As I begin my 57th year of teaching piano I have
many things to reflect on—one I certainly didn’t expect and am thrilled
by—Teacher of the Year! My remarks will seem rather homespun for such a
prestigious title! I’ll try real hard to be worthy!
I teach many different ages and levels of
students. This is one of those years when I have many little ones. It is
usually much more fun to teach the advanced ones, but it’s a big
challenge to get through to the younger ones, keep them happy, have them
learn something, and pass on to them my great love for music.
I spend quite a bit of time during the first
lesson acquainting the student with the keyboard. If a student can’t
find the notes on the keyboard, everything else will be difficult. After
we have found all of the groups of two and three black notes and all of
the note names, I ask them to close their eyes and find the groups of
black notes. They always tell me they can’t. I tell them that everyone
says that and then show them how to feel for the groups. I have had only
one student unable to complete the task. Others are excited they could
do it! They get high praise for their efforts. They are also told that
we must activate their “I CAN” button. This is in their right temple. A
gentle little push turns it right on!
I also have a vinyl runner in the shape of a
keyboard that I roll out on the floor and ask them to stand on middle C.
We have talked about steps and skips and listened to them. I play
middle C and ask them to stand on the note I play next. They all do it
every time. I have some plastic castanets. I turn on the metronome and
ask them to click the castanets every time the metronome clicks
explaining that this is a quarter note. Then we talk about half notes
and whole notes etc. I also ask them to say their pieces: quarter,
quarter half note, half note dot and whole note three-four.
After I had pulled one four-year-old out from
under the piano for the fourth time, I looked real pathetic and told him
I was having lots of trouble finding my fourth finger that day—could he
PLEASE HELP me? He was right there. He then smiled at me and asked me
if I was “fractious and grouchy” today! I had to look it up in the
This same four-year-old was asked to get on his
knees in front of the keyboard runner, put his left hand on middle C,
his right hand on E, and his nose on D! He was laughing so hard he
could hardly do it. He made it and got two “high fives” for his efforts!
I often ask this kind of a student to be the teacher for a few minutes.
They get to sit in the teacher chair, hold my pointer stick and listen
carefully. I of course mess up very badly. When I ask if I did it
correctly they actually scream at me and tell me I was terrible. They
are then told that if I am terrible they have to show me what to do to
make it better. Some of them are very good and others don’t have a clue.
When I ask them if I become angry when they make mistakes, they usually
answer: “It’s too hard to be a teacher.” Then they hand back the
pointer stick and ask to trade places. I had three children in one
family that came to their lessons with eyes red from weeping. When asked
what was the matter, the answer was “Mother tortured me! She made me
play it over 50 times!” When I responded, “Surely she told you how to
play it to make it better,” their answer was “No! I wanted to stop at
45, and she wouldn’t let me!”
Most often I spend at least 25% of the lesson
time showing students how to practice. Parents often ask how long their
child should practice a day, and my answer is usually “until they are
done!” I always go through everything new for the next lesson showing
them how to practice and telling them what the rules are. “If you can
come back next week with everything perfectly played the first time,
notes, counting, fingering, and dynamics, then we get to cross it off
and you don’t have to do it any more.” When we have finished going
through it twice at the lesson I ask them to do it once more for
insurance! Then I give them permission to go home and tell Mom that Mrs.
Metcalf tortured them. And do they know why I asked them to do it so
many times? “Yes, because you want me to get good!” I often ask older
students to practice with their eyes closed. This makes for accurate aim
and cuts out any outside distractions. I ask that groups of four 16th
notes or groups of six notes be practiced in different rhythms. Students
also need choices in literature. They practice better if they really
like something and know they have chosen it for themselves. I have
found that students respond better to images if they have experienced
the feeling of the image or hand movement themselves.
I often ask them to put their hand on top of
mine to feel hand position, shape wrist rotation, wrist relaxation, two
and three note slurs. On one occasion, I had a second grade boy with
dyslexia, trouble with note reading, and difficulty hanging four
measures together. I sat on the bench with him, put my arms on either
side of him, and asked him to put his hands on top of mine and told him
we were going to play the piece together two times. I put in as much
expression as I could and kept a perfectly steady tempo. He leaned back
against me and got into the mood of the piece. When we finished I asked
him to play it just like that by himself, and he did! He was so excited
and so was I! This child took dance lessons and was kinesthetically
responsive. So knowing your student’s interests and background can
assist you. Very often now if I start to play something for a student, I
will find two little hands on top of mine.
One of my students, a polished ballerina, was
playing the Liszt Consolation in D Flat Major and when she started
stumbling over some spots (i.e. twos against threes and threes against
fours), I asked her how she would choreograph this spot. Her answer was
“a pirouette.” All of those places then sailed right off the keyboard
for her. I often make reference to water slides to get smooth flowing
descending scales. For two note slurs I ask them to bend their knees.
For legato playing, I ask my “babies” to stand up and walk for me. “You
always have one foot on the floor don’t you? We can’t have any hops or
burps between notes.” I also sing to them almost constantly, either with
what they are playing or I ask them to find the note on the piano that I
Sometimes I have trouble getting students to
count out loud. After one instance of terrible rhythm I was at my wits’
end. I said, “What happens to you when your heart stops beating?” A
frightened look appeared on his face and he said, “You die.” My answer
was, “Yes, and your piece just died. I could feel no pulse at all. Do
you think if we called 911 and took it to the emergency room that there
would be hope of saving it?” That’s when counting began.
Beth Miller Harrod was my teacher from age 13
on. She had studied with Joseph Lhevinne. At the time he did not speak
much English, but he did play for her to illustrate what he wanted her
to do. I love Russian and romantic piano literature. Out of this came my
desire for shape and direction of line. Each student who comes to me is
told that they will hear the words SHAPE and DIRECTION many times.
Everything we do comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. We all need to
know where we are going and we all need to GET THERE! Along the way
there are circles, hills and valleys known as nuances. There are also
some words that get more emphasis than others when we speak. One summer
at music camp Madame Rosina Lhevinne came to give us two lectures and to
do a master class. The first lecture was entitled, THE HORIZONTAL
APPROACH TO THE KEYBOARD. We all gleefully decided that this meant that
we were to practice lying down on the piano bench! Let me tell you it
doesn’t work! But the bit about shape and direction certainly does.
Don’t ever be afraid of trying new things. I
love trying new music and new composers I’ve never heard of. You can
count on your background in music and musical style to tell you what to
do. I had fun this past year going back in time using old favorites like
Gillock, Glover, Jon George, and Roger Grove, and the kids really liked
them. Some of the pieces are not so sophisticated but very tuneful. I
also listen to lots of CD’s. The students love listening too and really
think they are big time if their composition has been recorded.
I also go to as many workshops as possible.
There are still so many things to learn, and I still learn from my
students every day. For example: Treble clef lines are now EMPTY GARBAGE
BEFORE DAD FLIPS. Bass clef lines are GREAT BIG DOGS FIGHT ALLIGATORS.
The first lesson after I have been to a workshop, my students get this
frightened look on their faces and say, “Oh no! You’ve been to another
workshop!” Even if I live to be 150 (which has been predicted) I’ll
never be finished learning! How boring life would be without music and
wonderful people to share its wonders with.
Naegeli von Bergen Metcalf
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Private Teaching Studio
GMTA Teacher of the Year, 2006-2007