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  • Lynne Phillips

Tell Me I'm Wrong

Cartoon of Calvin and Sally arguing

My ultimate goal is to have my students disagree with me.  Disagree intelligently of course, and with reasoned, well thought-out, constructive arguments.  But disagree nonetheless.

Why? Isn’t it my job as a teacher, to impart useful information to my students? Isn’t it my role to give my students the ‘correct’ answers to their questions? Isn’t it my responsibility to explain to young pianists what they should be doing to help their technique, their understanding of their music, their performances?

Well, yes, sometimes.  But probably less often than you might think.

I’ll give you a scenario – Student A (let’s call her Emily) sits down at the piano and asks her teacher what she would like to hear today.  Her teacher asks Emily to play the Mozart she has been working on all week.  She listens, and when she has finished, she tells Emily that she played it very well, but that some dynamics were a little lacking, that her fingering was wrong in the scale passage, that her staccato wasn’t staccato enough, but that the opening phrases were shaped incredibly beautifully and that the fortissimo coda sounded wonderfully exciting and dramatic.   Emily works hard, under the direction of her teacher, for the rest of the lesson.  Her teacher tells Emily where she has played well, and where she hasn’t.  Emily, for her part, listens and adjusts her playing accordingly.

Now let me give you another scenario – Student B (who goes by the name of Bob) sits down at the piano, tells his teacher that he has been working all week on the Mozart but has a few passages that he could work by himself on, so could they both look at the Bach today instead?  His teacher agrees with Bob’s lesson plan, and Bob begins to play.  His teacher listens carefully, and when Bob has finished, asks him what he thought of his playing.  Bob tells him that he has been struggling with the fingering at the top of the second page, but that he feels he achieved something rather good with the complex articulation in the theme.  Bob asks if he can be given some better fingering, and also requests help in working out how to shape the third page, as it is complex and he does not understand how to work it.

Scenario three.  Student C (Sarah) sits down at the piano, tells her teacher that her Mozart is all over the shop, but that she disagrees with last weeks’ suggestions on voicing and articulation in the exposition.  Sarah’s teacher asks her why she disagrees, and Sarah plays a small section in reply.  “You said that the bass should be dominant here, but I don’t think it should be; I think the soprano line should sing out far more”. Her teacher replies that the soprano is merely an accompaniment, and Sarah answers instantly with “No, I don’t think it is, I think it’s a countermelody, listen…”.  She plays the section, but her teacher can’t hear the countermelody that she is so adamant is there.  “It can’t be a countermelody, Sarah, I can’t hear it”.  “No, it’s there, I just need to voice it well enough to be heard” says Sarah, and she tries again, repeatedly working at isolating the melody she is talking about until, eventually, her teacher hears it; a beautiful song soaring high above the bass voice.  “Yes, Sarah, I think you’re right, there is a melody there.  But you have to be careful to make sure it is heard, otherwise it sounds like an accompaniment that is simply too heavy.  Can you work on that to make what you are doing is even more convincing?” Sarah says that she will practise that this week, and in the meantime, can they work on some fingering that has eluded her later in the piece, and also working out the overall structure and form of the piece?

These three scenarios beautifully illustrate how different learning environments can push a student to think for themselves and develop their critical powers at the piano, and how disagreeing with a teacher could be seen to be the culmination of these positive teaching techniques.

Emily has become a passive learner.  Her teacher has created an environment for her where Emily is told what to do, and Emily does it.  Emily can play very nicely, but when she is on her own, she has little idea on what to do with her music as she has not developed the skill of thinking independently about her playing.  Emily relies on her teacher.  Emily will be lost without her teacher.

Bob is one stage on from Emily; he needs his teacher to give him constant advice, to tell him what is ‘right’ and ‘correct’ with his music. Bob’s teacher has encouraged Bob to think a little for himself, but he has not given Bob the ‘green light’ to disagree or argue.  Bob has, however, developed a few skills to know what needs work on his pieces – he is able to say with confidence that it would be a waste of his teacher’s time to work on one of his pieces as he knows that he can work on it independently for a little longer before he will ‘get stuck’.  Bob is on his way to independence.

Out of the three students, Sarah is the most independent from her teacher.  Sarah’s teacher has encouraged Sarah right from the beginning to work out her own articulations and dynamics on certain pieces.  Her teacher has told Sarah many times during her piano lessons that she sometimes doesn’t like how Sarah has interpreted a piece, but that as long as it is musically valid, then Sarah should be able to perform her own ideas.  She has told Sarah that at times, Sarah has come up with some ideas that she herself has not spotted, and she has praised Sarah for her intelligent and knowledgeable interpretations.  She has, however, made sure that Sarah plays within certain boundaries, that Sarah understands that she needs to be faithful to the composer’s original intent, and that music needs to be played with sensitivity to its history, its period and its genre.  Although Sarah has become an extremely independent learner, and she has the confidence in herself to voice and argue her own opinions on interpretation, she knows that she still needs tuition and guidance.  But she has the knowledge and skills from years of questioning and of being questioned to know when her opinions are musically valid and when they are not.  She knows this because she is sometimes able to convince her teacher of a difference in opinion through the strength of her playing and through the extent of her musical knowledge, and sometimes she is not.  Sarah also possesses the knowledge that if her interpretations cannot be worked convincingly, or if her arguments are too full of holes, that these are times when her teacher’s opinion is quite simply the better one.

So to answer the original questions of what is a teacher’s role? I know mine is to give my students the knowledge and skills to think independently, to have their own thoughts on the music they are playing, to communicate these not just to me, but to any audience they are performing in front of.

I know I have achieved this when they first start to argue with me.

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