A mind abuzz about sightreading
Reflections on the first semester of teaching piano sightreading
Reading words, reading music...observations from a musical mom
The art of not playing by memory
A dare for college music departments
Avoiding sightreading derailments at the piano
Thinking aloud while reading and sightreading music
A chain of thoughts about the state of some music students
And here's a paper I wrote in graduate school as I was trying to figure out how I wanted to teach piano sightreading to freshman piano performance majors:
Redesigning the Piano Sight-Reading Class at Eastman
with a little help from David P. Ausubel and Robert Gagné
August 18, 1997
At the end of the 1996 school year, when I was offered the position of teacher's assistant for teaching piano sight-reading at the Eastman School of Music, I was surprised to find that I was hesitant about agreeing to accept, even in spite of the financial help it would give me and the valuable experience it offered. My hesitation stemmed from the fact that I was required to take this same course in my undergraduate study at the school and was frustrated by the temporary negative results it had on my own skills as a pianist. I had always been quite adept at most of the skills expected of us, but after the first semester I found myself struggling to perform any of them comfortably; it was very puzzling and upsetting to me, especially since it took me about a year to get back to where I had been prior to taking the course. At that point I didn't take too much time to analyze what had caused my skills to temporarily deteriorate, but when I finally did accept the teaching position, I realized that I did not want to step into the classroom without figuring out why the class didn't have a strong impact on me, and how a class such as piano sight-reading could be taught more effectively.
It seems to be important to first take a close look at how the course has been in previous years. Piano Sight-reading, commonly referred to as PRF 111 and 112 by the registrar's office at the University of Rochester, is a two-credit class that is required of all freshman piano majors and undergraduates. Every student is required to audition at the beginning of their first semester in order to place him either in an intermediate or in an advanced section1 with the main difference being the pace at which the class was set. Advanced students were also given the option to pass out of the second semester of the course as long as they reached a fairly high level of proficiency. Classes, each with about ten students, met twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays, for an hour in the electronic-piano lab. Wednesdays were typically devoted to checking homework assignments; the teacher listened to each student individually over headphones while the remaining students were expected to sight-read duets. Fridays were reserved for the presentation of new material which was usually given to the students in a lecture format with some hands-on exercises in between. In terms of materials, the only book required for the course was a text written by Ellen Burmeister, Keyboard Sight Reading, which covered most of the skills taught in the class. Tests were held periodically with a mid-term and the final serving as the more important evaluation times. These tests usually contained several "prepared" exercises which required the students to pick up the testing material twenty-four hours prior to their exam time; usually some genuine sight-reading was also included in these testing times. It should also be noted that the mid-terms and final exams were always performed for the instructor of the course in addition to the teacher's supervisor.
It was during the sight-reading portions of these exams that the student's failure to acquire the ne skills needed became readily apparent. I decided that, based on my memories of my own performances during such situations, one of the objectives I wanted for the course was for the students to be able to get through the pieces fluently and more importantly, musically, regardless of the number of notes missed. So the question remains, what was it about the way the class was taught that led to this inability to improve throughout the semester or year? Can the ideas of non-music education theorists help in restructuring this class, and if so, how?
After starting to look for material about the subject, it didn't take me long to discover that piano sight-reading hasn't had much of an impact on music educators or theorists either. In fact, in comparison to "normal" education, research in any aspect of music instruction is significantly insignificant. C. Fowler, a music-education theorist, stated in an article written in 1988 that, "It is sometimes assumed that there exists in research a corpus of knowledge that identifies correct procedures for teachers of music to follow. The authors have found this not to be the case." 2 Music-education theories that could be considered at the same level as the education theories of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bandura, number in the single digits and many of them focus on the education of young children 3. In the sight-reading field, for example, most material discusses how to teach young children to read printed music. These theories are, of course, very vital and important to music education; however, when trying to redesign a curriculum aimed at teaching college students, most of this research becomes obsolete. I needed to find theories, musical or not, that address education for a wider age-range and that can be applied to a class such as piano sight-reading. Fortunately I did find two education theorists to fit this criteria - Robert Gagné and David Ausubel. After reading their books, it became very easy for me to isolate problems that had possibly contributed to my frustration with the class, and upon combining their beliefs, I was then able to find possible solutions which will hopefully aid in designing a more effective curriculum for the course.
David P. Ausubel, most active between the 1950's and the 1970's, based much of his work on the cognitive studies that were going on at the time. Much of his emphasis is on instructional design and focuses on basing a student's education on what he already knows as opposed to simply presenting new material depending on his age or stage of development. One of Ausubel's most quoted statements, used at the beginning of his book, Educational Psychology, A Cognitive View, sums up what he believed quite well:
If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly. 4
In reading a statement like this one, it's not hard to see why Ausubel believes so strongly in individualized instruction, a topic which, after examining the difficulties of teaching a class such as sight-reading, will soon become apparent. His theory also recommends the formulation of clear objectives, or as he labels them, "organizers" on which the teacher can then build on. The student's pre-existent cognitive structure is then used more effectively, with the teacher hooking new skills and ideas carefully on to an existing framework. A crucial point that Ausubel stresses, however, is that this cannot be done without first evaluating where the student is intellectually in the context of the subject matter being studied. From here on, the material presented should at first be general and then move on to more detailed instruction. In doing this, the student is more likely to internalize new skills and thoughts as opposed to simply learning them by rote, which, Ausubel seems to think, is not in many cases, the most productive way of learning. 5 Another important part of his book lies in his discussion of motivation and anxiety, both in the classroom and on more of a one-to-one basis. His theories about how to solve such problems once again have to do with individuation and respecting the vast differences between students.
As with Ausubel, Robert Gagné strongly supports individuation, the importance of delivering clear objectives prior to and during teaching, as well as the careful design of instruction from more simple and general skills to more complex ones. Working with another educational theorist, Leslie Briggs, 6 in the 1960's, he believes that in teaching, there are five main outcomes of learning: intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, information, motor skills, and attitudes. Each teacher should decide prior to teaching or even while developing instructional material, which of these possible acquisitions are crucial to the subject matter being studied. For instance, in the piano sight-reading course, I believe that there are really only three objective that can be sought with those being information, motor-skills acquisition, and change or maturation of attitude. With the class being so performance and skill-oriented, influencing a student's intellectual skills or cognitive strategies seems less important than the others. Similar to his peer's theory, Gagné then uses these clear objectives as a foundation for the teaching of skills, starting first with the more general and simplified, and then moving on to the more complex. This is done by developing what he labeled as "task analysis skill hierarchies" which stresses the necessity of first breaking down the components that make up a task, especially one that is more complex, and then putting them together once the student has fully acquired the necessary background skills. Much of his research also investigates the influence of attitude, motivation, and something he calls "human modeling," stating that without a healthy attitude, an ample supply of motivation, or an effective role model, a teacher's efforts may simply prove to be temporary.
One of the main points that both of these men seem to stress is this important use of motivation in learning, whether it comes from human modeling or from individualized attention. These theories imply that teachers should strive to inspire their students to want to learn these skills, to help them to understand how learning can aid in acquiring their dreams, and to motivate them to be led by curiosity even after the final grades are handed in.
During my first month of teaching, I quickly learned that one of the main problems I had in teaching these students was that their motivation for working hard in this class was practically non-existent. The only things motivating my students to attend class twice a week, in fact, were their fear of receiving bad grades and the knowledge that they had to pass this course in order to graduate in four years. I believe that this type of attitude arises quite simply out of the fact that the students who are taking this class cannot see how any of these skills being taught will ever serve them in the future. It is probably safe to say that the majority of incoming freshmen pianists plan on becoming solo performers, relying solely on the income taken in from their prestigious engagements and debuts that will take them around the world and back. If this is what they see themselves as doing for the rest of their lives, why would they ever need to learn how to read different C-clefs, transpose a song into a different key, read figured bass, or read an orchestral or choral score? These skills are for pianists that don't quite cut it, that end up making a living by accompanying singers and instrumentalists or by playing in restaurants. Even the need to learn how to sight-read is a mystery; why should they struggle to be able to read through a piece at sight when they can practice and memorize a piece more easily because that's what they've been trained to do? Granted, it would take them at least fifty hours to be able to get it to a performable state, but at least they wouldn't be wasting time learning how to sight-read. "What fun is sight-reading anyway?" they ask. "You end up missing half the notes and what kind of performance is that?" What they fail to realize is that most of them, if not all of them, will not become soloists and most of them will not be able to make a living simply by practicing six to eight hours a day, winning competitions, and performing. Especially in times like these, when the public would rather listen to a CD for free than pay twenty dollars to see a live performance, pianists need to become as flexible and well-prepared as possible. Another thing they don't recognize without the help of someone else, is that learning how to sight-read actually does benefit their solo playing; it enables them to learn their recital pieces more quickly and also allows them to be able to read through vast amounts of repertoire, thereby opening their ears to as many musical languages as possible. After considering these somewhat dreary facts, a piano sight-reading class seems like a pretty good idea, but something needs to be done to convince the students of this themselves.
Convincing students of the need for acquiring various skills is definitely one of the foremost problems in today's schools according to Ausubel and Gagné. In his book, Ausubel refers to two studies of high-school students, (F.M. Young, 1932) and (Cantor, 1953) both of which prove that the reason students often lose interest in a course is because they can't see any need for it. He concludes, with obvious reasoning, that this leads to little energy being spent on learning and a very low desire to practice. 7 It is the responsibility of the teacher and the curriculum committee, therefore, to find a way to make the course directly applicable to the lives of each student. In his own words, "the subject matter in question must be related to full needs." 8 Specialized skills such as clef-reading, transposing, and so forth are important and are nice to know how to do, but when looking at the state of incoming freshmen it seems more crucial to first teach them what they need to know which is that they should want to acquire these skills for their own benefit. S.C. Ericksen states this quite succinctly, stating that "teachers at all levels must begin to take more active measures to reduce the curricular lag between what is 'nice to know' in contrast to what the present student generation 'needs to know'" 9. This curricular lag can be reduced by presenting the students with very clear objectives prior to exposing them to a new skill or topic.
Ausubel refers to this idea of forming objectives in his discussion of "organizers" or as he sometimes calls them, "anchor points." It is through these that the student begins to build a framework on which he will then add new skills and ideas. What is important for the teacher to keep in mind while trying to come up with such tools, is that they should be presented in a general, clear, and unambiguous fashion, keeping in mind where the students are coming from and what they already know. If the student's backgrounds are not taken into consideration and if there are too many details or new terms thrown into the objective statement, there is a distinct possibility that the student will not be able to understand what it is he is trying to learn. Consequently, there is nothing concrete for him on which to build nor does he have a clear concept of where he is supposed to be headed. Without this cognitive structure, students tend to resort to rote learning which, Ausubel implies, does not promise to be memorable after the year is over. In order for material to be retained the goals must be clear, meaningful to the student and applicable to their lives and to their futures.
Leslie Briggs, Gagné's partner, shares very similar opinions with Ausubel, but it is interesting to note that he goes even so far as to say that those designing a class should keep these same things in mind when coming up with the course title. "Ambiguity in the meaning of courses with title or topic designations can readily be avoided when courses are described in terms of their objective." 10 It is his opinion that a student's attitude about a course is affected psychologically as soon as he is informed of the course title. For instance, when a class is given a vague name such as "English," the student instantly feels a lack of direction or purpose. Will he be studying English novels, English poetry, English short stories, the English language, or how to write in English? The consequence of this ambiguous name, according to Briggs at least, is that the student will typically start off the course with a fairly bad attitude and with very little motivation. I feel that this is making a big deal out of a little problem in educational psychology, but it does further emphasize the important fact that students need to have goals and objectives presented to them in a very clear fashion.
In relating these ideas to the piano sight-reading class it's interesting to look back at past years and to try and determine what the goals were for the class. It seems to me that the objectives set out for the students and presented to them at the beginning of each semester were clear but perhaps too specific and foreign for a group of freshmen. The course outline and syllabus informed the students that by the end of the term he was expected to be able to sight-read more fluently, read all C-clefs, transpose any art song up or down a major or minor third away from the original key, and so on. For a young adult who wants to be a soloist and who has probably never even tried their hands at performing these skills, these goals would most likely go right over their heads and not inspire them in the least; the objective needs to be much more general and non-threatening. Perhaps a better goal to present to the students would be for every student to become aware of the different careers available to the pianist and to learn how to go about acquiring skills necessary for such jobs. Especially for the first semester, I feel that what I need to be working towards with them is more along the lines of attitude changes and increased motivation to sight-read. In terms of Brigg's advice to carefully select a course title, perhaps Eastman should change the name "Piano Sight-reading" to "Becoming a more well-rounded and marketable pianist."
Emphasizing the course's applicability to the student's future career also aids in motivating students because it touches on a very critical part of the individual - one's ego. According to Ausubel, "ego-enhancement drive is the dominant component of achievement motivation in adolescence and adult life." 11 Students, particularly in the first few years of college, are encouraged by courses or situations which not only enhance their ego in some way but also reduce anxiety and show the capability of advancing their career at some future date. In the sight-reading class, this theory could be very important to know about, especially in designing and in teaching the course. The freshmen who come into the class are, oftentimes, the pianists that were the starts in their hometowns. They were the ones that won the competitions, performed recitals in every concert hall in the area, were asked to play at the mayor's inauguration party, and appeared in the local paper several times. Their fame comes from their ability to perform impeccably and with vivaciousness, but only after putting in hundreds of grueling hours. Now that they're at Eastman, they don't know where they stand or how they fare compared to the person seated next to them. The sight-reading lab is the first place they'll hear one another play and that can't be a very comforting prospect for them. Most of them know they can't sight-read because they've never had to learn how to, and now they have to do it in front of a group of strangers? This is definitely not conducive to optimism or motivation and it becomes quite clear that the teacher of the course needs to find a way to drive each student's ego to a healthy degree. In teaching my class, I believe that this entails being careful not to force them to sight-read in front of one another right at the beginning of the semester to reduce anxiety, assigning realistic yet comfortable assignments at first to enhance their ego, and reinforcing the benefits of what they are learning on their future careers as pianists.
In addition to supporting Ausubel's recommendation to present easier material at first in order to encourage students to learn more, Gagné also discusses the use of "human modeling" for motivating students and changing negative attitudes. This tool could possibly also find a place in the sight-reading class at Eastman. In very technical terms, human modeling consists of first presenting a class with a respected human model, having the model demonstrate a desirable behavior or skill, and in the process, demonstrating the model enjoying the outcome. The model, in the context of this class, could very easily be any one of the students' studio teachers. Any pianist on the faculty at the Eastman School of Music will have the respect, at least to some extent, of the students, especially the freshmen. If the students could hear their own teachers talking about the value of these skills and the state of the piano market, if they could see their teachers transpose a Fauré song into a different key and be told of an instance in which that came in handy, that would, in most cases I think, be a wonderful and lasting influence on the minds of the students and would only help in improving upon their attitude towards the class.
Another aspect of the sight-reading class that seems to hinder a positive attitude among students is the custom for the class to be divided up between intermediate and advanced students. Although neither Ausubel nor Gagné come to a conclusion about the benefits or hindrances of separating students into different levels depending on skill level, I believe that for this particular situation it is more desirable to have only one general class where people of greater proficiency are mixed in with those who might be struggling more. This idea may seem contrary to the ego-enhancement theory; after all, it might be very intimidating for a more insecure sight-reader to be thrown in with those that are more fluent. In fact, I do believe this is the one danger of holding the class in such a way; however, I also think that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. One problem that occurs with divided classes is that those in the intermediate class feel very discouraged from the outset and tent to just accept the fact that they will never be good sight-readers. Another problem arises when class time is designanted for sight-reading duets or multiple-hand works. There isn't a problem with the advanced group; they simply read more challenging music than in the other group. However, when you get the less-skilled readers together who have trouble keeping a steady beat, playing musically, and maintaining rhythmic integrity, the exercise of reading together becomes very impractical. In order to improve one's sight-reading, one must force oneself to keep on going, regardless of the amount of wrong notes being made. By maintaining this rhythmic integrity, one's eyes are then trained to grasp patterns of notes instead of individual notes, one's ears are trained to jump in and to help out, and one's hands are trained to respond more quickly to what the eyes are seeing and the ears are hearing. It is very frustrating to watch two insecure readers read music together; they can rarely get through an entire section of a piece without faltering and having to stop. I think that this problem can be solved by rotating partners frequently and combining the different levels of readers so that everyone, especially the more challenged ones, get an opportunity to experience what it is like to be carried by the music and by the other player. It is true that advanced readers may tend to get bored or frustrated in such situations, but if people are rotated frequently enough, that problem should be alleviated to some extent. Although the problem of class division doesn't seem to have a clear solution, I believe that in not labeling the classes, those on the lower half will be will be more inspired to try harder and will be much more motivated to improve.
A topic which Ausubel does seem to take a pretty firm stand on is the question of how one should pace material throughout a course. In his book he suggests that the teacher should pace it very carefully and in strict accordance to how each individual student is dealing with previously presented material and skills. This becomes even more crucial when teaching particularly complex skills such as orchestral score reading. For instance, care should be taken to only start the students out with what they already know. In score reading, that would mean starting them off by having them read the parts played by instruments that read either treble or bass clef. Next they can go on to reading the viola line, and then the vola and clarinet line, and so on. Ausubel stresses that you should never move ahead to the next level until the first steps are already learned and mastered. He states that "sequential organization of subject matter can be very effective...This presupposes, of course, that the antecedent step is always thoroughly consolidated." 12 A danger of not being careful and in pushing students ahead to the next level prematurely is that they will end up resorting to what they already have in their cognitive structure, to how they are used to learning their music. Instead of learning the necessary skills, they resort once again to rote and repetitive learning which typically leaves the mind out of the process. I have had many students come into my class to perform a score reading exercise flawlessly but without looking at the music. In these cases, the pianists have obviously gone home and memorized the exercise in the same way they learn their solo pieces. When this starts to happen, nothing new is being learned cognitively and their frustration with the class and themselves continue to mount as the teacher pushes them prematurely through skills without regards to where his students really are.
This tendency for students to resort to memorizing material has also shown up in testing situations, particularly in mid-terms and in final exams. In previous years there were typically about five different exercises required of the students for each exam. Of these, three were usually what could be labeled as "prepared" materials. These consisted of short pieces or assignments that could be picked up by the student twenty-four hours prior to their designated exam time. The student was then expected to present this for a grade. As with the homework assignments, what ended up happening was that most students would slave away at these pieces for hours, memorizing and perfecting them in order to receive a good grade. It was great, perhaps, that many people received "A's" by doing this and who could blame them for resorting to what they knew worked? Because of the way assignments and tests were set up, students knew they could, in the end, pass the course using these pre-established methods, but it also meant that the exams really weren't an accurate way of measuring whether or not the students really had succeeded in reaching the teacher's stated objective for the course. Referring back to the three major learning outcome that Gagné proposes and that I apply to the sight-reading class, an accurate test would be one that checks the success of the student in these three areas: motor skils, change of attitude, and information learning. For motor skills, the teacher should set certain standards for precision and musicality and compare each student to them. To test a change in attitude is more difficult and, according to Gagné, is done primarily through observation. Finally, testing for the acquisition of factual information such as the memorization of musical terms "requires the exact identification of what information is to be learned and retained." 13 Unfortunately, the exam material used for the sight-reading class was not really adequate to test for these objectives and it was because of this that listening to and taking the exams proved to be quite discouraging, both for the student and for the teacher.
Ausubel and Gagné were also both very clear about discussing how class time should be utilized in a class that is primarily focused on the learning of motor skills. To put it quite simply, motor skills are learned through sheer repetition and with a healthy, unhurried attitude. They way the class has been taught in the past ins not very conducive to these ideal conditions for learning. One class time per week, usually Fridays, was devoted to a lecture-style presentation with occasional hands-on exercises added in between topics. This seems very illogical, especially in light of the educational psychologist's theories. To me, teaching something like reading a Clarinet in B-flat's part by talking about it seems impractical. It would be like teaching basketball to a group of semi-professionals simply by talking about it. Chances are the team wouldn't get too far and I certainly wouldn't bet on them. Motor skills, particularly complex motor skills, require repetition and practice - simple enough.
All of these previously discussed problems, especially when piled up on one another, make it very difficult for a student to succeed in such a class and therefore contributes to a very high level of anxiety among the students. This anxiety is something that Ausubel strongly cautions teachers to be on the lookout for, as I mentioned previously. Highly anxious students, although they tend to have high levels of motivation, tend to crack, especially when trying to learn extraordinarily complex tasks such as transposing. If they are taken out of their comfort zone they panic and instead of relyting on their newly acquired skills, they end up relying on their old ways of doing things. This often leads to failure which in turn usually leads to an even higher level of anxiety. Therefore, the teacher needs to create an environment in which everyone is learning at a comfortable pace, where they feel like they're moving along and learning material which will someday come into good use.
This ideal environment is ultimately the responsibility of the teacher and the factors that contribute to it include everything that has already been discussed previously in this paper: attitudes of the students, motivation, clear objectives, placement of students into different levels, pacing of material, testing procedures, and level of anxiety. It might seem that with all of the problems that have come up in past years in regards to these issues, a solution would be hard to come by. However, both Ausubel and Gagné believe very strongly in one thing that has been hinted at throughout this paper and that seems to be a possible answer to this sight-reading dilemma. Both of these men enthusiastically support the use of individualized instruction for most types of learning and I believe that for sight-reading instruction, this might just be the answer.
David Ausubel lays the cards on the table in regards to his support for teaching students more on a one-to-one basis in his book, saying that the "individualization of teaching must necessarily constitute one of the primary goals of instruction...Each child must be challenged at a level appropriate to his potentialities, and encouraged to learn at a commensurate pace." 14 Individualization has the capability to encourage intellectual curiosity and initiative, promote independence in original and in critical thinking, and stimulate the pupil's own desire and ability to learn on his own which is what every teacher should desire of his class. Gagné seconds these same ideas and expands upon them. In one of his chapters in Principles of Instructional Design, he includes a list of differences between individual and group instruction that sum up the principle very clearly. "In individualized instruction," he says:
- The teacher provides fewer of the instructional events.
- The materials provide more of the instructional events.
- Time is thus made free so that the teacher can do more personalized work with students in deciding what to learn and how to learn it. The teacher also monitors pupil progress more closely and does more diagnosis of difficulty and remedial teaching.
- There is more opportunity for variations among learners in what to learn, how to learn, and which materials to use for learning.
- Time to learn is allowed to vary among students. There is no need for all learners to work at the same pace. 15
This list reads like a wish list for any instructor whose desire is to encourage motivation and a thirst to learn new skills among his students. First of all, personalized instruction allows for realistic goals to be set for each learner based upon what the individual's background is and what his interests, career goals, and capabilities are. Material can also be personalized based on these same criteria so that someone who might not be as confidant or fluent at reading can sight-read Chopin Mazurkas, which are generally fairly easy, as opposed to reading a Beethoven Sonata. In terms of solving the anxiety problem, teaching individuals, or at least smaller groups, also provides the student and the teacher with privacy whenever difficulty is encountered. Instead of the teacher correcting an assignment or trying to help the student during class time in front of nine other students, they can take the time to work it out together, and questions that might seem embarrassing can be discussed, and frustrations can be shared, all in the privacy of a studio. Individualized instruction can also allow for students to move at their own pace thereby eliminating a lot of harmful anxiety which can end up sabotaging a student's progress. Instead of everyone being assigned the exact same exercises for the next week, assignments can be adjusted depending on the success or lack of success from the previous one. One score-reading exercise may require several weeks of practice for one person, while it may only take another just one week. The most important benefit that I see from teaching in this way is that by doing this, the teacher can provide the consistent feedback and help that is so necessary for teaching such complex and at times, frustrating, skills. In the past, when I had to listen to assignments during class time while the others were sight-reading duets, I only had an average of five minutes to listen to about ten to fifteen minutes worth of music. Not only did this mean I rushed through listening to students and ended up having to ignore errors, but it also meant that after a while, the students started to get very frustrated. Those that were putting in the required practice time felt like they were being cheated and they stopped taking the assignments all that seriously. After all, they figured, what was the chance that I was actually going to hear them play the assignment? This, of course, snowballed, and some of them, at the end of the first semester, did not do well at all on the exam. They hadn't practiced these new skills enough to make them their own. Under individualized instruction I would have made it a priority to listen to complete assignments and I would have also made it a priority to discuss any and all problem areas.
Even though Gagné and Ausubel both support individualized instruction, they do not deny the importance of group instruction, nor do they deny the fact that such instruction is not, in most cases, financially feasible. In terms of teaching in a classroom situation, they believe that students, in most classes, should have occasions in which they meet in groups. Class meetings and activities are very useful in gaining and refreshing a student's attention, in motivating, and in providing models of performance. Group teaching, in other words, should not be excluded all together from any curriculum. In summation, Gagné states:
In view of the grater capability of older students for self-instruction, if suitable resources can be provided, there is probably more reason now to employ individualized methods in college-level instruction than at any other level. Looking to future benefits in the long range, the earlier that students are taught to accomplish and practice independent learning the more successful will they become as mature learners. 16
In studying the theories of both David P. Ausubel and Robert Gagné I have become very convinced that the way that piano sight-reading is taught at Eastman needs to be changed. My goal for the class is not to have the become expert figured-bass readers or flawless score readers. I would be delighted instead to end up with a class of young pianists that knows what they are fully capable of musically, that realizes that there's more to being a musician than locking oneself up in a practice room and performing every so often, and that is fully capable of learning these special skills on their own before or when the need arises.
Starting in the fall of 1997, the sight-reading class will take on a whole new format. Classes will only meet as normal classes one week out of every month and these classes will not be divided into intermediate and advanced sections. For the remaining three weeks of each month I will meet privately with groups of either two or three students for one hour lessons, once a week. Even though this means that the time required of them in the classroom will be reduced, I will assign and expect more work from them in addition to not being as lenient with grades. In the lessons I will spend time listening carefully to assignments, giving productive criticism, and playing duets with individual students. Two text books will be used: Paul Hindemith's Elementary Training for Musicians and Morris and Ferguson's Preparatory Exercises in Score Reading. Each student will be expected to work through these books at their own pace, with the exception of occasional stated goals that I will give a couple of times per semester. They are to keep track of where they are in the book so that during class meetings I can look at their records and ask them to play any exercise from what they've already done for the entire class. Students will also be assigned several projects which will be largely self-motivated but intended to expose them even more to important repertoire. Tests will rarely, if at all, have any prepared material in them in order to adequately evaluate the student's progress and attitude. I also hope to bring in faculty members from the piano department or other well respected individuals into the classroom times in order to serve as an inspiration and model to the students.
Of course these are all just ideas which need to be tried, tested, and evaluated. But hopefully, with the help of Ausubel and Gagné , these incoming freshmen will start to see the class as an important one and one that is directly applicable to their lives.
"Anything worth knowing should be understood in a practical context." 17
1 It should be noted that upon auditioning incoming freshmen in the Fall of 1996, the level of sight-reading ability was so low clear across the board that the class was not, in fact, divided into intermediate and advanced. Both classes where considered intermediate.
2 Fowler, C., ed. The Crane Symposium: Toward an understanding of the teaching and learning of music performance. Potsdam: Potsdam College of the State University of New York, 1988.
3 Examples of such theorists are Robert Gordon, and Carl Emil Seashore.
4 Ausubel, David P. Educational Psychology, a Cognitive View. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1968.
5 This is not to say that Ausubel would never support the use of rote teaching. He supports the use of it depending on what is being learned. For instance, in music learning, especially the motor-skill aspect, some of the learning must involve rote and sheer repetition.
6 Although both Robert Gagné and Leslie Briggs wrote one of the main sources I used, Principles of Instructional Design, I will primarily refer to Gagné for the remainder of the paper.
7 Ausubel. p. 366.
9 Ericksen, S.C. The zigzag curve of learning, Instruction: some contemporary viewpoints, L. Siegel, Ed. San Francisco: Chandler, 1967, pp. 145-146.
10 Gagné, Robert M. and Leslie J. Briggs. Principles of Instructional Design. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1974, p. 22.
11 Ausubel, p. 376.
12 Ausubel, p. 158.
13 Gagné, p. 173.
14 Ausubel, p. 259.
15 Gagné, p. 186.
16 Ibid, p. 189.
17 Lehman, Paul R. "Curriculum & Program Evaluation," Richard Colwell, ed. Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning. New York: Schirmer Books, 1992.