Piano Pedagogy: Patterns and Pieces


Adam Gopnik writes of his experience with a gifted and inspirational coach of his son’s football team:

   It is said sometimes that the great teachers and mentors, the rabbis and gurus, achieve their ends by inducting the disciple into a kind of secret circle of knowledge and belief, make of their charisma a kind of gift. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that the best teachers . . . do something else.  They don’t mystify the work and offer themselves as a model of rabbinical authority, a practice that nearly always lapses into a history of acolytes and excommunications. The real teachers and coaches may offer a charismatic model—they probably have to—but then they insist that 

all the magic they have to offer is a commitment to repetition and perseverance. The great oracles may enthrall, but the really great teachers demystify. They make particle physics into a series of diagrams that anyone can follow, football into a series of steps that anyone can master, and art into a series of slides that anyone can see. A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves.[1]


Most of us can probably call to mind at least one “great” teacher from our past—someone who demystified a concept we had struggled with, had an impact that extended beyond the subject  taught; whose words resonated with us long after they were spoken.  Maybe she just seemed to “get” us, or always knew exactly how to explain something in terms we could understand. Perhaps we were inspired by the passion he brought to the subject, or the rich and interesting life he seemed to live.  Or maybe we aren’t even able to explain how the teaching techniques of one teacher made so much more of a difference to us than those who had come before or came later, but the experience resonates.

Sometimes the best teaching happens when the “student” doesn’t even realize they are being taught. (Think of the things our own children learn from us when we don’t even realize they’re watching! That is, fortunately, the topic for a different book by a different author.) Imagine beginning students learning about the dynamic and coloristic possibilities of the piano as relates to their own physical experience with it while exploring through improvisation, then being prompted with questions such as “what would happen if you played it . . . (louder, slower, more staccato)?” Or imagine the playfulness and freedom they would feel if asked to play variations on If You’re Happy and You Know It  based on changing the word “Happy”: to Sad, Late, Worried, Tired, Scared, etc.  Or think about the many levels of thinking and learning that might occur when an advanced student is asked to compare parallel passages containing subtle but notable differences, or to play a parallel passage with subtle but notable differences.  These explorations ask students to think outside their own first results and expectations; to ponder and observe; and most importantly, to question. Question everything. This type of questioning, exploration, can be undertaken on the part of the teacher, as well. I recall employing this Socratic method during one adult’s lesson as we investigated various interpretive possibilities. At one point the student asked, maybe a little impatiently, “If all you’re going to do is ask me questions, what am I paying you for? Aren’t you supposed to be telling me the answers?”

I attended a pre-college workshop once, sponsored by the small liberal-arts college by which I was employed at the time. One of the speakers was a teacher from a very prestigious medical school. As an example of good teaching she explained the causes of Parkinsons disease in a very brief “lecture” (less than 10 minutes) that was completely accessible to everyone despite our lack of previous medical knowledge. I was considerably impressed by this example of effective teaching, and carefully dissected it to find out what made it so.

Firstly, it was initially framed in simple terms we could all understand, with technical/medical terms introduced after the concepts were fully grasped.  The explanation included one simple illustration, which was quickly but masterfully drawn on the board by her within the context of the lecture itself, demonstrating how allowing your students to see your thinking process in action helps them learn how to think for themselves. She presented us with a general concept, framed in a sentence or two, broke it down into a series of physiological events and their manifest symptoms, and returned to how these events create the entire syndrome.   Lastly, there was no doubt that she was a complete master of the subject, and demonstrated complete confidence that we would soon understand it comprehensively.

            I am very lucky to have received the benefit of some excellent teaching — most notably from several of my college professors. Albertine Votapek was my teacher for the last two years of my undergraduate degree at Michigan State University, and under her tutelage I learned the importance of recognizing the musical significance of every note. I once heard her rehearsing a Mozart Concerto with the student orchestra on a very inadequate piano, one with which I was well familiar, being at its mercy for daily rehearsals with the Wind Symphony. I heard exquisitely shaped and well-voiced melodies, delicate clarity in the passagework, and elegant but resonant forte’s. At that moment I fully recognized her consummate musicianship and realized that playing beautifully was the responsibility of the pianist, not of the piano.

During the pursuit of my Master’s degree at the University of Illinois I studied with Ian Hobson. The combination of his intelligence, both general and musical, and astounding technical proficiency made him an inspirational and formidable instructor. There were two aspects of his teaching that stood out to me then, and inspire me as a teacher now:  1) it was assumed that everything I “did” at the instrument I was doing intentionally, and 2) once any and all technical problems were identified and musical decisions made, it was necessary to understand both mentally and physically how those decisions were going to be carried out successfully at the instrument. He would ask such questions as “why have you decided to pedal through the harmony change in measure 27?” or challenge me to know exactly what physical approach I was going to use with arm, elbow, wrist, hand to conquer a particular passage. The result of this approach was that I learned to take great care to pay attention to everything mentally, visually, aurally, and physically.

            Lastly, as I worked on my DMA degree, I had the privilege of learning about how children learn, and learn music, from Dr. Edwin Gordon. Music Learning Theory, developed in response to his research into how children learn and process music through audiation and movement, revolutionized the way I teach.  I realized that our students excel at, or struggle with, things like sightreading, a relaxed physical approach to the instrument, memory, or performance anxiety not only as a result of their innate aptitudes and limitations, but also as a result of how they are taught.

The teaching techniques we use with students of all ages and levels can either encourage an awareness of their bodies and how to use it most efficiently, or discourage it; we can teach the music in such a way that reading music involves recognizing patterns and syntax already known and understood, much like the sequence a child goes through as she learns to speak and eventually read her native language, or we can teach note-reading as a visual and digital exercise which brings no meaning to the music but instead relies on a vast vocabulary of mnemonic tricks; we can teach rhythm through movement and awareness of the partitioning of time through space, or through difficult mathematical calculations that may gratify our desire to solve puzzles, but will not help us make a waltz dance. We can recognize that a student will enjoy performing a piece that he understands, can play in his mind while audiating as well as he can at the instrument, and feels comfortable with technically much more, (and more successfully), than the piece learned through countless mindless repetitions and overreliance on finger memory. We can teach students to listen and observe, experiment and discern, to welcome each practice session as an opportunity to expose mistakes and take note of progress, to learn about the theory behind the language they are speaking and the history and culture of the time in which the piece was written, to recognize their responsibility both to the score and to their interpretation of it.

            The subject, and then themselves.

            It is my goal through this website to explore various teaching techniques, to invite various contributors from the music education and piano pedagogy fields, and to include video clips demonstrating particular points of discussion. As the website develops, I hope to include an active discussion board and opportunities for subscribers to contribute their own videos and commentary.

            Please use the Contact Me tab if you have any ideas, suggestions, contributions, etc. that you would like to propose.

 1Gopnik, A. (2004, May 10).  Last of the Metrozoids. New Yorker.

updated 10/10/2017