Inspired by Our Pedagogical Legends

By: Pamela Pike, NCTM

Late one evening in September 1997, during the second semester of my doctoral coursework at the University of Oklahoma, I stumbled upon a set of old VHS tapes hidden at the back of a video cabinet in our piano pedagogy resource center. They contained hours of footage of Frances Clark and Louise Goss teaching groups of children at the New School for Music Study in Kingston, New Jersey. I inserted a cassette into the VCR slot and as the gears wound the tape I anxiously awaited the first glimpse of master teachers at work. For the next several hours (well past the official building closing time), I sat, enthralled by the teaching and learning that I witnessed.

As a regular reader of Frances Clark and Louise Goss’ “Questions and Answers” column in Clavier magazine, the video allowed me to see their well documented pedagogical techniques in action. During their classes, I observed attentive children learning important foundational principles of music and experiencing these through complementary movement, singing, off- and on-bench activities. I saw beautiful technique, even at the beginning stages of learning, and children rising to the challenge of listening to peers critically and playing repertoire musically. There was such obvious joy in making music (displayed through the body language of the children) that I was certain that although most of them had not become music majors, they were certainly still playing the piano for pleasure. The video opened my eyes to so much that had been lacking in my own group teaching up to that point and forever changed my approach to helping individuals and groups of children learn to play the piano. From that moment on, I have counted Clark and Goss as important musical mentors.

Twenty-two years later, I was invited to the New School for Music Study (NSMS), where I would present a three-day intensive teaching residency that included a public pedagogy workshop, observing lessons and classes, and providing feedback to the teachers at NSMS. I’ve given lectures and workshops in twenty countries and taught on a cruise ship that sailed throughout Europe, North Africa and the United Kingdom, but I’ve never been more excited than I was traveling from Louisiana to New Jersey. For me, it was a religious experience; walking into the white colonial-style historic home in Kingston was like journeying to Mecca. On October 29, 2019, as I walked through the side door into the school, I was literally walking in the footsteps of great teachers.

The residency began with a tour of the seven teach- ing rooms (some with one piano, others with two), the work-room and library (where NSMS teachers meet, plan and discuss teaching) and the kitchen (where faculty congregate for breaks or quick snacks). Then, I walked into the big music room where Clark and Goss recorded their teaching video that I encountered two decades earlier. The wood paneling has been painted white, but there are still desks and silent keyboards for children, floor space (complete with a music staff carpet) for various activities and now two Steinway pianos. On the walls, portraits of Frances Clark and Louise Goss remind us that their work lives on through the teaching and music making that emanates from this house.

For the next three days, I observed lessons with students of all ages and met with most of the NSMS faculty and post-graduate fellows individually. I also met teachers from the greater Princeton and surrounding community, some who had studied with Clark and Goss years earlier, others who were novice teachers themselves. Everyone that I met had a zest for teaching piano and a desire to become better teachers with each passing day. I watched adult students work on music from level 1 staples to advanced concerti. I observed high school students during a weekly repertoire class, study with, perform for and eloquently critique peer performances of music in progress. I sat on the floor with kindergarten-aged children in their Halloween costumes as they engaged in their first semester of piano study and helped them as they completed their music activity rotations. In short, I witnessed many teachers, many of whom were too young to have observed Frances Clark’s teaching, carry on the pedagogical legacy and traditions that she shared with the American piano teaching community.

While very few of us have the opportunity to visit the building that houses the NSMS, we each have access to the vast resources that Frances and Louise left behind through their writings (and videos) about teaching piano. They always put the student at the center of the learning, maintaining high musical standards were paramount and they believed that with a well-sequenced and comprehensive curriculum, every child could succeed at the piano. Sixty years after the founding of the New School for Music Study, I experienced these values in action and returned to my own teaching with a renewed sense of passion and accountability.

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