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by Jeffrey Swinkin

Teaching Music

Jeffrey Swinkin
is a pianist, music
theorist and an
adjunct professor
of music at the
University of San
Francisco. He holds
degrees in piano
performance from the Eastman
School of Music and the University
of Michigan. He has concertized,
lectured and given master classes

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A ny teacher of music, or of anything for that matter,
must constantly strive for a balance between
addressing the student’s immediate problems, and affording
him a deeper, more grounding experience. By no means are
these two concerns mutually exclusive, yet much music
Example 1

teaching I have encountered is balanced too heavily toward

the immediate or reactive; in this mode, the teacher often
attempts to correct every mistake or address every problem
as it arises. I have found this approach, although obviously
necessary at times, often creates a somewhat disorienting
dynamic in a lesson and actually can exacerbate problems
students tend to have, such as physical tension or myopic
focus. Moreover, this approach lacks depth: it often relies Chopin, Nocturne, Op. 15, No. 2, measures 1–2 and analysis1
upon verbal cues, such as “be more expressive,” as opposed
to exploring a variety of experiential exercises by which the The relatively inexperienced student, say an average col-
student can learn to be more expressive, for example, in a lege freshman, who in this scenario is learning the piece,
natural and organic way. cannot be expected to arrive at such a voice leading reduc-
The teaching mode I advocate, by contrast, aims to create tion by himself—the teacher will have to lead him to it.
a more coherent and multidimensional experience for both One way to do this is by purely performance-based means.
student and teacher. In this approach, the teacher will not For example, the teacher might convey the following
confine herself to the surface of a piece, but will help a stu- instructions:
dent uncover its structure to facilitate the learning process. n “Play the F-sharp major scale.” Obviously, this will
Likewise, the teacher will not confine herself to the “sur- ground the student in the difficult tonality of the piece.
face” of the student—his immediate mistakes and prob- n “Play 3̂ 2̂ 1̂ in that scale, accompanied by parallel sixths
lems—but will ascertain his underlying issues, both within below in the left hand.” This will afford the student a tac-
a lesson and over a course of study, and confront them in tile experience of the underlying counterpoint.
myriad ways. Finally, the teacher will acknowledge her own n “Improvise a melody in the key of F-sharp major that out-
depth—her underlying values and biases that are bound to lines and embellishes 3̂ 2̂ 1̂ and that at some point
permeate all aspects of her teaching—and mobilize such transfers middle C-sharp to the octave above.” This is
values in a purposive way. Although I will explain this analogous to expressing another’s point in one’s own
methodology most often with reference to one-on-one words; such paraphrasing, in music as in language, is
piano lessons, it can be readily applied both to classroom essential for fluency and understanding.
teaching and to the pedagogy of other instruments. n “Play the actual melody as I sing the right-hand melodic
structure”; alternatively, or in addition, the student can
Structural Elements sing the melodic structure as he plays. Through this, the
The most obvious site of structural teaching is the piece student can perceive where the structural tones are placed
itself, since art music is abundant in structural subtlety and metrically, as well as the particular manner in which each
complexity that we can utilize in teaching and performance. is embellished.
For example, the student might initially find the opening n Finally, the student may play the passage as written, with-
measures of Chopin’s Nocturne in F-sharp Major (Example out any assistance from the teacher.
1) difficult to read, as the contour is rather disjunct, making Through these exercises, the student will gain a concrete
it difficult to discern a clear thread among the pitches. sense of some essential features of Chopin’s passage, which
However, a consideration of the voice leading (Example 1, will render him less susceptible to errors while learning it.
bottom staves) reveals two underlying motions: first, the For example, on a first reading, the right-hand F-sharp in
right hand traverses a descending third 3̂ 2̂ 1̂, which is measure 2 might fall through the cracks if not for the real-
counterpointed by parallel sixths in the uppermost voice of ization that, although extremely brief, it actually completes
the left hand; second, the C-sharp in measure 1, right hand, the descent of an underlying third and is thus quite impor-
is subsequently displaced an octave higher via the elegant tant. Likewise, the left-hand B in measure 1 may appear to
flourish in measure 2. Hence, intricate though the melody be an arbitrary leap if not for the awareness of the line to
may seem on the surface, the underlying motions it elabo- which B belongs (C-sharp–B–A-sharp) or of its intervallic
rates are actually quite simple. relation to the right hand. Simply put, exposing the student
to structural tones provides him with a safety net and
affords him a greater sense of security when rendering the her to play without my participation, channeling into the
passage than he might otherwise have. keyboard the spontaneous, broad and vivacious physical
An understanding of contrapuntal structure has ramifica- motions she was able to produce away from the keyboard.
tions not only for note learning, but for interpretation as As she did this, the music began to come to life.
well. For example, knowing the structural importance of the For the next exercise, I asked her to consider the character
right-hand F-sharp in measure 2 might compel the student of each gesture and play a more overt version of that charac-
to take a little time on that note, expressively pulling against ter by embellishing Mozart’s music, extending his passages in
its short note value. Such emphasis would arise from and an improvisatory fashion. Since I knew Alyssa liked and had
express a sense of melodic resolution to the tonic. To be sure, a special rapport with children, I asked her to imagine that
this resolution is extremely brief; no sooner does it occur she had to translate Mozart’s sentiments into terms a child
than the less stable C-sharp bounds up an octave to under- would understand—that she had to speak to that child in a
mine it. Perhaps the student could express this with a slight clear, demonstrative and imagistic musical language. So, for
crescendo to the high C-sharp and by playing it with a sub- example, the triplet figures in measures 1–2 (see Example 2),
tle intensity that contrasts with the more relaxed F-sharp. which Alyssa described as “winding and meandering,”
The relationship of analysis to performance is a fascinating became in her realization a longer, more ornate and more
topic, one beginning to take its rightful place alongside other, circuitous passage. The rolled chords in measure 3, which
more conventional topics in music theory. Although I cannot she characterized as “regal,” became slow, grandiose chords
pursue it more fully here, I hope to at least have hinted at some in both hands that she rolled up and down several times
technical and interpretive benefits of uncovering the voice lead- with great flair and emphasis. Finally, the 32-note figure that
ing of a piece or passage. Of course, in a more extended follows, which she called “brilliant,” became rendered
encounter with a piece, one would also want to examine its approximately as in Example 3. We continued this exercise
harmony, form, rhythm and meter, and motivic treatment, all for the entire exposition, exploring the character of each ges-
of which could prove fruitful for note learning and expressivity. ture not only in isolation but also in relation to those before
and after, thus planting the seed for an overarching narrative
Structural Lessons that would ultimately tie together the entire movement.
One can structure a lesson in the same manner as a com- When we returned to the actual score, playing it as writ-
poser often structures a piece. Chopin might have had 3̂ 2̂ 1̂ ten, she was able to transfer to it the qualities of expansive-
floating around in his mind (perhaps subconsciously) and ness, freedom and clarity she experienced during the
then devised melodic figurations that would express that basic exercise. The gestures now felt and sounded substantial
progression in a beautiful and particular way. The teacher, rather than fleeting. Just as improvising on 3̂ 2̂ 1̂ helped the
likewise, can structure a lesson around a basic premise or aim first student see that progression embedded in Chopin’s
and then elaborate that basis in manifold, creative ways. music, so these improvisations helped Alyssa to uncover the
Importantly, the creative manifestations of an underlying idea characters embedded in Mozart’s piece.
are never fully reducible to that idea.The fact that 3̂ 2̂ 1̂ is
implicit in Chopin’s melody does not mean the sole import of Example 2
the melody is the 3̂ 2̂ 1̂ it embodies. Rather, the 3̂ 2̂ 1̂ is a foil
and a source of coherence for the more interesting elabora-
tions to which it gives rise. Likewise, the underlying premise
of a lesson will often be in the background relative to the exer-
cises and activities the teacher devises to explore it.
Nonetheless, these underlying ideas, in music and music study
alike, are indispensable sources of coherence. Mozart, Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 281, first movement,
A relatively advanced adult student, “Alyssa,” was work- measures 1–4
ing on Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 281 (first move-
ment). Alyssa knew the notes well, but was preoccupied Example 3
with accuracy and somewhat musically stifled. I wanted to
find ways to help her imbue the gestures and phrases with a
greater sense of direction, distinctiveness and vitality. To
begin, I asked her to sing and conduct (students who can’t,
might simply chant and gesticulate) to the music as I played
it, to capture the spirit and motion of each phrase.
Sometimes she played and I conducted her. Finally, I asked Improvised expansion of “brilliant” figure in measure 3

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Hence, the lesson centered on a single basic aim: to within a musical form. Again, teaching in this manner does
increase musical vitality by arriving at a distinctive, full- not preclude a teacher from addressing more localized issues
bodied shape for each gesture. We approached this with a and concerns as they arise, but ideally establishes a frame-
methodology emphasizing both improvisation and move- work within which these concerns can be addressed with
ment. The first exercise employed spontaneous movement greater ease and clarity.
and vocalization as a means of uncovering musical motion
and emotion; the second employed improvisation that Overall Structure
expanded Mozart’s gestures to include more notes in which Taking structural music teaching one step further, the
to arrive at a convincing shape for each. Movement in this teacher also may bring a sense of structure to a student not
second exercise was largely metaphorical: the exercise gave just within a single lesson, but over many lessons. Just as both
Alyssa the sense that she had more “room,” in terms of both a piece and a lesson may elaborate underlying ideas (musical
creative space and musical length, in which to manifest the ideas and ideas about music, respectively), so, inevitably, will
shape of each gesture than would be possible by playing each student have underlying issues. These might be specifi-
Mozart’s actual music in a continuous fashion. In short, I cally pianistic in nature—for example, fingering, hand posi-
structured this lesson according to a precise musical goal tion, touch, physical stance at the keyboard, pedaling and
that was approached by two contrasting, yet complementa- such. They might fall within the category of general musi-
ry, exercises: one emphasizing movement in physical space, cianship, such as rhythm, phrasing, musical style and so on.
the other, movement in creative space. Or these concerns might be of a more personal or psycholog-
This lesson had a two-part form, emanating from two ical nature—say, difficulty in being present while playing,
related exercises centered on a central theme. In this respect, reluctance in committing to a lengthy learning process, exces-
the form of the lesson could be understood as analogous to sive dependence on the teacher, a propensity for self-depreca-
a musical binary form in which two sections, A and A', cen- tion in the face of mistakes, a fear of judgment in performing
ter on a theme or particular figuration and unfold it in for the teacher or an audience and the like. Such broad issues,
analogous ways. Of course, many other lesson structures are far from being mere nuisances to be quickly eradicated, are a
possible. For example, one might structure a lesson accord- potential source of depth and coherence insofar as the teacher
ing to ternary form, involving a main idea or exercise (A), a can build on them, employing them as catalysts for creative
contrasting or oppositional idea or exercise (B) and, finally, endeavors. Such endeavors always yield dividends that far
a synthesis of the two (A') in which A is reconsidered in exceed the benefit of merely solving the problems from which
light of B. To take a simple scenario, one might spend the they emerged. Indeed, problems and challenges are not
first part of a lesson working with a student on the overall impediments to creative work and artistic insight, but the
character and rhetoric of a passage, the second on a har- very precondition for them.
monic analysis of that passage, and the third considering The next logical step is to extend a sense of structure to
subtleties of character that arise specifically from knowledge one’s student body as a whole. Every teacher possesses a
of the harmonic progressions. firm sense of what she deems important in music, art and
Organizing lessons according to these common musical life overall, and these basic assumptions inform her teaching
forms has two advantages. First, these forms are useful vehi- of not one but of all her students.
cles for conveying information and arranging exercises in By way of example, the following are some of my own
particularly organized and lucid ways. Second, and perhaps assumptions:
more significantly, appropriating these forms as the frame- n Art, in general, is essential to life. It illuminates aspects of
work for a lesson affords the student a first-hand experience existence that other, non-artistic forms of discourse can-
of those forms. Musical form within this approach is not not. Music, in particular, is essential to life; it illuminates
just something we understand and identify, but something aspects of existence that other art forms cannot.
we experience. Such an experience can beneficially affect n Music flows from the composer––his conceptions and
one’s playing. For example, if the student is taught in clearly improvisations––to its representation in a score, to the
defined and discrete segments, as in ABA' form, he may be sounds when the score is realized by the performer, to the
more likely to bring a sense of clarity and separateness to his perceiver. Music is not fully music until it is performed
phrasing than if he was taught in an amorphous fashion. and perceived.
That said, what is ultimately most important are not the n Music is a language with sounds, “grammatical” combina-
forms per se, but the content they encompass and from tions of those sounds and meaning behind those sounds.
which they emanate. n Music is a sounding, moving analogy to our inner life—it
In sum, a structural lesson is one in which a primary embodies the shape of our feelings and thoughts, their
point or goal is realized by analogous exercises couched ebb and flow.
n The ultimate goal of performance is to be physically that were even possible. Put another way, the qualities of
relaxed and agile, mentally present and lucid and emo- coherence and depth that emanate from the approach I
tionally expressive; it is also to capture the improvisatory have described are bound to permeate a student’s thought
spirit in which most music is conceived.
n Music, like anything else, can embody the more refined
or more ignoble aspects of human nature. While compos- …the qualities of
ing, performing and teaching, it is essential to realize
music’s positive and life-affirming potential. The models
coherence and depth
for this realization are, in my view, the music and music-
making practices of the great composers of the 18th and
that emanate from
19th centuries. the approach…are
These assumptions, among others, guide everything I do
as a teacher and everyone I teach, albeit in different ways. bound to permeate a
All teachers have deep-seated musical assumptions.
Reflecting on and becoming more cognizant of them can
empower a teacher, enabling him to prioritize those essen-
student’s thought
tial ideas and values he really wants students to take away
from his instruction. Granted, he does not necessarily
explicitly communicate these beliefs to his students—that processes, even if subtly and subconsciously, and thus have
would often prove ineffectual and even inappropriate. But an impact on his playing. Indeed, I truly believe the student
once these beliefs are accessed and affirmed, they inevitably responds as much to, and is affected as much by, the under-
infiltrate all aspects of teaching, from the broadest method- lying qualities of a teacher’s methodology as by what she
ological tenet to the most concrete statement and exercise. explicitly expresses.
The teacher who has not fully acknowledged and examined Hence, when our words and actions as teachers coalesce
his beliefs is less able to employ them purposively in his into a structured framework, we implicitly transmit the
teaching. But he possibly faces a greater drawback still— importance of structure to our students, who may then
that he implicitly conveys in his teaching certain assump- assimilate it in a natural and partly subconscious way into
tions that, if made conscious, he might reconsider or even their playing and practice habits. Conversely, it is contradic-
disavow. Indeed, more important than the awareness and tory to profess to our students the importance of structure
activation of values are the particular values themselves. If in playing if we do not exemplify it in our own teaching. In
these are positive and of high artistic merit, the teacher will general, we ought to strive for congruence between the val-
not so much have to create depth as surrender to it. In this ues we seek to instill in our students and those that underlie
sense, we teach not just by what we do but with even our teaching methods. At the very least, teaching that pos-
greater consequence by who we are. sesses such congruence will be more efficacious than teach-
ing that does not.
Structure on All Levels Finally, this ideal of congruence certainly extends to qual-
One may manifest a sense of structure on all pedagogical ities other than structure. Novelty, energy, spontaneity,
levels—those of the piece, the lesson and the students. economy, variety—these and other qualities we admire in
Significantly, in teaching with structure, we embody in our the music we teach and wish for our students’ playing may
very approach to teaching a virtue that we strive to instill in form the core of our own teaching, whereby they are taught
our students’ playing; teaching with structure provides a more effectively. Indeed, the model for our teaching meth-
model for playing with structure. I would even suggest that ods should be the very music we teach and how we want it
holistic qualities, such as structure, unity, cohesiveness and to be played. g
so forth, must be taught by way of example, since they are
too subtle and elusive to be taught primarily by conveying NOTE
instructions pertaining to tempo, dynamics, phrasing and 1. Heinrich Schenker’s more extended analysis of the
the like. For these qualities are never reducible to the right hand of this passage can be found in his Free
demonstrable processes with which they are associated— Composition (Der Frei Satz), trans. Ernst Oster (New York:
they always transcend them. This is why we cannot repro- Schirmer Books, 1979), supplement volume, Fig. 117 (also
duce the uncanny sense of structure in a Vladmir Horowitz see his explanation of the graph in the main volume,
performance, for example, merely by reproducing all the 96–97).
physical and interpretive things Horowitz does, assuming AMT
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