Through my years of teaching piano I realize that I must recognize, understand and adapt to the needs of each student. Each has a unique learning method that must be taken into account, especially during group instruction. I tailor my lessons accordingly. Often I incorporate student critiques in class, as I believe peer feedback is important to development. I formulated this technique early in my teaching career at Indiana University, where I noticed students would often be helping each other before class. I also devote some class time to individual problems and concerns. I allow students to practice with headphones at their keyboards as I answer individual questions. This is also a great way to get to know my students.
I teach my students to become critical, discerning musicians that ultimately “learn how to learn,” and become in essence their own teachers. When I teach “Take the A Train,” for example, I encourage students to research other pieces by Duke Ellington, or compare various recordings of this song. I stress that they create their own technical exercises based on their individual limitations: Hanon exercises do not have to be played only in the key of C! This sense of discovery and creativity has been the key to my own musical development.
While the goals of each student differ, I set clear, realistic and achievable aims no matter what their level of ability. Some students look at music as a hobby, some will be professionals. More and more I find I am teaching my students how to develop efficient practice habits. I might ask to them to demonstrate their practice routines in order to identify their weaknesses. I tell them if they can play it twenty times in a row without a mistake they have made real progress. If they can play it one hundred times they “own it”!
Music can be complex and abstract, yet I always attempt to explain concepts with clarity and simplicity. My mentor at Indiana University, renowned jazz educator and pioneer Dr. David Baker, understood this well. Fundamentals such as technique and awareness of song structure are essential. I often make analogies to other non-musical areas of life so that the music remains relevant. Pop culture, art and literature surface in my lessons. Last year during a group lesson at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign I directed the students’ attention to a print of Monet’s “Bridge Over a Pool of Water Lilies.” I told them that the music of Bill Evans at times sounds “impressionistic.” As they viewed the painting I performed in his style, using his characteristic rootless voicings and modal improvisation. All of the students were delighted as they made the connection between art and music.
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