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Boiling it down: Recipes for effective teaching

When I think back on the great teachers I have encountered in my life, I find that they all had one thing in common—the ability to boil things down to their essence. These teachers' abilities to reveal the essence of the subject matter made my understanding possible. Perhaps it was an applied teacher communicating the essentials of tone production, a literature teacher explaining the underlying principles of various style periods, or a pedagogy teacher helping me see the true cause of a problem. They were so well versed in the subject they were teaching; they knew what lay at its core, and then communicated those principles. Once I understood this "boiled down" essence I possessed what was needed to continue my further explorations of the subject they were teaching. 

As teachers, we need to boil things down for our students, and also for ourselves. When we do this we will find that our teaching is more successful, and our students' learning has greater impact on their lives and future studies. Not only will we communicate more effectively, our diagnostic skills will be greatly enhanced.

What are we teaching? 

Music is the thing that brings the student and teacher together. It is shared and experienced in the context of the lesson. My goal as a teacher is to ensure that students learn how to express themselves and experience others through music. In order to do this, they must acquire skills and a fluent understanding of the musical language. I am the person responsible for this. I will need to choose and use printed courses of study. However, I will be the one responsible for their musical literacy, not the books I use. 

The Music Reading department is continually addressing ways to develop fluent music reading skills in our students. As editor of this department for more than ten years, I have endeavored to include writers whose examples and experiences involve various methods and publications. As Frances Clark once told a colleague of mine, "A good teacher can make any method successful." In other words, the "how" we teach is more important than the course of study. 

Learning to read music depends upon the learning of musical concepts and the understanding of how these concepts are represented on the written page. Educational theories show us that concepts are best learned through experience, and that these experiences must come before the actual encounter with the concrete representation in notation. This approach, although essential and undeniably effective, is hard to include in a method book. Two major problems arise because of this. One is the neglect of essential preparation activities for the concepts presented in the materials. Lack of adequate preparation sometimes leads to presentation of the concept before the student is ready. The other result is that we sometimes teach the materials rather than the concepts. For example, we may have presented half notes as notes which have two pulses without first having established an understanding of pulse. When this happens we have taught something which is limited in scope. It is learning which does not apply itself in further explorations. 

In order to avoid this teaching pitfall, a teacher must first, in her own mind, boil down the materials being taught to see the concept at the core. Once this is discovered and understood, the teacher can then structure the lesson to include appropriate preparation activities which can then lead to a meaningful presentation. Investigation of a few early-level concepts shows how even the most basic concepts presented in the student's lesson book can be boiled down by the teacher.

A few early-level concepts

The first dynamic symbols presented in a student's book are usually f and p. Of course, before reaching this point in the materials the student should have already experienced loud and soft sounds; hearing and identifying the difference, playing both types of sounds. With this kind of experience in place, the student is then presented with the f and p symbols. But there is a more basic concept at work here, and no greater one can be learned at this point. This is the concept of notation representing sound quality. Truly, this is the beginning of understanding concepts of musical artistry. 

Another example of an early level concept is that of the interval. Most books will present one interval at a time beginning with the interval of a 2nd. If one simply follows the method series, preparing then presenting this interval and then preparing and presenting the next interval, there is a more basic concept being missed. This is the concept of interval itself; the idea of distance and relationship on the keyboard and its representation on lines and spaces with the corresponding sounds. Before the first mention of interval occurs in a publication, my students have explored 2nds and 3rds and have seen how they can be represented on the staff. This quickly and easily opens the door for exploration of 4ths and 5ths well before they encounter them in repertoire. 

When considering rhythm, we need to avoid simply teaching note values. We need to boil it down to the basic concept of pulse. All rhythms are either additions or subdivisions of this basic concept. Whether experienced through marching, swinging arms, or swaying, students must first understand the concept of pulse in order for all other rhythmic discoveries to make sense. (For more on the teaching of rhythmic pulse see the Rhythm Department in the Spring 2008 issue of Keyboard Companion, found under "past website issues" at claviercompanion. com.) Rhythm is the area of musicianship in which a student is most likely to "know" something intellectually, but not be able to demonstrate it in their playing. It is very easy to teach the mathematical side of rhythmic values. It takes a wise and persistent teacher to ensure that the student feels rhythm.


The challenge of teaching technical concepts

The technical activities we assign students generally involve the use of patterns—five-finger patterns, scales, arpeggios, etc. Reasons for the use of these patterns include the learning of fingering principles and the development of comfort in all keyboard topographies. However, the greatest reason for the use of patterns in technical work is to allow the student to focus on their hands and fingers and how they work. Unfortunately, there are too many times when I meet a student whose technical experience has been playing all the major and minor five-finger patterns, and yet he is unable to play any of them with any control of his hand.We must be sure we are teaching technique and not just the theoretical patterns. 

When teaching technique to beginning students the teacher has to boil down all they know about playing the piano until the most basic essentials remain. In the area of technique, I focus the first years of study on control of the hand—maintaining a good rounded hand shape, fingers resting upon the keys (not "flying" and exhibiting excess tension), firm first joints in the fingers. Of course, the mastery of technical skills is dependent upon repetition, thus the use of simple patterns. However, the focus must remain on the hand and fingers. I find that if I successfully communicate technical concepts of firmness/relaxation and control at the elementary level, the student's technical skills grow easily and naturally.

Scale fingering concepts

The classic pattern used in teaching technique is the scale. Having already stated that the scale pattern is not a technical concept, I do find that there is a fingering concept used in scale playing which is often overlooked.When you boil it down, scale fingerings consist of groupings of fingers 1-2-3 and 1-2-3-4. The easiest way for the student to experience this is in the keys of D-flat, G-flat, and B Major. In these scales, fingers 2-3 and 2-3-4 play the groups of two and three black keys, thumbs play the white keys. These are easy scales to play hands together because the crossings are simultaneous. Through practice in which the student blocks the 2-3 and 2-3-4 groups the patterns are obvious. Even the key of F Major, which utilizes only one black key, can be learned in the same fashion. Once this concept of alternating groups of 3s and 4s is understood, the larger collection of scales (C, G, D, A, and E) with its nonsimultaneous crossings can be dealt with. The remaining E-flat, A-flat, and B-flat scales still utilize crossings of 3s and 4s with identical left hand fingerings and the right hand 4th finger always playing a B-flat. 

Boiling down scale fingering to a basic fingering concept makes learning and remembering scale fingering much easier for students. It also provides them with a model for determining fingering for scalar passages in their repertoire. Again, the student has learned something which will serve them in the future. This type of learning seems to be fading in this age of testoriented education. I believe we do a great service to our students when we provide them with these examples of practical, valuable learning. Students need to be shown how today's work and learning enhances their abilities to grow and understand even greater things tomorrow.

Teaching key and scale as theory concepts 

The theoretical construction of a scale provides the basis for understanding keys and harmony. When teaching scale construction theory, we need to remember that this is not the same as teaching scales for technical study. I have encountered many students who have played major scales in all keys, and yet have no theoretical understanding of key. As has been discussed in this department on many occasions, a good understanding of music theory is essential for good reading skills. One of the best ways to avoid the confusion of technical and theoretical scales is to introduce the concept of scale through use of tetrachords or some other division of the scale between the hands.

I find the area of scales and keys to be especially problematic for the teacher who does not look beyond the pages of the method book and thoughtfully consider the core concept of tonality. Many publications will present one particular key at a time. For example, the student will be presented the key of G major, see the scale which it uses, and play many pieces in that key. We are inclined to think that this then presents the concept of scale and key when, in fact, all it does is present that one particular key. The same issue is often found with the presentation and use of major five-finger patterns. 

The concept that must be communicated to the student regarding scale and key is the pattern of whole and half steps used to construct every major scale—WWHWWWH. Before the student gets to those pages of the lesson book which focus on a particular key/scale, they should have already built scales on many different starting tones using the major scale pattern. This is learning which will serve their future learning of keys.

Likewise, the presentation of major and minor five-finger patterns boils down to two patterns—WWHW for major; WHWW for minor.When exploring these patterns the student should come to know the unique sound of each and discover the consistent patterns being used. 

When boiled down even further, we see that the basic building blocks for theory study are the whole step and the half step. Just as reading depends upon the understanding of interval; theory depends on these core concepts. The teacher must see the importance of the concept of whole and half steps and the simplicity of the common patterns which utilize them. Then, if the student is shown the way these basic patterns can be built on any key on the piano, a solid foundation will have been laid. All succeeding presentations of theory concepts will then be natural and easy. 

We cannot focus only on sound or depend upon the technical study of these patterns to develop a practical and secure understanding of music theory in our students. We cannot wait until the method book gets to each scale or individual pattern. If we do this, our students are more likely to miss the point and struggle to understand keys and scales.


Musical performance 

The teaching of artistry at the piano has been the subject of numerous articles in Clavier Companion. Each of us can probably boil down our thoughts to what we consider to be the key elements of expressive playing. I would like us to take it even further. 

What lies at the core of musical performance? I find it all comes down to sound. If the student does not know how to listen to others and/or themselves, communication between teacher and student about artistry will be severely limited. This is why all presentations of early-level concepts must be rooted in preparation activities which involve hearing and recreating sounds. As mentioned earlier concerning dynamics, the most basic concept to be taught at the beginning of study is that a world of different sounds—high/low, loud/soft, detached/smooth, etc.—exists and can be represented in notation. Only if we have enabled the student to hear, will we be able to communicate our thoughts on how to be expressive in sound.

Implications for diagnostic skills

Most of this discussion has related to prevention of problems through the understanding of concepts and through careful, consistent preparation. Ideally, all of teaching should be about prevention. However, the truth is that much of our work involves fixing problems. I believe that in order to successfully fix a problem, one must first be able to identify what the problem is. Again, the teacher is called to boil things down, this time to find the essence of the problem

When a student is playing a phrase without musical shape, we can try to demonstrate the phrase and have the student reproduce it. We can also tell them when to begin a crescendo and where to take some time, etc. However, this is similar to turning the page in a method book and "teaching" the concept that appears on that page. It only addresses the example at hand and does little to help the student with future encounters. 

Instead, the teacher needs to boil it down to what lies at the heart of the problem. Is there a technical issue preventing the musical shape of the phrase? Perhaps the student is struggling with reading the phrase and therefore is "tuned out" to the sound. Maybe the student has not been exposed to basic thoughts on phrase shaping—getting louder in the ascent; directing the phrase over the barline, etc. Or perhaps it is the most basic problem of all—they do not know how to listen to themselves. The teacher must be willing to consider all of these possibilities. Perhaps it will take some experimentation with the student to find the answer. But, I believe it begins with the teacher looking deeper than the surface.

A more basic example is the elementary student who struggles with reading. Does the student understand the basic concept of interval? Can the student read, draw, play, and identify different intervals? Does the student have a process for reading, or is he overwhelmed with memorizing note names? Perhaps there is a visual problem at play? Maybe it is a problem relating to poor practice habits? 

It always comes back to the teacher's ability to not be distracted by what is immediately at hand, but to see the underlying cause of the problem. How can a teacher learn this? I have often assumed that the answer is "experience." But I now believe it is much more than that. It comes from knowing the material being taught beyond what appears on the page, whether it is a Beethoven Sonata or a primer level lesson book. If the teacher does not have a clear concept of the Beethoven sonata movement at hand, the communication about it will have less impact. Likewise, if the teacher does not really understand the process for reading presented in the beginning student's lesson book, the student will have a less secure grasp of the musical language. 

I continue to believe that the best way to learn how to teach is to teach beginners. It is at this first level that one must confront every aspect of music as if it is brand new. The teacher has to deconstruct the musical language into the basic concepts and figure out how to lead explorations into each of them with the student. The teacher must know what is coming next in the process and has to prepare the way. The lesson plan must go beyond reading what is on the method book's page. It must craft experiences that are relevant to the basic concepts of musical understanding. When teachers can boil things down for themselves, they can do it for their students. The result is effective communication and the beginning of musical literacy and expression. 

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