The "Traditional" Teacher (Some Encouraging Words)

I am writing to offer encouraging words to colleagues who may be wishing to make changes in the ways they teach, but are hesitant to do so. I’d like to give my perspective after forty years of teaching.

As a teenager, I was taught by two fine classical teachers to perform a wide range literature, play scales and arpeggios, and study music theory in books. I learned to play Bach Fugues and Chopin Preludes by memory, write chorales by following the “rules” of four-part writing, and play all the harmonic minor scales with a metronome. And so, that is mostly what I taught for the first decade of my career.

As a tried to make a living as a musician, I discovered that, while my training had prepared me to present a classical recital, it did not prepare me to play contemporary music at social engagements, work in churches, play in bands, play on cruise ships, make arrangements for students, play tunes by ear, read lead sheets, and so on. And so, over decades, I learned all these skills, some from an excellent jazz teacher, some from books, but most from “trial and ear.” And I was able to make a living as a pianist.

When doing research for a book I’m writing, I learned that Bach trained his students to do these kinds of things (except play on cruise ships!). According to his son, he taught students figured bass (the lead sheet of the day) near the beginning, and his students learned to improvise, arrange, and compose. He was preparing his students to be working musicians in the community. To give an example: at the audition for the organist position at a church in Hamburg in 1725, the keyboardist was required to do six different things—five of them had to do with improvisation in various forms.

And so, over the past forty years, I have gone back to Bach, while keeping the best of what I now call “the 19th century performer model.” I teach my students to improvise, read lead sheets, understand harmony, arrange music, compose and write songs, and play and perform literature. I call this “the Four Arts model.” These changes happened slowly over the last forty years.

If you want to help your students to improvise, arrange, and compose (and learn yourself), you are not “breaking tradition.” On the contrary, you are rediscovering a much longer tradition that was swept aside in the 19th century. You are not leaving tradition, but deepening it.