Artist/Educator Archive Interview
Dr. James Lyke
The April 2004 Artist/Educator
The Piano Education Page regularly features the personal experiences and insights of a noteworthy artist/educator on various aspects of piano performance and education. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you’ll find hypertext links to the interviewee’s e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you’re interested.

Dr. Lyke is interviewed for The Piano Education Page by Sarah Steigerwald

Do you remember your first teacher and when you first started to play the piano?

I actually started later, as children go. I would say I was probably around 10 or so. There was a home down the street that had a player piano, and I used to become fascinated with watching those keys go down and the sound of the piano was always magical to me. I would watch those keys go down and then I would imitate some of that, then finally I could play some of these things. These people brought my parents over to their house and said, “listen to this”, and I was playing. So that’s when I started lessons, and I do remember loving lessons. I had this teacher and I remember I used to exasperate her! This was in the 1940’s, the days of the most wonderful popular music that was ever written. The time of Porter, Berlin, Gershwin and so on, and I think the first time I heard a Porter song I almost fainted it was so wonderful! I would get the sheet music to tunes like Night and Day and I would beg my teacher, “I want to learn this, will you help me learn this?”

Who is your favorite composer from that time?

Of those composers, it would be hard to single them out, but lets face it, its American classical music; OUR classical music. I love Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, and Harold Arlen.

Do you have a favorite classical composer?

I’m very fond of Chopin, Debussy, and Ravel. I love the impressionists. I adore Bach. I think Bach is magnificent, and he never bores you. Of the Classical composers, I’m very taken with Haydn for some reason and I’ve always loved working on his music. I just like the joy in his music and his motivic skill. That’s not to say that I don’t like Mozart or Beethoven, but there’s something that’s very attractive to me about Haydn.

Tell me about your first teaching position.

I taught a couple of years in Alaska, where I was in the Army, in order to save money for grad school, because I wanted to go to Teachers College, Columbia University.

Was this a public school?

Yes, and I was teaching everything! Kindergarten through the 8th grade: Vocal music, instrumental, everything, and also putting on programs. This was at an Army post, and I was moving 200 kids around the stage for different programs. I also played piano in dance bands at the Officers Club.

And after that you moved to New York?

Yes, and then I went to Teachers College in 1958 and saw this whole idea of group piano. I thought, “Working with 4 or 6 kids in a group, after what I experienced in Alaska? AH! I can do THAT; This is what I want to do.” I took all of Robert Pace’s pedagogy classes. He had all kinds of group piano courses, but of course his raison d’etre was teaching in groups and implementing the psychology of how students are stimulated to learn, and have fun in a group rather than taking lessons in isolation. When I came to Teachers College, I thought that I was going to be a choral conductor, but I knew right then, when I saw what he was doing, that “this is what I want to do”. I’ve never regretted it. Not once.

How did you get your start at The University of Illinois?

It’s an unbelievable story. I was 26 years old, just fresh out of a masters program, and I was hired because I was at the right place at the right time, and it was the right area. Group Piano was Hot.

For those readers who may not be familiar with the “group piano” concept, could you briefly tell us the motivations behind group piano and its advantages and disadvantages (if any) as you see them over conventional private teaching, both from the standpoint of the student and of the teacher?

Group lessons in piano is an absolutely wonderful way to learn. All of us in the profession owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Robert Pace, formerly of Teachers College, Columbia University, for refining this method of teaching. His courses and workshops over a 40 plus year period revolutionized piano teaching in the U.S. (and abroad). I was lucky enough to study with him in 1958-1959 and then went straight to the University of Illinois to teach class piano to music majors (instrumental and vocal majors). Those were the days of several upright pianos in in a room. Now, of course, those classrooms are equipped with digital keyboards and a teachers piano capable of instructing the students on headsets, playing accompaniments, using a visualizer to explain harmonies, and incorporating the computer in various ways. These college classes range from 8 to 12 students in number (some schools have larger classes, though I think the effectiveness diminishes with numbers beyond 8 or 10 students. I’ve seen all the changes that have come along over my career. It’s been fascinating. I also operated a home studio where I taught children in small groups (4). Those were the days when parents brought children to lessons twice a week--one for repertoire and technical study and the other for musicianship training--sight reading, transposing, harmony work (including harmonizing melodies), sight reading in teams, transposition study, improvisation, notation practice and so on.

Advantages of Teaching in Groups: The teacher is forced to plan a broad curriculum and relate the study of repertoire and technique to keyboard theory studies. The musicianship activities can often be based on games and children love this aspect of learning. A teacher with a good understanding of the group process plans interesting lessons and shows the students effective ways to practice. Students show each other “what works.”

A group teacher understands how to use the elements of competition in a healthy way, use peer interaction in positive ways and assist students in thoughtful criticism when they play for each other. A good group teacher learns how to be a facilitator--avoiding “teaching by telling.” A good group teacher never misses the opportunity to apply music theory learning to the repertoire being studied. Sight reading in groups works very well. This activity is a must at every lesson. There can be no stopping (as often happens in a private lesson). Practicing technical studies (scales, etudes etc.) can be fun and stimulating. Ensemble playing is a natural in the group. This repertoire is as important as solo repertoire. Students learn to be sensitive to one another, balance parts, and offer ensemble works in recital situations. Students in group lessons are constantly playing for others. This helps overcome stage fright. The good group teacher establishes a healthy climate for learning, one free of threat. The teacher (and the students) solve musical problems together. Critical listening skills are developed by the students who listen to each other play and off suggestions for improvement.

Disadvantages: I don’t find any for the piano studio situation. One needs a good pool of students to group properly. Differing abilities are normal. Students who are not skillful readers, for example, will be motivated to improve when mixed with good readers. Some teachers combine a private lesson with a group lesson (to cover the musicianship activities such as sight reading, harmony etc.

How did the Piano Pedagogy degree come about?

In about 1980 I could see the real need to have a separate Piano Pedagogy degree program apart from the applied degree. It was difficult at first, but I wanted a piano pedagogy degree, and I wanted students coming into that degree that could really play well! So I worked it out with the applied faculty that those students entering the pedagogy degree would come in and have the same level of entrance as an applied majors, play the same recital as an applied student, and I think the applied piano faculty became much more accepting of that. So the next big project was designing this degree, creating the courses, and providing the students with student teaching experiences. I felt very good that students finishing the MM in piano pedagogy were really well trained. You’ve got to have intensive training, there’s nothing that can replace that. You’ve got to have really solid piano pedagogy courses, student teaching, and a solid relationship with teachers who mentor you along the way.

Since you have discussed cogently the reasons for a piano pedagogy degree, do you believe that either the ability to play the piano alone or the ability to teach alone are, by themselves, adequate to qualify one as a piano teacher? What can teachers do to fill in gaps in either area so as to make themselves better teachers?

I do not believe the ability to play well qualifies one as a piano teacher. For me, the best piano teacher is one who plays well AND has had good pedagogy training. Getting this training is easy given the number of off campus piano pedagogy courses, workshops, belonging to organizations such as The Music Teachers National Association (with its yearly meetings), state teacher organizations, local associations. and The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy which meets near Chicago biannually.

Tell me how you became involved in composing and publishing.

Early on in my career there was this local publisher in the university town of Champaign, Illinois, Stipes Publishing Company. An editor called to inquire, “I have a piano book that I need somebody to review before I publish it. Would you review it?” And I said, “Sure, I’d be glad to.” It was a class piano book, and so I wrote all my comments down and the editor called me up after he received them and he said, “I liked your comments better than the book!” So anyway, that’s how I started with them and it’s been a marvelous association. In 1969, the first edition of Keyboard Musicianship came out and I’m happy to say it’s still out there, and it’s now in its 8th edition. There are two texts for music majors who are required to take two years of basic piano. I’ve also arranged duets and two-piano pieces for Warner Brothers Publishers, Alfred Publishing Company, and Lee Roberts Publications.

Do you find writing for students or teaching to them more satisfying?

I find writing for students (texts, arrangements etc.) very exciting. But no more than teaching. They both have fulfilled creative needs for me.

So what have you been working on lately? Have you been practicing?

Practicing? Well, I haven’t been practicing a lot because I’ve really been working on this revision of Keyboard Musicianship lately, and my eyes are tired because I’ve been proofing. This is the second-year text and it has much new material: sight-reading, traditional harmony and jazz harmony, accompaniments, chord patterns, and technical work that correlates with the pieces. It’s a unified program. Everything relates to everything else; chord patterns relate to harmonization, new harmony is found in the repertoire, new elements appear in sight reading and so on.

Do you ever remember a really funny moment teaching a student?

Oh, kids are funny. I remember one time I was teaching a kid, a really bright boy, and he started becoming really sassy with me. I don’t think he had prepared well. I just marched him upstairs and said, “You just sit there”. His parents came, and BOY were they were horrified! Especially since they were both teachers. I got an apology from him and things straightened out, pronto!

Are you in touch with former students?

Oh yes, the most marvelous thing about being a teacher is staying in touch with students, and I’m in touch with a lot of graduates from the program at The University of Illinois. I see them at MTNA conventions and hear from them during the holiday season.

Do you see the field of piano pedagogy changing?

Generally speaking, there’s been enormous progress in the last 30 years. Whenever I hear about a keyboard program in a public school, I think, “that’s just great.” I think it’s a very important thing and I’m all for it. It’s the most wonderful way to learn music because you engage the senses of sight, touch, and sound. You’ve got everything!

Are you teaching now?

No, I’m not…Ask me if I miss it.

Do you miss it?

You know, I did it for 42 years and I’m enjoying a new life now. I could do it tomorrow, I would know exactly what to do, and how to do it, and that kind of thing, but I’m interested in other things now. I’m studying French for one thing. I really want to master that language. Last year I took a keyboarding class and learned how to type for the first time in my life. And I’ve signed up for a class in French history. And of course, I adore living in Manhattan with all its cultural and intellectual treasures.

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