2013 MTNA Conference – Tuesday Late Morning – Got Questions?


This session came recommended to me, so I decided to check out what was going on! Pete Jutras oversaw the panel discussion by teaching legends Scott McBride-Smith, Ingrid Clarfield, and Randall Faber. Various questions were presented to the teachers and they each had a chance to respond.

What do you know now that you wish you had been told when you were younger?
McBride-Smith – Always seek out information. It’s up to you to find the information you need to have.

Clarfied – Take as many psychology courses as you can. You’ll be doing therapy 50% of the time. And enjoy your time to practice while you have it.

Faber – Dig deeply. Instead of just taking what’s given to you, study for yourself. Explore the music more deeply to find out what’s there. Then, feel free to ask; people want to help you. The further along people are in their career field, often the more willing they are to freely share information and advice.

What is the best way to help students learn to play expressively?

Jutras – It’s important for students not to follow a big “laundry list” of markings and symbols, but to really have a sense of the character of the piece. This will drive the technical details. Help them come up with a plan.

Clarfield – Story and imagery is so important, but it must relate to the student. Don’t try to impose your own story on the student. Lyrics can be written to help communicate the musical ideas. It’s also important to relate physically to the moods of the music.

McBride-Smith – Always wondered why teachers don’t do more singing. Singing can help feel more emotion.

Randall Faber suggests that perhaps it’s not so important to feel the emotion as to perceive and express it. The performer shouldn’t be overwhelmed or over-emote.

Scott disagrees and tells students that sincerity always works.

An audience member asks how to bridge the gap between students understanding the emotion vs. feeling it. He shared an example of a Scriabin piece and a student who couldn’t feel the corresponding emotion. Ingrid suggested helping her relate to something sad in her life. The teacher said she was a very happy student. Ingrid suggested that maybe she should learn Haydn. 🙂

Randall furthered his point of music being transcendent, so that we need not impose our emotion on the music in order for it to communicate.

What advice do you give students who want to teach?

Clarfield – Do it as long as you’re passionate about doing it. Know what you’re doing. Find a good pedagogy class.

Faber – Be sure to get the students’ name and address so you can send them an apology someday.

Jutras – Think through to the end. What are the qualities you want the student to have 10 years from now? Start teaching those from day one. Never lose sight of the end goal.

Faber – Focus on your advantage as a young teacher. You can relate to the student often on a peer-to-peer basis and develop a good relationship. Make sure the lesson isn’t about yourself. Focusing on your own accolades or career can sabotage your teaching.

Jutras – It’s about what the student is doing when you’re teaching. Don’t talk too much or monopolize the lesson.

Clarfield – Let the student know that you care about them, not just the music,

What is the most important thing that should be focused on in the first years of lessons?

McBride-Smith – Understand the importance of the role of parents. The beginning teacher that a student studies with is the most important. This should be explained to the parents so that they are completely on board.

Clarfield – Beautiful tone. Whether they are playing “Hot Cross Buns” or something more difficult, teach them how to play beautifully.

Faber – Help the student listen. Lessons are often visual and kinesthetic without really hearing what they are playing. Open the ears early on so that the student connects with sound.

Jutras – All of these answers underscore the importance of having a good instrument in the early years of lessons.

Randall adds that if a student wants to play on a Casio keyboard, they should find a Casio teacher. 🙂

How do you implement the important musical qualities without talking too much and murdering the whole experience?

Jutras – Perhaps demonstrating on the piano is better than using words.

Clarfield – Masterclasses have often done more damage to students. Many masterclass teachers should be shot.

McBride-Smith – Even in a lesson, he advocates for spending at least 65% of the time on playing music, not talking.

Faber – The teacher must guide the reflection of the student. Demonstration and letting the student implement ideas right away.

How and when should one teach a student to memorize?

Clarfield – From the beginning. Even with an 8-measure piece. Don’t wait until the first masterclass. Make it a fun activity to reinforce all four types of memory:
1. physical – do tabletop practice musically with all the same gestures.
2. auditory – play a measure, hear a measure, play a measure, hear a measure, etc.
3. analytical – do pair practicing with sonatas where they have to play a measure/phrase in the A-theme, then the corresponding one in the B-theme.
4. visual – copy and cut up the piece into measures, then have the student try to put it back together in the correct order.

McBride-Smith – The practice of requiring students to play from memory is only about 100 years old. Liszt popularized the practice (after Clara Schumann began doing it) by making it a stunt. Memorizing can be an impediment because the focus becomes seeing if they can make it through the piece without a memory slip rather than focusing on musical expression.

How long do you stay with a piece of music? When do you decide to move on to something new?

Faber – Be aware of student engagement while also factoring in recognition of patterns. There is a point of diminishing returns. If a student has completely lost interest and doesn’t want to do it, then don’t do it. Be willing to admit if something isn’t working. However, if a student is really engaged with the piece and enjoying it, look for ways to use it to help them reach new musical heights.

McBride Smith – Not as nice as Faber. He has three words of advice for students who don’t want to keep working on a piece: Do it anyway.

Clarfield – Work on pieces at different levels – some that will be kept for a long time; others for shorter term. She often says, “put it on the back burner” if a piece can be put to the side for a while and then brought back out later.

Jutras – We can learn a lot from video game makers. There is a small goal that you’re trying to achieve in the next half hour, but then a longer goal (such as beating the game) to which the shorter goal is contributing.

Faber – The problem we often have wen we focus only on competitions or assessments is that the important skills of reading, technique, etc. are neglected. So it’s important to have pieces assigned to address these skills as well as the more advanced pieces requiring much more time and attention.

Clarfield – The assignment in the book should look very different depending on the goals of the piece. For example, there should be specific, detailed instructions about the final tempo, dynamics, and performance tips. For pieces on the “back burner,” the assignments might be more generalized and include practice strategies.

If I want to license an arrangement of a piece of a popular song, how do I do that?

Faber – Find the copyright owner (often a publisher who is splitting the revenue with the original author). Many times the print rights are held by someone other than the copyright holder of the work itself. Arrangements are derivative works of the copyrighted work, so you can’t even copyright your arrangement, supposing that you are even able to secure a license to write the arrangement.

How to best work with transfer students who have had subpar instruction or gaps between their lessons, especially in the case of military families who will soon be moving again?

McBride-Smith – Do the best you possibly can with the time you have.

Jutras – Perhaps you could continue with the student longer via internet lessons.

What are the downsides of not assigning long-term pieces to students that are beyond their reading level?

Clarfield – It depends on the student.

Jutras – It’s always up to the teacher and student to control the pacing of their studies.

Faber – At early levels you want a relatively fast rate of flow. Introducing longer-term repertoire pieces will probably happen at the later levels.

How important is it for students to play on their fingertips rather than with flatter fingers, especially for students who are double-jointed?

Faber – Shared about an injury to his thumb that actually expanded his reach! Many teachers make the mistake of over-curling; the important thing is to release tension and balance the arm weight in the arch of the hand.

Clarfield – So much energy is put into the perfect hand shape. More importantly is the freedom of the forearm so that a beautiful sound can be created.

Do you recommend jumping from method to method or sticking with one?

Faber – [Quickly raising hand and volunteering to answer… :-)] One of the most important elements of becoming a good musician is pattern recognition. Sticking with one method ensures a progressive introduction of patterns and concepts. Jumping from method to method may reduce the value to be gleaned from the approach of one method.

McBride-Smith – Advises his students to write their own method. Many American methods move too slowly. Teachers are their own best judge of what their students need.

What advice would you give to young students and teachers today?

McBride-Smith – Your passion and love of children will carry you over every difficulty you have.

Clarfield – Think of yourself as a student for the rest of your life. Go to conferences, ask questions of us “oldies, but goodies.” There’s not one day of my life that I don’t teach a lesson where I know I did something wrong.

Faber – Be authentic. You have something unique to offer every student. Don’t try to be someone else. You can make a difference with the students in your studio when you are yourself.

Jutras – Never stop learning. Never lose sight of why you went into music. Probably not to count 2 against 3. Every lesson should have some of t

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