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Highlights from NCKP 2015 (National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy)

By Cathy Smetana

In July, I was one of several hundred piano teachers to descend upon Lombard, Illinois for the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy.  I’ve attended this conference (or one of its predecessors) many times, and 2015 was one of the best years ever.

The conference is offered every other year and officially runs from Thursday-Saturday in late July or early August, depending on the year.  One can register for the entire conference, or day at a time.  There is a discount for early registration.  An optional pre-conference seminar is typically offered on Wednesday.  The conference costs roughly $100 a day.

When the conference schedule was announced, I realized I was interested in more sessions than I could possibly attend – so I signed up for the pre-conference seminar for the first time.  There were several “tracks” one could choose from:

  • The Creative Pianist, which focused on arranging, improvising, playing by ear, and lead sheets
  • Students and Young Professionals, which emphasized arts advocacy via community involvement and collaboration
  • Independent Music Teachers, which discussed repertoire, practice strategies, and technical development
  • Collegiate Piano Pedagogy, geared toward those currently teaching or hoping to teach in college piano pedagogy programs
  • Wellness for the Pianist, focusing on physical/mental/emotional health

I chose to attend the Creative Pianist track.  My training was mostly classical, yet more and more I find myself teaching improvisation and pop music in my lessons.  I found the sessions fun, creative, and useful.  They were very hands-on as well; two large keyboard labs were set up in the conference hotel so we were actually able to play and try out what was being discussed.  The two main instructors were Bradley Sowash, who helped demystify chord symbols, and Forrest Kinney, who excels at helping people be creative without overthinking things. 

The pre-conference seminar started with a keynote address from Marvin Blickenstaff, my most influential teacher.  As always, I found his 30-minute talk inspiring and worth the cost of the entire conference.  In typical Master Teacher style, he asked more questions than he answered, and those questions go to the heart of what we do – and why we do it.  He posited that music has five faces.  Each of these “faces” could be a blog post in and of themselves.  I think Marvin will forgive me if I let you read my notes from his session: 

Five Faces of Music

  1. Entertainment
  2. Service
  3. Self-expression
  4. Education
  5. Art


  • Most music is experienced as a spectator
  • Can be sublime or superficial
  • What role does entertainment play in our teaching?
    • Do we teach to entertain?
    • Do we present the idea to our students that music is entertainment?
    • Do we choose repertoire based on being entertaining?
    • Is there a difference between entertainment and education?
    • How much repertoire in your studio is entertaining?  How much sustains musical growth?


  • Music changes people - beauty exists, and raises us to a higher level of living
  • Church musicians
  • Underprivileged students
  • Music therapy
  • El Systema, Landfill Orchestra, etc.
  • How can our students use music as service?


  • Music is so fulfilling that I chose to make it my life's work.
  • Richard Chronister: "Students enroll in lessons for one reason only: to make exciting sound at the keyboard.  Every lesson we teach that does not capitalize on that very real and musical goal cultivates a potential piano drop-out."
  • What does this piece mean to you?  What does it make you feel?  What was the composer expressing?
  • We became piano teachers because we loved playing the piano.  Do we still practice and perform?  Do we still enjoy making music?  "It is of life-saving importance that we nurture ourselves through making music."
    • What is my emotional response to this music?
    • What is the composer expressing about life?
  • When we're in touch with our own response to music, we are better teachers of that response for our students.
  • PTOH - Piano Teacher Occupational Hazards: we are trained to focus on accuracy and point out areas for improvement.  We assign and evaluate.  To fully appreciate and enjoy music we sometimes need to let go of that need to criticize and improve.  
  • Students need help articulating musical feeling - if they can't talk about it, they can't play it. 
  • Music is composed for one reason: to express feelings.  Music is the expression of the entire human experience through organized sound.  Do I really teach MUSIC lessons?


  • Music training does indeed have impact on brain development.
  • Music instruction is different than other extra-curricular activities.  School = intellectual; extra-curricular = (mostly) physical; music = emotional.  Music builds whole human beings.


  • Frances Clark said: "There is music in every child."  Marvin says:  "There is artistry in every child."
  • The goal of our teaching is to produce artists: students who see and hear and feel beyond the notes on the page.  Students who communicate emotion.  Even the youngest students can do this.
  • What's required of us to make artists of our students?
    • Correct reading of the score - yet accuracy is not artistry.
    • Every piece of music is written to express some aspect of the human experience.
    • Do you feel the sounds expressing the title?  
    • Dynamics - carry the sound forward, capture our interest; "I will not play 2 notes in a row at exactly the same dynamic level."
    • Balance - expressive playing does not allow the hands to play at the same level; the accompaniment should support but not encumber a beautiful melody.  
    • Breath - the most basic instrument is the voice; music must breathe

“We deprive and limit our students when we underestimate them, failing to see them as potential artists who can shape sound to highly expressive ends.” – Marvin Blickenstaff

Beyond Marvin’s keynote address, I found many sessions useful.  Forrest Kinney was one of the “star presenters” at the conference, and his sessions were all creative and interesting.  He reminded us that, historically speaking, keyboardists have been required to do more than interpret the music of others.  Historically, we have needed to be able to:

  • Improvise
  • Arrange the music of others (figured bass, chord charts)
  • Compose original music
  • Interpret the music of others (the typical “classical” repertoire)

So, when one of my students refuses to practice his Bach and is only willing to work on his own arrangement of the newest video game theme song, he’s actually engaging in one of the four musical arts!  As silly as it may sound, this helped me put things in perspective and realize that I am not “failing” as a teacher if some students aren’t interested in interpreting the music of others.  It’s only one of the musical arts, after all!

In addition to four solid days of sessions (usually several are offered at once, so you can’t possibly go to all of them) and recitals, there is a huge room full of publishers’ showcases.  All the major publishers come with lots of books and offer amazing sales.  I bought the entire new edition of the Royal Conservatory Celebration Series at a 30% discount!  Many publishers give out freebies as well.  All in all, it’s a great conference.  I’d love to see a big group of MacPhail piano teachers attend in 2017!

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