After many years of teaching theory and piano in a variety of situations, I have come to rely on an adaptive approach to teaching which recognizes that regardless of age or experience level, music students are individuals who have different styles of learning, different gifts, different interests, different goals, and different challenges. I have learned to be as creative in teaching theory and piano as I am creative in composing and performing. Indeed, I have always felt that performing, composing and teaching are inseparable, and therefore I approach each leg of this “holy trinity” with the same care, dedication and joy.
But there is something else in teaching theory and piano that is just as important as being adaptive and responsive to each student’s individual needs, and that is approaching music as an holistic experience. Paradoxically, this holism can only be developed step by step, making haste slowly to separately develop numerous distinct skills which for pianists must be executed concurrently in real time. For theory students this multiple skill set must be integrated into a “whole body” experience; in teaching species counterpoint, for instance, I insist that it is not enough to observe common practice guidelines, but that each student must actually “like” the result of what they have written. In this way the gap is bridged between an academic, theoretical abstract and real music making.
This holistic approach to teaching music is especially relevant for university and conservatory level students for whom there has traditionally been a schism between theorists and composers on one hand and performers on the other. For performers, the challenge becomes, “What does the analysis of a piece have to do with my performance of it?” Such skeptical students are amazed and enlightened to learn how an understanding of the interplay between metric structure, phrasing, and harmonic rhythm influences a performer’s decision to interpret a particular cadence as masculine or feminine. Thus, my holistic approach to teaching insists on “intelligent” performance grounded in a deep and thorough understanding of how the composition is put together and what makes it work “under the hood”. For composers, all that need be said is to repeat the mantra of Ralph Shapey: Composition is performance on paper.
I have grown into this teaching philosophy during the more than 30 years of my activity in music during which I have had the great fortune of working, studying, teaching, performing and collaborating with a wide range of people. My experience ranges from children to seniors, professional musicians to non professional music lovers, avant-gardists to traditionalists, historians to composers, conductors to vocalists, and from a wide range and mix of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I have taught in a public music charter school (K-8), the Community College environment (Skyline College in San Bruno, California), at Universities (U. C. Berkeley and Davis), in private music schools, and private piano lessons at my own studio in Oakland.
On a different level, I have approached my own composition with the same inclusive attitude toward seemingly divergent and conflicting attitudes and philosophies. For example a major work of mine, The Ship of Death, includes influences and techniques of both Elliot Carter and Earl Brown. While the eclectic result often befuddles even established composers, teachers and musicians, this approach to music composition is nevertheless a hallmark of who I am and how I embrace, even on personal, artistic and educational levels, an inclusionary environment. I have been enriched from having worked in a variety of circumstances with these diverse constituencies, and this in turn has taught me to embrace variety as an ongoing life study.
This life experience translates directly into my approach to teaching and informs the temperament with which I engage the daily rigors and challenges of teaching. The basic tenets of the teaching philosophy which emanates from this life experience combine an adaptive, holistic approach with an appreciation of diversity, a joy of nurturing, and an endless pursuit of excellence all tempered by the double-edges of patience and focused discipline. I look forward to sharing this experience and philosophy with all my students and in turn being enriched by them.