Pedagogy Ponderings Question of the Week: "I’m curious to know what you do during an interview process."
Answered by: Kathleen Theisen, NCTM, Past-President, CT State MTA; Independent Piano & Voice Teacher, Darien, CT; Minister of Music, Darien UMC; Music Teacher/Choral Director, Darien Public Schools.
To know what I do during the interview itself, you'll need to know what I do BEFORE the interview! When I first get an email or phone call from a prospective new client, I take down all pertinent info - names of the student(s), age(s), approximate years of study, what music they are currently playing, what books they own, name(s) of previous teacher(s), reason for changing teacher (if a transfer), goals, other instruments played/studied.
My initial interview is set up as a lesson, but is usually shorter than a regular lesson. I leave time to answer questions from the student and parents after I work with the student for a little while. I normally work with each student 30-45 minutes during this interview. I often start out by asking the student to play something that he/she loves to play. This is often something he/she performed on a recital with the previous teacher, or could even be a theme song to a video game that he/she learned on his or her own! While the student is playing this piece, I can informally assess sense of timing, sense of geography of the piano (can they get around easily), sense of posture and ease at the instrument, use of arm weight, turning of the hand, proper finger positioning on the keys, etc. I also get a very good idea about musicality by the phrasing, expressiveness, etc., in the student's playing of the piece that they 'love the most.' Sometimes, I make a few comments about the piece, or work briefly on one or two big ideas within that piece. With an early intermediate student, I might work on phrasing of a melody or balance between the hands.
Then I usually go on to some melodic 'playbacks' using either a major five-note scale, a 5-note Dorian scale or a blues scale. I play a one or two-measure ‘riff’ and the student copies me exactly. I start off with very easy patterns and progress toward harder patterns to see the student’s ‘feel’ for ‘time,’ as well as his/her ability to hear or watch a melody and then play it back. I usually play on my own piano and he/she copies me at the other piano. Then, I let the student improvise a few 'choruses' in a blues or a bossa nova pattern while I accompany them from the 2nd piano. The bossa nova pattern in D Dorian allows them to play in straight 8th notes throughout their improvisation and the Blues shows me if they can feel 'swung 8ths.’ While playing this bit of improvisation, I get a good sense of the student's natural ability to think outside the box, their creativity, their willingness to take risks, and so much more. When they are copying me, I can also see quickly how good they are at timing, fingering, pitch and much more.
What we do after these two activities varies from student to student. Sometimes, I will have a student work on some rhythms with me. For example, we will do some sight-reading of just rhythms, or I will have them speak, tap or clap various patterns by rote or note. I often have my students ‘patch’ a beat on their lap while speaking rhythms out loud as they keep that steady beat. Some transfer students are able to do this easily. They are usually the students who have a very good innate sense of rhythm (and would likely be the kids who would score high on a test like Edwin Gordon’s PMMA.) Some of the APPs I use: RhythmLab, SmartMusic, RhythmCat
Sometimes, I have students sight-read melodies in an app like Smart Music, SightReadPlus or PianoMaestro. At other times, I use sight-reading books like those by Faber&Faber or Olson&Marlais. I immediately sense if the students are reading line-to-space or if they are reading 'note names,' a common habit in transfer students (especially those who play a single-line instrument like violin or flute in addition to piano) that needs to be broken quickly! We read music by pattern, not by note name (though note names need to be learned, as well, but in thick texture, no pianist is reading every note name. We look and see PATTERNS.) I often have students play a simple melody and say things like 'up a step, down a step, or simply, UP/DOWN.'
I usually try to teach a few pieces to the student while they are here, as well. These are very short, quick, easy pieces, just to see how they practice and go through various processes of learning. Sometimes, these are rote pieces (especially with younger kids). I will even use a piece like EBENEEZER SNEEZER (by Lynn Freeman Olson) with the kids under 7 to see how well they can play repeated notes, use their arm to bounce, and how well they can copy me. With slightly older students, I often teach some of the easier pieces from Catherine Rollin's PATHWAYS TO ARTISTRY, BOOK 1 (Repertoire Book). A piece like TIC TOC MUSETTE is easily taught by rote (especially since I have added words to it that include each student's name!) but can also be used to assess a student's level of reading skill. Another great piece for the interview is LORD BLOOMFIELD'S TRILLING MARCH. I like this one because the LH is primarily DO and SOL and I can have the kids play the bass line and sing the solfege, even if they've never done solfege. This allows me to assess sense of pitch, as well! DRUM DANCE is great too, even if we only work on the melody. The syncopation in measure 5 shows me if students are able to play short - LONG - short rhythms easily, with and without out-loud counting.
I leave the end of the ‘interview lesson' for questions from the student and parents, and use this time (if I haven't already done this) to ask the students if they can commit to daily practice. My general rule is: 'only practice on the days you eat.' That basically means every single day! We also discuss use of any technology that can be utilized at home, the use of the assignment binder, purchasing of music (I do not photocopy things unless it’s public domain or unless I composed it!), and any other studio policies that need clarification.
In general, if a student is coming for an interview, they have already seen my website. They usually are referred by another student or by a local piano technician, so they already know about my teaching. Some even come to studio recitals to 'check out' my students' playing before they come for the interview. (I recently took on 2 new students where I exchanged emails with the parents, then had a phone interview with both parents on a conference call, then they all came to my June studio recital, then they came for the initial interview. They already knew a LOT about my studio even before we worked together, and after about 6 lessons, they are doing very well and have settled into my studio routine.)
Remember also that an interview is a two-way process. It’s the student’s chance to see if he/she wants to work with YOU and it’s your chance to see if you feel the student is a good fit for YOUR studio. If either side of that equation has qualms about the match, it’s best to refer the family to a colleague. A successful interview will give you a great deal of information about the student and the family. You will likely be able to come up with a plan for this student after that initial meeting, and then within a lesson or two beyond that, you will likely be able to confirm your original thoughts about which path to take with that particular student.
Best wishes in your upcoming interviews!