Pedagogy Saturday at the MTNA Conference 2012

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.


8 thoughts on “Pedagogy Saturday at the MTNA Conference 2012

  1. I’m jealous that you are at MNTA! I’ve gone to 6 out of the last 8 conferences, but couldn’t make it to this one. Thanks for your blog, it makes me feel a bit like I’m there!

    I would like to disagree about the competitions vs. exams. The US has such a variety of teachers and philosophies, that I don’t think most teachers use competitions instead of exams for measuring learning. In fact, many teachers don’t participate in either! But there are many other evaluations here in the US that aren’t really competitions or exams, but more of just an informal assessment of how well you played your piece, based on one judge’s opinion.

    The idea of exam assessment is finally gaining momentum, however, as is evident from the newly formed “Achievement Program” which is a partnership between Carnegie Hall and the Royal Conservatory of Music. Many states in the US are beginning to use the exam system, and I happen to teach in one of the states with the most involvement: Ohio.

    I’ll be interested in your thoughts on the competitions vs. exams issue as you talk with more teachers at the MTNA conference and maybe you’ll speak with one of the representatives from The Achievement Program as well. Have fun!

    • The Achievement Program was well-represented at the conference! I attended both Marvin Blickenstaff’s exhibitor showcase presentation on the graded repertoire series – which is just fantastic – and the panel presentation on the actual exams themselves. I will be watching with keen interest as this program rolls out across the United States…

      Teachers at the conference didn’t seem to hold a strong view one way or the other, although I did hear some positive buzz as regards The Achievement Program. I talked to other stake-holders who noted that “Americans don’t like being told what to do” as a explanation for why they felt an examination system would never gain momentum in the US. I’ll be very interested to see what pans out – there is a lot about an examination system that is very positive (even though many of my blog entries discuss the dark side of exams!). My own feeling is that it is an interesting time in the US national education discourse to be launching a new *testing* program – parents and teachers can see that ‘dark side’ of testing from the point of view of the primary schools, and there is much explicit talk in US public conversation on education about the importance of avoiding teaching to the test.

      Now that I’ve experienced the entire MTNA Conference 2012 I can state without equivocation that the word ‘competitions’ has been used in these seminars exactly where the word ‘examinations’ would occur in Australia. What *is* different is that in Australia 85% (at least) of piano teachers would use examinations as part of their lesson plans for their students, whereas I would hazard that the number of US piano teachers whose students participate in competitions of any kind might be more around the 35% mark. And I would also hazard that the variety of options offered at a local state level means that there is considerable discrepancy in the geographical distribution of that (guesstimated) 35%.

      What is the same, however, (between Australian and US teachers) is the general perception that a teacher’s success can be measured through these external assessments, examinations or competitions. I liked Amy Greer‘s comment yesterday morning that if teachers were judged by their retention rates instead of by their competition results then piano teaching in the US would be very different.

  2. I’m an American pianist and teacher, trained in US via Royal Conservatory exams in ’60s-’70s and played in many competitions as well. Others did (and do) Certificate of Merit (which is now closer to RCM exams, but less comprehensive & well-adjudicated) or something similar to CM in other states/organizations. As a teacher, I consult both syllabi, but do neither formally. RCM is becoming better known in US, even (sadly) changing name for American palates which may balk at “royal.” To suggest we in US do only/mostly competitions and merely follow method books is, as you put it, getting the wrong end of the stick.

    I’m glad you’re blogging and second what Clinton said above.

  3. From the perspective of another Commonwealther (Canadian) I have to agree with you, Elisa. From our side of the border, we see the same big, broad differences (generalizations, of course) that you do.

    I found interesting your comment about the method books. One of the piano teacher forums that I used to visit quite regularly tended to be dominated by discussions of method books. Our focus is more on which method would get them into grade 1 the quickest and smoothest way possible (there are definitely problems with this – I’m not saying what we do is always so good).

    I really wish I was at MTNA – I’ve never ventured to any conferences outside Canada. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts about it.

  4. Wah! I’m jealous! Are there videos??? Must google!

    Pre-empting your post on competitions vs exams … can I? Well anyway .. I don’t think much of the exam culture in this country, but at least everyone can pass an exam. Only one person can win a competition. Assessing a years worth of hard work in a 20min exam is sooo last century! But what on earth do students learn from not winning competitions? My daughter does little athletics. She wins every sprint she’s in. (brag brag) but she doesn’t get any ribbons for that. She gets a ribbon for every 5 personal bests. At the end of the season the person with the most PBs and attendances gets the trophy. That means that there are people who can barely walk who can do well at litt athletics.

    How you would quantify music I don’t know. I say lets have a return to Jane Austen’s culture of peer judged piano forte in the parlour for the purposes of attracting a mate and entertaining one’s friends. 🙂
    I’m looking forward to your article.

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