11 Rules and How to Break Them | Esther Wang

My goals for students have not changed since I formulated them for my third year review: I want my students to develop strong technique, acute listening skills, and a keen sense of musical style in all its conventions and exceptions. I want my students to be thoughtful and creative in their work, demonstrating persistence, commitment and character. I want them to absorb and master a wide repertoire of material and make it their own. Most importantly, I want my students to develop not only as musicians, but also as individuals, each with unique gifting and potential. Ultimately, I want my students to know more than I do and realize that the value of acquired learning increases only as much as it is shared.

Transmitting these educative ideals to college students can be a daunting task. Endowed with new freedoms and obligations, undergraduates must learn not only how to manage their time and resources, but also how to identify and improve upon personal strengths and weaknesses. Playing the piano provides one (academic) avenue by which a student may engage these challenges. In my applied music lessons, I engage students one-on-one, exploring ways to cultivate the discipline (many hours in the practice room) and mental stamina (constant self-evaluation) to become an accomplished pianist. The fruits of these efforts, I believe, extend into other areas of their lives.

I consider it a special privilege to hold a job grounded in my abiding love of music and the piano (first awakened at the age of four). I am grateful that my lifelong passion can be cultivated in so rich an environment, where I am able to teach in the classroom, in private lessons, and in performance settings. My strengths as a teacher, observed within these milieus, derive from personality traits as well as from professional experience.

I am an intuitive person. I tend to read students’ thoughts and actions accurately and can assess their levels of accomplishment quickly. This allows me to assign appropriate repertoire that is at once accessible and challenging. On an interpersonal level, I am able to perceive unspoken worries or doubts. I make every effort to put my pupils at ease and foster their trust in me, especially within the context of private lessons.

I am also a natural communicator. I find satisfaction in explaining concepts and techniques. In addition to more conventional terms, I have employed non-musical analogies, similes, metaphors, (or even fairy tales) to teach my craft. I try to present a difficult musical passage from every angle, speaking both as a technical coach and an art-lover (“This passage lacks a curve. It needs some inflection, a little curlicue, like you might see in a piece of Rococo architecture.”).  In teaching, striving for the right language and imagery is as important as knowing when to simply urge a student to “just do it.” Likewise, in performance, one must constantly expand one’s aural vocabulary; sometimes saying “don’t rush” is not enough. I draw heavily upon my own technical background in order to show my students how to best approach the keyboard.

I still have much to learn about classroom teaching. My inclination is to treat each student as an individual and this is hard with 40 students in the room. But, I think it is important to use my instincts and try to engage them as much as I can instead of talking to them as a herd of cattle. After all, I am talking about a subject that deals with no one group, but individuals, and their music cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s.

My first new class at Gustavus was an interim class, The Concert Experience (2007). We discussed Classical music programming (that is, the music of the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary periods). Concert programming in earlier times was very different than the standard programming we hear today. Working under the patronage system in in the 17th and 18th centuries usually meant that performances were determined by the desires of that patron. This could include a performance featuring the patron’s favorite instrument, or ceremonial music to honor family members or guests.  In Mozart’s and Beethoven’s time (when musicians ventured to free-lance), a mish-mash of works was often the norm. A composer wanting to show off his latest pieces might arrange a concert of his own works. A movement of a symphony could be played. If the audience liked it and clapped for a long time, the conductor would repeat the same movement! A new concert aria might be sung, followed by a movement of a new piano concerto, played and conducted by the composer at the keyboard. Improvising a theme from the latest opera arias was commonplace and eagerly anticipated by concert goers of the time.

We don’t seem to “mish-mash” much in today’s Classical concerts, although a rise of crossover performances seems to be welcomed, from Itzhak Perlman playing klezmer music to Andre Rieu’s glitzy renditions of light Classical works.

I wanted the students to get a feel for standard programming, and then have an opportunity to create their own concerts. I enjoyed hearing the kinds of music they played and listened to. I admit I knew very few of the pieces they shared, and some were standard choral and band works! So, it was a learning experience for everyone. Together, we experimented with programming new and old works based on contrasts, similarities, traditions, exceptions, and just plain imagination. Every program the students formed was a success.

The best experience about this new class was the element of surprise. I had no idea what the final product might be. It taught me to allow more freedom and to avoid controlling the outcome. When I teach private lessons or Music Appreciation, I can usually anticipate a predictable range of results. This class was a refreshing change. It also kept me humble. Everything that was planned was done without my help. I was really proud of these students and admired their creativity.

The second new class I taught at Gustavus was a new requirement for the music major beginning in Spring 2007, Listening to Music. This course helps the student develop the analytical listening skills necessary for understanding the major categories and eras of European and American art music. Teaching this course requires examining the music in both historical and theoretical contexts. The students need to gain the ability to see what they hear and hear what need to recognize genre and form both visually and aurally. They need to know where these genres and forms came from and what might have evolved from them.

How do students learn to hear the building blocks of music and place them appropriately throughout history? I’m still trying to answer this question. When I first began preparing for this class, I didn’t know where to begin. Music theory was just as important as music history. For instance, in order to understand a fugue, one has to understand:

Theoretical concepts:

  • Have a knowledge of chords and their relationships to each other.
  • Identify basic compositional techniques like augmentation or diminution (the increasing or decreasing of a theme’s note values without changing its rhythmic integrity) and stretto (a pile-up of the same theme in several voices)
  • Identify different kinds of polyphonic writing (simultaneous independent voices).

Historical knowledge:

  •  When did diatonic harmony become standardized?
  • When did systematic polyphonic writing begin?
  • When did vocal imitation begin influencing instrumental procedures like fugues?
  • Who wrote fugues before J. S. Bach?

The challenges of this class were endless but rewarding. Music is about rules but it is more about how composers treat and break those rules. Tradition needs to be understood so it can be put aside. Conversely, new music often can’t be appreciated unless we can see from whence it evolved. I was forced to become a theory teacher as well as a history teacher. This ultimately sharpened my approach to listening to music and forced me to better articulate how to listen.

I am a fortunate person. I love teaching and have the opportunity to teach in different kinds of settings with students of all ages and abilities.