I teach what I needed to learn

April 11th, 2015 by Ruth Bonetti

How would you make progress with this challenging student? Let’s call her Ruby.

She appears to have no natural rhythm at all and doesn’t register much difference between crotchets, quavers and semiquavers, but hopes that a clomping foot tap will keep her on track. Never mind that the foot slows when passages look black.

Intonation is a blur. Aural, harmony and theory? Blank looks.

What would you do with Ruby? Pass her to another teacher? Suggest ballet instead? Not so hasty. She may have hidden depths – or blocks. She is a slow developer.I know. I was like that.

My early piano lessons were from a governess who passed on her limited repertoire of Fairy Bells. If only subsequent teachers had taken me back to basics! My poor efforts to coordinate the piano’s two clefs and handfuls of notes going in different directions made me an unlikely future professional musician.

The odds were slim. I was reared in the Australian bush on hillbilly music. My first experience was of a jangly piano whose tone and tuning were crippled by searing heat, dust and mice nibbling its innards. Any concept of intonation was flummoxed for years later.

The ABC radio schools program changed my life. It demonstrated the wind instruments in turn: “This is the flute.” Tweet. Nah. The oboe: hmm, a bit dour. “Now the clarinet.” “I’ll play that,” I decided immediately because I loved the sound.

I didn’t know what the instrument looked like, let alone how to create that rich tone.. Not a single pip came out of that shiny contraption until I found a teacher a month later. Poor aptitude, one might think. Now I can tell new students struggling to break the pain threshold of producing a sound in the first lesson, “You’re ahead of me. I couldn’t make a single noise for a month.”

A good teacher inspired a warm resonant tone and expressive scope which compensated for a lack of rhythm and intonation.

When baffled,this shy bunny from the bush couldn’t possibly say, “Please explain.” When my theory teacher wrote llc-V-1 on manuscript paper, I was quietly but totally mystified . I don’t remember Mr. Teacher, a respected educator, demonstrating on the piano, but I was in a fog and too tongue-tied to ask for clarification.

Some of the students we consider to be slow may be painfully shy and thus inarticulate. Encourage them to open up with questions like “Do you follow?” or “Does that make sense?” Communication, maturity and experience may produce a totally different person. In hindsight, if I were to teach young Ruth, how would I improve on what well-meaning teachers meted me?

RHYTHM: Diagrams showing notes with ever more tails mean little to some. First step: all children understand money. Talk dollars divided into two fifty cent pieces (unfortunately the logic suffers in that this coin is bigger than both the dollar and two-dollar coins, but even a five-year old understands its value.) Dotted values represented as 75 cents or 25 cents make sense. Once the basic rhythmic values are clear, subdivide to the lowest common denominator.

AURAL AND INTONATION: Sing, sing, sing, especially solfa/ Kodály type systems.

THEORY AND HARMONY: Play chord progressions on the piano for an aural experience rather than academic.

Our own impatience at slow progress may send tortoise students scurrying back into their shells. With such handicaps, how did I struggle through to become a musician? It’s a long story, but my deficiencies along the way made me think “How would I teach myself?” and my teaching, books and in service workshops are informed by a lifelong process of solving my own inadequacies. I teach what I needed to learn.

Ruth is an M.Mus performance graduate from University of Queensland and an examiner for the AMEB. She was a faculty member of Griffith University, Queensland Conservatorium of Music for 15 years and has taught extensively in Australia, Britain, Germany, Sweden and France.

Ruth’s music and speaking career has taken her around Australia, Europe and the USA. She now travels extensively presenting workshops for schools, universities and businesses, developing confident presentation for those who perform via words or music.

She writes a complimentary bi-monthly E-Zine for teachers: Music Educators’ Energiser and the weekly MusoMotivator (nominal charge). Those interested to receive this can sign up at www.ruthbonetti.com or by emailing ruth@ruthbonetti.com