The Accidental Teacher, Part 2

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I’m a natural note-reader.  I learned quickly, thoroughly, and with virtually not work or struggle on my part.  It is truly a gift, and I am appropriately thankful.  I have had to keep this natural ability in mind, as a teacher, because many of my students struggle with various aspects of note reading.  To teach effectively, we teachers have to be very introspective.  With note reading, which is highly perceptual, this can be especially baffling.  I have delved into eye-hand coordination, spatial perception, peripheral vision, ad infinitum.  Over the years I have been fascinated with the idea of analyzing something that I can do with no conscious thought, turning that ability into qualitative and quantitative procedures, and helping my students read music and play the piano.

The ability to play “by ear” was NOT one of my gifts.  Possibly due to the ease with which I learned to read music, improvising was not a necessity and I had no reason to learn.  I do remember my first teacher remarking that I seemed to “jazz up” pieces.  This really was not improvising.  I found that, with the guidance of a musical score, I could make some changes, elaborate on the harmonies, and transform what I was seeing into something else.  Take the music away, however, and I was frozen into inaction!

My high school did not have a jazz program, or a jazz band.  The first such ensemble I ever heard was in college.  I would sit on a balcony overlooking the band room while the best jazz band in the Midwest rehearsed.  I was amazed, inspired, and left in total incompetence.  My first “lesson” in jazz improvisation came from a trombone player named Carl; he was a nerdy little guy that had written some really hot arrangements for the jazz band.  He sat down with me and gave me an ostinato of parallel 7th chords and told me to “play around” to find melodies that fit.  “Keep the ones you like, and throw the others away.”  OK, Carl.  Sure thing.  But gradually I developed some ideas that sounded good.

At this stage of my life I have learned to improvise pretty well.  I felt, somehow obligated to acquire these skills.  Learning to improvise has definitely helped me with the composing and song writing I’ve done.  I’m definitely not ready for a prime time jazz club, but I understand the principals, and have freed myself from the fear of the unknown.  Well… not really.

I have been musing about the very nature of teaching students to play the piano.  What I want, as my own goal, is to have people that think of playing the piano as a lifetime occupation.  I want my students to learn to read music well enough that they can and will go to a music store, find something they would like to play, and have the ability to discover how to create music… from scratch.  Accomplishing this goal is not an easy task.  There are countless neural, ocular and motor abilities that comprise piano playing.  We are, literally, athletes in every sense.

When I began teaching I had it all wrong.  I thought I could just explain to my students how I did things.  I would prepare lesson plans that I thought would cover all of the aspects needed for any given piece.  I thought I could break the whole down into manageable parts, communicate effectively, and sit back to watch the magic unfold.  Yes!  And pigs will fly, won’t they.  I thought it was all about MY TEACHING, when it really was about THEIR LEARNING all along.

With experience I learned that I would have to be, rather than a lecturer and human audio-visual aid, a diagnostician.  I learned to listen and watch my students play their assignments.  I learned to analyze what was preventing them from playing well.  I learned to start with their reading, the ability of the student to process what is on the page.  From there, we trace the entire process of reading and responding to the written score.  It learned that it has to be my experience that is active, and not any prepared lesson plan.

But wait!  What I’m talking about now is improvising.  This is why I still get nervous before lessons.  I have never gotten quite comfortable with the demand that I must think, and act, instantaneously.  I still wonder if I’ll be up to it.  The outcome is not insured, or predictable.  I am not in complete control, as I would be with a prepared lecture.  I fear the lack of control, and yet like with improvisation, learning can happen spontaneously.  It is a thrill when something unexpected happens in improvisation, and the same is true with real teaching.  We, the teacher and the student, can meet in a place beautiful, unpredictable and unexpected.  It’s why I love my job.

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