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A Philosophy of Piano Pedagogy

Editor's note: In this issue's column we present the first half of one of Frances Clark's popular lectures from the 1970s—"A Philosophy of Piano Pedagogy." 

Have you ever attempted the impossible? Well, that's what I'm about to do—discuss a philosophy of piano pedagogy in thirty minutes! The reason I dare attempt this is because everyone in this room already has a philosophy of piano pedagogy. Every lesson we give demonstrates it and every hour we spend preparing for that lesson demonstrates it. 

A philosophy of piano pedagogy is the piano teacher's most valuable possession. And because it is so valuable, we need to take time out at regular intervals to reevaluate it. Occasionally we also need to put it into words. Then, in the privacy, of our own studios, we need to ask ourselves, "Is that what I demonstrated, what I used, what I lived when I taught today?" And we need to ask it whether we are working with a student who is preparing to play a concerto with an orchestra or with a young beginner, with a student whose musicianship exceeds his technic or one whose technic outruns his musical understanding. With each of these students, and with all the others, do we really live what we say we believe about piano teaching? 

What I hope to do in this lecture is to challenge each of us to pull our philosophy of piano pedagogy out of the closet (where it just might have gotten buried), to restudy it and reevaluate it, both in what we say it is and in what we do about what we say. Before we do this, however, we should ask ourselves another important question. Why have the arts been so slow, so late (perhaps the latest) in feeling the need for a philosophy and a methodology of pedagogy? We can rationalize by saying our country is still young, that of necessity we have put the emphasis on how to survive physically, on the development of industry and technology, on how to make a living. But whatever the cause, we have inherited in the arts, as in no other subject, the tradition of a "Great Divide"—a divide between those who have talent and those who don't. 

In some quarters this tradition still exists today. There are still parents, for example, who approach piano study as if it were something to try out. They are perfectly willing to send their children to the lady next door or to the teacher who lives near the bus stop, in order to discover whether or not they have talent, without any consideration of the teacher's skill or training. And there are still teachers who share this experimental attitude, that music lessons are something to "try" rather than believing wholeheartedly that there is music in every child. The notion that there are children who "have it" and those who don't relieves teachers of any feeling of responsibility for the thousands of children who begin lessons, then drop out after a year or two. Poor teaching couldn't be the reason. It just didn't take. Johnny didn't have any talent. 

And what's more, there are still plenty of colleges graduating piano majors who will become the teachers of tomorrow without having had so much as a course in piano pedagogy or a semester of practice teaching, while in the same school, education courses and practice teaching are required for the teacher of elementary math, reading, or geography. Fortunately for us, that day is passing. Gradually the arts are coming into their own, recognized for what they really are—not a specialty or an "extra" for the talented few, but a basic ingredient of our entire educational system and cultural development. And, as evidenced by this conference today, we are beginning to recognize that teaching is also an art, as important for the teacher of an art as is the art he professes to teach. 

In the next installment, Frances Clark asks the question, "Where can we turn to learn something more about the art of teaching?"

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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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