Feb 282012

This is the transcript of my presentation given at the Levine Summer 2005 Pedagogy Workshop at the new Strathmore Arts Center on August 25, 2005. This workshop was sponsored by the Levine School of Music in Washington, DC.

A Buddhist legend tells of the Prince of the mythological kingdom of Shambhala coming to the Buddha saying:

Our people revere your teachings, but we cannot all become monks for we must work, have children and do the other activities that make life possible. Is there a way we can partake of your teachings without giving up our lives to becoming monks?

I think our adult students make a similar request of us. They sense something special, even magical, about music. They would like to glimpse the experience of making music, without having to becoming musical monks.

Our task for these students is to sift out the essence of the musical experience so they can participate, to the degree possible, without all the hours of practice.

My remarks are primarily addressed to the teachers of beginning and intermediate adults. The advanced and amateur professionals have most often solved some of these issues.

The difference between the passive and impressionable experience of the listener is totally different than the active authority of the performer. Adult students do not know this. Unlike the children we work with, adults have a developed sense of their own musical listening experience and they have learned, especially in the concert hall, to sit still and be quiet.

This is the opposite of the performer’s experience. Performers have a vast array of large and small motions throughout their bodies and they make all kinds of sounds with their instruments from whispers to roars.

Adult amateurs are afraid of both moving and roaring. They don’t know how to make their playing assertive and convincing. They don’t even know they need to.

So the question is: How can we as teachers help our adult students gain insight into the playing experience of movement, sound and authority with their plan of 30 minutes of practice a day — and that often happening only 4 or 5 times a week?

The Priorities

The answer is that we must choose our priorities carefully and steadfastly with the hope that our priorities will become theirs. We must not be distracted by our own desires to teach more interesting or advanced literature. Teaching literature within students’ comfortable reach is vital. We must not indulge our own favorite teaching specialties. We must not be fooled by the adult words we hear from our students that articulate a conceptual understanding often considerably beyond their bodies’ current capacity to accomplish.


My first priority is the overriding importance of rhythm. Alas, most adults think the primary issue is getting the right notes without regard to the rhythmic underpinnings.

When they listen to music they tap their feet and drum their fingers. They never say “Wow, what a wonderful performance! All the notes were right.” Even though they agree with me, it’s hard to get them to change the focus of their efforts.

From their very first piece, I make students count out loud. My hope is that this will instill a lifelong counting habit, but it usually takes a long time. The complaint they voice is that counting is just one more thing to think about and it overwhelms their brain circuits.

When I hear the complaint, I work with them so they understand that rhythm is not a mental function but a physical one. Counting accompanies a physical feeling. It’s merely a label for the physical sensation of pulse. Counting a duple rhythm as we walk is fairly effortless because people don’t walk to their counting; rather, they count to their walking. The body leads. That’s why people dance and tap their feet to the music. They’ve done this since childhood. Only when they encounter “classical” music lessons do they disconnect from the rhythm of their bodies and become a pair of hands with a head sitting in judgement. Building a physical bridge between the hands and the head is crucial for rhythmically sensitive playing.

To help students rekindle this physical sense of rhythm, I make them clap, play the drum, and conduct with one hand while the other hand plays. I will ask them to conduct me while I play. I also ask them to conduct the recordings they listen to or even dance to them. This is not universally popular.

The physical understanding of music might sound simple for those of us who have been playing since childhood, but it’s so hard to get across to adult students. They understand my words and even agree with them, but getting to that point in their playing is one of the biggest variables I know among students. A few pick it up quite quickly but many take years.

This rhythmic base needs to be set with the very first piece. One mustn’t wait until the student is working on more sophisticated works. It must start at the very beginning.


The second priority is singing, another fairly automatic physical activity done since early childhood. Again, I encourage singing from the first. Frequently, the early pieces are only one note at a time so it’s quite natural. Of course, many feel intimidated and embarrassed by their singing, but it is most helpful for those who do sing. Singing shifts their attention towards the importance of right sound and away from right notes. It can also create a natural sense of breathing and phrasing in their playing. If the words to their singing become the numbers of their counting, so much the better. To combine melody and rhythm is the essence of the task.

The singing continues when melodies are supplied with simple accompaniments. This introduces the difference between the soloist and accompanist. Students hear this difference when they listen to others sing, be it rock or opera. Few students however suspect its role for the pianist. We must learn to be both the soloist and the accompanist at the same time. It’s hard to keep the accompaniment in the background while bringing the melody forward, but there are opportunities to begin working on this in most first books.


I have a third priority that may not be shared by most and that is pedaling. The pedal has been described as the soul of the piano. I don’t believe pedal use should be delayed. Again, any first books provide the opportunity to utilize this wonderful mechanism. I’m not talking about any complicated rhythmic pedaling but rather the basic syncopated pedaling most folks use.


I believe that if students can finish their early pieces playing with the correct rhythm in a lilting, song-like fashion; bring out a melody so it’s clearly in the foreground, and use a bit of pedal; they have a good beginning participation in the musical experience. Neither the difficulty of the piece nor its sophistication is the issue; for when students achieve this level of involvement, they become more involved in their own work and want to practice more. They begin to have more hope in their senile adult possibilities. They also begin to listen to other performances with greater understanding.


I also encourage performance from the earliest pieces, for performance is a learned skill just as playing is. Playing early pieces before a similarly advanced group of adults can be very encouraging. To know others experience the same problems and achievements is most comforting, for the adults often feel so incompetent and alone.

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