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Polyphony: empathy and technical development.

This month's column addresses two very different aspects in teaching. The first portion of this column centers on the development of empathy as a necessary component of great teachers, while the second pan focuses on the teaching of technique and metronome practice.

Empathy in Music Teaching

One of the first readings that I currently have students complete in one of my courses is the chapter on "Empathy" in Amber Esping's book Sympathetic Vibrations: A Guide for Private Music Teachers. (1) Esping meaningfully ties the topic of empathy to music teaching, stating that her own past empathy and inexperience were girls that helped her develop into a major and highly successful teacher. She saw herself as a partner with her students as she started teaching, allowing them to teach her and share their musical feats, frustrations and joys. Her initial teaching experiences came from experimenting--studying her students' reactions and trying new approaches until she found ways for them to understand. She states that although "my outlook has matured, the naive enthusiasm that fueled my teaching technique so many years ago is still what keeps the fire burning." It is important to strengthen our own ability to empathize and communicate with students to help them nacre the bumps and potholes along the way.

One definition of empathy is "the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another." (3) It follows that those who have had some struggle in learning something in life may be able to better explain a concept than someone who has learned something effortlessly. People who accomplish something because they break it down into bite-size pieces often are able to relate to others who may need to break something down to learn it well. Certainly, the fact that someone knows and understands a subject well does not mean that person can effectively impart it to students. This is when evaluating our experiences and attempting to put ourselves in the student's place to learn what she is feeling and experiencing becomes central to effective teaching.

Esping states that because we are professional teachers, we have strong opinions about "what students should know, what kinds of experiences they should have, which materials they should know, and which materials they should he familiar with." (4) She states further, "The particulars of communication--when to explain and when to demonstrate, what details to/cave out, and how to simplify and organize complex ideas can be elusive--unless you stop thinking like a professional musician and start to think like a student." (5) When we perceive lessons from the individual student's standpoint, the "bows" of teaching seen clearer. Esping relates this empathetic understanding to a kind of "sympathetic vibration" between the teacher and student.

One way for a teacher to strengthen and find empathy in a learning situation may he to remember something they learned as an adult that may not have been learned as easily as music. For me it has been physical exercise. Since I was not a natural athlete in my youth, learning yoga and other physical movement later in life has become an intriguing study and practice--striving to accomplish certain movements that appear so easy and effortless when others do them. While gaining a renewed respect for the process of developing a practice and learning certain skills, I also learned a great deal about myself: how I feel when something is difficult, how I feel when I "get it" for the moment, how I fed when finally something becomes effortless and so on. I learn how to transfer certain concepts or movements to other events in my life or times in the day. I have typical "aha" moments, discouragement, frustrations, loss of interest and reignited spark, patience issues, times "in the moment" and many other feelings and experiences. I experience variations of these feelings, with various students, at different times. I work from an increased awareness that what the student feels in this moment may (or may not) change on another day. I learn that every day, every lesson will not be the same--and I empathize with the student.

Esping suggests that to strengthen empathy as a teacher, remember when you were a student. Take time to reflect on what it was like when you started taking lessons. What was the first lesson like? Were you afraid? When were you the most excited in lessons? What fascinated you about your instrument? How did yon feel as a musician socially? Did anyone else understand how you felt about your music playing, and if so, who? Who was your best musical friend, and what did you talk about? Did you ask a lot of questions in your lessons, or were you more reticent, and why? Did your teachers encourage you to go to concerts or even take you, and if so, how did you feel? What was your favorite piece of music in elementary school? What was your favorite book to play from, and why? What was practicing like for you when you were growing up? Did you ever "hate to practice?" Did your parents and siblings support your music study--in what ways? Did that make any difference to you? (6)

Reflection in this way and awareness of the role of empathy in teaching, as well as in all relationships in life, can revitalize your relationships with your students. If you only have musical interests at this point, perhaps it would be beneficial to develop a hobby. Engage in a different process, and quite possibly you and your students may benefit from a broader perspective.

Teaching of Technique and Metronome Practice

Practicing with the Metronome In general, this topic seems to be more controversial with pianists than with instrumentalists; instrumentalists take it for granted that some practice regularly takes place with the metronome. Instrumentalists, and I am speaking in generalities, regularly work with metronome tempi for etudes, scales, orchestral excerpts and other passages. They are used to working in incremental stages to help a passage progress evenly and regularly. They are used to listening carefully at a specific tempo, working within that realm and then increasing by one or two or three metronome increments for the next practice unit during the session.

One argument against practicing with the metronome is that the performer becomes mechanical and is unable to set pulse and maintain the internal rhythm for himself. Those who support metronome practice generally believe, as a necessary condition, that everything played with the metronome is played musically. They believe the metronome provides a framework for the musician--in this instance to prevent one from going too fast, to allow ease of tempo and time to listen carefully and to analyze more easily. It can help prevent mistakes and promotes care in listening. The upward incremental adjustments in these instances feel so easy that the performer is hardly affected technically or musically by the increases, and if problems do occur, he knows to temporarily slow it to increase the speed.

In my experience, I have found that an elementary or early-intermediate student who can perform a learned piece of music well at three or so different tempos--played without the metronome--usually will be solid in performance. The student is able to adjust, feel the internal pulse and characterize the music at different tempi. This is often one of the final, checkpoints immediately before a performance for students and advanced performers.

Metronome and "Unmusical" Performance

Why do we get the idea that people who practice with the metronome play "unmusically?" It could be that those individuals are never taught to listen carefully to the sound and phrasing while the metronome is on. It also could be that the student utilized a tempo that was too fast too early on. Some students will need constant reminders and help listening to the phrasing, tone, inflection and key descent for pianists even while the metronome is ticking, so that the focus is not only on the tick of the metronome.

The Metronome and Practicing Technique

Most instrumental students regularly practice technique with the metronome. Band, contest and private lesson requirements frequently specify metronome requirements for scales and other items for various levels of achievement--pianists have tended to do this less. Still, some piano festivals and competitions require technique at specified tempi, but one finds even then that the practice sometimes is only for the competition rather than as a regular part of the lessons. I find that students who work with the metronome on five-finger patterns in various keys, scales, arpeggios and so on--in other words, those who are working on technique in incremental stages through the years with a focus on different touches and sounds--learn to practice well and progress more quickly than students not working on a full technical regime. A student practicing technique takes time to listen, repeats adequately (perhaps because each scale or finger pattern is so short) and learns to analyze clearly. He is focused on listening and analyzing, and then transfers those skills to literature where more elements are combined in the musical fabric to accomplish at once.

Deriving Technique from the Music

Some teachers may state, "I prefer to teach technique purely from the literature itself and let the passages there build the performer's technique." Yes, many students work quite successfully this way. I found that my playing improved by leaps and bounds when I worked with a specified technical regime, something that I played every day, with variations. The length of time I practiced technique was important, but what is most important for students is that they set a plan and a specified time to work on elements of pure technique. Since so much music is built on scales and finger patterns, chords and arpeggios, octaves and so on, working on these music patterns can enhance the learning of those technical challenges as they occur in the music.

It is interesting to realize that a young instrumentalist's lesson assignment usually will include scales and arpeggios or some kind of pure technique, a large percentage of the time. For young pianists, it is my impression that maybe only half will have a technical assignment to practice each day. I find that experimentation with change can be the best way to see what works for my teaching, as well as for each student.


(1.) Amber Esping, Sympathetic Vibrations: A Guide for Private Music Teachers (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Ltd., 2000), 6-13.

(2.) Ibid., 5.

(3.) Arthur P. Ciaramicoloi with Katherine Ketcham, The Power of Empathy (New York, NY: Dutton/Penguin Putman, Inc., 2000), 4.

(4.) Esping, 7.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid., 10-13.

Send Us Your Questions

Do you have a teaching question you would like to have answered? Perhaps you have a practice tip for students you would like to share or a studio idea you are trying differently this year. Questions and other items may be sent to: American Music Teacher, Attn: Polyphony; 441 Vine St., Ste. 505, Cincinnati, OH 45202-2811; fax (513) 421-2503; or e-mail to

Jane Magrath, NCTM, is internationally known as a pianist, author, clinician and teacher. She is professor and director of piano pedagogy at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources
Author:Magrath, Jane
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Previous Article:Professional certification.
Next Article:Random access: should music making be fun?

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