Preparing students for adjudication

Richard Rejino

In the last issue of The Piano Teacher, “The Magic of William Gillock, Part One” commemorated the centennial of his birth and celebrated his life, music and the impact his works had on piano teaching. As influential as his career was, for those who knew him or heard him speak, the popularity of his music was also due in large part to his charisma and qualities as an individual. Everyone I interviewed described him consistently with the same adjectives and degree of sentiment. He was kind, humble, caring, creative, and he had an unyielding quest for knowledge and excellence in everything he did.

His success and popularity is even more remarkable when you consider that Gillock’s musical training during his formative years was spotty at best, and the deficits he had in music theory precluded him from being able to major in music when he attended college. Yet, for all the obstacles that stood in his way, he found mentors who supported and taught him what he needed to know to compose the music that stirred within him. Taking care to compose teaching literature that fit the hands and that was musically satisfying was the hallmark of his work and why his music is beloved by teachers and students still today. We are better for his commitment to composing music for students as art and not just as a means to teach the piano.

Gillock’s music and influence on piano teaching may be his greatest legacy, but another important contribution that is not as widely known are his notes on the adjudication process and preparing students for festivals and auditions. After living in New Orleans for more than 20 years, he moved to Dallas in 1970 and gave up teaching to devote more time to composition, and to accommodate the demand for him as a clinician and adjudicator. That same year, a small group of teachers in Dallas established the Junior Pianist Guild (JPG) in his honour, and he was its sole judge for 22 years. During his tenure, he heard anywhere from 800 to 1,000 students every year, and his remarkable ability to give an honest, yet kind assessment of each student’s playing was the stuff of legend.

Dallas-area teacher and current JPG President Toni Austin-Allen, who played for Gillock for many years as a student, said this about him:

When he judged me there was a consistency, a friendliness about him, and I felt he understood my playing. He showed this by the way he spoke to me. He didn’t speak to me like a judge, but rather as musician-to-musician. The words he chose were always very eloquent, and he wasn’t standoffish like many judges. He wanted to engage with students as peers, not as student/teacher.1

Gillock gave considerable time and thought to the standards he believed a student should exhibit in an audition. He saw the need to develop a process and vocabulary that expressed genuine encouragement and an honest evaluation of their playing. His thoughts might never have been articulated in detail were it not for Glenda Austin of Joplin, Missouri. The two met in the 1980s, and Gillock took her under his wing and mentored her in composition. Later, he invited her to judge the Mountain View Piano Competition in Dallas with him. Austin was reluctant to accept since she had never before judged a contest. He countered her hesitation by unselfishly jotting down pages of how-to notes for her—six pages to be exact. Written in his own handwriting, Gillock’s notes are a lexicon of words and phrases, and a treasure trove from which a teacher can glean precise language to communicate effectively with students. They also serve as a guide for teaching musical excellence, which he believed was the teacher’s ultimate responsibility.

As an adjudicator, Gillock began assessing the student from the moment she walked into the room. He urged teachers to always treat the student as if she was a guest in their home. He watched to see if she exhibited thoughtful preparation before playing. Was the student concerned about bench placement, posture? Was she poised, alert, the body relaxed? Was there unnecessary tension in the hands, wrists, arms and shoulders? He noted that both rhythm and tone are dependent on a relaxed upper body.2

We must, by any means at our disposal, help the young students achieve exciting, important-sounding performances, so that they may know the thrill of achieving the ultimate goal—not just the hum-drum business of the means to achieve the end.”

His lists included what to listen for in regard to rhythm, tone, technique, phrasing and interpretation. Phrases he often used with variation when expressing positive comments included:

  • I was impressed with your excellent (fill in the blank): rhythmic stability, tempo control, staccato touches, stylistic treatment, staccatos, etc.
  • Your performance showed excellent musical understanding.
  • Splendid technical control.
  • Great echo effects! They sounded harpsichord-like.
  • Well taught!

He urged teachers to be generous with their praise where it was genuinely deserved and to never say anything negative during an audition. In this regard, Gillock was especially compassionate when giving feedback on lackluster performances, using phrases such as:

  • You have ability, but I felt you had not practiced as much as your excellent teacher would like.
  • Work for easier technical control. Continue to build technique.
  • Try to feel more comfortable with physical control. You seemed to be struggling today. A good technique must look, sound and feel easy.
  • Learn how to discipline your practicing. Your excellent teacher will help you if you will cooperate.
  • Try to achieve a more obvious rise and fall in the melodic line.

Other phrases included:

  • Try to achieve more sparkle in your performance.
  • Opening tempo seemed nervous, but you controlled it later.
  • I can see you are building technique. Continue to work for improvement in this area.
  • Drill-practice this measure.
  • You deserve credit for your honest work on this difficult piece, but there were weaknesses in…
  • I know you were disappointed in your performance today, what did you learn from it?

 

In other notes about general comments on a student’s performance Gillock organised three categories of vocabulary:

Positive

Elegant, exquisite
Exciting, energetic
Musically structured
Rhythmically precise
Well-projected shading
Convincing or brilliant performance
Spirited
Authoritative style

Mediocre

Try to avoid fumbles or hesitations.
Opening tempo seemed nervous.
Take more time between sections to define form.
Try to achieve more refinement in phrasing.
Try to achieve more spontaneity in your performance.
Give cadences special attention.

Poor

Rhythmic stability is essential.
You deserve credit for your honest work, but…
Metronome discipline is helpful in controlling tempo.
Cooperate with your excellent teacher.
Don’t be so easily satisfied; work harder.
I am astonished that your fingering was not better planned.

Gillock also included two pages of “Vocabulary for Judging.” In them, he categories his lexicon into musical categories that provided precise suggestions for improvement. Below is a transcription of what he wrote. The parenthetical references indicate negative responses or elaborations.

Rhythm: precise, well-counted, good rhythmic drive (no forward movement).

Tempo: controlled; variable. Rather slow for the stylistic demands of this piece. Uncomfortably fast—(you are developing a good technique, but be careful not to push tempo to the point of discomfort. Always have a reserve speed.)

Tone: Bright, clear, transparent, opaque (not suited to this piece); showed sensitivity (tonal treatment showed a good ear). Harsh, strident (indicative of physical tension).

Technic: You achieved an easy fluency (or negative: try to achieve an easier sounding flow in your playing; or, you achieved a reasonably good fluency most of the time). Finger articulation was nicely even. Finger control is developing well. Tension in the shoulders (wrists, forearm) impeded fluency (or caused a harsh tone/rhythmic instability). Try to articulate more evenly. Relax the thumb.

Accuracy: Re-read the score. I heard some wrong notes (some rhythmic insecurities). Be more careful of rests. Dynamics and ritards were well rehearsed. The ritards were well-timed (or negative: a ritard must sound inevitable—yours sounded forced).

Touches: I liked your light staccato touches. Accents were crisp and well projected. I was pleased to hear an awareness of inflection.

Phrasing: You defined the phrases in an obvious manner; try, now, to refine them with a more tapered release. Phrase releases generally should not be accented unless the editing indicated this. Try to achieve more obvious rise and fall in the melodic line.
Page two is shown in the illustration.

 

Gillock’s notes on preparing students for auditions are a lesson in creativity. They show how teachers can walk the tightrope between demanding excellence and encouraging students to succeed. He understood that students were at their best and at their most vulnerable in an audition setting. His kindness, empathy and ability to say just the right thing when things didn’t go well gave students hope for a better outcome the next time.
Austin-Allen recalled an embarrassing, but humorous moment when she played in the JPG for him:

Mr. Gillock would always have something to say, even if it was a little bit at the end, that made you feel it was worth playing for him. I remember once when I was in high school, I played the Beethoven Sonata, Op. 2, No. 2, and when I played the chord at the end of the piece, I had leaned so far in that I hit my head on the piano. I heard this chuckle coming from him. Then I started to chuckle. By the end, we were both laughing so loud, my mother, who was standing outside, wondered what was going on!3

One of the things that Gillock advised in his notes, which deserves some discussion, was that “teachers should be generous with their praise where it was genuinely deserved.” As teachers are acutely aware, praise can be a powerful motivator. Jim Wright, a noted school psychologist and school administrator writes that there are three effective ways of shaping praise comments:

  1. Describing noteworthy student behaviour
  2. Praising effort and accomplishment, not ability,
  3. Matching the method of praise delivery to student preferences4

In other words, a judge’s or teacher’s positive comments are most effective when praising students for specific accomplishments or efforts in their playing as opposed to general comments such as you did a good job; or, you are a gifted student; you have a talent for music and so on. In the research paper “Elementary Students’ Preferences for Teacher Praise” Paul C. Burnett of Charles Sturt University, Australia wrote: “(elementary) students preferred to be praised most often for trying hard or putting in effort rather than for having good ability.”

Closer scrutiny of Gillock’s notes show that his comments embody precisely what Wright and Burnett’s research showed. They praise and acknowledge a student’s efforts with specific examples about their performances, not their abilities, and offer solutions that challenge the student to achieve a higher level of musicianship, and therefore, accomplishment.
Austin-Allen, who has taught for years and judged many contests and festivals, remembers Gillock’s expectations and emphasis on improvement and describes them as a permanent part of her teaching.

Because of him, I listen first for musicality: dynamics, phrasing, tone quality, and attention to detail. I think kids these days are too busy and teachers struggle to show students how to find time to work on these things. But every average student has the right to play musically; every busy student has the right to play musically. So, if you have to, you give them less to work on. I remember reading somewhere that Einstein once said, “God is in the details.” I listen for details. I think that the details are everything. Details are why people love classical music, and that is what I think Mr. Gillock was all about.

Another Dallas teacher, Ruth Ann Lively, who knew Gillock and is a member of the JPG, reflected the same sentiments.

He always started with something positive before he had any suggestions and comments. His critiques were very thorough. They managed to cover a lot of details such as dynamics, shading, etc. in just a few short sentences, and he was never brutal or harsh. In fact, he made an impression on my students probably more than any other judge. He was the one that seemed to make an impression that lasted a lifetime. Mr. Gillock was a very gentle person, and when a student first walked into the room with him, he was so approachable. He greeted them in a way that made them feel at ease. His voice was soothing and calming. He talked slowly, and his general demeanor and manner made students feel calm and much more at ease. He wasn’t intimidating at all.5

For Lively and Austin-Allen, William Gillock’s ability to communicate with a student so powerfully has been a guiding hand. Both acknowledged that he was a great influence on their teaching and judging.

A judge listens for all of the things she tries to teach her own students. Of course, not every teacher desires to be a judge, but the real value in Gillock’s ideas on preparing students is that they provide a road map for teachers to elevate their teaching and to achieve excellence and success for their students. After all, judging and teaching are at their core, the same thing, and Gillock understood this. He rejoiced with students when they did well and offered ways to be better when they didn’t; he did both by never forgetting that he was speaking to another human being.
Gillock influenced a great many teachers and their students. We can take pride in knowing his instincts to help all of us achieve our best were rooted in the fact that he was a teacher at heart. In his opening remarks during a workshop in New York, in 1987, Gillock said:

We must, by any means at our disposal, help the young students achieve exciting, important-sounding performances, so that they may know the thrill of achieving the ultimate goal—not just the hum-drum business of the means to achieve the end. There are two reasons for a dull performance: one is dull literature, and the other is dull teaching. Only the inspired teacher is worthy of that exalted title of TEACHER.6

His words resonate as strongly today as they did then.

 

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