The imaginative piano teacher: Musings on being more creative in the piano studio
As we start a new year of teaching, I believe that many of us wonder how can I improve and become a better, more efficient, and more productive teacher this year? I know I do, even as I start my 44th year of teaching. Of course, I prepare by consulting past lesson plans and pedagogy syllabi. As I meet new students and welcome back returning ones, I study familiar repertoire and seek out pieces I have not taught previously, trying to find that perfect marriage between students' needs and assigned repertoire. I also listen to historical and contemporary recordings, watch performance videos, and attend live performances by colleagues, guest artists, and students—all of which will undeniably stimulate my pedagogical and musical thoughts and continue to help me grow. I am indeed, very fortunate to be teaching in an environment where talent and the pursuit of musical excellence are in the air, in the water, in the very fiber of each student, teacher, administrator, and yes, even the facilities folks!
With the wealth of marvelous instructional insights available to us in the 21st century—from the terrific resources in this very magazine, to workshops, texts, websites, and discussions with fellow teachers—the prospect for increasing our knowledge is undeniable. Each of us aspires to be the very best instructor for each of our students and we incorporate aspects of our own history, our musical abilities, and our unique personalities into our lessons and classes.
For me the aspect of upmost importance, the area of my teaching where I wish to improve every year, is creativity. As I approach the new school year and even the start of each lesson, I find myself continually asking how can I incorporate more elements of creativity into my pedagogy? For me, creativity leads to being a better, more efficient and more productive teacher.
Perhaps it is due to my experience as a jazz pianist, but each time I play a tune like Autumn Leaves, I inevitably think: what can I do differently this time? shall I play it in an 'odd' key or meter, or try a different rhythmic feel? might I start the 1st chorus with chords or single notes, etc.? Each time jazz musicians perform, there is sense of the unknown, the untried, the unexplored—we welcome this—we are drawn to it: it speaks to the very core of being a jazz artist, this constant and wonderful journey of creativity.
I approach each new school year as a new chorus of improvisation, a new opportunity to be creative. For me teaching well has at its very core a creative element, regardless of whether teaching at Eastman, or starting little ones on their journey towards musical joy. It might seem easier to some to employ creativity when teaching beginners; indeed the leading method books encourage students to be creative, such as 'My Own Song" in the Hal Leonard Student Piano Library,1 and "Using What You've Discovered" in The Music Tree.2 For older, advancing students, such as the ones I am fortunate to encounter at Eastman, there are ample opportunities to 'use what they have discovered' as they start new pieces. Sometimes I think of myself as a walking thesaurus, seeking more and more verbs and adjectives to describe a desired effect, trying to be creative in my vocabulary choices.
Creative Problem Solving During the Lesson
The very best teachers I have met invariably demonstrated a creative approach that was undeniable, exhilarating, and captivating. I fondly remember a moment of sheer creative joy we all experienced, courtesy of Nelita True. At a national pedagogy conference: in front of 800 fellow teachers, she was coaching a young man who was having some difficulty in adding a sufficient and convincing level of excitement to his Golliwog's Cakewalk. At the cadence on the bottom of the first page (measure 25), where the hands go in opposite directions on B flats, Nelita demonstrated (in her inimitable manner) the exuberance that passage required by shouting out "Weeeee!!!!!!!!" We all roared with laughter, and yes, approval, as that sound, that spirit, that creative energy produced an immediate recognition for the student as he successfully played that cadence. Nelita didn't need many words, just one, and we all sat there in amazement and gratitude for having witnessed such a marvelous example of creative problem solving.
Creativity brings all the other aspects of quality teaching together. All the knowledge of editions, repertoire choices, technique books, apps, and other technological tricks are made that much better by a creative approach.
What I sincerely hope is that we motivate ourselves, we remind each other to take a breath, to take stock in what we are endeavoring to do, to examine our own style and approach to teaching. Everyone has a strength, and a talent to produce—some may be better organized, others may have limited vocabulary but terrific gestures. I encourage each of you to think outside of your own box, maybe even throw away the box and start fresh!
Merriam-Webster defines creativity: "To produce through imaginative skill."3 It is my fervent hope that this year I will be a more imaginative teacher, combining knowledge, compassion, and pedagogical skill, so that each of my students can become as creative a performer and musician possible.
1 Kreader, Barbara, Kern, Fred, Keveren, Phillip, & Rejino, Mona. (1996). Hal Leonard Student Piano Library. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation.
2 Clark, Frances, Goss, Louise, & Holland, Sam. (2000). The Music Tree. Van Nuys, CA: Summy-Birchard Inc./Alfred Music.
3.Creativity. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster's online dictionary. Retrieved from: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/create
I totally agree that creativity matters in teaching, and I like your example of jazz performance. In my limited understanding of jazz, even the freest improvisation is formed by constant thinking, practice, and experiments, so does in teaching. Thus, being creative is a process of asking ourselves questions. As teachers, we have to ask ourselves what questions we should ask students, what pieces we can give to them, what content we should deliver to them, how we can describe a problem more comfortable for students to solve, and how we can make students produce a proper sound, etc.
Moreover, the language that we use in the lesson should also be creative and comfortable. A creative description of a certain idea or problem makes students understand fast, so the lesson's efficiency promotes. In addition to the creative language, I think passion is also necessary for us to be creative in the lesson. We have to use our passion to inspire and bring a certain emotion about a piece or passage to our students. Your example of True's masterclass is great to show the passion of a very best teacher.
I really love your emphasis on creativity being a necessity in teaching. Music is an artist form, and as such, it requires creativity in every aspect of it, but we often forget that when we teach and try to make it like a textbook. I loved the music tree books growing up because they were fun, encouraged the imagination, and engaged me at a very young age. I use it with my students and they love it! It helps them expect questions and to ask their own questions as well. Some people may think that being a teacher is easy because you are just imparting the knowledge that you have, but that isn't the case. Teaching is a challenge, and I have yet to meet a great teacher who said it was easy. It involves careful planning, thinking ahead, and understanding.