Randall Faber Artist-Educator Interview, PianoEducation.org

The December 1999 Artist/Educator Interview

RANDALL SCOTT FABER: Pianist, Author and Piano Pedagogy Clinician

Randall Scott Faber enjoys a versatile career as piano soloist, chamber musician, accompanist, scholar, and author. He holds three degrees with high distinction from The University of Michigan with advanced degrees in both piano performance and educational psychology. Performance teachers have included Charles Fisher, Benning Dexter, and Russian pianist Nina Lelchuk. His chamber music studies were with Eugene Bossart.

Mr. Faber has been Artist-in-Residence at Bard College in New York State and guest faculty at the National Piano Teachers Institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He has recorded on Dovetree Records and has performed live on radio and television broadcasts. Randall also has served as member of the Research Advisory Group for the Leonard Bernstein Center for Education and the Arts.

Randall Faber and his wife Nancy have authored over a hundred publications for piano including the Piano Adventures method, the PreTime to BigTime Piano Supplementary Library, the Developing Artist sonatina and literature collections, and other editions of the piano repertoire. He is a sought-after clinician and has given workshops for piano teachers in over 70 cities throughout North America.

What made you go into music?
I was intrigued by the challenge. As a child, I loved being able to conquer piece after piece. In making a career decision, I chose music because it offers a lifetime of artistic and intellectual challenge.

Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano and why?
I had one teacher for the first ten years of study, which is quite atypical. Her name was Lucille Dinsmore. Though I didnât recognize it in my youth, I owe much of my motivation and discipline to her influence. Musically, the artistic and aesthetic sensitivities of Charles Fisher and Eugene Bossart at The University of Michigan School of Music transformed my playing.

What do you enjoy most about making and teaching music?
I am in love with sound in relation to the feel of the keyboard. I become absorbed with the subtleties of musical color and nuance. The most satisfying part of teaching is helping the student to perceive and to communicate these expressive possibilities.

What criteria and processes should students and teachers use in choosing a piano “method” for the student?
The goal is a good fit between the needs and attributes of the student and the characteristics of the method. Much has been said about a magic triangle consisting of student, parent, and teacher. One could argue a case, however, for the important triangle of student, teacher and method! After all, the student is there to learn music, so the music being played is of tremendous importance. Here are a few tips:

  • For young students (ages 5-11), look at the “tone” of the method. Is it playful or too serious? Does it promote happy pianists or dull lessons? Young students are motivated by exploration, adventure, fantasy, and discovery.
  • Older students (ages 12 and up) can handle a more serious tone. The older student must feel rewarded by the accomplishment, so be careful about a method that moves too fast. The student is likely to attribute any snag to a lag of personal ability, when it may just be a problem in the teaching material. The key is sophistication of material; not rate of advancement.
  • Let the student participate in the choice. The student feels more ownership and connection with a book when he/she is involved in the decision. This is especially true of supplementary books. The choice between 2 or 3 teacher-selected books can help ensure a “right fit.”
  • The music should be “pianistic.” It should elicit graceful motions that lead to musical shape. If the hands are always fixed, bad technical habits and unmusical playing will follow.
  • Some teachers use the method that they had as a child. The logic employed is that “it worked for me.” This is not a valid criterion. Be bold. A lot has changed. Take advantage of the progress in the field of piano teaching.

As a co-author of the “Faber and Faber” piano method, what motivated you to write these books? Why did you feel that another piano method was desirable?
The dropout rate for second and third years of piano study was untenable, even embarrassing for our profession. Students were attracted to the music of their peers, but did not relate to pieces in the prevailing methods. Nancy and I, together with our publisher, addressed this problem by writing the PreTime to BigTime Piano Library, which offers students fun, recognizable pieces at the appropriate level of difficulty. Meanwhile, we continued to test the pieces in Piano Adventures for broad student appeal. While the issues of motivation were paramount, we were also concerned that many piano students failed to become confident readers. We wanted students to have the theory skills and creative opportunities of a multi-key approach, but without compromising reading skill. The available methods typically espoused a single approach to reading. We took a composite approach to ensure multiple skills were brought to bear on the reading process.

What are the trade-offs for students who choose to teach themselves?
In many ways, all students are self-taught in that real progress at the piano comes during the practice session, through the studentâs perception and reflection. On the other hand, it would be cavalier and perhaps a bit foolish not to avail oneself of anotherâs experience and expertise. It is inefficient to learn solely on oneâs own. As an adolescent, I was a self-taught pop musician. If I had found a teacher of this style, I would have saved hundreds of hours of rather useless repetition. To exemplify how one can “dead-end” on oneâs own, Iâll share a story from my experience. At age fifteen I attempted to read several college music theory texts in order to improve my pop playing. You can imagine my frustration in trying to apply the rules of 18th century counterpoint to the pop styles of the 1960s and 70s! A teacher can prevent this sort of confusion and quickly move one out of a rut.

What deficiency in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano? How can this best be remedied?
A most common problem is the tense or locked wrist. A pianist must use the wrist to shape the musical phrase. Technical gesture for the purpose of musical expression is good policy and good prevention.

What kinds of things would you tell students of the piano and their teachers to try to avoid?
Avoid practicing on an out-of-tune piano. This is just as important for the beginning student. Avoid tackling major pieces from the repertoire too soon. Stretch the runway a bit for technical development, musical maturing, and for continued reading skill.

What advice would you give to students of the piano?
Learn your music theory well and work to understand its application in the pieces you play.

What advice would you give to teachers of piano or music generally?
Put the student first. Build competence and self esteem; not competence at the expense of self-esteem. We donât know what role music will play in the studentâs life. Letâs not assume professional goals, and yet, letâs not rule out the possibility.

What additional advice would you give to those teachers and educators who would like to get their own teaching materials and methods published?
Test your material in your own studio. If it doesnât work with your own students, no publisher will want it. If your students love the material and it fills a need, it deserves to be published.

How should teachers who have developed and tested their own teaching materials proceed in order to get those materials published?
1. Find out about the various music publishers by browsing the racks at your local music store. Which publishing company publishes the type of material you are writing? Make a list of several in order of your preference.
2. Call the publishing company at the top of your list to find the name of the keyboard editor and the submission procedure.
3. Write a letter to the editor describing your publication and asking permission to send it for his/her review. Now your work will stand out from the many unsolicited manuscripts that editors wade through. Also, you won’t waste your time on a company that isn’t currently accepting manuscripts of your type.
4. Send your work to the editor. Always include a typed cover letter with your address and phone clearly noted.
5. Next, be patient. Realize that the editor has many high priorities. You may be one of them in the future, but not quite yet.
6. If you are rejected, take any feedback given and then, without emotion, move to the next publisher on your list. Don’t be discouraged. I dare say ALL successful composers, authors, songwriters, etc. have experienced rejection letters. (A publisher can have works slated for years in advance of release, so a rejection may simply mean there is no room in the publisher’s agenda.) Be persistent; but also be willing to adapt to a publisher’s needs.

Can you give us your reflections upon music as a career?
American society places too much importance on the word professional and an unfortunate connotation for the word amateur. A professional practices art for money; the amateur out of love (amour). Isnât the latter more admirable? Letâs learn to respect the amateur. However, if you are really good and you cannot live without making music, then consider becoming a professional musician. This was the advice composer Ross Lee Finney gave Nancy.

How would you define a “successful” musician or music educator and what does it take to get there?
A successful musician is one who can play the style of music he or she desires, and can do so for the enjoyment of others. A successful music educator is one who helps another get there. Once this basic success is achieved, new goals are always set regardless of oneâs level of advancement.

What are your views on competitions and what should teachers and students expect from that experience?
We live in a world of competition÷competition for ideas, customers, and attention. It is no wonder that the arts are also highly competitive. Nonetheless, I personally feel competitions are over-emphasized. They certainly have motivational value for some students. Unfortunately, they are motivational primarily for the winners. That leaves a majority feeling left behind or left out. We have to keep in mind that students differ in personality. Some thrive in a competitive arena; others abhor even the concept. I had a very talented student quit lessons when I recommended that she compete. She didnât want to “beat” anyone. Another student with exceptional pianistic skill could never take a prize because he was always entering high-profile competitions. The competitions demoralized him and he stopped working hard. For those who wish to compete, an appropriate and well-timed competition can provide an incentive for hard work, acknowledgement for achievement, and a selection process for an arena that offers little job opportunity.

What were your best and worst teaching experiences?
I treasure a beautifully played moment in the cadenza of Beethovenâs 1st Piano Concerto, when the student performer completely captured the essence and pacing of a soft transitional passage. When the student replicated it in competition and then on stage, I felt fully rewarded. My worst teaching experience was hearing the mayorâs daughter tell me in her lesson that I didnât have to be mean just because she was slow. That was a turning point for me in understanding the purpose of the piano lesson, and the importance of the teacher-student interaction.

What were your best and worst performing experiences?
I once played a recital in which I felt I had transcended time during a Mozart Sonata. It was as if I could slow or speed time itself, thus allowing complete control of every articulated passage. It was a unique metaphysical and artistic experience that I only had once. My worst performing experience was getting caught in a memory loop in the final movement of the Chopin B Minor Sonata. The fourth movement has a relentless, perpetual-motion character. It was terrifying to be falling into literal perpetual motion. I was slightly comforted to learn years later that the esteemed pianist and teacher Adele Marcus suffered the same experience with the same piece.

What kinds of things can the teacher do to maintain the interest of children in piano in the face of all the distractions modern society provides?
I think we will see a large-scale surge of interest in acoustic musical instruments in the next few decades as a retreat from ever-present technology. Teachers can share with students their enthusiasm for the enveloping sound of vibrating strings. By providing a quality grand piano at the lesson, the teacher draws the student toward such appreciation. My hometown of Grand Rapids has a wonderful old performance hall with Steinway grand pianos in the ballrooms and auditorium. The opportunity to play frequently on these beautiful instruments in these grand halls had a strong influence on me in my formative years. A student needs to experience the sense of power, control of sound, and beauty that the piano possesses. My advice to teachers is to build strong local music organizations and take your students to piano concerts and recitals. Also, use any student interest in popular music to increase motivation to play. Most students will want to move into more complex music as their skill develops.

Do you have a favorite pianist and, if so, what attracts you to that personâs performances?
I like different pianists for different repertoire. I appreciate Paul Badura Skoda and Andreas Schiff for Bach because of their clarity of line and reserved interpretations. Mitsuko Akidaâs Mozart is magical with her subtle treatment of the small phrases. Murray Perahia plays Schubert with such clarity of tone that one senses perfection. I like the emotional temperament of Ashkenazy on Beethoven over the oft-favored intellectual interpretations. On the other hand, I prefer Pollini on Chopin to the early 20th century romantic stylists like Artur Rubenstein. That, of course, is just personal taste, and many may disagree.

What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in good music??
We need to give more live performances that children can easily attend. Bringing students to live classical performances is crucial. The concert hall experience produces an emotional response that a recording alone cannot. I am moved when young students visit backstage after a recital with a glow of enthusiasm on their face.

What general tips do you have for new teachers starting private teaching studios?
Teach 45-minute lessons instead of 30-minute lessons. Youâll get better results and you will need the time to do a good job. Donât push to produce music majors and donât treat your students as if all will become music majors. Respect the uniqueness of the individualâs life, interests, and abilities. Work hard to build the individualâs competence, and do so without comparisons. Your music majors will emerge, but more importantly, hundreds of your students will be enriched by music and the learning skills that develop.

What are your greatest joys and greatest frustrations teaching in a private piano studio?
I always love seeing the studentâs joy in receiving a new book and moving to the next level. The greatest frustration is the difficulty of maintaining enthusiasm when facing long hours of teaching.

Do you find membership in music teacher organizations valuable? What could such organizations do to help teachers more??
Studio teaching is a lonely activity. Teacher organizations can be a big help in providing a social forum with peers. I feel it is important that membership not be exclusionary. Teachers who have not had opportunity for advanced training should be welcomed and mentored by those more experienced. If you are, nonetheless, faced with an exclusionary situation, ask for provisional membership and work steadily at a program of continued education. Never be intimidated. Regardless of training level, you are likely to have unique qualities in your teaching that are critical for the success of certain students. Use the organizational contacts to pass along students that need a more advanced teacher. Ask for and accept referrals for those students who need your unique teaching style.

What would you personally like to say to students, parents, and teachers of the piano?
The benefits of piano lessons extend well beyond the skills of piano playing. The student learns discipline, learning strategies, aesthetic perception, coordination, patience, perseverance, and an array of other intangible benefits. These positive attributes come not all at once, but over the years and years of consistent lessons in a supportive environment. The teacher should focus on nurturing a love of music, the student on building a disciplined routine, and the parent on providing a foundation of long-term commitment.