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A question of focus

"What is the future of piano pedagogy?" An astute teacher asked me this in the last session at the end of a three-day conference. It stopped me in my tracks.

What an excellent question-one I have even asked of others. But now, in front of a very intelligent and experienced group of pianists, it was my turn to grapple with an answer. And grapple I did, at first. 

A time of change

As I began to speak, I listened mentally to see where my thoughts went, and in doing so found that an interesting mental shift came to me. It is clear that we are living in a time of very rapid change, and I said that. We are struck by the changes taking place today in individuals' personal attention habits, in the proliferation of technology and social networking. We see a need for instant gratification in many of those around us, and we notice additional societal shifts. We readily observe all of these changes; predicting their long-term impact, if they will even have an impact at all, is much more difficult.

Many of our students shift their attention quickly, sometimes demonstrating lack of focus and depth. I realize that we cannot change the darting focus of every individual, but we can connect with those who love music and piano. That is where we as piano teachers fit into all of this fast change. 

Focusing through depth and detail


I recently read a new book by Winifred Gallagher titled Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.1 Gallagher points out that our own worlds and those of others are constructed largely from the thoughts, feelings, people, and things that we focus on through much of our lives.2 She recounts William James' famous experiment on concentration. In this experiment he asks subjects to focus on a dot on a piece of paper or on a wall. For most, their minds will wander. If, however, an individual asks specific questions about the dot relating to its size, shape, color, surrounding texture, contrasts, and so on, focus is possible for some longer time.3 The individual becomes engaged and able to focus when he is able to go into more depth. 

This is what many of us know so well. When we teach students to listen and practice, they only learn what to listen for when we go into greater depth: how to produce the changed tones, how to conceive of the phrasing differently, how to enhance a larger pulse in the section, how to pull together sections of the work, and other details of interpretation. We can help our students go into greater depth when we teach them how to tell a story through the music, to communicate the score. We learn even to visualize the story in great detail to enhance our connection to the music. All of these techniques can help our students focus, just as in James' experiment. 

What is my focus?


I was still speaking to the group of professional teachers, talking around the question, "What is the future of piano pedagogy?" I acknowledged my focus as a piano teacher and what I do well. I stated that in this world I am a teacher of classical piano music, now mostly to advanced pianists. I am a university faculty member in piano pedagogy, as well as a workshop clinician, author, and presenter of master classes. I reflected on how rapt my attention is as a musician when I am teaching, listening, and practicing. I'm sure that most of you reading this column feel the same way. Because we are constantly immersed in music, we don't have any trouble focusing. Our students, however, don't always share the same experience.

Some clarity began to emerge. I concluded, while speaking, that I do not know definitively about the future of piano teaching. Where I need to put my focus is on the present, on supporting all kinds of piano and music study and music making, and not just supporting individuals who are like me. I need to do what I can today to bring people together with respect and mutual support as musicians and lovers of all genres of music to help people see a new level of detail that will hone their musical attention. I am unable to the question about the future, but I can direct my energy towards supporting the multitudes of music teachers and music lovers, especially those different from me. 

Extending beyond my world


We can all practice rapt attention to our own actions in an effort to ensure that we never steer anyone away from music (or piano) but instead guide them to the appropriate path and resources. W e need teachers today for many kinds of piano students, including adults, early childhood, young beginners, and those with special needs. In addition to teaching a variety of populations, we also need teachers who are prepared to teach a variety of musical styles and subjects, including traditional repertoire, jazz, popular styles, and increasing uses of technology. If students seeking something outside of our "traditional" definition of piano lessons can find that experience, they are much more likely to focus their attention and stay with it. The quality of a student's musical experience helps determine that student's future involvement with music. These experiences are what we can affect today. 

We must take care of the present, spreading respect for the many different kinds of music and teachers who make our profession such a powerful one. This is what we can do now to support music learning and experiences for generations to come. We can pull together today as teachers and partakers of different kinds of music to ensure a powerful presence of music teaching in the future. I can't predict the future or say where it will lead–none of us can. We can, however, do everything in our power to make the future a vibrant and welcoming place for music and music study. Ultimately, this is where I hope I left the teacher's question.

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