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Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Dr. Robert Pace




e regularly feature 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. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler.



The August 2004 artist/educator:

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Dr. Robert Pace, Piano Educator, Author, Chatham, NY USA

Robert Pace, born in Kansas, began his formal piano studies at the age of six.  By eight, he and his sister, 3 1/2 years his elder, were giving recitals. Later, the two young artists had their own weekly radio program.  Robert won his first state contest at twelve continuing as state winner for the next four years.  At fifteen, he won first rating in National Competition and continued successfully for the next three years. 

He met the famous piano team, Josef and Rosina Lhevinne, in Denver Colorado and was accepted as a scholarship student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.  During World War II he served for nearly three years in the combat infantry in Europe.  After the war, he returned to Juilliard to finish his degree and also become a member of their piano faculty.  In 1948, he began Masters Degree studies at Teachers College, Columbia University and received his Doctorate in 1951.  He was appointed Assistant Professor of Music Education and head of Piano Instruction at Teachers College in 1952, and later became chairman of the Music Department in 1969. 

During these years, Dr. Robert Pace--composer, concert pianist, lecturer, and music educator--brought new concepts to piano pedagogy.  His desire to enable all students to achieve their musical potential by becoming musically literate and independent had a major impact on keyboard pedagogy, being the subject of numerous radio and television programs.  His piano instruction books have been translated into seven languages.   

Dr. Pace was Piano Editor of The Music Journal, National Piano Chairman of the Music Educators National Conference, and Educational Director of the National Piano Foundation until 1977, at which time he became Executive Director of the International Piano Teaching Foundation.  He served on the original four-member committee appointed by President John F. Kennedy to make a study of music in the United States.  

Robert Pace always displayed unusually diverse personal and professional interest ranging from classroom music projects to concert performances and active farming to worldwide seminars.  To expedite his travel to and from seminars throughout this country he earned his pilots license with both instrument and multi-engine ratings.   With his wife Helen (also a Juilliard graduate) the two participated in a variety of professional activities ranging from joint concerts to the creation and preparation of new keyboard materials.  Although he is officially Professor Emeritus at Teachers College, he continues in an advisory capacity with doctoral students and to offer special courses in Keyboard Pedagogy.

How did you find your way into music?

To answer the question, "how did I find my way into music," I can't actually remember when I wasn't "in music."  My earliest recollections were my enjoyment in going to a beautiful and very ornate Story and Clark pump organ in my Grandmother and Grandfather's living room.  (I still have it today!)  I remember that, as a three year old, I would pull out the various stops and be fascinated by the different sounds that I could get.  In a corner of the same room was a "state-of-the-art," wind-up Victrola, complete with numerous records of the best voices in opera and a variety of both Sousa marches and the "pop songs" of the day. Also, I recall my mother's playing piano solos on our very large upright.  Although her major instrument was clarinet, as a self-taught pianist, she managed to play a fairly wide variety of keyboard repertoire.  Perhaps my main enjoyment was "helping" her by crawling under the piano and holding the sustaining pedal down to hear the big build-up of sound.  

Piano lessons began for me at age six when my sister, who was three and a half years older than I, started her violin lessons.  I was soon drafted to play her accompaniments and by the time I was nine, we had our own radio program, consisting of both violin and piano solo repertoire!  

Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano and why?

It would be impossible to say who was "the most influential," since there were several people at different stages in my life who were very important in my development, both as an individual and as a pianist.  One such person was the piano teacher I had from the time I was ten years old through high school and accepted into Juilliard to study with Josef and Rosina Lhevinne.   He guided me through these times when I was firmly convinced that I wanted to be a professional baseball player, or thought that playing basketball, hunting, and fishing were all more important than practicing the piano.  

There were other teachers along the way who influenced my decision to pursue music professionally and helped me achieve the ultimate goal of studying with Josef and Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School of Music.   Since both of the Lhevinne's loved to teach, they definitely influenced my decision to combine teaching with performing as a career.  The concept of teaching a partner lesson (2 students) plus a larger group actually grew out of my experiences both in Rosina's weekly master class and my regular lesson where another student was frequently asked to play the second part of a new concerto.  During my masters and doctoral study at Teachers College, Columbia University, Raymond Burrows, my program advisor helped me appreciate the effectiveness of group teaching as a vehicle for enabling us to cover more material in a given amount of time.  His guidance during my doctoral study and the ultimate appointment as an Instructor in the Music Department were key factors in my music development.  

What do you enjoy most about teaching music and helping those who teach music?

My biggest enjoyment is being able to help people grow musically and professionally.  Our only limitation on this growth is "time."  Music is a unique non-verbal means of expression and communication, and when deeply experienced brings unparalleled satisfaction.

As an author of the "Pace method" books, how did you become interested in publishing teaching materials?

I became interested in the publication of teaching materials in the early 50's when I found myself spending too much time bringing together different materials for the lessons I was about to give.  I was spending more time searching for materials than I was on my own professional development.  I found lots of materials that were excellent as such, but really didn't fit together into a good learning sequence.   I wanted to establish my own "laboratory piano studio" where I could develop and test materials that would become the essential elements of a well-balanced program of keyboard instruction.  

What do you see as the "philosophy" behind the Pace books? What distinguishes them from other method materials?

Today there are many piano methods on the market, each with its own rationale for why it is superior to the others.  Realistically, no approach is any better than the understanding and sensitivity of the teacher using it.  The "philosophy" of the Pace Approach is to develop, from the beginning, a real musical independence, based on understanding what you are learning, and being able to think musically.  Above all, rote memory, and learning without understanding what you are doing should be avoided.  To develop independence, students must become acquainted with music fundamentals, rudiments, harmony, ear-training, etc.  from the very very beginning, since these are the "foundation" of musical understanding.  Students in the Pace Approach learn to teach themselves, since, in reality they must be their own teachers 6/7ths of the time during their practice between lessons.  The ability to sight-read at the level of the repertoire being studied and being able to improvise and create one's own music are both essential skills.  To accomplish this, the Pace Method stresses being able to play in any key with a good and responsive technique which will enable the learner to get the right note at the right time with the right intensity.  Students must never practice pieces in a repetitive, mechanical way--rather they must play musically even as they sight-read the piece. The goal is to play both accurately, and musically from the beginning, albeit under tempo.   

In short, the multi-key approach with the integration of music fundamentals at every level are two distinguishing features of the Pace Approach.

What special advice would you give to other teachers who might wish to use your teaching aids or materials?

My special advice to teachers interested in these materials would be to read the various monographs and reprints of articles I have done in recent years, plus examine carefully the basic books from preschool through level five to understand "spiral learning" and the process of sequential development.

Piano is taught somewhat differently around the world. What do you find most attractive about the way piano is taught outside the U.S.?

I have given seminars and lectured in many countries around the world, and I truthfully cannot say that I find any single factor "most attractive" in the way piano is taught outside the USA.  I do admire the seriousness with which some music programs in other countries are approached, but sometimes this can be self defeating by giving some people the feeling that music is only for the few "talented."  

Are there any special aspects of training in the U.S. that you feel teachers around the world could usefully apply in their own teaching?

I feel that teachers in some other countries should allow their students more freedom in their learning processes, and encourage more input from students rather than simply expecting students to accept the teacher's views as irrefutable.  This is particularly true in developing skills for musical interpretation in contrast with imitation of the performance of another person.  Often there are several different ways to phrase a passage of music or to conceive the overall feeling of a particular composition.  Obviously some ways will be better than others, but students should be allowed to explore their options in order to develop a broader musical understanding.  Also, I feel that teachers in other countries should use more peer interaction in lessons so that students teach each other as they learn how to teach themselves.  

More and more adults are taking up piano. Is there a significant difference in your mind in the way adults should be taught vs. teaching children?

There are differences, but none are really "significant" since both adults and children need to acquire fundamental musical knowledge to become good sight-readers and independent "problem-solvers."  At the same time, they both need to develop their psycho-motor skills to play musically and to create their own music.  Adults can handle more complex concepts, but children tend to be less inhibited and more willing to try new things.  I have found group instruction to be the best way to teach both adults and children the most in a given period of time.  

You are one of the best-known proponents of group teaching. What do you see as the advantages of group teaching, for the teacher and the student? Any disadvantages or pratfalls to avoid?  

The advantages are many of which the following are good illustrations:
1.  Music fundamentals (rudiments, harmony, ear-training, etc.) are basics to be taught to all.  In groups, the teacher can present a point one time to 8 students instead of eight times to 1 student as in private lessons.  
2.  Through peer interaction in groups, teachers get feed-back on what students are actually comprehending as preparation for home practice the other 6 days.  The emphasis is on helping students improve their own learning "processes," not merely turning out "products."
3.  Students grow by helping each other as they all learn how to make direct, positive, and thoughtful criticism.  
4.  Students come in contact with more music literature in group instruction, and have greater incentive to be well prepared.  Peer approval as a member of a group is powerful incentive to "keep going" and not dropout.     

The biggest disadvantage of grouping teaching is that it involves more work on the teacher's part, such as solving scheduling problems in face of complex after-school conflicts and adequate lesson planning to achieve reasonable long-term goals.  

If scheduling difficulties preclude regular group teaching for some students, how can teachers build some of the advantages of group teaching into private instruction?

The main problem with the private lesson paradigm is "lack of time." Basic harmony, improvisation, ear-training, and sight-reading are courses traditionally called "fundamentals of music," that are taught at the college level in classes as required subjects. My point is that if they are "fundamental," they should be taught to all beginners and not delayed to the college level for the few people who have survived music instruction without these subjects. Therefore, the answer to your question would be if you can't get students together in a group, then your only alternative is to extend the length of the lesson. Unfortunately, that is usually not feasible either schedule-wise or economically.

Is there any special advice you would give a teacher considering using group teaching?

Yes!  Recruit from 4 to 8 students with no previous music study who are approximately the same age (can have a couple of years spread).  Each will have a "partner" lesson and a larger "group"  (can be 4 to 8 students."  Both sessions can be the same day if necessary and can over-lap each other.  By teaching students with no prior instruction, the teacher new to group teaching will not be dealing with preconceived notions about the structure of a piano lesson.   

Are there any aspects of piano teaching that you would like to see changed for the better?

There are several things that could and should be changed immediately.  First of all, avoid rote learning (something that is learned without meaning or understanding) like the plague!!!  This type of instruction eventually produces frustrated drop-outs.  Also, teachers should place more emphasis on developing musical literacy and musical creativity,  rather than the emphasis today on memorizing pieces for a recital or a contest (again, too often learned "by rote").  After 2 or 3 years of this type of lessons, students find their practice sessions boring and not enjoyable.  Eventually they become musical drop-outs to join the ranks of the millions who have the misguided notion that they were simply "not musical."

You have emphasized the importance of being able to improvise and create one's own music. How can teachers structure lessons to foster improvisation and composition?

First of all, students will need harmony, ear-training, and a knowledge of music rudiments to do any meaningful improvisation or composition , all of which are traditionally taught in groups. During the group session, teachers allot from 5 to 10 minutes to review the necessary harmony, procedures for improvisation, and to let students demonstrate that they knowhow to do it. Then they move on to the next part of the lesson.

What advice would you give to students of the piano?

Concentrate when you practice and think about what you are doing.
Develop good sight-reading and improvisation skills with the technique to get the desired results quickly.  
Be sure you understand the musical structures you are studying and see how much you can remember without actually playing it on the keyboard.  See how soon you can get the piece to sound the way you really want it to sound.
Explore music of all periods, including today's "pop" music.  

How much practice is the right amount? Is it possible to practice too much or not enough? Any tips for students about their practice sessions?

These are always problems of concern for both teachers and parents and I did an article, "Productive Practicing" for Clavier Magazine, July/Aug 1992, which attempted to give some detailed answers. However, to address your questions, it would be impossible to specify the "right amount" of practice time, since it depends on the expertise of the individual, the material
being studied, and the ultimate musical objectives of the person doing the practice. However, it is obvious that 20 minutes of complete concentration on the music being studied can be highly beneficial, while an hour of daydreaming during practice is worthless. Unfortunately, most people do not concentrate deeply enough when they practice.

If a student is learning a piece by rote repetition, it is easy to practice too much for the amount of good one will derive at his or her efforts. I always tell students to see how quickly "you can get inside the music, so the music can get inside you." Give the music to be learned more thought and less repetition, which will result in shorter practice time before results are seen. Unfortunately, a great deal of the practice done everyday by students is "incorrect," since they too often set their fingers in motion before they have identified the musical problem and have figured out how to correct it.

What suggestions would you have for parents of a piano student or prospective student?

Keep in mind the uniqueness of music--it is the only subject in the curriculum for which everyone is genetically "wired," therefore its study should be considered "basic," not as an "enrichment" or elective.  Music study is a wonderful way to develop the ability to think creatively and critically, as we learn how to "think in motion" and attend to several things simultaneously.   Don't prejudge whether you child will be a vocational or avocational musician--that will evolve over time.  The main objective is to enable everyone to develop their reading and creative skills so that music can be a natural and integral part of their lives.  

What does it take to be a "successful" musician or music educator?

If I could give a quick answer to that question, I would be the happiest person alive, since I see too many well-trained, aspiring young artists not making it professionally.  Although I don't know of any sure-fire solution, here are several points to consider:
1.  Try to conceive your future in music as sharing your performances with others, not just in terms of  "concert performances," but also in terms of "teaching performances." Teachers should be sensitive performers and performers  should be teachers able to share their expertise with those in the earlier stages of music learning.  
2.  Diversity in musical background is particularly desirable for keyboard majors planning a teaching career at the college level.  In addition to teaching piano, other subjects such as Keyboard Harmony, Music History, Musical Analysis, Music Literature,and Ensemble are important adjuncts.  
3.  Get a good academic background with courses in the humanities, psychology, philosophy, and any other courses to give breadth of knowledge.  

What were your best and worst teaching experiences?

I truthfully can't think of a "worst experience," and I have taught students ranging from ghetto kids to some of the brightest and most gifted.  I feel that teaching is an art in which I have had the good fortune participating for many years.  There have been far too many "best experiences" to try to mention here.  

What advice would you give to the student contemplating a music major in college?

I would refer students to the points I listed in the previous question on being a successful musician or music educator.  

Do you have a favorite pianist and, if so, what attracts you to that person's performances?

Not really.  There are any number of young pianists with amazing techniques and extensive repertoire.  I always enjoy most those who pay special attention to phrasing, range of dynamics and flowing melodic lines.  

What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in good music?

This is an extremely important question which defies a quick, easy answer.  Since the advent of "Rock" 50 years ago, our so-called "pop" or "Youth music" has become simpler in terms of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic structures, and more driven by continuous beat, incredibly loud sounds, and a vast array of theatrics.  Often, it is much more visual than aural, and when combined with enough repetitive movement and high decibels, can create a sort of mass hypnosis for the younger set.  As they see others responding, they  join in, so that a sense of "belonging" develops.  

It has been my experience that students who study music in a group setting see that there are others their age who have similar musical interests,  and in that way serve as a "support group" for each other.  Group instruction provides the arena for presenting a much wider range of materials to more students in a given time period than is possible in the one-on-one private lesson.  In this situation, students gradually work out their own criteria for what differentiates "good" from "junk" music, and eventually they will have a more sophisticated understanding of the endless variety of music in our universe, including the past, present, and future.  

How do you feel about the role of technology (computer software, MIDI instruments, MIDI editors, etc.) in the studio? How can these relatively new tools be put to best use in the teaching studio?

For years I have been a strong advocate of using technology in both school and studio settings from the early grades through graduate school.  Digital keyboards coupled with lap-top computers provide endless possibilities for teaching music fundamentals, ear-training, sight-reading and improvisation in the private studio.  We have only seen the beginning of new ways technology can help our teaching.  

Does a piano student need to be particularly talented before they perform? How can the "average student" take advantage of performance opportunities?

I don't feel we should be as concerned with "how  much" talent students have as we are with what they do with whatever talent they have.  There are probably many, many people who had  "talent," but  somehow never developed it to the point of giving themselves any personal pleasure.  

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?

Music teacher organizations can only be as valuable and effective as the input they receive from their members.  If members actively participate in committee assignments and communicate with those involved in convention planning, our professional organizations will be more effective.  However, this involves "giving time" and that is something that is in short supply for most of us.

Pretend this is your personal soapbox.  What would you like to say to students, parents, and teachers of the piano?

Recently genetic research established that human beings are "wired" for music, which helps explain our instinctual responses to music throughout our lives.  It is a universal language, and despite its many different "dialects," is a powerful means of communication.  Music study can develop our abilities to be creative "problem solvers," to think in motion as we learn to deal effectively with several different things simultaneously, and to communicate with other in a non-verbal way.  

Music should be a basic element in our school curricula--not an elective or an "enrichment,"  and its study, whether during the school day or later in a private studio should be regarded as an essential part of the total education of every child.  Parent, teacher and student are a team that must function together

You can ask your own questions of Dr. Pace by email to To learn more about Dr. Pace and his teaching philosophy, visit the Lee Roberts Music site. The Piano Education Page reviews of the Pace Method and materials can be found on our Piano Methods page.

Other Interviews

Over the years, we have interviewed many well-known and not-so-well-known artists and educators. Each interviewee has a unique take on their art and their career in music. We recommend that you sit down and spend some time with each of these previous interviews. You'll find them just as interesting and thought-provoking as the current one.  

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