Learning Music from the Inside Out

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Patricia Melcher Bissell has taught piano and music history at GCC since 2004. A member of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), the former Fulbright scholar holds degrees in piano and composition from the Peabody Conservatory and Yale. She served as arranger and accompanist for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Bissell is the co-author of Classroom Keyboard: Play & Create Melodies with Chords, published this year by NAfME and Rowman & Littlefield. This fall she presented a workshop, “The Source, Modification, Application & Improvisation of Chords,” to the New Haven chapter of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) at Whitney Center in Hamden.  

Can learning to play the piano actually be fun? That is the question. 

Traditionally, piano lessons were a marker of middle-class status. They signified formal education, immersion in “high” art, comfortable familiarity with the Western cultural canon. 

Beyond that, piano lessons signified hard work and diligence (if not drudgery) — daily practice for at least an hour. It often meant answering to an intimidating authority figure in the person of the piano teacher. Practice makes perfect (a/k/a Pain = Progress). 

Above all, piano lessons meant fidelity to musical notes on a page. For one thing, they were penned (long ago, it’s true) by immortals such as Mozart and Beethoven — how could they possibly be improved upon? Wandering knuckles were rightly deserving of a sharp whack! with a ruler. After a year or so of toil and tears, the student might (or might not) attain uneasy mastery of Bach’s “Minuet in G” to be performed in a prim recital.  

That’s not how Pat Bissell does it.  

For Bissell, who has taught piano and music history at Gateway for 13 years, there are no “wrong” notes provoking whacks! with a ruler. She believes learning piano ought to be an educational experience unlocking students’ creativity. Above all, it ought to be fun. Because if it’s fun, students will want to continue, and advancement will follow organically. 

Bissell helps students to learn based on their own musical experiences, not hers. The emphasis is as much on understanding as it is on playing. And it is that philosophy that gave birth to "Classroom Keyboard," Bissell’s first book, which is dedicated to the hands-on understanding of keyboard musicianship — learning how music works from the inside out. The book was published jointly this fall by the National Association for Music Education and Rowman & Littlefield. (The textbook has a companion website, www.classroomkeyboard.com, that was scheduled to go live by year’s end.) 

Writing in the December 2017 issue of American Music Teacher, reviewer Kathryn Sherman describes "Classroom Keyboard" as a “welcome addition to the available resources for teaching functional skills at the piano.” In the sober verbiage of a trade journal, that qualifies as a rave. 

Note the word “keyboard” in the book’s title — not “piano.” The introduction of affordable digital keyboards in the 1980s allowed aspiring keyboard whizzes easy access to entry-level instruments without the financial commitment required to buy a Steinway. The advent of basic electronic keyboards has also facilitated group instruction in classroom settings. Where traditionalists were aghast at the intrusion of electronic keyboards, Bissell saw opportunity in their accessibility and affordability. “When I saw the new technology coming,” recalls Bissell, “I thought, this is wonderful.”  

Rather than rote repetition of scales, "Classroom Keyboard" helps students to learn music fundamentals virtually from day one, including music notation and simple composition. Adult novice students who don’t know middle C from Middle Earth learn to use their ears and their imaginations to create something new — not just to parrot printed notes on a page. 

Students also learn the basics of harmony — the aural landscape that supports and augments melody. That is the unique benefit of learning music on a keyboard that, unlike wind instruments such as clarinet or trumpet, can produce multiple pitches simultaneously. "Classroom Keyboard" introduces students to beginner-friendly keys such as C, F and G (a different kind of “white privilege” — but that’s another story). 

The idea is to make music accessible to students of differing aptitudes and learning styles. Bissell likens learning music to learning to speak: “Children talk for several years before they learn to read,” she explains. “I want to give [students] a better understanding of what they’re hearing — ear training, mechanical ability, [learning to] play simple tunes — and to motivate them.” 

In her Piano I group class at Gateway, Bissell leads a dozen adult students through a lesson in which elementary chords underlay simple melodies to such familiar ditties as “Hot Cross Buns” and “Frère Jacques.” First, the students play the right-hand melodies in unison (sort of!), then switch to a two-chord pattern in the left hand. 

Next, “How do we combine them?” Bissell asks cheerily. “Slowly — like a turtle!” To ingrain the exercise in her eager pupils she recommends repeating “about 100 times a day.” 

Which underscores a timeless truth: No “new” pedagogy or instructional regimen can substitute for practice-makes-perfect. That’s equally true whether the desired objective is hitting a baseball, speaking Vietnamese — or mastering Chopin and Schumann. 

But if all roads lead to Rome, there are still different roads. “Every semester I have a wide variety of students,” Bissell says, “in attitudes, in what they like, their abilities, their prior training. I want students to enjoy making music by creating and learning how to play. I want to share my love of music with people.”  

“I love Gateway because they’re always supportive as long as students are learning,” she says. “I enjoy teaching here very much."