A Radical Shift in Pedagogy

The word “radical” comes from a Latin word meaning “root” and is closely related to the word “radish.” Though a radical is now thought to be someone clearly “out on a limb,” the word actually refers to someone who is returning to the roots.

I’d like to share a truly radical idea. I know from personal experience that this one idea can shift nearly every aspect of one’s teaching as well as transform one’s anxiety about performing.

When Franz Liszt began teaching master classes, he was addressing performers who needed to please audiences and concert organizers to make a living. To this day, we have master teachers at nearly every major conference re-enacting the role of Liszt, telling the best students how to communicate with an audience more effectively. These master teachers repeatedly refer to “the listener,” saying such things as, “You must play louder here so the listener feels the intensity!” This illustrates the main assumption underlying our profession: music lessons are for turning people into performers. The student is the arrow, and the target is the performance.

Here’s the radical notion: Let’s not make “the listener” or “the performance” our primary focus. The vast majority of piano students are not future concert pianists or performers, and they are worlds away from the kinds of students we see in master classes. If these students are to continue to make music beyond their lessons and throughout their lives, they will not be doing so to please a teacher, a parent, or “a listener.” Those who have a lifelong love affair with a musical instrument are making music to please their own soul. When that is not the primary motive, even the loudest applause and the greatest accomplishments feel rather empty in the end.

I am proposing that we re-orient pedagogy and teacher training back toward personal creativity. Let’s make it a priority to help our students learn to improvise simply and freely so they can express deep, immediate feelings each and every day, just as they do with language. Let’s give them the tools to make their own accompaniments and arrangements of favorite tunes, compose personal musical essays, and write songs. Let’s help them interpret musical scores with freedom and individuality, and encourage them to use those scores as models for their own creations. Let’s make sure each student touches their own soul before trying to touch some imaginary listener. Let’s help each student develop a lasting, intimate friendship with their piano and lay the foundation for what may become a lifelong romance.

Once a person has developed a deep friendship with their instrument, sharing with others can be meaningful, natural, and relaxed. Musicians can enjoy playing for others simply because they don’t feel they are “performing for someone” or pretending to be someone they are not—they are simply playing for their own enjoyment while other people happen to be in the room.

We have put “the listener” first based on the modern assumption that being a musician means being a performer rather than a creator. As a result, we have musicians who know anxiety far better than creativity. So let’s re-orient pedagogy back to personal creativity and the primary relationship between a player and his or her inner life, rather than the secondary relationship of a public performer to an audience. Let’s become true radicals and get back to the roots. When we water the roots, that’s when we allow for the sweetest fruits.

blogForrest Kinney