home – it is two hours from Manhattan to Olathe – I kept thinking about how she could have missed the sharps and the B flat in this song.  Played on white keys only, it sounds kind of like the song, but not really, and I didn’t understand why she didn’t hear that.  I concluded that she must have picked out the tune by ear and “all white keys” was as close as she could come to the real thing.  I also concluded that the sharps would make sense once she’d know about modulation – something we hadn’t covered yet, at least not in enough detail to relate to this song.  So, always looking for a chance to teach a new theory concept, I planned to introduce modulation at the next lesson. 

I started yesterday’s lesson by sharing with her that I had been thinking about the song, and my conclusion that the necessary black keys would make more sense once I taught her about modulation.  She had a smile on her face and was getting ready to say something but I was too enthusiastic to teach about modulation, I didn’t want to stop and listen to what she had to say.  Short intro to modulation, demonstration, she got it, and then, when I finally finished, she spoke up. 

The reason why she had played the song on white keys only, she explained, was that that’s how her school music teacher had taught it to her class.  I didn’t understand.  Surely her music teacher wouldn’t teach a song with wrong notes?  Well, she continued, white keys only is easier than a black key here and there, and the teacher had explained that teaching about sharps and flats would be too difficult and the students wouldn’t get it and that’s why she left them out.  Apparently none of the other students noticed or were bothered by this.

So, I suppose we could, in order to – simplify?, also play Für Elise on white keys only:  try it, play E-D-E-D-E-B-D-C-A.

Or we could teach to spell with consonants only, leave out vowels. 

Simplification gone wrong.


Simplifying and arranging is a skill, it is actually something that I include in my lessons: how to simplify without losing the essence of the story. 

I refuse to teach – I won’t even listen to – “easy arrangements” of piano literature.  Things like the Moonlight Sonata transposed to D minor, condensed to one page and arranged to fit a five-finger “position”, etc.  (heard it at a Talent Show once).

But skillful simplifying teaches the students to find that which is most important.  Which note out of a difficult-to-reach chord can be left out without changing the character of the chord?  Which of the way-too-many notes in a melody can be cut without losing “the melody”?  Whether or not we actually end up playing a (slightly) simplified version, the students have gained a greater understanding of that which they are playing. 

Getting off the Scaffold

When Kirstyn started lessons with me, in the summer of 2005, shortly before her 11th birthday, a couple of things were immediately obvious:  she loved playing the piano, she had progressed very quickly to early intermediate material with her previous teachers, and I was impressed by her desire and determination to learn and practice and study and learn some more.  Her mother’s biggest complaint?  “I can’t get her away from the piano!” 

Also obvious was that there were holes in her knowledge.  Like most piano students who come to me from other teachers, she didn’t really know how to practice.  Her knowledge of music theory and history was rudimentary at best.  Her sight-playing and sense of rhythm were lacking.  Although she loved playing fast pieces, she didn’t really have the technical skills to do so without straining which in turn affects the sound.  But she loved to play and was determined to learn and improve.

We talked about all of this – she was well aware that her previous instruction had been somewhat random, and also that further progress would sooner rather than later stall unless we filled in the holes and therefore created a solid and reliable foundation upon which we would be able to build – I wanted the sky to be the limit.  I explained that we would choose material which would address the issues that needed remedial work but which would – hopefully – also be interesting and challenging.  A heavy dose of Burgmüller Op. 100 and Level 7 of the Celebration Series, Robert Vandall’s Preludes, etc., all of which she liked a lot, seemed appropriate.  We used the Music Progressions curriculum to get her theoretical knowledge and functional skills up to snuff.  We had a plan.

And so we went to work.  One of the highlights was when she fell in love with the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, and, with my permission and support, quickly learned and memorized the piece.  She would have liked to play it much more passionately, faster, louder, but understood (intellectually at least) that this was a piece that needed restraint, with the dynamic level never above mp.  The expression had to come from her touch, not from increasing the tempo.  She performed it a few times, and I think she really grew.   

Last Fall, we started work on a Haydn Concerto (in F, rather obscure, but rewarding to teach and learn) which she performed at the Annual Piano Concerto Competition in February. 

And then a couple of things happened, and I am only now putting the pieces together.  In September, Kirstyn turned thirteen.  And even though she was making good progress with the concerto – mastering a few lines of tricky scale patterns she thought she’d never get -, her progress in Level 7 (yes, still the same book) was stalling.  It was apparent, or should have been, that she had lost interest in that kind of music.  After weeks of “practice”, she still hadn’t mastered Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G minor.  I would occasionally ask her what kinds of pieces she was looking forward to learning, and among her favorites was always the Maple Leaf Rag – which I told her was too difficult just yet; remember, we were trying to build a solid foundation from the bottom up, still filling in the holes, and that meant finishing – mastering! – Level 7, so we could go on to Level 8. 

In teenage (?) defiance of her teacher’s words, without telling me, she taught herself to play the Maple Leaf Rag.  With the help of another of my students, she learned to play much of the music for The Phantom of the Opera – by ear, with Jamey coaching her.  When I saw them, for the first time, rock away, their version of The Phantom for two pianos – I was shocked.  There was so much unrestrained joy and passion in their playing, I’ve got it on video, Kirstyn’s smile is just heart-breakingly beautiful and – most shockingly – her “technique” which had been such a big issue with her other pieces, seemed to flow almost naturally.

It’s not like Kirstyn suddenly and magically had filled in the holes; her technique, though improved, was still not entirely reliable, and there’s still room for improvement in other areas.  But I knew we had to change course.  So we did.  I have done this only once before, many years ago, and, as it turned out later, it worked, so I am confident (I think …) that it’ll work again:  out of sheer desperation, we are completely abandoning current literature, the stuff she still hasn’t finished.  In complete defiance of rational leveling of repertoire, we are jumping ahead to Copland’s Cat and the Mouse (a Level 10 piece), with the goal to use this so incredibly much more difficult piece to learn everything she needs to know. 

Cat and the Mouse is actually not that difficult as a first “difficult” piece:  none of the particular difficulties (and there are many) lasts more than a few lines of music; while the technical challenges are many and varied, there’s no endurance required for any kind of technical challenge.  There is great variety, it’s mentally challenging but, once you understand what’s going on, it actually makes sense.   What I like about it, especially for Kirstyn, is that it addresses so many different challenges, technical, musical; and it introduces new aspects, new terminology, pianistic challenges we haven’t had before.

I made sure both Kirstyn and her mother understand that this is highly unusual, untraditional – how can you attempt multiplication if you haven’t thoroughly mastered addition yet?  Aren’t we supposed to go step-by-step, one thing at a time, mastering each step before attempting the next, scaffolding, building on previous mastery?

Well, we tried, but she didn’t play along.

So, Cat and the Mouse it is.

Boris Berman Master Class

Park University in Parkville, Missouri, is different.  Perhaps not so much in that Parkville is not your typical college town, or even in that Park University offers undergraduate and graduate programs on 43 campuses in 21 states and Online.  Park University in Parkville, MO, is different because it is home to the International Center For Music and Park’s Youth Conservatory For Music.  According to their mission statement,

The International Center For Music at Park University was established to foster the exchange of master teacher/performers, renowned young musicians, and programs from countries across the globe.  […]  By involving the highest caliber artists of our generation, as educators, we will enable our students and audiences to experience the wealth of musical literature that has impacted generations of our global society.

And highest caliber artists they are.

At the moment, from March 6 through 9, the ICM is hosting The Grand Piano Festival: concerts which feature international competition winners from the Ioudenitch studio, and, of even more interest to me, masterclasses, all of which are open to the community and free.  Guest artist and Master Teacher Boris Berman is giving masterclasses from 2 to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.  

At the end of my piano studies with Barbara Fry, I was lucky enough to be invited to a piano course given by her teacher, Bruno Seidlhofer (Vienna) in Switzerland.  Professor Seidlhofer explained that he disliked the traditional term “Meisterklasse” – master class – because it implied that either he was a master and/or that the students were.  Of course, he was a master, but out of humility and perhaps to draw attention to his emphasis on artistry , Professor Seidlhofer called this particular course an “Interpretationskurs” – interpretation class. 

William Westney, in a similar yet different attempt to get away from the traditional “master class” is promoting his Un-Master Class (R).  I remember his presentation from a few years ago. While I whole-heartedly agree that there are teachers who are so imposing and so intent on perfection that they stifle natural physical intuition and artistic expression in the student, I found Mr. Westney’s approach not quite as liberating as he probably thought it would be:  his shouting at the student, “Make a mistake!  Go ahead, make a big, fat mistake!!” was, to me, no less intimidating and stifling than a “master teacher” staring down a student for having played a wrong note.

Boris Berman, not that I expected any different but as I have witnessed yesterday and hope to see again today and tomorrow (weather permitting – it snowed, again!), is a true Master as well as Teacher.  Even if you didn’t know anything about him or hadn’t read his book Notes from the Pianist’s Bench, it was evident from the very beginning that he not only knows his stuff but knows how to present it to the student as well.  He took his time explaining what and why he wanted the student to try something different; he shared with the (pitifully small) audience of piano teachers his observations on how teaching certain aspects – in this case, functional harmony – has changed over the years, etc.  Given the format – a teaching situation – there were opportunities to put a student down, or ridicule a student’s lack of theoretical knowledge.  While Professor Berman never sugarcoated any criticism, he always remained warm, friendly and polite, occasionally using gentle humor, never sarcasm.  How liberating it was to hear him say, with a warm and comforting tone in his voice, “You look so worried when you play this.  Please don’t be so concerned!  You know this piece, you don’t need to worry about wrong notes.”

I am looking forward to more of this.

Another observation of Mr. Berman’s Master Class can be found here.

Piano Concerto Competition

The Manhattan Area Music Teachers Association (MAMTA) hosted the 11th Annual Piano Concerto Competition today. 

The Competition is open to students in grades 4 – 12.  Contestants are grouped by grade level, Elementary (grades 4 -5), Lower  Intermediate (6 -7), Upper Intermediate (8 – 9), and Advanced (10 – 12), and perform one concerto movement from memory.  

There were some changes this year, perhaps most noticeably the fact that instead of the 23-25 students we’ve had at each competition over the past couple of years, this year we had only 11 contestants.  There were questions and concerns as to how this low number might influence the issue of awards:  the thought was that it might be a foregone conclusion that if there were only two contestants in a division, there would be a first and a second place, and therefore not as much of a competition as when you have six or seven contestants in a division. 

Fortunately, these fears turned out to be unfounded.

For once, we had an adjudicator who was not afraid to not award a prize unless it was well-deserved.  In the past, while it was nice to have so many first and second places (which come attached with a gift certificate to the local music store as well as the honor of performing again at the winners’ concert), I have often felt that prizes were awarded too liberally.  Instead of judging the quality of the performance, most adjudicators seemed to rank the performances:  whoever played best in any given age category got first place, regardless of the quality of the performance.  Second-best got second place, etc.   Of course, many times the two overlapped, and the “best” performance was indeed worthy of a first place, simply because it could not have been done any better.  But many times, “best” wasn’t really good enough.

This year, for the first time ever, there was no First Place in the Elementary Division (grades 4 – 5).  There was no Second Place either.  While at first it was disappointing to receive “only” Honorable Mention (we practiced so hard …), it was actually exactly right and justified.  Anything higher than Honorable Mention would have sent the wrong signal to the student as well as the teacher, and the audience.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to this year’s adjudicator, Dr. Virginia Houser, for having the

integrity in refusing to bestow praise on those who do not fully deserve it.

Prizes are only valuable if they are restricted to the very few. Not winning a prize is not something to be seen as shameful – it should be the norm, something that happens to the overwhelming majority of people.

(Dylan Evans, in an article that was published in The Guardian.)

Another observation of this year’s event can be found here.

You can do it.

Last summer, Mark and I, in an attempt to find some kind of exercise we enjoyed and would therefore be more likely to stick with, tried out Tai Chi.   I liked the idea of a martial art that was non-aggressive, I liked the focus on body-awareness, balance, the mind-body connection, I liked that it challenged me physically without being stereotypical “exercise”. 

What we didn’t like, and what led us to discontinue after a few weeks, were two things:  one, our being very detail-oriented and interested in doing it right, all of it, conflicted with the instructor’s emphasis on getting the big picture.  Where Mark and I would have preferred to spend a lot of time building a solid foundation by learning isolated and minute parts of a movement, with tons of repetition, before attempting to put it all together, the instructor taught and expected us to go through the entire movement immediately without “worrying” about the details.  

The other thing that bothered us was the instructor’s personality (separate from the fact that his teaching style conflicted with our learning style):  while he seemed perfectly nice, there was something intrusive about him; he always stood a couple of inches too close, I always felt like backing off, I felt un-safe.  And then there was the rather subtle impression that deep down, in his heart, he was still a karate martial artist who for some reason had given up karate in favor of tai chi:  he kept stressing how useful tai chi was for self-defense, and his demonstrations of attack and defense seemed not only showy but were very unsettling to me.

After taking some time to think about where to go next, we decided to explore yoga.  One of Mark’s colleagues recommended a teacher, and after looking at her website and exchanging a few emails, we signed up for the class.  Unfortunately, we are now again in a situation where we are expected to do way too much way too soon. 

The instructor is a wonderful young woman, she comes across as sweet and sensitive, and there is no doubt that she most definitely knows her stuff.  But perhaps because we are in a class with other people who, unlike us, are not beginners, we are, again, being led through poses and movements that are beyond what we can do.  And while at the beginning of each class the instructor emphasizes the importance of doing only as much as one can do, never feeling pressure to do more than what feels comfortable, what happens during class is different. 

Perhaps because her class format does not allow for a short individual consultation or interview before the first class, Mark only told her, very briefly, during our first two-minute greeting (we didn’t want to take any more time away from class time) that he has arthritis in his lower back which means two things:  he’s looking for ways to strengthen his back but also needs to be cautious not to aggravate it.  He didn’t tell her that because of an elbow injury many years ago, he cannot straighten his right arm; and I didn’t tell her that I was born with hip dysplasia which, although it was treated when I was a baby, not only limits my range of motion (I was never able to do the proper pre-natal exercises because of this; however, childbirth was completely unproblematic) but also makes certain “normal” movements painful.  We figured that we’d take her suggestion and simply do as much as we could and leave the rest.

Taking any kind of class is always interesting for me.  Not only because I learn something about something I didn’t know before, but also because I experience a teacher.  It allows me to reflect on my own teaching. 

One of the things I learned early on, perhaps more from personal experience than from being taught, was to never, ever, tell a student, “You can do it.”  I know, I know, it’s the standard American cheerleader slogan.  But it’s the wrong thing for a teacher to say.  Here’s why:  for one thing, how do you know your student can do it?  What if, for some completely stupid or unknown reason, your student can not do it?  Not only will you have lied to your student (not the best thing to establish trust), but worse, you made the student feel like he failed (because you believed in him and he let you down).  Hypersensitive?  Perhaps.  But that’s what students are.

Unfortunately, during yoga last night, Mark had to experience firsthand – and I, as his lover, vicariously, secondhand but no less immediate – the sensation of failure.  We are in our forties, pretty established personality-wise, not easily shaken these days, but fragile in this new learning experience.  Our instructor was leading us through a pose and saw that Mark was struggling.  She came up to him, knelt beside him and cheered him on, “you can do it!”  I immediately knew, and Mark told her in a voice that probably sent chills down everyone’s spine, in a voice that left no doubt, that, no, he could not do it.  There are physical limitations which make certain poses impossible, no matter how hard we try, or how long we practice, or how much we are being cheered on.  I was furious at this discrepancy between “do only as much as you can” and then the expectation that if we only try harder we can do more.  Mark told me later that he had felt shamed by her.  We both know that there is no way that she would ever intentionally do that.  But it happened.  With just four words.