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Piano Pedagogy Program Marries Music, Technology

merlin_suzuki_tvConservatory instructor Merlin Thompson patiently demonstrates the walking fingers exercise then watches intently as his Suzuki Piano Pedagogy student Melanie Christensen follows his lead.

Are you aware that you were overlapping finger five and finger three? Thompson asks. The student replies that she wasn't and tries the exercise again.

The interaction between teacher and student seems quite natural except that Thompson is sitting behind his piano in Mount Royal's videoconference facility (T107) while Christensen is about 300 kilometres away in a studio at the University of Lethbridge and both are speaking to a camera lens rather than face-to-face.

Videoconferencing is the latest learning tool added to the distance version of the two-year certificate program that trains piano teachers in the Suzuki method. In addition to Christensen, Thompson also teaches Suzuki Piano Pedagogy students in Edmonton and Red Deer. While he admits the videoconference requires him to make a greater effort to engage the students, the technology becomes transparent.

I'm always amazed how little difference there is in the end result, he says. The students get the same information, the same awareness and build on the same experiences as those in the classroom.

Thompson says one unexpected difference is that online students are often more reflective and expressive through their writing than those participating in class.

For Christensen, 22, who is completing her Bachelor of Music at the University of Lethbridge while teaching students of her own, coming to Calgary to take the program in person was not an option.

I was interested in studying with Merlin but I wasn't in a position to move to Calgary, she says. It's important to have the face-to-face communication and this is the best way. I'm quite comfortable in my instructor's studio and I really enjoy working at my own pace.

This distance learning program makes use of the high-speed Netera network that connects Alberta's post-secondary institutions. In addition to videoconferencing, the program uses Web-based material, including thousands of video clips, and e-mail to connect between teacher and students. Thompson developed the Web site with Patty Moore, formerly with Mount Royal's Academic Development Centre, to modify the classroom-based program to meet the needs of an online audience.

The technology doesn't get in the way, says Thompson. If people arrive with the desire to learn and the desire to communicate, the technology will only facilitate that. Technology doesn't introduce any obstacles that a good teacher can't overcome.

Mount Royal is the only institution in Canada offering Suzuki Piano teacher training at the post-secondary level. We're in a place of leadership, says Thompson, who sees opportunities to attract students nationally. Here's an opportunity to do some real pioneering and move the whole method forward.

Posted: Wednesday, November 19, 2003