15 minutes reading time (2944 words)

The power of one--a legacy of beautiful music

Back in the 1930s a young Venezuelan pianist wished to further her musical studies, and did exactly what many aspiring musicians from North and South America chose to do in those days: she went to Europe to study. After completing her studies in Paris, she made two life-altering decisions: she returned home to Venezuela, and she became a nun.

Sister Marta was a brilliant pianist, and her students acquired some of that same skill. Sister Marta had an outstanding student in Venezuela by the name of Doralisa Jimenez de Medina. Doralisa was a devoted teacher, and opened her studio to one and all—even to those who could not pay. She often had as many as seven pianos in her studio, and she arranged sonatas, symphonic overtures, and other classical works for multiple pianos. The students would play together—some of them barely able to read their highly simplified parts—but they played in ensemble, and they developed a passion for making music. And they performed. They performed a Friday recital simply because it was Friday; and they performed again on Saturday because it was Saturday. Music was ingrained into their lives.

One of the students in her class was named José Antonio Abreu. He, too, was baptized into a lifetime of music-making by Doralisa's instruction. Doralisa's model became the foundation for "the system," El Sistema, which Abreu founded: music for all, regardless of economic background, the joy of making music together, and the insistence on performance as an integral part of the learning process. The story of El Sistema in Venezuela is too extensive to detail here (and you probably know it well). El Sistema has grown to all corners of that country and enjoys a current enrollment of more than 350,000 students in 125 youth orchestras and thirty-one symphonies. This primarily orchestral music education program has been successful in raising the living standard of the poorest segments of the Venezuelan society, has effectively reduced the drug traffic among teenagers, and enjoys the financial support of both government and private business.1

Why do I mention José Antonio Abreu's piano teacher? Because she was one person with a passion and vision to share music with others. They made such inspiring music together that, through one of her students, the entire Venezuelan economy and social fabric has been changed. 

The Power of One. The potent force of talent when combined with energy and vision and a spirit of giving

As I think about those three qualities, I find it difficult to rank them in any order of priority or importance. They form a very powerful equilateral triangle. Leave out any one of those characteristics and our strong triangle begins to wobble and collapse.

A friend of mine is a university piano professor. He plays recitals, teaches applied piano and piano pedagogy, advises students, and supervises research. You name it, he does it. I often think his life runs on a unique clock. It is obvious he finds more than twenty-four hours in each of his days.

But each week this highly talented university professor finds time to spend several hours reaching out far beyond his assigned university load as he teaches lessons to children with special needs. His expertise is awesome, and his sensitivity and humanity is overpowering.

Each of us has an impact on our students, but we don't often have the opportunity to save a life. In a very real sense I think this university professor is not just a music educator, but he is also in the life-saving business. I'm confident that his university students appreciate the fine instruction they receive from him and his pedagogy students become very skilled teachers. But if those autistic children could speak of their musical experience with him, they would probably say something like "he gave my encumbered life joy, hope, and meaning."

The Power of One. We see it all around us. We were inspired by teachers who possessed that passion, and we experienced that power operating at full force.

The irrefutable message of El Sistema and other music projects around the world is that music has a life-altering effect on the lives of children, and that playing an instrument and joining an ensemble lifts their lives above the poverty, drugs, and crime which otherwise would ensnare them.

Why are children who grow up in the slums of our cities, in South America and Africa... why are these children so drawn to music?

D.H. Lawrence said: "The human soul needs beauty more than bread."

Beauty. If someone were to ask you why you are a music teacher, would you reply with the D.H. Lawrence quote and say "Because the human soul needs beauty more than bread"?

It all puts a new perspective on the role of music in a human being's life. We are fulfilled by musical expression, we are elevated to a different level of existence. The human being needs music! As teachers, we believe that music is meaningful, and that music education is important in the life of every child. We are dedicated to these pursuits.

What could possibly be wrong with that picture?

I would ask one simple question: What is the primary focus of your lessons? You might answer, and admirably so, "a well-balanced curriculum." I teach proper technical procedures, my students learn to read fluently, and we cover a broad range of repertoire.

Let me step aside from the question about primary focus for a brief moment and confess that I was a potential teenage piano drop-out. I had reached seventh grade, my older brothers quit piano lessons when they were in the seventh grade, and I was preparing to follow their example. My mother refused my request to stop lessons, and arranged instead for me to take lessons from the town's finest teacher. In just a few lessons this new teacher, Fern, changed the entire direction of my life. Fast forward about sixty years. Fern lived to be 100 years old, and on that momentous birthday a number of her students performed a concert in her honor to a packed local auditorium. A former student who welcomed the audience and offered opening remarks talked about our various relationships with Fern over those many decades, and concluded that all of us share a common legacy from her instruction. He said, "Fern gave us the gift of beautiful music." My teacher gave me the gift of beautiful music.

Now back to our question: What is the primary focus of your lessons?

If your answer does not place at a top level the primacy of teaching musical expression, I invite you to do some re-assessment! You might wish to respond, "Easier said than done," and I will join you, agree with you, and report that it is my daily quest in each lesson I teach. How can I bring each student into a fuller appreciation and effective interpretation of each piece the student plays?

It is my strong belief that the teacher's mandate is to have the highest, most well-informed view of every piece we teach, and strive to move our students to that level. 

When we bog down with a student's poor sound, incorrect notes, or inad-equate technique, most often we lower our standards. That dare not happen, for in so doing, we deprive our students of their innate ability to experience and express beauty.

For decades I taught piano pedagogy on the college level. In our first pedagogy class, after welcoming the class and making a statement about the fact that this was a music education class with a focus on teaching piano, I would ask the students, "So, what is music? Can you define what you are going to teach?" 

The ensuing discussion went back and forth and varied obviously from year to year, but ultimately the same basic definition emerged. "Music is the expression of the entire human experience through organized sound."

I urged my piano pedagogy students to memorize that statement and evaluate at the end of every lesson if theirs had been a true "music lesson." Did the lesson focus on expressive playing? The music can be vigorous, joyful, or sorrowful, but it must have expression.

Richard Chronister, the founding editor of the journal Keyboard Companion, wrote in the second issue of that magazine: "We teachers must remember that students enroll in piano lessons for one reason only: to make exciting sounds at the piano. When our lessons do not focus on that very musical goal, we are cultivating a potential piano drop-out."

Now that's all a bit "pie in the sky," isn't it? Not all students are equally talented. "I even have trouble getting my students to practice as they should," you say.

So let's get practical. Let us turn our attention briefly to a "hands-on" approach to teaching expression. How do students learn to be expressive? How do students even learn to recognize and appreciate beautiful, expressive music?

I would like to suggest six ideas for you. But before we go through the list, let me share another experience with a piano pedagogy student.

I was preparing to leave my studio and go home for supper when there was a knock on my door. "Come in!" I said, and there stood Mary Louise with tears in her eyes. Mary Louise was a senior at our college who had several years of pre-college teaching experience and, as a senior, was given the responsibility of the third-year class in our preparatory department. Mary Louise said "Can I talk with you?" I took off my coat and said "Of course. What's up?"

Mary Louise: I can't get my third year class to love Mozart as much as I do.

MB: Tell me about it.

Mary Louise: I have assigned a Mozart minuet, and, well, they just don't get it.

MB: What do you like about that piece? 

Mary Louise describes the piece elegantly, with analysis of the rhythmic play, the melodic contours, etc.

MB: Did you share that with your class?

Mary Louise: No, they just don't get it.

MB: One cannot force another person to feel something or respond in a certain way. We influence our students by professing our own appreciation, excitement, and enjoyment. You could say to your class with great excitement, "I'm so glad that you have progressed to the point that you can play this Mozart minuet. It is one of my favorites. Listen to the sound and notice how he. . ." (and then describe what is meaningful to you about the piece). You just did that for me when you described what you enjoy about the minuet. That's how we move our students into a position of musical enjoyment and appreciation.


Based on that advice—that we do not force appreciation, but freely express our own enjoyment and excitement about the pieces at hand—let me suggest a few ideas for you to consider. The topic: Teaching expression—beautiful expression.

1. Play for your students

Model the sound of your students repertoire, assuming the following:

a) The student's piano is not as good as yours.

b) Students do not listen to solo piano playing.

c) Students learn the most through imitation. 

The teacher must model beautiful, expressive, shaped sound for the student. It is a process of ear-education. The ear leads the process. The fingers will find their way (with our help!).

A few years ago I was judging The Greater Spokane Fine Arts Festival. The Festival is organized in "classes" divided by age and repertoire. Parents and teachers sit in on those classes, hear the students perform, and listen to the judge's summarizing remarks. During that week I heard wonderful performances on all levels. But when one teacher happened to be in the room, musical miracles took place. At the very end of the week, I was finally allowed to speak with that teacher, and I commented to her on the remarkable achievements of her students throughout the week. "How do you accomplish that throughout your studio," I asked. She thought a bit and replied, "Oh, I don't know. I supposed it all boils down to the fact that I just love the sound of the piano."

2. Encourage your students to compose

From the very first week of lessons, my students are given a "You the Composer" project on their assignments. Their assignments at this level include a title (purpose: that their music expresses the title) and what to use (they feel free to compose only when they have parameters).

Often in the first week, their piece is titled Falling Leaves. The students are to limit their piece to black keys going downward to the left. In class, I illustrate several different possibilities their compositions can take (it is important for the teacher to illustrate various possible solutions to the assignment).

One student returned with her Falling Leaves in which the final note of each phrase went up instead of down. When I asked her about the turn of phrase she remarked, "Because when you see a leaf fall, it goes...." (and she drew an elegant picture with her arm of a leaf falling, then being lifted by the air current before falling further).

Why composition? Because students connect sound to expression on a very personal level. It is truly "their piece." Their imagination is called into play, and they paint their picture into musical sound.

3. Play duets with your students

You know how enjoyable this is. You know how much your students love playing with you. What you may not realize is how much you teach through duet-playing. Rhythmic stability, a new level of reading (the eye must flow with the music), and expression (which you provide and they model) are all productive benefits of this activity.

4. Provide the student with Rules of Thumb for shaping musical sound

In each lesson we cover many different points about practice, interpretation, accurate reading, etc. However, students often gain the impression that each piece is unique (which it is) and that the interpretation of one piece does not relate to the interpretation of another (which is not true).

We have the ability to provide our students with tools they can use to shape the musical sound expressively.

My students even have a page in their lesson notebooks reserved for these rules as we "discover" them, and re-use them, week by week. We call them Musical Rules of Thumb. (Editor's note: for a more detailed discussion of Marvin Blickenstaff's Musical Rules of Thumb, please see the Clavier Companion July/August 2012 issue). Here are just a few examples:

a) The last note of a phrase is the quietest.

b) Out of four, go for three.

So much musical construction is shaped in four-measure phrases. Invariably the focus of a four-measure phrase is in the third measure.

c) In a two-measure unit, the focus is on the downbeat of the second measure.

d) In a two-note unit or phrase, always emphasize the first note.

e) Emphasize "wrong note" appoggiaturas.

f) The tonic 6/4 chord is the harmonic focus of a section.

This list can go on and on. But the interesting thing about the Musical Rules of Thumb is that they apply (nearly) universally: across style periods and from composer to composer. And the great benefit is that the student becomes increasingly independent in determining interpretation. (Isn't our goal to work ourselves out of a job?)

5. Devise ways for your student to take the lesson home

Summarize the lesson at the end. Have the student record the lesson.

6. Make a file of "Beautiful Pieces"

We have in mind a number of "Boys' Pieces," "Pupil Savers," and showy "Recital Pieces." But our files may be sparse on pieces which develop special musical sensitivity. Yet musical expression must be one of our primary goals of instruction. 

When I teach piano pedagogy courses to college students, two components are the backbone of each course: the students in the class must teach, and they must teach under supervision.

It was only the fifth week in our curriculum with beginning students, and I was listening to a recording of a private lesson taught by one of the student teachers. On the recording I heard Erica (pedagogy student) teach Jennifer (a seven-year-old). They were working on a black-key setting of the words Star light; Star bright; First star I see tonight. Wish I may and wish I might; have the wish I wish tonight. The purpose of the piece was to prepare skips and steps. 

Erica coached the piece to a very sensitive level, and then announced "I have a part to play in this piece, too. Let's play "Star Light, Star Bright" together." They did, and Erica's sensitive accompaniment reinforced the fine work she had accomplished with Jennifer. It was a truly beautiful musical experience.

There was silence on the recording, until I heard Erica exclaim: "Oh, Jennifer! That was so beautiful! I hope I never forget that sound we made together. "Star Light, Star Bright" is going to be "our piece," and we're going to play that together in every lesson."

And they did.

And the list of "our pieces" grew week by week.

And Jennifer's feet did not touch the ground all year long.

We all have the Power of One to change the lives of our students as we lead them to the skill and thrill of making beautiful music. It doesn't have to wait until Level Four—it can start with the first lesson. That is our goal. That is our mandate as music teachers.

As was said of Fern, and as we pray will be said of us by our students: My teacher gave me the gift of beautiful music.

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