Polyphony: what is important?

Polyphony: what is important?Maybe it is because I turned 50 several years ago that I started asking more frequently, "Just what is important?" either with respect to the day's proposed activities or in a situation that can seem difficult with a student. Perhaps the issue is not that important, but again, maybe it is. I ask the question consciously and subconsciously about much of what goes on in teaching. Sometimes in a lesson, the time is right to reinforce what students are working through and encourage them on the path already begun. Sometimes we need to awaken their ears and kindle their understanding of a passage or entire work.

I ask this question of myself when I present a workshop to a group of teachers. "What really matters, and what matters less in what goes on that day?" Recently, I was at the Mississippi State Music Teachers Association conference celebrating its fiftieth year of affiliation with MTNA, and I asked those questions. It was an especially busy time for everyone. Once more I posed, "What is important about what we do?" What follows in this column are some thoughts surrounding this experience.

Q. In general, what is it we are all about as teachers?

A. Music teachers change lives. I came across this again recently as the opening line on an MTNA FOUNDATION FUND flier, and how true it is. We affect how our students will hear and listen to music for the rest of their lives. We even affect how our students will think about musicians as people, how they will think about our profession and, too, how they will respond to music as an art form later in life. So, one asks whether what we do is important? There is not a lot that is more important. We affect our students' perception of music for their entire lives to come, and then those of the generations they influence.

Q. What is most important in your mind to be aware of with respect to our relationships with students?

A. First, share your excitement about * music. Let us not keep our passion for music a secret. It is good for students to know our involvement with music and our professional lives in music. I believe so much that enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm.

Second, allow lessons to be positive growth experiences. In the long run, how will your students view their music lessons and music study experiences? If the response tends to be that they see it in a more negative than positive light, perhaps the student will work more effectively in a different situation--with a different teacher or playing a different instrument. Perhaps a change in the long run would be better for the student and the teacher. Or, perhaps, we change our teaching so it is more positive overall. Music study is a growth experience, undoubtedly, and while not all growth is easy or even painless, the primary perspective on the process as a whole should be positive.

Every student grows at a different rate. And every student develops differently as a musician. That, I believe, is what keeps us fascinated, but it is something to remember with students who seem to progress more slowly than other individuals. These students, nevertheless, will make music in their own time.

Fourth, students love doing what they feel they do well. Our challenge is to see that students always perform at a high level musically, artistically, no matter what level of repertoire they are performing. When this happens, they are won over to the music, the process, and want to play more of what they already have been successful with in the past. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and they grow in an upward spiral.

Finally, build the trust of your students' parents. This goes without saying, but it is especially important for younger teachers to remember, especially when the parents may be older than the teacher. There is value in communication with parents in the form of newsletters, phone calls about a student's progress (especially positive phone calls), parent/student receptions and so on. Good communication with parents can go far in establishing a relationship where students can get the most from the teacher's help through strong home and family support and encouragement. This link will make all the difference in a student's success.

Q. What then, would you say are central priorities for teachers regarding the music we teach? What is most important in this area?

A. The quality of the teacher's sound ideal for a work, that is, the highest artist image imaginable for a piece in the teacher's mind, is at the crux of teaching and playing. It is important to audiate at a high level, as the piece should and can be performed, and then work to match the student's performance as much as possible to that ideal. Someone has asked, "If we don't know a piece, how can we teach it?" What is important is that we not accept a sub par performance from a student.

Secondly, build the student's playing. With respect to piano teaching, build pianism rather than teach pieces in a random sequence once a student is out of a method book. Combine technical training with repertoire study and positive performance experiences. Consider teaching etudes in addition to the literature. Build a student's playing through study of the technical skills needed at each repertoire level. Demand artistry at every level of study

A student's literature must be appropriately leveled and sequenced. Avoid skipping a student around in the vast black hole of literature available, but rather consciously determine where a student is in terms of progression and assign literature appropriate for and consistent with that specific performance level. For a student to play pieces that are much too difficult for him, could allow him to believe he is not capable of playing the piano or another instrument, when in reality the literature is not appropriately sequenced. Other negative consequences can arise as well. I heard of a teacher who asked a student requesting to play pieces far beyond her ability this question: "Now why would anyone want to play pieces that are just too hard for them when there are so many pieces you could play well and that are right for you?"

When teaching students, do not skip literature levels in the progression. A student may be moved quickly through a literature level to the next hardest level, but it is important, as a general rule, that no levels be skipped. Some piano teachers whose students are artistically playing literature, such as one of the Bach Minuets in G, Schumann The Happy Farmer and Beethoven Ecossaise in G Major, may next assign the students Clementi sonatinas such as Sonatina in C Major, Op. 36, No. 6, Bach Little Preludes and Heller etudes. In reality, that teacher is skipping the student from level 3 to level 6. How much more beneficial it could be to spend perhaps one or two months at levels 4 and then 5 before moving to this more difficult literature.

Finally, when teaching always ask oneself, "What should I do first--what needs the most work--what is most fundamentally in need of attention?" Avoid telling the student everything at once, since that will only confuse the student during the practice and result in nothing being worked out well. Decide consciously what points you want the student to work on first, then second and so on.

Q. It is important to keep our lives balanced as musicians and as people to be as effective as possible for our students, families and the public. What should we keep in mind as central considerations?

A. First, what we are doing is important. Earlier I said we affect the way our students think about music for the rest of their lives. We affect how they listen. We teach them what to listen for. We teach them to enjoy concerts of others, to share the stage. We teach the importance of process in any activity in life. We teach respect for a magnificent art form. We open their eyes to unimaginable beauty. That is our job, our profession. We teach them acceptance of themselves, as well as respect for their efforts and what they are able to do.

Second, no one is perfect. Teachers who are not afraid of a small mistake will learn from any mistakes they make and move on, rather than hiding, not confiding in another teacher or not asking for help. Everyone does something well in his or her teaching, and everyone has strengths. Yet, no one is an expert at everything. Recognizing this can free us as teachers to put our best efforts forward and excuse our small imperfections, taking steps to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Third, teachers must keep growing and learning to be effective in our work. If we repeat the same thing for too many years in a row, we become stagnant; a student cannot help but notice. Listen to music, attend workshops and try new ideas and techniques to avoid getting stale. Do not be afraid what you try will not succeed; certainly, "nothing ventured, nothing gained."