Piano Teacher, Pedagogue or Therapist: Excellence Is Excellence!

By Clarfield, Ingrid Jacobson; Atagan, Heather | American Music Teacher, April-May 2008 | Go to article overview

Piano Teacher, Pedagogue or Therapist: Excellence Is Excellence!


Clarfield, Ingrid Jacobson, Atagan, Heather, American Music Teacher


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The idea for this article occurred to me while sitting in the physical therapy room at St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center in the middle of my fifth week following a stroke I suffered on March 29, 2007--the morning after I returned from the 2007 MTNA Collaborative Conference in Toronto. While my physical therapist patiently broke down the elements of walking, I began to praise her excellent teaching style. In fact, she demonstrated all the attributes of a great music teacher. In other words--excellence is excellence!

This particular session had a profound psychological affect on my future rehabilitation work because I could now focus on physically improving, while relating it to what I enjoy doing the most--teaching piano and pedagogy. I became fascinated with how similar my productive therapy sessions were to productive music lessons.

As a stroke patient in a rehab center you have several types of therapy and, therefore, several different therapists. Since my brain was still functioning very well cognitively, the ever constant analytical and critical pedagogue in me never stopped working, and I noted constantly what "worked" for me and what didn't. Eventually I identified 10 traits or skills that seemed to illustrate the similarities in excellent teaching and excellent rehabilitation therapy.

1 The Excellent Therapist/Music Teacher ...

Lets the patient/student talk first--it can make or break the lesson/session

I can't remember a single session where the therapist didn't do an emotional barometer check on me before starting the planned activities for the session. When my spirits were low or I had not slept well, the session was adjusted accordingly. But they always encouraged me to talk about what had happened to help me get "on track." On days when I was energized and upbeat they let me explain why--like when I started writing this article. The importance of taking those first few minutes to talk was always tremendously appreciated. I'm sure our students feel that way, too. They need to know we really care about them as individuals, not just for how they play that day.

2 The Excellent Therapist/Music Teacher ...

Relates preparatory exercises to purpose so there is a clear understanding of the ultimate goal: why should I do it?

Both of my physical therapists often had me doing what seemed like weird unrelated exercises on the mat or in my wheelchair. However, they would then explain how these exercises related to learning to stand, shifting my weight to walk or navigating to turn corners. I was much more motivated to do them because I could understand how these exercises now related to my goal of relearning to walk. They also seemed to enjoy my constant need to understand the purpose of each exercise, just as I enjoy the inquiring student that yearns to understand. In similar fashion, if a piano student understands that warming up with an F Major scale legato 16th notes in one hand and detached 8th notes in the other will make the Bach Invention in F Major easier to learn, he is much more likely to do it.

3 The Excellent Therapist/Music Teacher ...

Gives patient/student a chance to warm up and get started even if there are mistakes

Often, when attempting the first few steps on a given day, my technique was not smooth at all. I totally appreciated Priya, my physical therapist, never criticizing those first few steps. Frequently she would let me take several steps before she would mention improper cane position or incorrectly shifting. This helped me gain confidence and want to continue versus feeling criticized immediately and discouraged about my progress. I really hope all music teachers let students have some breathing room before the criticizing begins.

4 The Excellent Therapist/Music Teacher ...

Finds Different Ways to Make the Same Point!

While trying to learn to walk after a stroke, one of the important concepts to learn is how to shift your weight so you can get the weak leg to actually bend and move forward. …

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