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Upcoming Performances

November 4, 2018
4:00 pm Central

Hymn festival, Church of the Holy Comforter, Charlotte, N.C.

November 18, 2018
4:00 pm Central

Guest recitalist, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Columbus, Miss.

December 4, 2018
8:00 pm Eastern

Organist, Appalachian Chorale, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

February 12, 2019
8:00 pm Eastern

Organ-plus-one concert with ASU faculty, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

April 28, 2019
3:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Kingsport, Tenn.

May 5, 2019
Guest recitalist, St. Paul's Cathedral, Des Moines, Iowa

June 21-26, 2020
Worship Organist, Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, Lake Junaluska, N.C.

Main | No more pencils, no more books »
Wednesday
Jul252018

Thoughts on organ pedagogy

Here are some scattered excerpts from my in-house textbook for my organ lit class:

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Many organ teachers don’t bother with a method. They skip over the how-to-play stage with students and go right into music, where they depend on the real-world issues of the music to help the student develop technique. I have always felt that is a lazy and irresponsible way to teach a student. I still think that, but given that I have only four years to “transform” a student from freshman into organist, I am often put in the position of doing things the same way. I used to take lots of time to get a student’s technique just so, and then let them dive into music. Nowadays, I pile on the repertoire like other teachers do, using the usual formula of two pieces per lesson credit hour. It is what it is. A good solution I have come up with, though, is to teach freshmen twice per week for the first semester or two.

As Clyde Holloway said to me many times, "Good teaching renders the teacher gradually dispensable." Just as I was trained, I’m training my students what to do with any given piece in an established style, how to fend for themselves more and more as time goes by. Any student still needing the teacher to attend to every detail of, say, the senior recital is either not paying attention or has been taught to depend on the teacher too much. I am trying to make them conversant in many styles, so that they can go and do likewise, going into all the world to play well and correctly.

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So what makes a teacher great? I suppose if you could answer that, then you could answer what makes the world go ’round. Academia likes to think it can identify and reward good teachers, but it really can’t. We have our tenure and promotion systems, and we have teaching awards. But ultimately, there is no accreditation agency that stamps a teacher as good, great, or otherwise. There are only the students to demonstrate success and tell their stories. If that is so, then Russell Saunders, Robert Glasgow, Alexander McCurdy, and David Craighead must have been legendarily wonderful teachers in their day. And that must mean that modern hotshots like Ken Cowan, David Higgs, and Christopher Young are nearly legendary today.

I’d call my teacher Clyde Holloway legendary because he took me step by step toward a near-flawless technique and a fully flawless practice ethic. And he did it without cutting corners or making assumptions. I’d call my other teacher Max Smith equally legendary because he was always there for his students. I have my teaching job because Max Smith advocated for me. I know how to do that job because of Clyde Holloway’s pedagogy. Therefore, based on my own experiences, I consider the two greatest qualities in a teacher: 1) being there for the students, and 2) teaching by example and not just by lecture.

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I have met a lot of teachers and have heard them play, but I have no idea how effective they are as teachers. Only their students know that, and the market can only infer teacher effectiveness based on student success or where the teacher teaches, neither of which is a completely accurate measurement.

The history of organ pedagogy is usually told anecdotally, rather than scholarly. (Someone ought to write a book.) I offer quotes and tell my stories about Max Smith and Clyde Holloway. They in turn told me stories about their teachers Mildred Andrews, Carl Weinrich, Robert Baker, and Catharine Crozier. And my students are already telling stories about me. Many people I talk to at AGO conventions mention a teacher or a mentor, and we all either have a good laugh at the story, or we all pause in honor or in memory of our great teachers.

The most colorful stories I have heard tend to be from students of Russell Saunders and David Craighead. I also hear reverent, worshipful stories of Alexander McCurdy, Arthur Poister, Robert Anderson, Robert Glasgow, and Mildred Andrews. Nowadays, Christopher Young, Marilyn Keiser, Janette Fishell, David Higgs, and Marilyn Mason are the subjects of fond narratives. It’s easy to talk about a teacher from whom you have learned. Indeed we are defined by those with whom we studied. Thank goodness for that – otherwise, we wouldn’t know much about our pedigrees in this business.

But all one usually hears are anecdotes, which are usually about something funny or dirty the teacher said, rather than about his/her teaching. One evening, following a long period of cackling hysterically with a friend over Saunders and Holloway stories, I planted my tongue in my cheek and asked, "Did Saunders ever teach, or did he just say dirty things all the time?" For the first time all night, my friend actually began to stutter and hem and haw. He was looking for a way to describe Saunders' teaching. All of us might have the same trouble categorizing our teachers, after all the pithy or off-color sayings are laid out on the table.

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Caution: Studying with someone – anyone – does not guarantee success. I have heard miserable performances by people who studied with one of the greats, and I have seen people continue to capitalize on the fact that they studied with a great teacher 30, 40, 50 years ago. But when I hear them play, I shudder on behalf of that poor, dead teacher. That’s just how it is sometimes.

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Never say ‘pedagogy’ or ‘pedagogue’ to anyone unless they’re a teacher. Non-teachers will hear the word ‘pedophile,’ and chaos ensues. It has happened to me.

 

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