My Story: Everything Changes

When I took piano lessons in high school and college, I was taught to perform the pieces of Bach, Chopin, and other master composers. My high school teacher also taught me theory, pedagogy, and gave me an exceptional music education for which I am grateful. However, he, like nearly all other modern music teachers, did not teach improvisation or arranging.

Quite naturally, when I began teaching, I taught as I had been taught. I attempted to teach every student to read music and move from Kabalevsky’s pieces for children through Bach Inventions into the rich palaces where Chopin’s Preludes and Nocturnes live. I placed all my students on the same treadmill and gave them the same goal: perform masterworks.

After a decade of teaching this way, I became discouraged by the constant struggle with my students over practicing (to be more precise, with the lack of practicing). Finally, at the age of 28, I quit teaching. I felt there was nothing creative about what I was doing. I was merely correcting bad notes, bad rhythms, bad practice habits, and bad attitudes. In the vast Department of Music, I felt I was merely a lowly Corrections Officer.

I wondered: Why do my students resist making music in the ways I am prescribing? And why am I not teaching people to improvise, my favorite musical art? But how can you teach creativity? No one taught me to improvise. I learned it by doing it.

During that two-year break from teaching, I composed a lot of songs and piano pieces, took jazz lessons for the first time, and supported myself by working as a freelance pianist. I missed my students, so I became determined to return to teaching. I vowed to teach differently this time, and to find ways to teach others how to create, not merely perform.

My teaching today hardly resembles what it was thirty years ago. It has been transformed by my desire to put creativity first. Each of my students is now on a unique path, a personal, creative adventure. This transformation in my teaching has not come smoothly or easily, and I would have been helped considerably with more guidance along the way.

This section of the website will eventually summarize the main lessons I have learned in the past three decades of pedagogic experimentation. I plan to share my discoveries, my successes, and my failures for the sake of teachers who, like me, are trying to make lessons more about personal creativity, both for the student and the teacher.

From Teacher to Educator

A creativity-based pedagogy rests on making a distinction between “teacher” and “educator.” A teacher is a person who puts information in to the student, while an educator is someone devoted to leading gifts out of the student. The word educator comes from a Latin word meaning “to lead out.”

A teacher assumes that the student is a blank slate or an empty cup that needs to be filled with information. The educator assumes the student comes into the world filled with latent gifts, and the task is to help the student discover and express those unique gifts.

A piano teacher teaches “piano” by teaching “pieces,” so he or she can follow the same method for everyone. An educator teaches people, not pieces. Since an educator is focused on the latent gifts in each student, a different approach is required for each one. To be a creativity educator, we must abandon a “one size fits all” curriculum, and our craving for rules and methods. Each student is like a different instrument that we must learn to make music with. This is what makes teaching a creative art for the educator. A teacher can be a technician, while an educator must be an artist.

The Four Arts model gives us a wider variety of ways to respond to our students. We have many more tools in the tool chest, more ingredients in the cupboard, more paints on the palette. With some students, we may focus mainly on improvisation. With others, we may help them arrange songs or make accompaniments for their singing. With other students, we may spend most of our time on literature. And with others, we may help them compose pieces or write songs. It all depends on the needs and gifts of the student.

As music educators, our main goal is to uncover and express a student’s gifts, and awaken a lifelong love of making music. If we keep this goal in mind, then we no longer feel we must be a “piano teacher” who marches each student through the same curriculum with the same goals. We realize that each student is a mystery. Each comes with surprising gifts, needs, and desires, and something beautiful appears in the studio when we respond to the mystery that waits before us.