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A Philosophy of Piano Pedagogy

Editor's note: In this issue's column we present the conclusion of one of Frances Clark's popular lectures from the 1970s—"A Philosophy of Piano Pedagogy." The first part of this lecture can be found in our May/June 2013 issue. 

Where can we turn to learn something more about the art of teaching? We can turn first to our own learning experiences, to the outstanding teachers we remember, to the great teachers we have observed, and to a wide reading of such works on teaching as the writings of Whitehead, Dewey, Piaget, Kodaly, Montessori, James, Bruner, etc. No matter where we turn in this quest, the study of teaching is always a study of the learning process, and the learning process is always a study of the beginning: how children learn, what children can learn, under what conditions they learn best, and what they are ready to learn at different stages of development. 

A study of the art of teaching, then, becomes a study of the learning process, a study of the students themselves and how to create a situation in which they experience not so much what we have planned for them to experience, but what it is that they are ready to experience at that particular moment. This means that the logical sequence of subject matter, though extremely important, must be secondary to a consideration of the individual student and what he or she is ready to learn. 

The logical result of such a study is that we begin our teaching on the premise that there is music in every child. Then our teaching sets out to prove it. In essence this means that we begin with what is natural for that child, use it, develop it, build on it, and then present those things that are unnatural to the child in such a way that they gradually become natural. 

For example, pitch. For a young child, high is up in the air, low is down on the ground; high is daddy's head, low is the baby crawling on the floor. High and low in pitch are far less natural to children. We can gradually make a natural association if the motions for up and down are always associated with higher and lower pitches, so that the real world of physical space and the specialized world of musical pitch begin to relate in a natural way. 

Then there is the arbitrary aspect of pitch on the piano—higher to the right, lower to the left. This bears no relationship to reality as the student has experienced it and, because it is unnatural, it requires the most drill. In the first few lessons we need always to sweep our hand up the keyboard when we speak of or listen for higher, and down the keyboard when we speak of or listen for lower. And we need to do this until the unnatural aspect of pitch and direction become part of the student's experience and understanding. So we begin with what is natural and build on it. And we are always alert to what is unnatural and present it in a way that makes it natural as quickly and as easily as possible. 

A study of what is natural also results in recognizing the fact that we perceive everything outside of ourselves through our senses. Since music exists in sound and is perceived only through the sense of hearing, we must introduce everything we teach by beginning with sound. Whether we are teaching pitch, phrasing, dynamic levels, staccato or legato, accent, crescendo or diminuendo, or balance between the hands; the difference between a Mozart minuet and a Beethoven German dance, or between a Bach invention and a Chopin nocturne, we start with sound. Students come to us with a highly developed ability to hear. Our job is to focus their ears on what they are hearing, the most important sense to be developed in a musician. So we begin with the sound (sense of hearing), then show how to make that sound (technic, or sense of touch), then show the sign that stands for that sound (notation, or sense of sight), and finally give them the name of the sign that stands for the sound they have already made and heard. 

For example, if our students' music will soon include staccato, we might begin to prepare for staccato with this learning sequence: play a short phrase very smoothly and then repeat the same phrase staccato, asking them to describe the difference in sound. When we are sure they are aware of the difference in sound and can describe it in their own words, we show them how to produce that sound (technic, or the sense of touch). When we are sure they have experienced the difference between the feel of playing legato and staccato, we show them the sign for staccato (notation, or the sense of sight) and later give them the name for the sign, feel, and sound. 

It is at this point that we can assign music using staccato, because the meaning of the sign is in their ears and in their technic. Constant use of the sign in music means that eventually the students' response to it will fall into the category of those things which have become natural for them. Following this simple, natural learning sequence, the multiplicity of symbols in written music becomes as much a part of the students' experience as of our own. 

And finally, what about the teacher of piano pedagogy—those of us who try to teach other people how to teach? As piano pedagogy teachers we need to be able to verbalize our philosophy and we need to be able to demonstrate it with beginners, with intermediate students, and with students who are advanced. We need to be able to instruct and inspire, exemplify and explain. We need to be able to talk a good lesson, complete with a detailed lesson plan and an observation guide. And we need to be able to teach a good lesson—to become a model, using our lesson plan with skill and flexibility, following it where it works, modifying it as needed, and altering or daringly departing from it when the student needs to move in a different direction at any given moment.

But being a good model is only half the pedagogy teacher' s job. The other part is equally important. Can we sit back and watch objectively when the student-teacher takes over? Can we give ourselves completely to the observation, refraining from interrupting when things go less smoothly than we could make them go? And in our conference after the observed lesson, can we avoid judgmental evaluation, using instead questions that lead the student-teacher to his own awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of his teaching? 

We need to do with our pedagogy students just what we do with our beginners— study what is natural for them and build on it, analyze what is not so natural, and help them discover in what ways the areas or processes they do less easily and skillfully can be practiced and improved. If we really know the art we are teaching, and we really know the art of teaching that art, then we are free to concentrate on the student. Whether we are giving a private lesson or a group lesson, whether we are working with a young beginner or with a young beginning teacher, we are always studying how learning takes place, what our students are ready to learn, and under what circumstances they can learn most naturally and easily. 

This is hardly the whole story! But I submit these considerations as a point of departure for each of us to use in reconstructing once again our philosophy of piano pedagogy.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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