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Cultivating a tenacious teaching spirit.

The trait of "tenacity" in music teaching is a hallmark of excellence. What is tenacity? Musically speaking, tenacity is gripping on to a musical or technical idea that is crucial for a successful interpretation of a piece or for an effortless execution of a technical passage. In music lessons, the teacher explores a musical or technical idea until it is seen or heard in the student's playing. The following traits often are present in these teachers: extreme persistence, strong and personalized opinions, infectious enthusiasm and utter determination.

Recently, I had the pleasure of observing a great concertizing pianist in a master class given to three advanced college students. His coaching of works by Schumann, Chopin and Prokofiev reminded me of the principal of tenacity. During this master class, his tenacious spirit as a teacher and artist was truly remarkable. The concepts were extremely sophisticated, especially in his approach to voicing and pedaling. The artist teacher provided absolute feedback to the students when the sound ideal had or had not been achieved. He was demanding yet encouraging, strict yet congratulatory. In all cases, the teacher framed and re-framed the goal until the student achieved the sound. From my onlooker's perspective, the students were engaged and challenged, often trying several times before achieving the desired result; I was riveted. In all honesty, the transformation of touch and tone achieved by the student pianist who played Prokofiev was remarkable; hats off to the performer and the teacher.

Is There A Singular, "Correct" Way?

There is a tangible undercurrent in our modern world that there are many ways, all of which are equally valid, to do everything. (How many ways and places can you check your bank account?) It is counter to the way people think--to suggest there is only one way and one answer. Furthermore, musical interpretation and piano technique are definitely personal and individualized. While it may be true that students need to be critical thinkers and exploratory artists, a standard musical vocabulary and stylistic practice exists.

This is an aspect of passing on our musical heritage: there is actually a sound for Prokofiev or a way to use the arm to achieve full sound. These cannot be written in the score or explained in a book. Much of what musicians learn has to be felt and heard, and there are individuals who are close to the source (such as the master class artist with Prokofiev) and who have expert knowledge in music and technique (teachers and performers alike). I often observe that teachers who have strong opinions and artistic convictions get the most transformative results in student artistry and gains in achievement. This is what motivates me to be a tenacious teacher.

How Does A Teacher Become Tenacious?

In my first years of teaching I was not tenacious. I did not require students to play with exactly my sound or precisely my approach. My strongest students did so naturally and easily, but the others did not. Some students developed a good hand shape and use of the arm, yet others did not. Therefore, my personal journey of improving my teaching has largely revolved around learning how to be tenacious with all my students.

A multi-faceted vision of tenacity in music teaching has emerged, in which there are four factors that contribute to a tenacious spirit: develop a detailed and precise vision; believe in your authority as an expert; provide honest assessment and authentic praise; and create new learning strategies before and during lessons.

Develop A Detailed And Precise Vision

Being tenacious begins with an artistic vision. A teacher must know exactly how a stellar performance sounds. This includes all elements of musicality and interpretation, such as phrasing and nuance, dynamic contrast, articulation, pulse and flexibility, balance and voicing, and pedaling.

This is my favorite part of lesson planning because it engages me as an artist: I play through a student's repertoire to develop a unique interpretation. Writing artistic goals in a desk copy of the score will provide easily referenced objectives every time the piece is taught. Remember, even the simplest, elementary music can benefit from the most sophisticated artistry. Treat a student's first recital piece with the same reverence as an advanced student's sonata. For intermediate and advanced literature, listening to recordings made by great pianists can facilitate this process. The ultimate goal is for a teacher to cultivate a detailed, personalized interpretation.

To be tenacious, a teacher must also have a clear vision of proper technique and positioning, both with technical exercises and passages from student repertoire: develop firm ideas on how a "piano hand" should look and be formed and acquire the needed benches, pads and footstools to make great positioning possible for all sizes of students. Teachers should also analyze the technical motions needed to effortlessly play common technical patterns. For instance, form a step-by-step awareness of how to easily cross the thumb under the hand in scale playing. Also, one should identify a student's technically difficult passages, explore the best physical approach, then develop practice strategies that will lead to mastery.

Teaching proper technique is often a stumbling block for many teachers--perhaps because it was not part of their precollege training. Thankfully we can learn from colleagues, technique books and workshops to develop a vocabulary and methodology. Just as with artistry, it is a detailed, precise vision of technique that each teacher needs.

Believe In Your Authority As An Expert

Develop the belief that your way is the right way ...

This is a necessary process in becoming a tenacious teacher. You must embrace yourself as an authority and expert. Early in my teaching, I would often look at my student's hands and think, "She plays with a really low wrist," but then think, "I'm not so sure that's bad." Therefore, I didn't do anything about it. Week after week, I would see that student with low wrists and do nothing because of my own doubts. If doubtful, seek guidance and feedback from colleagues and professionals with great expertise in that area. Great teachers require themselves to find a solution and create a personal vision. Ultimately, students will learn most effectively when concepts and approaches are clearly and strongly presented.

... but give yourself the freedom to change your mind.

Great artists are not timid, but great artists are changeable. Listen to Glenn Gould's two recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations in 1955 and 1981; each is visionary and surprisingly different. Right now, I have a specific vision of the phrasing in Mozart's Rondo alia Turca for my student who is learning this piece. My vision, which I explore with enthusiasm and tenacious determination, will contribute to her mastery of this sonata movement and the classical style. I give myself permission to alter my interpretation, though, based upon my future learning in classical style and listening of other performances. Allowing myself the flexibility to change encourages me to teach what I know today and frees me to continue exploring. This is the contradiction of artistry; while there may not be a "correct" interpretation, not having one is "incorrect."

The skills required to play the piano are extremely complex, there are many schools of thought regarding proper technique, and a pianist's technical abilities grow slowly over time. Many pianists' experience may resonate with my own technical growth as a piano student. My first collegiate piano teacher reformed my hand shape and posture; my next teacher helped me play with the weight of the arm; and my last teacher connected arm weight with a strong finger technique. Each taught me something important about technique that was not the whole picture, but each of these parts eventually grew into a whole. What I realize now is that my teachers identified one deficient aspect of my technical approach and addressed it tenaciously over our years of study together. While I want to cultivate a well-rounded technique in each student, I realize and accept this will happen gradually, step by step; therefore, I will tenaciously explore this week by week with each student. Despite the complexities of piano playing, it is better to give students a solid piece of the technical puzzle than to give nothing at all.

Does imitative artistry and technique lead to personal creativity?

A lot of pedagogical discourse in improvisation and composition indicates how guidelines and structure result in greater student creativity. I believe this is true in teaching artistry and technique, and let me illustrate with an example. My former student Michelle was a spitfire--independent and opinionated about everything. She would play the opposite of the marked dynamic; not to be defiant, but because she disagreed with the composer. She, as a student, had a tenacious, artistic spirit! I gave her a rule early on in our lessons: every musical phrase must be played with shaping. To my amazement, she took this to heart and shaped all her phrases, albeit not always the most "musical" of shapes. From here, we regularly worked on how to phrase effectively; with enthusiasm and tenacity, I required her to do it "my" way with some concessions along the way. Through our first year, Michelle learned a structured and standard approach for shaping phrases. At the end of the following year, she performed Dream Catchers by Anne Crosby with personal nuance and beautiful phrasing, most of which was her own doing; I now teach Michelle's interpretation to my other students. Because I asserted "my" way of phrasing, Michelle demonstrated a sophisticated nuance in shaping that resulted from her personal vision of the piece.

Provide Honest Assessment And Authentic Praise

All teachers have poor habits such as saying "good" or "great" after a student plays. But there is a more disturbing problem with assessment: a student does not perform well or accomplish the goal, and the teacher says "good job" and moves on. This is dishonest teaching. If a transformation in sound and technique is desired, tenacious teachers never congratulate a failed attempt; they simply work harder and in new ways.

Students know when they have achieved the goal. If a teacher says "great," and the student did not succeed, the student knows. There is a hidden message conveyed with inauthentic praise: the student has an inability to achieve and has failed. The other message is the teacher does not mean what he or she says. This type of dishonest environment does not lead to student achievement. I believe a student feels worse when receiving inaccurate, dishonest feedback than when a tenacious teacher asks to the student to try again or do better.

The flip side of being honest about deficiencies is that when the student achieves, affirmation of success has tremendous meaning. The harder the struggle, the bigger and more enthusiastic a teacher's commendation must be. I have given my student with Rondo alia Turca a big goal to play every section of the piece at the same allegro metronome speed. I hope to enthusiastically celebrate with my student: "You have worked so hard with the metronome. Wow! I am so impressed by the sound today, controlled and fast." Now, I will be determined, week by week, and give her the tools to get her there.

Create New Learning Strategies Before And During Lessons

Teaching effectiveness is tested most in the moments that students struggle. Here is the scenario: I know what sound I want--my student tries but is unable to do it. I must propose a way to get the desired result--my student will feel challenged but will hopefully succeed. If this does not happen, my teaching has not been effective.

A tenacious teacher helps every student achieve, believing that all students can rise to a high standard. Does the teacher find a new approach, a different process and better strategy for learning? Is the teacher willing to have the student try something spontaneously without knowing it will work? Is the teacher bold enough to demonstrate a practice technique or play in slow motion without having done it before? Teachers must give themselves the permission to explore and experiment (and perhaps play a few wrong notes) in the lesson. It is ultimately these experiences that show students the process all practicing musicians use to learn and refine. Set the standards high and then create the tools to help students succeed.

What if the student struggles, and the teacher has no idea what to do next?

My strategy is to embrace the uncertainty and discover how to solve the problem with the student. First, I state the difficulty: "This is a hard section!" Then, I sit at the piano and play the passage or technique in question. As I play, I become aware of what makes it possible for me (the expert), whether this is a movement of the arms or hands, listening in a certain way, or something else, there are probably multiple elements. Then, I ask several guided questions to help my student observe what I have discovered to be the crucial elements. I might ask: "How does my hand look when I play this?" or "What do you see in my arms and wrists?" or "Which note is the loudest in my phrase?" or "Do I play the right hand or left hand louder?" Then, my student works with the passage again, and I guide the student through my way of playing.

What if your student is at an impasse, and there is no longer an ability to try again?

Frustration is detrimental to creativity and exploration, and sometimes tenacity means knowing when to set something aside. Be honest and tell the student, "This is really hard, and I think we should revisit this next lesson. Work with it in your practice, and we will be certain to figure it out." We know that learning a musical instrument is far from easy. We know that certain elements of technique and musicianship take weeks and months (and years) to master. Acknowledging the challenge and effort needed is better than sweeping it under the rug. Sometimes the student will take personal initiative and accomplish the goal, learning an invaluable lesson about determination. Nonetheless, it is time for the teacher's homework: before the next lesson, find many more ways to explore or practice this same concept. If it is simply too advanced or complex for the student, find a way to break it down into mini-steps over time. Don't let it go, find a way to get there.

Let me provide a concrete example. I have worked with many intermediate and advanced transfer students who have not been able to play with a metronome. When I was a young teacher, if a student could not stay with the metronome, I continued to let it tick, not knowing what to do next (perhaps I was hoping for a miracle!). Finally, I became determined with Dotty, who was a freshman in college. She had to get it--she wanted to be a piano teacher. So, I told her it was going to be hard and take a lot of effort, but we were going to solve this major deficiency. I was initially terrified I wouldn't be able to crack the code.

This was our discovery process. Dotty could feel and find the pulse, and she could play along with me at a steady pulse. But, she did not know which notes fell on the beat when playing anything subdivided. We worked with scales in eighth, triplet and sixteenth notes, and she loudly accented the notes on the beat and counted a long (without a metronome). Then, we added the metronome in her eighth-note scales. She could not hear if she was too slow or too fast. But then I spontaneously asked if she played "after the click" or "before the click"--she could hear this! So,

I helped Dotty realize that playing after the click was too slow and before the click was too fast. If she was late, she needed to speed up, and if she was early, she needed to slow down. It seems obvious, but this descriptive vocabulary led to understanding. In the weeks that followed, Dotty's scales in eighths, triplets and sixteenths became precise with the metronome. The first day she played with a metronome I was elated, as was she.

Why did this work?

We worked together in the lesson, we experimented, tried many different tactics, and we had many failed attempts along the way. In the days between lessons, I spent time analyzing how to play the metronome and creating another process to try. I was tenacious, she eventually achieved, and I discovered a step-by-step teaching process for playing with a metronome.

The Opposite Of Tenacity Is Complacency

A complacent teacher is easily satisfied with a student's technique and sound, despite obvious avenues of improvement, and does not seek to raise every student's playing to a new level of refinement and artistry. This is not the kind of teacher I want to be. I am not satisfied if my students play with a poor hand shape or cannot play with the metronome. I want each to improve; I want students who play musically and artistically. So, I will grip on to my musical ideas and educational objectives until my students have it. If I do not have a solution or a vision, I will seek out experts and resources to develop my vision. I will be honest with my students, always congratulating successes and never praising below par performances. I will require myself to be creative and find new approaches to my student's problems, even if this requires much effort and study in my lesson preparation.

Join me in my mission to cultivate a tenacious teaching spirit.
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Author:Ernst, Sara M.
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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