Remembering Nan Beth Walton

Reflections On
Teaching Piano Partners

By Nan Beth Walton



...Any class or group is a multi-level class!

As someone who has been teaching using the Robert Pace Music for Piano materials since the late 1970’s, and as one who has had partner groups every year, I have had my share of partners who had varying skills.

As someone who has also taught in public and private schools, I have learned that any class or group is a multi-level class, despite our best efforts to create somewhat homogeneous groups.

Along the way, I have learned the great benefits of partner groups, when the individuals may not be similar in the skills they bring to their study. In the partner setting, each student can actually learn a great deal more about what he or she brings to the table as they pursue their piano study, whether their skills are similar or not.

For instance, I have frequently had a partner group when the dominant learning styles varied vastly. I seem to nearly always have a partner with one strong visual learner and one strong aural learner. In some years, this contrast has been especially dramatic. These have generally turned out to be some of my best partner groups. Or, you might have one partner who practices either more frequently or more skillfully than the other partner. You might have one partner who has greater coordination than the other partner. You might have one partner who can sit and stay focused for a much longer time than the other.

I generally have a pretty good idea about how prepared my students are likely to be when they enter the room for each lesson, based on history. So, I am able to set up the progression of how we encounter the music of the lesson in a way that will help both members of the partner group be successful. We always begin with technique, scales, chord progressions, diatonic triads (after the beginning of Level II). This helps us set out with a strong sense of rhythm and a steady tempo well in our ears. For the more coordination challenged, that student may only play with one hand at a time while the partner plays with both hands. Chanting the rhythmic patterns used in our technique before we even begin to play the exercise helps the less aurally skilled student to set the beat and rhythmic patterns in their ears, and they are consequently more successful. Playing together is initially a challenge for both partners, but it brings great rewards in terms of both their skills as ensemble players and the steadiness of their rhythm as they play their solos.

If I have a partner who is especially kinetic, we might next do a bit of board work, based either on what they have just done (writing a chord progression that we have played, writing and labeling diatonic triads or writing the scale and scale fingerings), or we might take melodic and/or harmonic dictation on the Music for Piano page that was studied during the week, or a bit from one of the partner’s solos. We would then go back and work with our Music for Piano pages. We generally take time to review the main concepts, and sometimes use this piece for the basis of a question and answer exercise, particularly if there is some tricky coordination involved. If we don’t need to be “on the move” that quickly, we would probably remain at the piano through the Music for the Piano pages.

As the students play the piece assigned from Music for Piano, we tackle any items that need attention. We might begin with both partners playing together. If there are areas of struggle, one partner will clap and chant the rhythm while the other plays. I might ask one partner to play the right hand and the other to play the left hand, and then switch. If one partner is doing quite well and the other is struggling, I will play with the struggling partner on his/her part. The partners take turns playing the piece alone, as the listening partner assesses the performance for dynamics, steady tempo, accuracy of pitches and rhythm, etc. We will often discuss each performance briefly, usually beginning with what the person playing thought they could do a better job with, and the listening partner would chime in with additional “recommendations”. If I create a good atmosphere of commenting on student performances, I find that my students mimic that a bit, congratulating one another on their improvement and achievements. And I have found that they can witness the details of the music even better when someone else is playing.

I find that despite the differences between the two members of a partner group (or occasionally, a group of three, or triad group), they tend to well support one another in their learning and inspire one another to keep on moving. I have yet to run into a partner group where either member seems to plateau. Sometimes their practice is uneven, but I find that generally, when one partner has not practiced well during a particular week, having experienced how well her/his partner did with more practice is enough to inspire a better preparation for the following week.

Improvisation activities are MUCH more fun in a partner situation than in a private lesson. There are so many more musical ideas floating around the room, and I notice that my students really grow in their ability to listen to what their partner has done in creating their improvisation and will incorporate the new sounds and ideas into what they can do in their next turn at improvisation.

The off bench activities we pursue, such as melodic and rhythmic dictation, writing key signatures, identifying repetitions, sequences, inversions, chord tones and passing and neighboring tones, writing and playing intervals and chords, using flash cards, are all much more energized in a partner setting. While there might be some gained focused time on repertoire in a private lesson, my private students are never as successful in improvisation, theory and creativity as those who are partnered. I have found more success in developing the whole musician in partner settings than in my private teaching, despite my best efforts.

A very special quality of partners is that they often continue their studies for a much longer time. I have had several partner groups that stayed in lessons through the end of their senior year in high school, and often were quite excited to either put together some sort of senior recital, or at least a special performance of some kind at their last studio recital. Many are friends for life!

So, if you worry about being able to hold together a partner group that has some variance in skills or learning styles, I would give it a try. I think you will be quite pleasantly surprised!—Nan Beth Walton (June 30, 2012)


Nan Beth Walton's gifts as a teacher and musician and the kindness and generosity she brought to so many around her will long be remembered.