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This & That [American Music Teacher, The]

October 1, 2013


How do you incorporate music history in the private lesson? With the importance of teaching our students appropriate performance practices for each musical time period, it is essential to find creative ways to give historical information in our lessons. Below, five experienced teachers explore the topic of engaging students with music history.

-Marianne Bryan, NCTM, a private teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a member of the AMT Editorial Committee and holds a DMA in collaborative piano.

Weaving music history into each student's private lesson is essential to achieving my goal of developing the whole musician. My own music studies felt compartmentalized, so I continually strive to find ways for my students to get the big picture. To introduce the great composers to elementary students, I use The World's Great Classical Composers Fandex, which includes pictures of 47 composers along with a brief biography. Young students are very intrigued with facts about composers; for example, Bach bore 20 children (though only 10 survived past infancy), Mozart was a child prodigy, Beethoven went deaf in later years, Haydn was nicknamed "papa Haydn" and lived a long, happy life.

To supplement lessons, students receive their own copy of the Piano Explorer magazine. Every month features a different composer. There are fun activities, jokes and quizzes, as well as a listening corner (links for listening are found online at I assign all activities and listening to be completed during the month. Students eagerly anticipate next season's composer schedule, which will be a tour through the style periods beginning with Handel in September and ending with Gershwin in the summer.

Each assigned piece provides an opportunity for a music history moment. During the preview, we discuss the title and what it means, as well as the style period in which it was written. I stress the importance and genius of the great composers and how their history is entertaining and interesting-worthy of our respect and admiration!

Note: The World's Great Classical Composers (Fandex Family Field Guide) by David Bouchier (1999) can be found at The Piano Explorer can be ordered from

-Suzanne Greer, a Minnesota State Certified Teacher of Music, holds BM and MM degrees in piano performance and maintains a successful private studio of both traditional

and Suzuki piano students.

My immediate reaction, when asked to write about incorporating music history in lessons, was: "I really should do more of that." But if, instead of using the words "teaching history," we use the words "tell stories about the composers," then I teach history at almost every lesson! Understanding the circumstances of a composition is often the key to interpreting the piece. For example, "Docto Gradus ad Parnassum" from Children's Corner paints a picture of Debussy's daughter practicing her Clementi technical exercises at the piano. Halfway through the piece, she starts to daydream. But then she remembers she still must finish her exercises. We hear her practicing faster and faster. With the last chord of the piece, she triumphantly slams down the lid of the piano and runs away. Debussy complained to his daughter's piano teacher: "For two years now Chouchou has made no noticeable progress.... She should be in the hands of someone stricter.... Your future does not lie wholly within the confines of the teaching profession, at least for your sake I hope not."1 Try to imagine the frustration of the father, the daughter and the teacher, all trapped in an unproductive practicing nightmare. Even if telling interesting gossipy stories might not be what purists think of as teaching music history, it certainly makes the piece more accessible to everyone. Teaching bare facts (for example, "Debussy was born in 1862 and died in 1918") does nothing but bore the student. Tell tales instead, and bring the music to life!

-Peter Mack, NCTM, is in great demand as a performer, clinician, convention artist, adjudicator and teacher. His students are frequent competition winners. He is professor of piano performance at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.

"Incorporate" is definitely key when introducing music history into the music lesson because in uniting historical information with repertoire, my goal is to enhance a deeper more meaningful performance and ultimately a greater appreciation for all genres of music.

I start by asking questions, "Who is the composer?" and "What is the title of your piece?" followed by "What is the meaning of your title?" These questions open discussion about when the composer lived and what style period affected compositional choices. As the repertoire advances and students mature, I encourage them to begin questioning other historical elements that may have influenced the composer's voice such as, "What were the practices of other art forms?", "How did politics affect the composer's career?" and "What sounds were heard in nature or cosmopolitan environments?" Students thus shape a context for the main style periods, the major composers in each, and the corresponding performance practices.

I also tell stories. Learning CPE Bach called his father "the old wig," knowing Liszt was a heartthrob like Justin Bieber (or whomever) and discovering the story of Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament help students relate to these famous figures of the past as real people. Familiarity with topics of 18th-century life helps students make sense of motivic ideas in the generic, sonata/sonatina. Finally, getting students off the bench to try the steps of a baroque dance help them understand rhythm and tempo.

Presenting these historical circumstances as indistinguishable from performance brings the music alive.

-Susan Munson, a Minnesota State Certified Teacher of Music, holds BS and MM degrees in piano performance and pedagogy and successfully maintains High C piano studio with locations in St. Paul and NE Minneapolis.

"Music history" is one avenue for exploring music's human context, its composition, its performance, and its relation to activities, feelings and inventions.

For me, "music history" begins with a simple awareness that composers are (or were) living, breathing human beings who live somewhere, laugh and cry, know other people, have a family, travel and want to "say something" with music. For students doing RCM Music Development Program assessments at any level, it's a natural to start building a framework of music style periods and composers early. In this program, students play a representative variety of musical styles-selecting from lists organized primarily by chronology.

I also make a point of keeping myself up to date with the music history assessments offered as co-requisites for the upper levels of the MDP. Long before considering any formal assessment, the published resources (a three-volume set called Explorations, by Janet Lopinski, Joe Ringhofer and Peteris Zarins) provide me with vocabulary, activities and frameworks for exploring, organizing and thinking/talking about styles and specific works, engaging with plenty of chamber, large-ensemble, and vocal and dramatic works. This is essential for an informed interpretation of most piano works.

The web is a great tool for exploring what surrounds a piece or its composer historically and culturally. Web searches, performed together or assigned, sometimes yield stories that enhance the connection between piece and student. Taking advantage of local resources (like the fabulous Schubert Club museum in St. Paul, Minnesota) or experts can also make the past real, relevant and interesting to 21 st-century students.

-Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Andrew Hisey, NCTM, is an active teacher and pianist, and is a recognized leader in the field of piano pedagogy.

The key to incorporating history in the private lesson is helping students discover a personal connection either to the piece they are playing or to the composer who wrote that piece.

In her book Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought) Kathleen Krull explores famous musicians exposing their lives, personality quirks, strange obsessions...dozens of facts that help students appreciate musical history. For example, Beethoven was a complete slob, Chopin hated large public performances and Clara Schumann didn't speak normally until she was 8 years old. Facts like these resonate with our students and foster curiosity.

The Internet is an incredible resource for providing pictures of composers. Discuss why everyone seemed to wear wigs until the late 1700s. When did actual photos replace portraits, and why? Use pictures of a harpsichord to explain dynamic range or why pedal isn't present in the works of Scarlatti. Have students submit information to post on a timeline in your studio that connects the musical time periods with major historical events, inventions, geographic and scientific discoveries, works of art and literature. Include your students' birthdates!

Please don't forget about our living history-have students research living composers: Jennifer Linn, Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee, Christopher Norton, yes, even Adele. Biographies are easy to access and the stories behind their music are just an e-mail away. We can even chat with composers on Facebook. Every connection makes the music come alive and just might increase desire, student motivation and practice time!

-Sue Ruby, NCTM, holds BM and MM degrees in piano pedagogy and is on the faculty at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she maintains a large studio teaching students of all ages and abilities.


1. As quoted in Debussy Letters, selected and edited by Francois Lesure and Roger Nichols. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.

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