“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”
Plato

Saturday, May 14, 2011

BOOK REVIEW


TEACHING PIANO IN GROUPS

By Christopher Fisher
Oxford University Press

Back in the days when piano instruction at the University of Southern California took place in the faded parlors of Clark House, a West Adams Victorian mansion, and practice facilities were located in old army barracks just off Exposition Blvd., I had my first piano instruction. It was summer. I was only ten and perhaps a touch more anxious than my age might suggest, but I was nonetheless a reliable ten and was allowed to take the red car by myself all the way to Exposition Park. I felt ever so grown up.

The trauma of that first day, though, found a place in my memory that no amount of therapy could possibly treat.  My mother read the announcement aloud: “Group piano instruction offered free of charge to children age 12 with no previous music training. The purpose of the class is to demonstrate group teaching techniques to university pedagogy students.” Well, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Piano! Finally! I’d been begging for years. Once when I was eight I underscored my frustration by announcing to my parents that “here I am eight years old and can’t do anything.”

One Saturday morning mother loaded us into the Plymouth, my older brother and me, and drove us to the edge of campus where a squadron of institutional green, wood-frame buildings stood. Miss Bishop greeted us on a landing at the top of stairs worn thin from the repeated scuffing of combat boots and led us inside. We were the last to arrive. She wore a gray skirt cut at the calf and a white shiny blouse, just like the pictures I’d been drawing from magazines, and there was a brooch pinned above her heart. I had plenty of time to study her, from her bobbed salt and pepper hair down to her sensible shoes, because she began with the first to arrive, the ones lined up at the other end of the room. There must have been eight or ten children and their mothers all waiting to be interviewed.

“What is your name?”

This part hadn’t occurred to me, the questioning. And as I was already an anxious child, I began to feel apprehensive.

“And how old are you?”

There it was. The question I hadn’t anticipated.

“Twelve,” came the reply. They were all twelve. My brother was twelve. You had to be twelve!

Miss Bishop came, one child at a time, closer to where I crouched behind my mother as I tried to disappear. But I wanted to be there even though I didn't belong. Well, the conflicting emotions became too much for me and just as Miss Bishop stepped up to me, to my mother really, looking around behind her, before Miss Bishop said a word, I started to cry. These were desperate, bitter tears, you understand, tears of complete and utter desolation because all hope of ever playing the piano was now surely gone. I was only ten. I was too young for piano.

Later when I entered the university as a piano major, Miss Bishop and I had a good laugh over that episode. And yes, she let me stay in the class. It was a wonderful experience. We made thunderous sounds that first day up and down the keyboard, two kids at each gnarly old upright. The class was taught by Bernice Frost from New York, if my memory is correct, and whatever her approach was, it worked for me. We began reading immediately from her book called “The Adult at the Piano.”  

I belabor all this here, excessively maybe, because some people feel that learning piano in groups lacks seriousness or effectiveness. I think Fisher’s book serves to dispel those notions. He introduces the topic with a history (but I searched in vain for a recounting of my own experience), including references to classes taught by Liszt, Chopin and Schumann. From there he continues with practical matters such as class sizes and logistics and a discussion of learning theories. All age clusters and levels of maturity are considered, including college-level major and non-major applications.

The writing style is academic; it smacks of the doctoral dissertation and is therefore on the dry side. But the information is valuable and considerable, well referenced and, though academic, clearly expressed. There is a passable index. The meat of the book, I think, is the section called “Instructional Strategies.” Here Fisher deals with the nitty-gritty and the esoteric. You’ll find strategies for teaching rhythm, ear training, reading, all aspects of keyboard harmony including improvisation and composition, repertoire and technology, including “Integrating Technology in the Group Piano Classroom” and “Videoconferencing Technology.” Many of these teaching strategies are appropriate in the private lesson, as well. I think this book is worth a look.




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