James Berry Piano Pedagogy II Observation of an intermediate piano student Date Observed: February 3rd, 4:00pm Teacher: Dr. Arthur Houle Student: Derek Observation Notes I got a chance to observe Dr. Arthur Houle teach at his house an intermediate student, Derek. I was able to chat with Dr. Houle about some of his studio policies prior to the lesson and noticed that he had his studio set up in a wonderful way. His piano studio was located in his living room and included a Yamaha grand, an electronic Yamaha clavinova full-size digital piano and also a small roughly 30-key keyboard. He also had a Roland MT90 – a fully independent MIDI player that would read piano MIDI disks. The device was used several times later in the lesson. Dr. Houle also described to me his system for rewarding students based on achievements. He had a box of fake paper money that would be given to students based on their specific accomplishments. If they were able to complete a piece and play it with MIDI accompaniment, they would receive a certain number of points. If they were able to also, play the song in tempo with the teacher they would receive bonus points. I don’t remember specifically what all the points were for, but when the students would reach a certain number of points, Dr. Houle had accumulated a whole stack of prizes that looked like a fair. It ranged from a cool looking pencil to a huge stuffed bear (5000 points). They were all things that you could gather at a dollar store. After I had a chance to really soak in this system, Dr. Houle’s student Derek arrived. He was very energetic and quite chipper. He is more of an early intermediate student still in the Faber and Faber series, but playing songs that require a more complicated accompaniment pattern in a somewhat classical style. After exchanging a few jokes with Dr. Houle, the student got down to the business of playing his song. Instead of simply playing the song in his book entitled Grand Waltz in F, he moves on the area where the MIDI disks are located in the studio. He picks out the appropriate disk and puts it in the Roland MT90. After a couple of buttons, this little munchkin like voice counts off from the Roland device and Derek plays along with the digital piano, which is providing a background orchestration. It is quite amazing – Dr. Houle is monitoring the student’s progress, while Derek joyfully plays along with the recorded orchestration. The Roland device is fed through the keyboard and can be adjusted for several variables including tempo, leaving out certain parts (such as only playing right or left hand) and also key. This is very useful in this case, and Dr. Houle slows down the tempo so that Derek can accurately play with the device. Derek goes through several pages and songs in the book and the common thematic problem with his playing is mostly rhythm, articulation and pedaling. Dr. Houle on each occasion isolates the problem area and Derek fixes it with great success. Dr. Houle is not too easy on his student either, although Derek is successful in navigating through a page of difficult I and V7 chords in
all keys, it is not smooth and Dr. Houle suggests that another week would be good to smooth things out. Since the lesson is one hour long, I am not able to stay for the whole thing, but for the portion that I was at the lesson, both student and teacher were really enjoying the lesson. Derek has certainly improved in the span of the lesson and has a great rapport with the teacher. Thoughts on Content / Presentation I have a couple of thoughts regarding the content of the lesson. As far as motivation and the number of songs that the student went through, I thought that it was fantastic. Derek went through two songs and 2 pages of chords. However, I wished that there was more of an emphasis on technique and a really good explanation of the chords. Derek was playing V7 chords, but did not demonstrate that he knew their purpose and function. Also, there were no warm-ups before beginning the songs. I always try and warm-up my intermediate students with scales, Czerny, Hanon, or some sort of Etude. That is not absolutely crucial, but I always think it is nice to warm up the fingers. It would say integrating the Roland device was excellent and a terrific motivational tool. It is so much fun for students to play along with an orchestration. One great moment in the lesson regarding content was when Derek was playing a particular passage in Grand Waltz in F and then commented that he liked his method of playing this passage better. Instead of condemning the student, Dr. Houle acknowledged that idea as a part of interpretation and led this to discuss that in classical repertoire, a passage is often repeated, so went on to suggest that the student play it his way one time and the composer’s way the other time. I thought this was great because it not only encouraged the interpretation of the student, but also the intention of the composer. I think often on the other end of the spectrum, some teacher’s allow a student to have free rein and not follow the composers’ or editor’s intentions. Another thing I was a bit curious about was at least during the portion of the lesson that I was there, Derek only used the digital piano. With a grand right there to use, I would have taken full advantage of that. The MIDI device has its own independent speaker so both devices could have still been used. Perhaps the grand piano was used in the last few minutes of the lesson. The whole lesson was presented nicely and had a great flow between one thing to the next. Dr. Houle’s tone was both encouraging and helpfully critical at the same time. It was an enjoyable observation.