Clavier Companion - May/June 2017 - 78
Questions and Answers
Q: I've read that Frances Clark often
used classics, literature, and social
sciences that don't seem related
to piano teaching in her pedagogy
classes. Would you comment on this
and, if possible, give some examples?
A: This is true and it's something about which I
could write many articles or perhaps even a book
Frances was a well-educated human being.
She remained intensely curious about everything
throughout her long life. Though she was very
accomplished in music, a major in music was
unavailable where she attended college so she
majored in English, French, and philosophy. She
read broadly and deeply, probing the classics from
the Greeks right on up to the most current research
literature. Into her pedagogy classroom, she brought
a living awareness of the spectrum of great ideas,
not only in teaching, but in all aspects of human
intellectual activity. Those of us who were fortunate
enough to study under Frances came to realize that
music education held its own place in the continuum
of great ideas and that piano pedagogy could be an
important and intellectually rigorous discipline.
Her pedagogy classes were indeed often based on
readings from Socrates, Plato, Quintillian, Comenius, or
others. We took practical and timeless lessons from the
world's greatest philosophers on education and used
them to improve our teaching that very day. We also
read nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers on
education such as John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead,
Jerome Bruner, B.F. Skinner, and others I would love to
share with readers. But, today we'll focus on a single
essay in a slender, easy-to-read volume by the turnof-the-twentieth-century psychologist, William James.
The others will have to wait another day.
The volume is Talks to Teachers on Psychology:
and to students on some of Life's Ideals,* and
the specific piece is "The Laws of Habit." Born in
1842, the brother of novelist Henry James studied
medicine and eventually gravitated to psychology
and philosophy. He was appointed to the faculty
at Harvard in 1872 and held a position there until
his retirement in 1907. He delivered a series of
talks to the public school teachers of Cambridge,
Massachusetts in 1892. Rereading them today, we
sense a Victorian quaintness, but also find ourselves
in the presence of authority with great clarity-both
intellectual and moral. In an era that has become
grounded on the transitory-on entertainment
instead of art, on immediate gratification, and on
self-fulfillment at any cost, I find both a ring of truth
and some comfort in James's simple principles. It's
also fascinating how much in alignment James's
precepts are with The Power of Habit, a 2012
bestseller by Charles Duhigg (Random House) that
has the benefit of another century of psychological
science behind it.
There's no substitute for reading James's original
text, and I recommend that all serious teachers read
this entire book. But I directly quote below five "laws"
of habit. There hasn't been a day in my career as a
teacher in which I haven't used one or more of these
principles. Because music-making is a complex set of
psycho-motor habits, whether one is setting out to
build technique, learn to shape a beautiful phrase, or
master an individual piece, James's laws of habit are
as relevant today as they were a century ago.
* In the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off
of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves
with as strong and decided an initiative as possible.
Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall
reinforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously
in conditions that encourage the new way.
* Never suffer an exception to occur till the new
habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like
the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully
winding up: a single slip undoes more than a great
many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is
the great means of making the nervous system act
* Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on
every resolution you make and on every emotional
prompting you may experience in the direction of the
habits your aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of
their forming, but in the moment of their producing
motor effects, that resolves and aspirations
communicate the new 'set' to the brain.
* Don't preach too much to your pupils or abound
in good talk in the abstract. Lie in wait rather for the
practical opportunities, be prompt to seize those as
they pass, and thus at one operation get your pupils
both to think, to feel, and to do.
* Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little
gratuitous exercise every day.
* Originally published as Talks to Teachers on Psychology; and to
students on some of Life's Ideals. New York: H. Holt, 1899. It has been
re-published by multiple publishers and is widely available.