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A survival manual for college teachers

Every year it's the same - a group of my students prepare to leave the hallowed halls of academia and search for the elusive "job." For these students, this is BIG - and not just a little scary. As the "professor," part of my job is to prepare these changelings for what will be one of the most exciting times in their lives. For me, mentoring my students is probably the most rewarding interaction I have with my students.

As they leave the "safe" world of college (if you can call juries, recitals, and comprehensive exams safe!), they will take on a new responsibility, suddenly being the ones that new students look up to for answers. For many of them, they will feel like they're not ready to provide all of these answers, or

that they're not ready to tackle all the challenges that they face. If we could only give them a survival manual for their first years of professional teaching!

A graduating doctoral student, Erin Bennett, writes this issue's column. Erin has always prepared for "life after student," and has taken responsibility for her education. Now that she is "crossing over," her nagging fear is taking responsibility for someone else's education. Rule number one when trying to find answers to questions: ask for advice. Erin found four wonderful mentors who gladly offered their advice. Not only did she go to teachers who had been in academia for a long time, but she also sought some advice from relatively new teachers. I hope you learn from their expertise. 

"Can I borrow that idea?" A new college professor seeks advice.

Erin Bennett

by Erin Bennett

In my final year of residency as a doctoral student, I had the somewhat frightening realization that I would soon be leaving behind the security blanket of school. There, my goals were neatly laid out for me in the form of exams and recitals, and I always had the helpful advice of a teacher or coach. I would soon be facing life out on my own, setting my own priorities and trusting my abilities.

More importantly, I would be responsible for shaping and guiding the next generation of pianists as they entered the pipeline of musical higher education. I had sound training and varied teaching experiences, but I still felt less secure teaching college- level advanced students.

Instead of getting overwhelmed in my first job - "What if I can't create a helpful fingering for that tricky passage? What if I can't help them eliminate arm tension? How can I teach something like a Ligeti etude that I haven't played yet? And what on earth do I assign to an incoming student at their first lesson?" I decided to seek out new ideas and inspiration. In my quest for answers, five col- lege professors graciously shared their advice with me on a number of topics related to teaching the advanced student: D r. Pa ul Barnes (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), Dr. Tomoko Kanamaru (The College of New Jersey), Dr. Jane Magrath (University of Oklahoma), Professor Anton Nel (University of Texas- Austin), and Professor Eugene Pridonoff (University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music). Here is what I learned from their knowledge and experience. 

On choosing new repertoire

As a new professor, every student received would be, in essence, a "transfer" student. I would have to choose new repertoire for them with little to no prior knowledge of their background and abilities. My own teachers seemed to know what would be best for me from the very first lesson. Would I need years of experience to acquire the same skills?

The teachers I interviewed suggested several strategies that I could prepare in advance of meeting my first student. A starting point would be to build my own standard or "template" for a well-balanced repertoire appropriate for a variety of student levels. Several resources are useful towards this end, listing, annotating, and leveling the vast library of piano music.1 Most of the teachers who gave me advice ask every incoming student for a repertoire list. With this list and my template in hand I could identify students' "gaps" and begin to develop a curriculum tailored to the needs of each individual.

Analyzing what a student needs to succeed begins with listening to them perform live. Technical weaknesses can be assessed by observing their admissions audition, incoming diagnostic performance, and their first lesson. These performance opportunities also allow me to assess the student's musicality and get a sense of their performance style. I may even discover that they have an affinity for a particular composer. This information provides a starting point for initial repertoire decisions.

Dr. Kanamaru compares the student repertoire list to a set of curriculum requirements she uses as a template. If a student does not have extensive experience with the Well-Tempered Clavier, she occasionally reinforces their contrapuntal technique using the Two- and Three-Part Inventions in the first semester. If a student arrives without a balanced background in Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, she makes sure the student plays all three composers over their course of study. Keeping this balance in mind, she also assigns increasingly advanced Beethoven. In a given year her students are required to learn an etude or short virtuosic work. If a new student isn't ready to tackle Chopin or Liszt, Rachmaninoff or Scriabin, she first introduces them to Moszkowski.

Professor Pridonoff similarly relies upon a repertoire list to make his decisions. He also makes it a point to mix short pieces that can be learned within a 10-week quarter with long-term projects that may take the entire year, motivating the student with a variety of challenges and accomplishments.

Dr. Barnes begins by assigning "guide- post" pieces - specific classical sonatas or excerpts from the Well-Tempered Clavier that he teaches frequently. H e takes note of the student's learning process, their abilities, and the student-teacher relationship. H e then bases subsequent repertoire choices on how the student handles the ini- tial assignment.

Dr. Magrath reassured me that the three or four years I teach each student would be plenty of time to make adjustments and find a balanced program. The entire year's curriculum does not need to be set during the first meeting. She actively uses the time between semesters - summer and winter vacations- to plan for each student, using their performances at end of term juries to help guide her choices for the next semester.

Nearly all of these experts take some student preferences into consideration for repertoire decisions, sometimes even asking them to build a "wish list." They may immediately assign works from the wish list or begin building the foundation required to play those pieces. All of the professors were willing to put a work aside if the student struggled to learn the piece or if the work was somehow a poor fit.

On teaching unfamiliar repertoire

My future students will certainly bring in music I have never studied before, but more alarming is the possibility that they will want to learn music in unfamiliar languages or idioms.

Both Dr. Barnes and Professor Nel tackle unknown repertoire with an adventurous spirit. When a student brings them an unfamiliar work they learn it along with them. They treat this as an opportunity to expand their own repertoire, enjoying the artistic and pedagogical challenge, which in turn prepares them to better guide their student through the piece.

Dr. Magrath and Professor Pridonoff both try to get a good sense of the unfamiliar piece. Dr. Magrath reads through the work, listens to recordings, and gets to know it well enough to demonstrate passages in the lesson. Professor Pridonoff tries within the first lessons to guide the student to be expressive within that particular musical language. He cited Messiaen, Boulez, and Stockhausen as composers whose idioms were more difficult than others. 

Professor Pridonoff is not afraid, on occasion, to send students to colleagues who might know a given piece or idiom better - for example, he ofte n shares stu dents with his wife, pianist and pedagogue Elisabeth Pridonoff, especially when students are working on music that suits her areas of expertise.

On approaching technique

No matter where I begin my first university job, I will be charged with helping my students develop an increasingly advanced virtuoso technique. I wanted to know what the experts thought about using a systematic technical regimen. They each offered a different perspective.

Professor Nel's approach involves scales, arpeggios, and work on accents and articulation. He asks his students to think and listen in different ways so that any time the score calls for it, they are able to produce the necessary tone and articulation.

Dr. Magrath employs scales in 3rds, 6ths, and 10ths, light and even arpeggios (major, minor, diminished, augmented), double note warm-ups, octave skips, Dohmlnyi's Essential Finger Exercises numbers 1 through 8, Rachmaninoff's stretching exercises, and other miscellaneous exercises.

Dr. Barnes broadly defines technique to include finger dexterity, tone production, arm and wrist coordination, rhythmic energy, and balance/voicing. He gives each student a handout with an overview ofeach topic's importance and a couple of basic drills. In lessons he provides more detailed guidance. In addition to this work on tech- nique and sound production, every piano jury at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln includes specific assignments for scales and arpeggios outlined for each year of undergraduate study. 

Professor Pridonoff does not have a specific regimen but refers his students to a list of exercises compiled by his wife that includes those by Brahms, Dohnanyi, and Martin Canin, as well as further exercises for scales, arpeggios, broken chords, trills, octaves, and stretching.

Dr. Kanamaru also does not use a prescribed technical regimen, but she has her students regularly play etudes. The College of New Jersey includes scales and cadences as part of the audition requirements to gauge students' technical weaknesses from the very beginning.

The most difficult aspect of teaching advanced students

Near the end of each interview I asked about the responsibilities and difficulties of teaching the advanced student. I was surprised by the diversity of their answers.

Dr. Magrath described the serious responsibility of mentoring her students as the most difficult aspect of teaching. She weighs her decisions carefully to ensure she is making the right choices for each student and recognizes the need for variety to keep her students engaged and motivated. She also expressed her disappoint- ment that not every student follows all of her advice.

Professor Pridonoff spoke of his frustration with students who are so focused on the details that they are not able to step back and take in the "big picture" of a given work. He also lamented students who do not listen to a wide variety of music that can inform their musical interpretations. As an example he cited the importance of listening to Beethoven's symphonic and instrumental works as preparation to interpreting his sonatas, which often seem to be conceived symphonically or in the manner of a string quartet. 

Professor Nel divided the difficulties up by degree program. For undergraduates, he explained that the difficulty is in teaching students how to think, and how to develop taste and an understanding of different styles. For graduate students, he found the challenge to be encouraging students to think independently. He further discussed the difficulties associated with having a highly talented student who is content to rest on their laurels, without recognizing the potential for continued improvement and growth.


I went into these interviews hoping to prevent myself from feeling overwhelmed in my first college teaching position. I learned that the answers to my questions would certainly come with more experience, but that there were strategies and tools I could begin to implement now to better prepare me for the job.

From my interviews with these distinguished teachers I picked up a wealth of new ideas that both inspired me and generated a renewed enthusiasm to teach. I am sincerely grateful for their advice and mentoring. Instead of feeling nervous, I am now excited and much better equipped to begin my new adventure as a college professor. 


1 Helpful resources include The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Perfonnance Literature by Jane Magrath (Alfred Publishing, 1995) and Maurice Hinson's Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire (Indiana University Press, 2001). 

Paul Barnes

Praised by The New York Times for his "Lisztian thunder and deft fluidity," and the San Francisco Chronicle as "ferociously virtuosic," pianist Paul Barnes has electrified audiences with his intensely expressive playing and cutting-edge programming. He has recently performed in England, China, Korea, Russia, Czech Republic, Austria, and Greece and in all major cities through- out the US. Paul Barnes is Professor and Co-chair of Piano at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Music. Recently elected to the national board of the American Liszt Society, Barnes hosted the 2005 ALS festival at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He teaches during the summer at the Bosendorfer International Piano Academy in Vienna and also coaches the students of Menahem Pressler. In great demand as a pedagogue and clinician, Barnes has served as convention artist at several state MTNA conventions. He was named Teacher of the Year by the Nebraska Music Teachers Association at their 2006 state convention. 

Tomoko Kanamaru

As a versatile recitalist, concerto soloist, chamber musician, and collaborative artist, Tomoko Kanamaru has garnered the respect of musicians and the acclaim of critics both within the United States and in Asia. She has collaborated with a wide range of world- renowned artists, from Barry Tuckwell to Branford Marsalis, and was most recently praised by 77te Philadelphia Inquirer as a "charismatic pianist." Dr. Kanamaru continues to capture audiences' attention with her stunning virtuosity and unequaled sense of lyricism. Dr. Kanamaru's performances have also been heard on radio broadcasts, television, and com- mercials in Japan and the United States. She has recorded for the Nippon Colum- bia label. 

Tomoko Kanamaru is the head of the keyboard division at New Jersey College. Previously, she held teaching positions at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and the College of Mount St. Joseph. Dr. Kanamaru has written articles for several publications, in addition to co-editing more than 30 volumes of educational piano music with the Yamaha Music Foundation. 

Jane Magrath

Jane Magrath is Regents' Professor and holds the Grant Endowed Chair in Piano Pedagogy at the University of Oklahoma, where she was named Rothbaum Presidential Professor of Excellence in the Arts. With more than thirty- five volumes published with Alfred Publishing, her book The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature has become a classic reference work for pianists through- out the country. Jane Magrath was named

the first recipient of the MTNA Frances Clark Keyboard Pedagogy Award for Out- standing Contribution to Piano Pedagogy. For many years she contributed New Music Reviews to Clavier and she currently serves as an editor for the Piano Pedagogy Forum. Magrath's regular column Polyphony can be found in The  American Music Teacher

Anton Nel

Anton Nel enjoys a remarkable and multi- faceted career that has taken him throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia, and South Africa. In 1984, he was a prize winner at the Leeds International Piano Competition in England, and won several first prizes at the Joanna Hodges International Piano Competition in Palm Desert. Highlights of Mr. Nel's nearly three decades of concertizing include performances with the Cleveland Orchestra, the symphonies of Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, and London.

Mr. Nel was appointed to the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin in his early twenties, followed by professorships at the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Michigan, where he was chairman of the piano department. In September 2000, Anton Nel was appointed as the Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor of Piano and Chamber Music at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches an international class of students and now heads the Division of Keyboard Studies. In 2001 he was appointed Visiting "Extraordinary" Professor at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, and continues to teach master classes worldwide. 

 Eugene Pridonoff

Eugene Pridonoff has maintained an international performing and teaching career since 1965 when he was a laureate in the Leventritt, Montreal, Brazil, and Tchaikovsky competitions.

He has performed with orchestras throughout the world including the ew York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. 

Identified in the publication The Most Wanted Piano Teachers in the United StaleS, by Benjamin Saver, Eugene Pridonoff has been a featured performer, teacher, and lecturer at the World Piano Pedagogy Conferences, and DVDs of his sessions have been distributed internationally. He has also served as a consultant with Rudolf Serkin, Isaac Stern, and other prominent artists to the National Endowment for the Arts to establish grants for recitalists to promote the careers of young instrumentalists.

Currently Professor of Piano at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, his former students hold collegiate teaching positions throughout the world and have been first-place winners in the Horowitz, Missouri SOllthern, American Pianists Association, Shreveport Wideman, and Midland-Odessa competitions. In March of 200S, he and his wife Elizabeth Pridonoff were inter- viewed and featured on the cover of Clavier magazine. 

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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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