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Beautiful teaching.

My good friend Steve Betts asked me to write a brief summary of my opening talk at the MTNA Pedagogy Saturday in Austin. I told Steve that I'd agree as long as he really meant brief. So, in response to my friend's request....

Perhaps the most important outcome of my research on teaching over the past decade has been the definition of common characteristics that are present in the teaching of truly superb teachers. Most recently, my colleague Amy Simmons and I formulated a list of characteristics based on extended observations of studio teaching by oboist Richard Killmer, violist Don McInnes, and pianist Nelita True, unquestionably, three of the finest artist-teachers of our generation. What's striking about the characteristics we identified is that they appeared so consistently in all of the many hours of lessons we observed--lessons recorded in the teachers' own studios with their own students.

Here's the list:

Goals and Expectations--What teachers expect from their students in the short- and long-term

* The repertoire assigned to students is well within their technical capabilities; no student is struggling with the notes of the piece.

* The teachers have a clear auditory image of the piece that guides their judgments about the music.

* The teachers demand a consistent standard of sound quality from their students.

* The teachers select lesson targets (for example, proximal performance goals) that are technically or musically important.

* Lesson targets are positioned at a difficulty level that is close enough to the student's current skill level that the targets are achievable in the short term and change is audible to the student in the moment.

* The teachers clearly remember students' work in past lessons and frequently draw comparisons between present and past, pointing out both positive and negative differences.

Effecting Change--How teachers make choices about what to attend to

* Pieces are performed from beginning to end. In this sense, the lessons are like performances, with instantaneous transitions into performance character; nearly all playing is judged by a high standard, "as if we are performing."

* In general, the course of the music directs the lesson; errors in student performance elicit stops.

* The teachers tenaciously work to accomplish lesson targets, having students repeat target passages until performance is accurate (for example, consistent with the target goal).

* Any flaws in fundamental technique are immediately addressed; no performance trials with incorrect technique are allowed to continue.

* Lessons proceed at an intense, rapid pace.

* The pace of the lessons is interrupted from time to time with what seems to be "intuitively timed" breaks, during which the teachers give an extended demonstration or tell a story.

* The teachers permit students to make interpretive choices in the performance of repertoire, but only among a limited range of options that are circumscribed by the teacher. Students are permitted no choices regarding technique.

Conveying Information--How teachers communicate with their students

* The teachers make very fine discriminations about student performances; these are consistently articulated to the student, so that the student learns to make the same discriminations independently.

* Performance technique is described in terms of the effect that physical motion creates in the sound produced.

* Technical feedback is given in terms of creating an interpretive effect.

* Negative feedback is clear, pointed, frequent and directed at very specific aspects of students' performances, especially the musical effects created.

* There are infrequent, intermittent, unexpected instances of positive feedback; these are most often of high magnitude and extended duration.

* The teachers play examples from the students' repertoire to demonstrate important points. The teachers' modeling is exquisite in every respect.

Now, I know some may argue that because Amy and I made these observations watching superb teachers teaching wonderfully talented, highly motivated, mature students, that these characteristics simply can't apply to teaching the more typical students whom most teachers teach. Some of the ostensible reasons that I've heard from teachers eager to tell me "Why I can't teach like that" include, "... my students aren't that good," "... my students don't practice," "... my students don't come to lessons with the notes prepared," "... my students don't respond that quickly to my instructions." Well, maybe they aren't and maybe they don't. Yet, with very few exceptions, all of the characteristics we observed in the teaching of expert artist-teachers can, and should, become common practice in every teacher's studio.

The key to making this possible resides in the very first item on the list: The repertoire assigned students is well within their technical capabilities; no student is struggling with the notes of the piece. If excellence is a habit (which it is), then students must consistently play in ways that are fundamentally excellent nearly all the time--good position, relaxed, even, beautiful tone, in-tune, rhythmic spiff and expressive inflection. If students are playing repertoire whose difficulty is such that they are unable to apply the habits of excellent musicianship consistently, then the habits of excellent musicianship do not become part of students' playing and thinking. Period. If students consistently struggle with the notes and rhythms of their repertoire to the extent that they're often out of position, tense and making bad sounds (even though they may be getting the notes), then they develop habits of bad position, tension and crummy sounds. It's as simple as that; it really is.

Students learn to play beautifully by playing beautifully often, and students can only play beautifully if the repertoire they perform is well within their technical capabilities. This is not to say that students should only play repertoire that's "easy for them" when they begin to learn it. Of course not. But learning to play beautifully requires a routine that promotes students' demonstrating all of the good habits that superb musicians demonstrate. And for us, that means making sure our students are playing repertoire that permits them to do that every day.

There is an unfortunate perversion in our discipline that leads some teachers to assign repertoire that pushes students beyond where they're able to play or sing fundamentally beautifully. If the time course from the first reading of a piece to the performance is mostly a series of physical and intellectual struggles just to make the notes at tempo, with only rare instances of beauty and ease, then what students learn is something other than the habits of excellent musicianship. They develop habits, all right, but not the habits that we hope they'll develop. What's most unfortunate is that some teachers (even some adjudicators), upon hearing a technically demanding performance of very difficult repertoire (demanding for both the player and the listener!), look admiringly at the teacher ("I can't believe you taught an 8-year-old to play that Ballade!"), in spite of the fact that the quality of the performance is nothing that anyone would describe as beautiful. They're impressed not because the performance effectively conveyed an artistic idea, but because the piece was so damned hard. In some circles, playing or singing something really difficult even earns the student a pass on artistry, because having overcome the technical difficulty excuses the student from sounding beautiful and expressive. As I said, it's a perverse attitude. So how does our profession begin to work against this?

The next time you hear another teachers' students play in public, listen for the quality, beauty and expressiveness of their playing--irrespective of the difficulty of the repertoire. Rather than congratulating a teaching colleague whose student has just made it (literally) through a piece that was clearly beyond the student's capacity to play well, instead ask the teacher why in the world she didn't choose repertoire for her student that allowed him to play or sing beautifully, which almost everyone is fully capable of doing if they're playing appropriate repertoire and are well taught.

Every time your own students leave your studio, ask yourself what physical, intellectual and artistic habits they're developing in your presence every week. What habits are they developing when they practice alone? Do they play beautifully often? Remember, excellence is a habit, and excellence in any discipline comprises a constellation of little habits that develop over time. Do you want your students to become excellent musicians? Then have them do what excellent musicians do every time they play or sing.


Duke, R. A. (2005). Intelligent music teaching: Essays on the core principles of effective instruction. Austin, TX: Learning and Behavior Resources. Available at

Duke, R. A., & Simmons, A. L. (in press). In search of expertise: 19 common elements observed in the private lessons of three renowned artist-teachers in music. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education.

The Center for Music Learning, Online Resources, Distinguished Teachers Streaming Videos,

Robert Duke is the Marlene and Morton Meyerson Centennial Professor of Music and Human Learning, University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and director of the Center for Music Learning at The University of Texas at Austin.
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Title Annotation:Padagogy Saturday X: THE ART OF TEACHING
Author:Duke, Robert A.
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
Previous Article:The art of teaching.
Next Article:Together again, Martha Hilley and Fred Kern.

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