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Music Note Bokeh

Image by all that improbable blue via Flickr

Teaching piano classes was part of my undergraduate and graduate assistantships.  Later on, the School of Continuing Education at UMass/Amherst offered piano classes for no credit, which I was hired to teach.  Typically, 8 of 1o students in each class were from outside the U.S.

Every group of students was, of course, different.  Stuff happened!

Music Education Majors

Music Ed. majors are usually required to take piano class in anticipation of their needing to play in their classrooms upon graduation.  Many of them have taken years of lessons.  Everyone is given an opportunity to “test out” of the class, but there are specific requirements.

A day or two before class started, I was handed a list of requirements by the head of the piano division for music ed.  She would administer the test at the end of the semester.

Included on the list:

  • Play “America the Beautiful” in the key of (whatever).
  • Harmonize a melody at sight.
  • Sight-read a hymn.
  • Play a melody as written, then transpose down a Major 2nd.
  • Play x, y, and z scales @ quarter note = (I don’t remember).
  • Play x, y, and z arpeggios.
  • Play I, IV, I, V7, I chords in the keys of x, y, and z.
  • Play 4 short pieces that you have prepared, each from a different musical period.
  • Improvise a melody to a printed left-hand accompaniment.

This list is off the top of my head ~ you get the idea.  A working understanding of theory was required, and demonstrating that at the keyboard was considered very important.  Practicing from printed music was also important, with performance of solo pieces expected.

First Day

The students in my class were all people I knew.  Knowing that some could play very well and others could not made me a little nervous.  Where was the best place to start?

I decided to dive into the list.  You know, “Take out your hymnals and turn to page …”  Then I indicated a tempo, and everyone began playing.

Ha.  Two people in the class were accomplished improvisers!  One had a Southern Baptist background, the other A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopalian).  I don’t have to tell you that they weren’t looking at the book.

So, these two were playing all over the keyboard, sounding fantastic:  black keys, white keys, arpeggios, glissandi…  I found myself making a little speech!

I had to.  Never mind that I loved it.  I knew the exam adjudicator.  There was no way she would pass anyone who wasn’t playing from the book.

So I suggested that they could improvise in the exam at will, following that with a rendition as written.  (So much for creativity!)

Other students in the class included:

  • a cellist, who was convinced that he couldn’t play anything with his right hand (his left had was wonderful!).  I admired his ability to reach a 12th; and
  • a student who was quite defensive.  I became frustrated and asked him to stay after class one day so we could talk for a few minutes.  When asked why  he seemed so upset, he responded, “I’ve never had piano lessons before.”  He was doing fine!  I had no idea.

Continuing Ed. Students

I remember one particular class very well.  One woman, from Iran, was here because her husband was a visiting professor.  She had never had the opportunity to take lessons, although her brothers did.  They played an instrument native to the country that resembled a guitar.  She was so excited about being in class, and asked lots of intelligent questions.

Another student, from China, had practical English skills but not much beyond that.  She could get around town and go shopping, but musical terms were a mystery.  Since I don’t speak Chinese, I was happy that she found a solution!  During a January break, she travelled to China.  While there, she went to a music store.  At the 1st class in the 2nd semester, she showed me a John Thompson book with Chinese tempo markings and instructions!

The funny thing was, I had played from the same book when I was a kid.  And unfortunately, the drawings were the same.

One day, since everyone was on a different level (no requirements, no exam), I walked around the room, offered a few minutes of individual help, and responded to questions.  I quickly realized that everyone had English as a 2nd or 3rd language.  Most questions involved translating Italian music terms into their 1st language and then into English.  Interesting!  The extra step in translation was a new challenge for me.

After about 1/2 hour, two student near the back of the room asked the same question.  I felt a sense of relief, since I thought this would save time.  Answer both people at the same time.  After all, they’re seated next to each other.

It didn’t work.  Each of them had a different 1st language, and translated in a different way.

The Continuing Ed. classes were always fascinating to me.  Translation rocks!

Have you taught piano classes?  What was your experience like?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


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