Excellent Teaching: Graduate Students Need Help

My friend David, having just received his DMA, phoned me one day, elated to tell me that he was offered a teaching position at a liberal arts college.

"Strong, active music department," he tells me, happily relishing the moment. "Lots of possibilities." His responsibilities would include private and group piano teaching, and perhaps a beginning theory course.

My friend had maintained a successful private studio for years, but I wondered how he would succeed with the complex demands of successful group teaching.

Within three months, David realized that something was wrong. His two Keyboard Skills classes and Beginning Theory course consisted of a number of bored and impatient students. Some second-guessed his knowledge. Some were just poor students.

"I want to interest them, motivate them to work. Yesterday I overheard a student say this class is boring. Another is just being difficult. `Too hard.' We didn't go over this, she says. I know other teachers put up with awkward and clunky class situations, but I don't want to settle for that."

David, despite his high standards, couldn't get comfortable with group teaching. Students saw right through his preference for one-on-one instruction. He hesitated adapting the attitude"It's college, deal with it"of many of his colleagues, but his excitement and confidence towards the position was quickly souring. He was imagining ways of honorably avoiding classroom teaching next year.

Unfortunately, many fine musicians enter the world of post-secondary teaching with little training on being an effective teacher. Their ability to effectively teach theory, history, or any number of other group classes is limited. Excellent group teaching is a whole other ball game. Knowledge of how the game is played helps. Otherwise, the student evaluations that cost many teachers a good night's sleep can be a personal and professional embarrassment. Student retention drops. Word gets out that students are unhappy: an instant strike against the professor.

As we enter the new millennium, the face of our student population is changing in many ways, as are the high schools from which our students graduate. I was never like that when I was a student, we think. It is not enough today to be a great performer or published scholar; a teacher instructing students today must be able to communicate and instruct effectively and efficiently. By employing the following three techniques in our own daily teaching, we can begin to create unparalleled student success and goodwill in our classrooms.

Shape attitudes through language. Granted, good instructors want to impart as much knowledge as possible to their students, but our good intentions backfire when explanations become verbose and instructions long-winded. The trumpet student wants to learn by playing. The choir wants to make music, not listen to complicated interpretive theories from the director. The theory students want to practice a difficult new concept, not listen endlessly to how it's supposed to be done. The verbal pollution most students are subjected to from teachers saps their energies towards the material.

By keeping directives limited to short key phrases, we can tap into the enthusiasm of "1, 2, ready, play." Boring classes will suddenly turn into involved discussions, exciting moments of music making, instead of material that "must be learned." Effective teachers don't waste time on superfluous words; there's just too much important knowledge to impart.

Make music/Teach people. As a former public school teacher, I was always amazed at the negativity expressed by my colleagues over their "ne'er do well" students. "John's hopelessly bad at rhythms." "Karen never could sing a solo. Her ear is awful!" This pigeon-holing of students also permeates college teaching. Teaching people means knowing our students aren't machinery meant to be screwed together on an assembly line. We can change; so can our students! Almost everyone, regardless of age, seeks acceptance and love from those around them. Teachers, understanding that, begin to realize how they can shape the way their students view themselves and the material being learned. Can we as teachers maintain our high standards but still respect the individual with all their weaknesses and strengths? Absolutely.

Find better ways to deal with the difficult student. Many professors come to resent the fact that not all students are as dedicated, talented, and respectful towards authority as they had been. Blaming it on lack of standards or on trouble with today's youth are cop-outs. Find the alternatives for dealing with difficult students, and professors today should be held accountable for their expertise in such situations. Instead of playing favorites (which happens far too often) or dealing with the situation in some other undignified way, honestly deal with the problem: "When I'm giving instructions, please wait to play so everyone can hear" or "I'm disappointed your assignment wasn't prepared. Prepare both lessons for next week." Point out what they can do. It's ammunition for when you try to fix what they can't. "You're analysis is always detailed and complete. The way you cite your sources could be improved . . ." A good teacher avoids playing games with students they disagree with or don't like. Effective teachers are honest and dignified, realizing their profession is about service to others. We act out of love for our students, not to annoy, punish, or seek revenge at a complaint or overheard negative comment.

College students today have fewer reservations about showing their disinterest or dissatisfaction with a boring and unprepared professor. "You didn't say you'd take off points for that!" "You didn't say we'd be tested on that!" Professors can handle concerns or problems honestly and fairly by respectful discussions that are empathetic and neutral in tone of voice, instead of being unapproachable. Saying "This assignment has really frustrated you" or "Let's talk about your concern after class" is more dignified than "That's the way it is." Our use of inflection also sends an important message about the dignity that we maintain in our student-teacher relationships. Saying "Accuracy is not your strong point" (stated as you shake your head) sends a different message than stating an observation such as "Accuracy was a problem. Let's improve it."

Colleges and universities must hire and maintain faculty that are accountable for the effectiveness of their teaching, not simply by their singular achievements in a chosen field. Yes, this person has an excellent reputation as a performer, but what can he really offer his students? Oftentimes, we as colleagues and committee members that do the hiring are too star-struck to find the answer, or even ask the question. Colleges and universities would be serving a vital and long ignored need if courses were offered that dealt with pacing, rhetoric, and management issues in the classroom.

When David stepped into his college classroom for the first time, he realized he had neglected to learn the finer points of what makes a great teacher. Demanding excellence from himself, he was gradually able to redefine his approach to group teaching, and is now successfully running the entire piano program.

Regardless of level or age, the qualities of excellent teaching are the same. Since so many of our young musicians today contemplate teaching, it is time that a concrete and all-inclusive method for excellent teaching be both embraced and implemented.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01/05/2013

Michael Mastronicola

Michael Mastronicola currently teaches Accompanying, Piano Pedagogy, and Class Piano at the University of North Florida. He has taught previously at Jacksonville University and Front Range Community College. He serves as chair of the annual Outstanding Young Pianists Competition and was artist-coach at the Friday Musicale Emerging Young Artist Chamber Music Festival in 2011. He is frequently requested to adjudicate at numerous music competitions, and has served as guest clinician and conductor of various Multiple Piano Festivals in Colorado and  Florida. His reviews have appeared in American Music Teacher.  Dr. Mastronicola performs extensively as a solo and collaborative pianist, having appeared in concerts throughout the United States and Europe. His most recent recording is “Then Sings My Soul” with soprano Tresa Waggoner.  Mastronicola holds degrees from the University of Colorado-Boulder (D.M.A), the University of Wisconsin-Madison (M.M.), and Ithaca College (B.M.). He is a Colleague with the American Guild of Organists. He has received additional training in the Taubman Approach at the Golandsky Institute in Princeton, NJ.

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