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Practicing the Piano The American Way Horrifies the British - They Have Rigorous Methods; The U.S. Is Rather Loose; Exponents of the 2 Molds (By Greg Steinmetz, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 12, 1999

pianokeyWhen it comes to piano teachers, Margaret Knight and Julia Kruger are two of the best.  From her home in southern New Jersey, Mrs. Knight has taught for 27 years. At age 61, she is trying to slow down, but she still has more than three dozen students. One of her students represented New Jersey in the Miss America pageant a few years ago, with piano as her talent.  In Austin, Texas, Mrs. Kruger has taught for 29 years, has 46 students and has written several books on piano teaching. Many of her students have won international competitions. "I eat, drink and sleep piano," Mrs. Kruger says.
But there is a key difference between them. Mrs. Knight is British. Mrs. Kruger is American. They don't know each other. But each knows about all she wants to know about how the other teaches piano.  "Americans want to do a lot of things and not do anything deeply," Mrs. Knight says.  "I'd like to see their dropout rate," Mrs. Kruger says of the British. In America, no instruction method is recognized as superior to all others. Eager to motivate students and encourage individual expression, many teachers teach whatever they and their students decide is best. "We give students and teachers complete flexibility," Mrs. Kruger says. "A lot of it is about getting kids to be interested in
studying." Positive reinforcement is essential.  In Britain, there is a national curriculum. Under a system going back to the days of Queen Victoria, students learn piano as they would learn karate. They drill the same sets of scales and the same pieces again and again. Once they pass a test for one skill level, they move to the next grade. They can keep going until grade eight. By then, they're equipped for Schumann's devilish "Arabesque" or a Brahms intermezzo. The conflict isn't about which country produces the best pianists. The cream will rise anywhere. It's about what's best for children studying piano. The British believe that without a solid classical education, there isn't much point. Not only will children fail to play properly, but they will also miss the side benefits of confidence-building and learning about discipline. Many Americans believe that if students get frustrated and quit, there's even less point to the exercise. Besides, creativity and personal expression are important, too.
The different approaches can be seen in the way people talk about piano.Ask an American how well he plays piano, and the question tends to become: What piece is he working on? Ask a Briton, and the person will give a number carrying the significance of a golf handicap. The same would happen in Singapore, Hong Kong or most other former British colonies that have adopted the system administered by the standard-bearer of British music education, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. Associated Board examiners will visit 85 countries this year to evaluate half a million students, not just in piano, but in all the instruments one might associate with, say, the New York Philharmonic. Only a few thousand students are
in America. But the Associated Board is working to change that. Richard Morris, chief executive of the Associated Board, has no illusions about what he is up against. A few years ago, he broached the idea of national music standards with the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J., organization known for the SAT, formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. He was told American educators prefer community benchmarks rather than ones from on high. Then Mr. Morris went to various music schools, including New York's Juilliard School of Music. There he discovered music education is far less fundamental in America than in Europe. "We're treated like freaks," one school administrator told him.So instead of a blanket marketing campaign, he is focusing on areas with large Asian communities including San Francisco, Los Angeles and the Flushing neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. Many Asian-Americans already have familiarity with the Associated Board from their homelands. "You're basically trying to win over the hearts and minds of teachers. That's a slow process," Mr. Morris says.
Mrs. Kruger, the American teacher, became acquainted with the Associated Board while on a trip to London. She
found herself on the defensive as British teachers scoffed at the American passion for tailoring instruction to
individuals. "It was such a point of issue that it was difficult to discuss the benefits," she says. During a speaking
trip to Taiwan, she was scheduled to lecture the same week as a British teacher. The British teacher was offended
by the presence of an American. Some of Mrs. Kruger's students started with the Associated Board while living abroad. After they moved to America, they were glad to be done with it. One student, who had nothing but negative critiques through a series of Associated Board exams, was completely frustrated. "I haven't had anyone want to continue," Mrs. Kruger says.
She concedes that there is some value in the British approach. In fact, as vice president of the National Guild of
Piano Teachers, an American organization dedicated to piano instruction, she herself advocates exams. The guild
will test 119,000 students this year. As is not the case with the Associated Board program, students can choose
from a vast array of music for exam purposes. But she worries that the Associated Board program, by having a set
curriculum, loses students who could be kept interested by offering a wider range of pieces.
Mrs. Knight, the British teacher, knows about the American system and the International Piano Guild firsthand.
When she came to the U.S., she involved her students in the guild "out of desperation." In her mind, it had only
one thing going for it. "It was better than nothing," she says. The guild's exam system left her cold. She noticed judges were relentlessly upbeat. One judge was so worried about offending students that he gave each of them roughly the same marks. Siblings got identical marks. "That finished me," Mrs. Knight says.
Ten years ago, she was talking to a teacher in Baltimore who had some materials from the Associated Board. "I
was overjoyed," Mrs. Knight recalls. She got the name of the board's U.S. representative and immediately hurried
home to call. She is now responsible for recruiting Associated Board teachers in Delaware, New Jersey and
Pennsylvania. Although she has induced a few Americans to sign up, she has had more success with Asians. She has also had
luck with Russians. "They tell me it's the closest thing to what they had in the Soviet Union," she says, explaining
that she means that as a compliment.Like many Americans, Dena Blizzard started learning piano from a neighbor. When she wanted to get more serious, she turned to Mrs. Knight. But she was still so involved in cheerleading and with her friends that Mrs. Knight had to sit her down. "She told me it was time to choose between being a jack-of-all-trades or really good at
something," she recalls. She got to grade six in the Associated Board and, after playing Beethoven's "Pathetique,"
became Miss New Jersey 1995. She despairs about the state of piano instruction. "There are people who have
been studying 10 years but can't play anything," she says. "That's really sad."