Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Edward Francis
e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noted 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. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler.
PEP: What made you go into music?
My earliest memories of desiring the ability to play the piano came when I was about five years old. We were living in Struthers, Ohio, and my cousin Gail Berardinelli, who lived in Gallitzin, Pennsylvania could play the piano. Whenever we would visit her family, I would always be fascinated by her ability. My mother took me to the nearby Catholic school, St. Nicholas, where the piano teacher in residence was a kind and knowledgeable nun. My mother was told that before any student could start lessons with Sister Joan, he must be able to read. She suggested that I would be more ready when I was seven. We did return at that "appropriate" age and for three years I got a solid foundation from her. I remember the recitals which took place in the downtown department store(where they actually sold pianos!) Years later, when I was planning on pursuing a D.M.A. at Indiana University and had scheduled an audition there, I combined the trip to include a pre-audition stop in Struthers so that I could visit relatives. The current school principal at St. Nicholas allowed me to practice in the studio where I once took my first lessons. That was a nostalgic moment for me.
PEP: Who was the most influential person in your years as a student?
This is going to be a long answer because it would be impossible to choose just one person. I feel that my teachers (well, most of them..at least the ones mentioned in this interview) were all influential. Of course, at first there was Sister Joan, as I have mentioned in the previous paragraph, then Mildred McGowen Ryan, who became my teacher when my family moved to Thousand Oaks, California. "Millie" was recently retired from the Los Angeles County School District, where she was the head of music curriculum. She was also originally from Ohio, and had moved to California where she eventually devoted her life to teaching music. If I remember correctly she was a faculty member at UCLA and USC and helped to develop the music curriculum at San Fernando Valley State College, which later became California State University, Northridge (my alma mater). Our initial meeting came under odd circumstances. She was recently widowed, and was recovering from some cardiac troubles. She had decided to retire and live in a new planned community next to Thousand Oaks called Westlake Village. While her house was being completed, she stayed at a local motel. Ironically, it was the same motel that my family was staying at, as our house was also under construction. We met her on the day she was moving into her new home. She clearly told my mother that she was not interested in teaching, but my mother pleaded successfully, and as soon as we moved and our piano came out of storage, I began lessons. She was also the first teacher to put me into evaluated performance situations. When I was in high school she took me to an "artist teacher," Peter Yazbeck, who lived in Santa Barbara but maintained a studio in Ventura as well. He offered me a scholarship and I studied with him my last two years of high school. I have always remembered his generosity and it has inspired me to offer occasional scholarships to students in my studio. He was the first teacher that I worked with that really knew the standard of international-level piano playing. He had given a New York recital, was friends with Glenn Gould, and had many prize-winning students. I was fortunate, and it was a very good two years. I was accepted into the piano performance program at California State University, Northridge, and was a scholarship student of Francoise Regnat. I spent six years, eventually earning my Masters degree with her, and it was both challenging and rewarding. The Polish pianist Jakob Gimpel was also a faculty member at CSUN. I was a participant in his weekly master class for six years. He was very kind to me. Shortly thereafter, I began private studies with Edward Auer, when he was a resident of the Hollywood Hills. That was also a tremendous experience. He was very generous and our lessons would go on for hours! I still see Peter and Francoise frequently. Peter and I have judged competitions together, and for the past two years, I have been invited to teach at CSUN, with Francoise, in their summer exchange program with the Superior Conservatory of Seoul, Korea. I also send students to the university on a regular basis in both their undergraduate and graduate program. Edward is now at Indiana University, and I correspond with him occasionally.
PEP: What do you enjoy the most about making and teaching music?
Let me write about making music first. I enjoy the social aspect of making music with my colleagues. I do mostly chamber music now. Recently I also started active duo and duet work. Last semester, I played Beethovens Fourth Concerto with the college orchestra where I teach applied piano, so the solo aspect is always an interest as well. I try to surround myself with fine musicians who are interesting people, too. The trio is the longest association I have had. We were originally flute, cello and piano, until our flutist, Donna Jerz moved to New Jersey. She is now in Houston, Texas and eventually I hope she finds her way back to southern California so we can add her to the mix. Our current wind member is Nancy Bonds, and excellent clarinetist. She has her D.M.A. from Arizona State, and we gave a clarinet/piano recital when she first moved to Thousand Oaks. The cellist, Stephen Custer is a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Because of their abilities, they keep me on edge, and I must admit that my practice sessions are more focused because they are such strong players. Besides, we all have our ideas on "how it should go." It is also a big boost to ones self-esteem to be able to walk out on stage and perform great literature credibly. My due/duet partner is Mona Wu DeCesare. She is on the faculty with me at both Oxnard and Moorpark Community Colleges and her daughter is a student of mine. We are enjoying our journey through the duo/duet repertoire. At the Beethoven concerto concert, my colleague from Pepperdine University, conductor Thomas Osborn proposed that we collaborate next year on a concerto, perhaps the Ravel G Major. Im a little worried that I wont have enough time to practice everything...after all I just stated that the big boost to ones self-esteem is giving a "credible" performance!
As for teaching...I love it. Nearly every aspect is delightful. The young students are really marvelous. Although I no longer normally accept beginning students, (I will take a beginner if their older sibling is already a student, and I have the time available), I do have some gifted young students between the ages of eight and ten. Most of my students are from seventh through twelfth grades. The students are bright, polite, respectful and they play well. Much of this is due to their remarkable parents, but Id like to think that I have something to do with their playing ability. This profession isnt easy, Ill admit. I get very tired, and spend most of my time thinking about suitable repertoire, ways of communicating instruction that would be meaningful to each individual student (because they are all different), and ways to inspire them to want to work to achieve the highest level possible. Sometimes the personal reward I feel is so grand, that I wonder if the feeling is too artificial, and therefore not based in reality. What other profession can one think of that allows the best possible educational ratio, 1:1, weekly, over a period of years that include the most formative time in the life of a person? We become a part of the students life. We experience everything with them, as well as their piano study. It is remarkable to be able to do this over and over, with different students.
PEP: Do you use any of the piano "methods" in your teaching? If so, why do you prefer that one over others.
When I taught many beginners, I used a variety of methods. The one I used the most was The Music Tree, by Frances Clark and Louise Goss. I havent used the revised version, although I have heard good things about it. The former has proven itself well in developing fine readers, so I suspect the revised version to be equally effective, if not more so. I have also had success with Lynn Freeman Olsons Music Pathways. Others that I have used are various methods published by Alfred (Palmer, Manus, Lethco), Kjos (Bastien--including material written by all four of the family members) and the new Hal Leonard books. I lead towards the interval approach to note reading, and creative repetition which reinforces newly introduced concepts. Honestly, I used so many supplemental books, that I cant say that I was loyal to one particular method, but we are also lucky that there are so many talented and creative people writing music these days.
PEP: What "deficiency" do you most often find in students of the piano?
I think that every teacher would find some different deficiency in every student they hear, no matter who they studied with. It is never so apparent than when a student goes off to audition at a college or university and the professors say "You don't know this?" or "Well work on your deficiencies when you begin your studies here!" We are all such creatures of acquired taste and expectancy. Im trying to be much more open about that, because I tend also to expect a particularly narrow pianistic way...my way. This is not practical and I constantly remind myself about that. If I were to choose some deficiency right this movement, Id say that the greatest deficiency is the inability to read adequately, which affects every other aspect of study: length of time it takes to learn a piece, academic thoroughness in learning a piece, impatience, frustration, physical tension and in some cases, these things can lead to the elimination of piano study.
PEP: What kinds of things would you tell students of the piano and their teacher to try to avoid?
One could go in many directions with this, but Ill choose something which is happening to me regularly. Comparison of one piano student to another, either within the studio or the geographical region. Perhaps it is completely idealistic to avoid all aspects of comparison, but I do think that it is unhealthy for a teacher or parent to pit student against student. We all must make our own path, and there can be many different avenues. Id avoid situations where it would be considered a failure not to "place or show" in a competitive situation. Perhaps many of the problems can be avoided if the teacher sets up the scenario, and he is clear about what is expected from his position. We can actually manipulate most situations into a positive educational experience. Id also avoid thrusting lofty and impractical goals onto a student. A better idea still would be to try to encourage a most practical goal, and achieve the highest degree of excellence along the way. I think parents have an important role here, and since it is likely uncharted territory for many of them, they could need careful guidance from us, or their reactions could be very detrimental to their childs musical development and self-esteem.
As teachers, we know that the better our students get, the more critical we become. Its a consequence of our art. For children, this could be very difficult to handle.
PEP: What advice would you give to students of the piano?
This very broad question could take pages to answer, but Ill say a few things that come to mind today: Approach the repertoire with respect and realize that performance does not have to be one way, the same way, every time. Id also tell them that while piano playing is an art of repetition, it cannot be mindless repetition. Since we practice a lot, I believe that the practice has to be creative and intelligent. As teachers we realize that different approaches must be tailored to various students. Find what works for you and use it, refine it, expand upon it. The standard of audience expectation has been set by the recorded disc. We pianists know that this standard is not really approachable on a consistent basis in live performance. Students must realize this, and not be devastated by a memory slip or a few wrong notes.
PEP: Reflect upon choosing music as a career.
Hmmmm... Certainly it can be done. Many of us are proof of that, but I think it is much more difficult than nearly any other profession I can think of. The romanticized career as a concert pianist is one that I had as a student. When reality came crashing down upon me, I knew I wasnt going to make enough to live on, even if I had enough dates to play on a concert calendar. But, I have always loved teaching and it was easy for me to go into that direction and, as I became more and more established, I started to perform more and more. I was also lucky to get a job at a local community college, which has been steady, if not totally secure employment. It is a nice supplement - more so intellectually than financially. So even though the majority of my income is from teaching and not performing, there is the expanding opportunity to perform and hopefully it will continue to augment my abilities as a teacher.
PEP: What advice would you give to teachers of piano or music generally?
Be supportive of one another because we represent a very, very small percentage of the population. In our very small circle, we may be well-known, but in the overall picture, we are nearly invisible. Persevere. Establishing a constituency for music study, concert attendance, or any other music related activity is a long process. Be like missionaries to the arts, because if we dont do it, nobody else will. Id also encourage a completely professional attitude towards the music teaching profession. This attitude can be communicated clearly through our words, actions, fee schedules, policies and protocols, just as it is in every other highly respected profession.
PEP: What kinds of things can a teacher do to maintain the interest of students, as they are bombarded with so many distractions?
I am in a fortunate situation, which had developed over the years. Most of my students are from home environments that distinguish themselves by their discipline and nurtured quest for excellence. It wouldnt be a stretch to say that most of the students are actually too driven. Let me elaborate. Since academics are generally THE focus in most students lives, the "A+" grade is the goal. Efforts, though they maybe well-conceived, which do not result in the coveted "A" are deemed a failure. This is generally both the students and the parents reaction. Sometimes this reaction is more one-sided, but I have found agreement between the two parties to be more common than disagreement. This is also a (natural) influence on piano studies. If the student isnt recognized as the "winner", one of the "winners", or given special honors in a competition or examination, the whole experience is likely deemed a failure. Nothing could be further from the truth! This last scenario is especially true of families new to serious music study. It takes thick skin, and the ability to see the overall picture (quite difficult when faced with fresh and disappointing results) to remain in a healthy frame-of-mind. I also feel that one will not be successful with a student, unless the parent has 100% confidence in your ability to teach piano. Perhaps Im being overly optimistic, since parents rarely trust your judgment 100%. Perhaps it is human nature, but I can count many times when Ive been burned by a family which has doubted my decisions or openly questioned my procedures. This latter statement belongs in the "worst teaching experiences" section of this interview! I seem to have veered off the subject. To maintain interest: choose appropriate and exciting literature, guide the learning process with practice procedures, give performance opportunities appropriate to the students level and practical expectations, retain a positive but challenging atmosphere during lessons, encourage independent thinking, be willing to change your usual procedure when a student acts or reacts in his own personal way (a way you didnt expect, perhaps) and show through your own example how much fun playing the piano can be.
PEP: Do you have a favorite pianist and if so, what attracts you to that persons performances?
Since my university days, one of my favorite pianists had been Maurizio Pollini. I have always admired his wide-ranging repertoire, his incredible technique and his intellect, which is evident in live performance as well as in recording. Many friends have commented that they find him less-than-warm in his playing and therefore they dont feel the he is "communicating" the music fully. I frequently tell them that they simply arent prepared to accept the playing at its lofty intellectual level. Also on my long list of favorites is Martha Argerich. I have heard her live and have practically every recording she has made that is available. Although I dont always agree with everything she does, I wish I could do what she does. She is spectacular. Emanuel Ax is another wonderful pianist. I have known him since the year after he won the Rubinstein Competition. He played a recital at the University of California Santa Barbara as part of his post-competition performance schedule. I count him as a friend, albeit we see each other only a couple of times a year (whenever he is in the area performing). I have always admired his sound, technique and fresh interpretations. He is sophisticated, thoughtful and a genuinely nice person. I think that this is obvious from the stage as well as in personal conversation. I feel like I cant leave out Andras Schiff, Kristof Zimerman, Helene Grimaud, Alicia De Laroccha...and surely Ill be upset with myself for not mentioning many other truly great pianists that I always enjoy hearing...Brendel, Uchida, Perahia, Hough, Goode, Nojima, Pletnev and the list could go on. They all do things that amaze and excite me. I have mentioned only currently touring artists, but I cant forget others that meant so much to me when I was younger: Rubinstein, Lipatti, Kapell, Horowitz, Ashkenazy, all who still inspire me when I hear their recordings today. There is a wealth of unbelievably good playing. I know that I have forgotten to mention others, but well move on...
PEP: What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in good music?
I serve on a committee for our local orchestra, the New West Symphony. It s called the "Educational Outreach Committee." We are pretty busy doing many things that have been successful. Firstly, many of us do have that missionary zeal for music. We make every effort to publicize the concerts to families through the local schools, newspapers and radio. Fortunately, serving on our board are two school district superintendents. They know that their music education departments are extremely limited, and being astute, they want the best for their students so they support the lines of communication through district approved fliers and other means. We have a music van which is borrowed form the Santa Barbara Symphony that goes to various schools. It was totally booked for the two weeks we had it last year, and this year it is scheduled to expand to an entire month. We also offer deeply discounted tickets to all events. Five bucks gets you into the hall, and for our Young Artist Concert, $25 gets a family of six in. Last years concert sold-out 1800 tickets one week before the concert. The symphony office sold $5 seats to the dress rehearsal, and about 200 people came, all through word-of-mouth, since the decision to open the rehearsal was made too late to advertise in the newspaper. As a result, were scheduling two concerts this year.
Also, programming specific concerts for children is important. The symphony did a one hour program for fourth graders last year. They called it, "A Day in the Life of Mozart." Three of my students played. An actor performed as Mozart, coming onto the stage and conversing with the conductor. It was all written in a clever way. One of the students played an excerpt of a Salieri Concerto, another played a shortened version of the "Twinkle Star" variations and another played the first movement of K. 488. Since the students were nine, ten and twelve, they were closely identified as peers by the young audience. It was a huge success. Four performances were scheduled, and it was impossible to accommodate all of the schools in our region. Next year the plan is to program "A Day in the Life of Beethoven."
PEP: We get many questions at The Piano Education Page from new teachers starting private teaching studios. What general tips do you have for new teachers?
I remember my teacher Peter Yazbeck telling me that it would take a good seven years to establish a private studio. Well, it took me a "good" ten years. I think every geographic location is different, so Id be leery of telling people to do it my way, but right after high school graduation, I took out an ad in the newspaper and got several calls. Mostly they were from people looking for a bargain teacher. I never advertised again. Instead, tell everybody you know that you are teaching piano. This includes your family and friends, their parents, your minister, your teachers, your doctor, your barber...everybody you know.
It seems that convenience is sought by all, so by driving to the homes of students you may quickly have more students than you can handle. It worked for me early on as I got a group of students from a nearby town interested in lessons. There were four kids in this group. With the parents help, I arranged a monthly rotation, where I would teach all four children at one home. It worked out very well. After about a year of that an with my home studio continuing to grow, I decided that it wasnt a good use of time to travel to homes, so I told them that I wouldnt be able to continue our arrangement. Luckily, they all decided that the fifteen minute drive to my house wasnt so bad after all.
Being in the public eye isnt a bad idea either, and since I was working towards my degrees I was performing a lot, and that was helpful. I joined the local Music Teachers Association as a student member, at a reduced rate, and converted to active membership once I graduated. They were a nice group of teachers, somewhat helpful, and they offered several recitals and competitive programs that I could enter my students in. I also regularly arranged student recitals in homes.
Dont forget to gradually raise your rates. I used a $1 or $2 method, each year or so. Some of my colleagues use the annual rate of inflation. I remember my largest raise that went from $20 to $25. An irate father, a successful professional in the health field, complained. His wife told me "by the time my children graduate from high school, we will have paid you blah-blah-blah dollars." I told her that her calculations werent going to hold true because there would be further rate increases, and it would eventually be much more (I was `young, not quite "seasoned" to comments like that, but I dont think Id say that today.) Basically, Im saying that I would raise rates regularly.
Present your students in recital, playing interesting literature, at a high level. All the teachers, parents and students attending will hear this. It can only help your cause. This is not to take students away from your colleagues, but it will enhance your reputation. People hearing your students will remember, and they may have friends who are looking for a teacher. Additionally, your colleagues, who are already established with full studios, need to refer to other teachers.
PEP: Generally speaking, do you find membership in music teacher organizations valuable? What could such organizations do to help teachers more? What should teachers themselves do to get the maximum benefit from such organizations?
I find membership to be enlightening and a matter of convenience. Our local MTAC (Music Teachers Association of California) arranges approximately eight public recitals that I can enter students in. They have syllabus examinations, monthly meetings where we can network, listen to guest clinicians and get to know our own members better. Dues are reasonable and I enjoy the yearly convention. The national MTNA is also a tremendous source for teachers. Attendance at their convention isnt as convenient for me, but I think their journal is excellent, and they are completely professional. Im proud to be a member. The MTNA state group, the California Association of Professional Music Teachers (CAPMT) has an excellent convention that has an international flair, and with excellent round table discussions and presentations, is also a yearly highlight. The organizations have been helpful to me, and therefore I feel compelled to volunteer in various capacities. Unfortunately, that isnt the case with all of the members. Member teachers must volunteer to do necessary work to keep the organizations running smoothly.
PEP: What are your views on competitions and what should teachers and students expect from that experience?
My views on competitions change from event to event. Im not immune to liking the ones that my students do well in and finding fault with the ones that they arent successful in! I should also point out that I am writing about local and regional events, not the international events that tend to attract pianists who have already devoted their lives to the instrument. Perhaps the greatest teaching-related element in any competition is the motivation factor. Doing well in a competition can spur on a student for months. He could have won, and wants to continue the trend, or he could have come close, or been aware that he wasnt so far off the winners plateau, and would like to be a contender the next time. He could also hear that he is out-of-his-league, and if he wants to be seriously considered, his work must become serious. I like the goal of a performance date. Nothing motivates me more than a concrete recital date. Also, I try to prepare students (more specifically their parents) for the competition, and explain the reasons for entry. I have also been known to tell a student that "We arent going into this thing for a judges comment that your tie is nice or your dress is pretty!" but that is purely my way of telling a student to get serious or, "Whats the point in playing?" Basically, I ask the students to do their best. None of us can guess the expectations and likes of the judges. We will never be able to foresee that and there will always be surprises. This is a life lesson, in music or any other discipline.
PEP: What were your best and worst teaching and performing experiences?
I am fortunate in that I forget the bad, miserable things, and can highlight the positive stuff that made me feel good. There is no "best"performing experience since I cant decide. I have enjoyed playing with several orchestras and with a couple of chamber ensembles to which I have been a member for extended periods of time. There were some poor experiences: one was at a music store that had a nice area for performances and a good instrument. They had a series of concerts on Sunday afternoon. I arrived to play my recital and only my parents and brother were in the audience! The store forgot to tell me that I had to all of the advertising. There was no built-in audience. We drove to the venue, waited about ten minutes past the hour, and I started to play. After the first movement of Beethoven Sonata, I decided the whole thing was ridiculous...my family could hear me play at home, so we left. I also played in Northern California shortly after finishing my Masters degree. A former teacher of mine (Mildred Ryan) had made the arrangements. It was a huge crowd, the venue was packed. It was an "off day" for me. I had to cancel lessons, fly up from Los Angeles, rent a car, and drive to Millies home, where I practiced. I cant even remember the piano. What I do remember most was the fact that even with the fee for the concert, I was going to lose a lot of money. I think that is when I realized that a concert career wasnt in the cards. It was a big program: Beethoven Op. 101, Schumann Fantasy Op. 17, Prokofieff Toccata and Chopin Ballade #4. It would be better to remember it as a wonderful opportunity, as it was, or that Millie was so pleased.
My best student memories are with their various performances, both solo and with orchestra. The most memorable was an encore recital that I had planned at a local university. After a full day of recitals given by my current students which included elementary school groups all the way through high school solo senior recitals, I invited seventeen of my former students to come and play a piece or two on an "Encore" recital. Fifteen of them accepted! It was wonderful. They flew in from all over the country. Afterward we had a reception at my place and it was terrific seeing all of the students and their parents once again. The worst teaching experiences, (note the plural) are all related to questionable ethics on the part of parents and fellow teachers. I want to keep this interview positive so I wont give specific examples, but we teachers can share many horror stories for sure.
PEP: What are your greatest joys and greatest frustrations teaching in a private piano studio?
I really like the private studio atmosphere. The freedom in scheduling is quite nice, too. We are bound only by our own personal commitments and financial responsibilities. On the other hand, I find that initially, clients dont take us as seriously as we would like. After all they are coming to our home studio, not our office in a professional business center. Although, we can rent commercial space if we want the complete separation of home and business, but I find that to be an unnecessary expense for my situation. That doesnt hold much water with me. Prospective families who want to study with me know from the initial interview that this is my profession and that I am very serious about it. The greatest joy is the constant reward that is received from the progress of the students. The year-after-year contact is incredibly effective and satisfying. After a certain period of time, it is natural to become more interested in the student and their family, and therefore involved. Ive gone to my share of Eagle Scout Honor Courts, graduations, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and the like. I realize that my place is the one of "piano teacher" but students do come to trust their teachers, and since were here for the long haul, we get involved in other aspects of their lives as well. I also enjoy staying in touch with the students after they go on to college and beyond.
When a student (or most likely a parent) decides to change teachers (for whatever reason), I take it personally. I dislike that most of all. It doesnt happen very often, but when it does I am bothered. Especially if it remains a mystery, and the party involved doesnt honestly tell you the reason. Some of my colleagues have such a healthy attitude in such cases. One told me "Well, I know I cant be the teacher for every student, and every student cant find me as the ideal teacher. " Im not able to adjust that easily.
PEP: What would you like to say to students, parents, and teachers of the piano?
Ive said enough, get to the piano and have a good time!
Mr. Francis will be happy to answer your questions by e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last updated: 01/30/15