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Dedication to excellence: An interview with Ingrid Clarfield

Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield has given lecture recitals, workshops, and master classes in more than a hundred cities across America, including many at state and national conferences of the Music Teachers National Association.


She has presented master classes and pedagogy sessions at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, the TCU/Van Cliburn Institute, the National Piano Teachers Institute, the Music Teachers Association of California, the World Piano Pedagogy Conference, and the Calgary Arts Summer School in Alberta, Canada. Ms. Clarfield serves as Professor of Piano and Coordinator of the Piano Department at Westminster Choir College of Rider University and has directed Westminster's Piano Week for High School Students since 1984. In 2012, she was honored as the Musical Teachers National Association Teacher of the Year. The documentary film Take a Bow (2011) tells the inspirational story of her tenacious fight back to teaching after a devastating stroke. We sat down to this interview via FaceTime™ on the weekend following Thanksgiving 2014. And what follows is a glimpse into her background, passions, philosophies, and practical experience as one of the most successful piano teachers in America here .



Tell us about your early experiences in music and your first teacher.

My first piano teacher was my uncle who emigrated from Poland. I started lessons with him when I was five years old. I remember feeling very happy and comfortable with him and loving my lessons. I will never forget playing "Country Gardens" (the last piece in the red book) for my kindergarten class. My uncle died when I was ten years old. I was accepted at Juilliard, but refused to go, so I began study with Michael Field, a partner in the famed Appleton and Field duo piano team. My lifelong love of two-piano playing probably began when I heard them perform Bach's Art of Fugue in Town Hall. Mr. Field was much more demanding than my uncle. I studied with him until I was thirteen, when he quit teaching piano to become a cooking teacher and the author of several famous cookbooks. At the insistence of my parents, I went to study at Juilliard, which turned out to be a less than positive experience for me. My teacher taught me how not to motivate students. Every week he told me I was the worst student at Juilliard. Then a week before my jury, he would tell me what an excellent pianist I was and that he expected me to do an outstanding job. You simply cannot beat students down all year long and expect them to perk up with one compliment before a performance. Because of this experience, I am overly concerned and cautious about my students feeling prepared weeks before a performance. I obviously chose not to follow in his footsteps. During my senior year, when my teacher became ill, I was assigned a wonderful graduate assistant as a teacher, who was critical but positive, and helped me prepare for my audition at Oberlin.

Were you an exceptional talent?

I never considered that before, but if I really think about it now, the answer is no. I played well, but not exceptionally. I have several students now who are much more talented than I was. 

How did you come to love music? 

Our house was filled with music! After dinner my parents would listen to operas and symphonies, and my father often played the piano for relaxation. At a young age I was exposed to all the arts. Every summer I attended music and dance camps. My parents took me to concerts, ballets, and museums. Two of my fondest memories are going to hear Rubinstein and watching the Bolshoi Ballet.

You and I share the gift of having studied with John Perry as undergraduates. It's not telling any secrets to say that he was very young when we studied with him. How did you find him and why did you choose to study with him? 

John was twenty-nine and I an enthusiastic seventeen when I was in his very first class at Oberlin. I didn't choose him. He got stuck with me. Let's be honest, the new teacher doesn't get the superstars. 

Would you tell us something more about what you learned from John? How has his teaching shaped your teaching and your career? 

There is so much to say, but most important was the total commitment and dedication I felt from John at every lesson. He was demanding and critical, but he was committed to making me the best musician possible. I left several lessons crying because I felt I couldn't live up to his expectations. But, I couldn't wait to come back for my next lesson. I hope my students feel that same dedication from me. I must admit, I've given out a few Kleenex at lessons too! John cared about me as a person, and he could tell when I was upset without my having to say a word. I remember playing the opening of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 109, and he said to me, "You had a fight with Steve didn't you?" And he was right. I hope my students also know I care about them, too. I also learned from John that it's important to say something positive after a student performs. I remember performing the "Waldstein" sonata for him, convinced, after hours of practice, that this would be the lesson where he would jump up and yell "Brava!" Instead I bombed out and sat shaking waiting for the critical tirade. After a minute or two of silence, he looked at me and said, "I really like your stockings." (They were black fishnet.) Being the excellent teacher he is, he found something good to say! I think of that every time a student bombs in front of me and find something good to say. A major part of my teaching philosophy is that students will rise to the level expected of them. There is no doubt I learned that during my lessons with John. He set the bar very high and I will be forever grateful. 

Tell us about some of your other teachers. Who were they? How did they influence you? 

One summer John suggested I study with his teacher, Frank Mannheimer—a pupil of the legendary Tobias Matthay. Afflicted with Parkinsons, he no longer could play. I will never forget his mastery of language in expressing sound and image. I think of him often when struggling to explain or demonstrate something during a lesson. I have fond memories of lessons with Carlo Zecchi at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and at the Estates Musicales in Taormina, Sicily. He had such passion and energy—you left every class feeling more excited than ever about making music. One person I never studied with, but who has definitely influenced me, is Nelita True. I remember watching Nelita teach some particularly unspectacular students in a master class, yet she somehow made it work beautifully! At the end, both the students and teachers felt good about themselves. I often think of her when I give a master class, hoping I achieve the same results.

What things do you enjoy (or do) that have nothing to do with music?

This is my favorite question because I get to talk about my family— my incredibly supportive husband, Mel, and my two wonderful daughters, Amanda and Julie. Not only are they terrific daughters, but they have given me the greatest gift of all—four grandchildren. I love to spend time with my girls, their wonderful husbands, EJ and Michael, and the joys of my life, Ryan (11), Elizabeth (7), Taylor (4), and Brandon (1). I love starting my day talking to Amanda as she is on her way to the school where she teaches K-5 music. I enjoy taking her kids to just about every kid's movie that comes out, and, when the Academy awards are on, I feel like the authority on children's movies. These outings naturally include popcorn and candy and often conclude with pizza and/or ice cream. Obviously, they're not getting healthy eating habits from Grandma Ingie! 

I also enjoy having them sleep over, which may involve watching a movie, playing Mad Libs, or playing a game on my iPad. We also love going to see a Broadway show every summer. So far we've seen Mary Poppins, Annie, and The Lion King. My younger daughter, Julie, is a school psychologist for grades K-8 in Maryland. One of my favorite weekend activities is our Sunday morning Skype dates with her family. I love hearing all about Taylor's latest adventures and singing songs with her. She is amazingly verbal for four years old! I love my Skype hug at the end, and Taylor has even taught her one-year-old brother Brandon how to throw a kiss! Brandon stares at the computer, trying to understand how Grandma is in there, when he's not trying to escape off of Julie's lap! When we get together, Taylor and I have fun playing board games and making zebra cake (and eating half the whipped cream and chocolate cookies before putting it together). 

Mel and I both love to travel and especially enjoy annual winter vacations in Cancun. For me it's about sitting by the pool, going to the spa, and of course, shopping! For the last twenty years we've gone to Hilton Head Island in June, where we enjoy playing golf together (yes, I still can play using only one hand). I definitely miss playing tennis—which we did before my stroke. We had some fiercely competitive matches back in the day! While we do the normal fun things as other couples, going out to dinner, concerts, movies, to be honest, I love just sitting on the sofa, relaxing together and watching TV (when we can agree on a show we both like!).

What are the most important relationships in your professional life? 

Lillian Livingston 

Lillian, my best friend, was my duo-piano partner from 1976-2007, when, due to my stroke, I no longer could perform with two hands. My favorite concerts were the ones we did for children in the schools or part of a community arts series. 

Dennis Alexander

Dennis is my coauthor for Keys to Stylistic Mastery and Keys to Artistic Performance (plus he's written pieces for all four grandchildren, Mel, and me). Collaborating with him has been totally inspiring. I am grateful to him for introducing me to all my friends at Alfred Publishing. While not collaborating on books or planning a showcase, we remain close friends and enjoy getting together whenever we can!

Dean Elder

Dean is my lifeline for all things musical. I have him critique almost everything I write before I submit it. (I feel strange not having submitted this to him.) This results in heated email discussions on fingering, pedaling, and text. He also is my private "Google" for musical questions. When I email him a question on a piece I am teaching, within 24 hours, I get an answer, plus a scholarly article attached. And when I'm really lucky, he sends a detailed list of notes from a lesson he took with Walter Gieseking or Alfred Cortot on the piece. He also enjoys critiquing videos of my student performances when they are brave enough to send him one.

Phyllis Lehrer

Phyllis has been one of my best friends since she invited me to join the piano faculty at Westminster Choir College in 1982. In addition to teaching and doing presentations together, we have collaborated on our exciting new series Classics for the Developing Pianist, Books 1-5 (Alfred).

Scott McBride Smith

When Richard Chronister paired me up with Scott (whom I had never met) for a teaching demonstration for NCKP in the early 1990s, I had no idea that this would be the beginning of one of my favorite collaborations. Every time I have the opportunity to do anything with Scott, I'm thrilled, knowing he will challenge me, keep me on my toes (literally and figuratively), and help me to grow as an educator.

Peter Mack

Peter is my newest significant professional and personal relationship. By observing his insightful and inspiring sessions and listening to his highly accomplished students the past five years, I realized I wanted to find a way to work with this man. Fortunately, he felt the same about me. So for the past two years, we have chosen a few of our top students for the other to critique. The students upload performances to YouTube, and we send them detailed critiques of their performances. This has been an incredible learning experience for us, our students, and in some cases the parents. They learn that it is OK for two "authorities" to disagree on certain musical ideas.

How has your teaching changed since your stroke in 2007? 

LOTS, but let's save that for another article!

Do you have any pithy suggestions that might help teachers achieve better results with their students or that might guide a young person who is considering a career in piano teaching?

• The first is practice, practice, practice! Never stop trying to im prove your own playing. That way you can discover what works musically and technically. You will be able to demonstrate as well as learn new repertoire.

• Listen to and watch recordings of lots of great pianists.

• Observe other teachers who are producing outstanding students.

• Attend master classes, workshops, and conferences to encounter new repertoire, practice techniques, and motivational strategies.

• Set specific and achievable goals for every lesson that allow for flexibility and creativity, and that are based on a student's learning and motivational styles.

• Always have the student be a part of making up the lesson assignment.

• Encourage your students to go to live concerts, listen to recordings, and watch good performances.

• Subscribe to and read Clavier Companion to learn about what's going on.

• Develop a love and passion for teaching all kinds of music to all kinds of students of all ages and levels.

• Remember that a student's piano lesson is only one hour or half hour a week. Take the rest of their lives into consideration.

• Relate things in lessons to things that are important in students' lives. Learn about their interests outside music. I find myself using a lot of sports metaphors, which is easier if it's a sport I understand.

• Treat every student as if they were gifted, and strive for the highest possible level of achievement. Students rise to the level expected of them.

Let's discuss the ideas behind your Artistry series publications. 

In each series, I have tried to create a niche by doing something different from other great repertoire series. For example, Burgmuller, Czerny, and Hanon teaches how to play standard etudes with an emphasis on musicality, not technicality. Nothing should be played without musical intention. For Keys to Stylistic Mastery. I selected repertoire to showcase stylistic differences, and bullet points explain how to create these differences. Keys to Artistic Performance is built around repertoire selected to illustrate artistic concepts such as color, rubato, choreography, pedaling, and characterization. Dennis Alexander has provided exceptional original pieces for both of these series. In the newest series with Phyllis Lehrer, Classics for the Developing Pianist: Core Repertoire for Study and Performance, we have selected and edited the top 100 pieces that we believe students want to play (and teachers should know how to teach). Our editing is created to facilitate musicality and technique to help achieve artistic results. For example, dynamic markings are added to provide good balance and voicing, and to assist in pacing. You will also find alternative fingerings, pedaling, and various options for ornaments written out.

What do you feel are some of the highlights of your career? 

1) In 1991, my student, Damien Dixon, won the MTNA National Junior (Baldwin) competition. 

2) In 1996 my first book, From Mystery to Mastery, was published. 

3) In 2001 I gave my first teaching demonstration at the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy. 

4) In 2006 I presented my first master class at the MTNA National Conference; a complimentary email from Nelita True was icing on the cake. 

5) A standing ovation at the 2010 MTNA National Conference in Albuquerque after a performance of Dennis Alexander's Arioso (for RH alone). 

6) The 2011 release of the documentary: Take a Bow: The Ingrid Clarfield Story. 

7) Receiving the MTNA Teacher of the Year award in 2012, and subsequently presenting my husband Mel Mack with the "Husband of the Year (and my life)" award. 

8) Appearing on the cover of Clavier Companion!

You are one of a very small number of teachers who have had success as an IMT at all levels, as a collegiate piano teacher, and as a collegiate pedagogy teacher. How do you do it? 

My goal is always to achieve the highest level of artistry—no matter what piece or what level. It doesn't matter. The artistic, musical, and technical concepts are the same. For example, in this year's NJMTA Competition, among my winners was a sevenyear- old playing "The Peacock" by Olive Dungan, and a seventeen-year-old playing "Ondine" from Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. In their performances—both are demonstrating tone control, variety of color, listening for balance, phrasing, varieties of pedaling, imagery, and choreography—the same concepts though the degree of difficulty is quite different. As Frances Clark once said, "Everything begins at the beginning." 

Any thoughts of retiring?

I'd like to quote my daughter, Amanda, on that when people ask her that question. She says, "My mom will never retire. She'll just traumatize some kid by dropping dead during their lesson." Or, as I just said at my last studio recital: "Why would I? I love what I do!"

What are things our readers might be surprised to learn about you?

In 8th grade, I had an Elvis Presley scrapbook I studied ballet for 12 years. In my senior year, I danced a solo and ended it by sitting at a piano on stage playing the Brahms Rhapsody in G minor. The other instrument I always wanted to play is the harp. I was a cheerleader in college. The artist I would pay big bucks to hear live is Barbra Streisand. After every presentation, the first thing I do when I get back to the hotel is critique it – what worked, what didn't, and what to delete? I love silence! I never listen to music in the car or while at the computer. I can't relax at the acupuncturist if classical music is

What are you most proud of in your professional life? 

I'm proud of the fact that so many students and teachers have told me that I "changed their lives." What a fabulous feeling! I especially love it when teachers come up to me after a session and thank me for giving them new ideas to help their teaching and for making it OK to be " a little crazy during lessons." You never really know the impact you've had on people's lives. Many years ago I received the following quote from a young man who had attended my High School Piano Camp: "Participating in Ingrid Clarfield's Summer Piano Camp had a profound influence on my musical development. The encouragement and dedication of the faculty inspired and challenged me, and this experience was an important factor in my decision to pursue a musical career." That young man is Pete Jutras, now an accomplished Associate Professor at The University of Georgia and the Editor-in-Chief of Clavier Companion.

How do you feel about current technology in piano teaching? 

I've been expecting every student to record and view every lesson for 30 years. Today, with mobile devices and digital recording, it is so much easier than it used to be. I also love to use the Yamaha Disklavier as recording and playback device during lessons--especially playback in half tempo. It's like wearing a bikini. There's no place for a student to hide anything. 

What are your thoughts and feelings about the future of piano study in America? 

I feel optimistic because we are training more and better teachers all the time.

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Daniel Tsukamoto on Thursday, 12 December 2019 22:05

Is there a recording of Ingrid Clarfield's webinar?

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Is there a recording of Ingrid Clarfield's webinar?

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