I’ve never been to an MTNA Conference before. In fact, my music education conference experiences to date have been restricted to events held in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Malaysia. Fantastic conferences, each and every one, but each on a rather modest to cosy scale.
Walking in on the first event of Pedagogy Saturday brought home the huge difference in population base between, say, Western Australia and the whole of the United States of America. The massive Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel (capacity in theatre mode of around the 1900 mark) appeared to be half-full of teachers sitting chock-a-block, each hanging off the wonderful words and thought and insights communicated by Nelita True.
I only got to hear the tail end of the masterclass, but the ease and joyfulness with which Nelita approached her master-teacher role were an inspiration and she perfectly set the tone for the day. An understated wit and a deeply empathic approach to the preoccupations and concerns of the student made every moment in this masterclass a delight.
Many of the teachers wanted to ask Nelita questions right then and there, but she was bustled away by a charming Irish man who assured us all we would get the chance to interrogate Ms True at the end of the day. The man was so charming, in fact, that I noted his name and decided to attend his session later in the day.
But first up I listened to Scott McBride Smith and Steven Spooner discussing issues of fingering. I’m always wary of a duo effort in a presentation – it can so easily become one person talking and the other nodding, or two people politely disagreeing with each other for the duration, or one person outshining the other despite both having equal time. This presentation was none of these things, instead being a joyous exchange of anecdote and information all feeding into a shared perspective on the rights and wrongs of pianistic fingering praxis. There was so much great thinking in this seminar that it really deserves a blog entry of its own (forthcoming).
Next up I split my time between Marjorie Lee discussing ‘her unusual immersion-style teaching’ and a panel of piano competition organisers discussing their perspective on the capital C competition. This split between sessions was prompted by Marjorie Lee not having a lapel mic, and therefore being inaudible to the back half of the filled-to-capacity room (in which half I happened to be). After nearly 30 minutes I was desperately irritated by only catching every third sentence (if I was lucky) so I popped next door to hear the competition organisers discussing competitions from their point of view.
The difference between the piano teaching and learning cultures of the United States of America and those of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, Canada, etc. (think former British Empire) comes down to this: competitions v exams. In the nations of the Commonwealth music learning is measured through examination-assessments where the progress of the student is described in terms of graded benchmarks; teachers strive to have their students pass with flying colours and to have them progress through these benchmarks as quickly as possible. I’m beginning to realise that in the US teachers have competitions as the primary source of validation, and so teachers strive to have their students win competitions. This is a substantial cultural difference, upon which I intend to blog further…. And if you’re a teacher from the US reading this entry and you disagree – please let me know I’m getting the wrong end of the stick here!
I then popped back in to hear Marjorie Lee wrap up (and to hear some of her students play) and with the benefit of this competition culture information from the session next door I realised that what Marjorie is doing (amongst other, different things) is fast-tracking students into this competition success by not getting hung up on that other great US educational measure of learning, the method book. I really would love to have heard her presentation again, both in the sense of being physically able to hear it and in the sense of having a better understanding of the culture in which her teaching operates.
Following this I accidentally missed most of Yoheved Kaplinksy’s masterclass (damn you, jetlag) before racing downstairs to secure a seat for Peter Mack’s charming presentation “Lower the Rear End of the Elephant Slowly Onto The Keys”: Teaching Basic Artistic Concepts By Using Colourful Imagery. What I did catch of the Yoheved Kaplinsky masterclass demonstrated an elegance of approach to the piano, a swiftness of insight and a precision of communication – ten minutes left me desperately keen to see and hear more…
Peter Mack was, in fact, the Irish man who had so intrigued and charmed at the start of the day when thanking Nelita True. His seminar was a whirlwind of ideas about communicating deep and complex truths about musical learning, how to perform music, and more specifically in the latter half of the seminar, about how to play the piano. Metaphor, imagery, narrative and lateral thinking can be magical shortcuts to understanding, and Peter Mack’s many examples were as brilliant as they were entertaining. The session could have gone on for twice as long and still have left us wanting more.
And I think I particularly liked Peter’s session because he thinks almost exactly the way I do; case in point: Julie Andrews. How many seminars have I begun by making reference to Julie Andrews when I’m talking about starting at the very beginning? So imagine my delight/surprise to see on the handout from this seminar this sentence: “Julie Andrews was wrong”. Of course, Julie Andrews wasn’t wrong about anything, it was Maria who was wrong, or even more properly Oscar Hammerstein, or even more properly the lyric Oscar Hammerstein wrote. But Peter Mack and I blithely go about our seminars announcing Julie Andrews was wrong. Snap.
Marvin Blickenstaff’s presentation on getting technique right with elementary students right from the start rounded off the day before the closing event: a panel (Nelita True, Peter Takacs and Peter Mack) answering questions from the floor. Marvin Blickenstaff is one of those truly exceptional music educators who seems able to address the technical needs of the student at the same time as he addresses their human needs. He approaches music-making as a profoundly human communicative event and process, and this session was a joy. What is amazing to me is that this was my overwhelming impression of his seminar, but when I look at my notes taken during the hour I have a succession of specific ideas and insights into developing good pianism in beginners; bullet points like “practice raising shoulders to the ears and then dropping” and “do it in the air first” and “make an O with the fingertip to the thumb” – practical ideas that don’t convey the philosophical approach to music education that underpinned this presentation.
My favourite moment of the panel that concluded the day was when Nelita True talked about the importance of students learning to support each other (rather than compete with each other) in order for them to become musicians; she shared a gorgeous story of a young student who, at the end of his years of study with her, thanked her for helping him become a charming human being.
I missed about three quarters of the scheduled events of the day (thanks to four options being scheduled for each session!) but my first ever Pedagogy Saturday was an absolute delight – so many insightful, generous and entertaining presenters, so many approaches to making beautiful, meaningful communication through the piano: such music teaching as makes the world a better place.