About the Book

Bibliographic Details

The Tyranny of Tradition in Piano Teaching

Pages: 261
Author: Walter Ponce
Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Bibliographic Info: 14 photos, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2019
pISBN: 978-1-4766-7832-0
eISBN: 978-1-4766-3629-0
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vi

1. The Genesis of Cognitive Impairment
2. Rousseau vs. Clementi
3. The Legacy of Clementi
4. Descending from “Parnassus”
5. Musical Asceticism
6. The Legacy and Religion
7. The Legacy of Emulation
8. The Legacy of Abuse
9. The Legacy of the Gradus Complex
10. The Legacy of the Brainless Little Animal

11. Music and the Mind
12. The Mind in Piano Playing
13. Disparities and Paradoxes
14. Twentieth Century: Assimilation and Rejection
15. End of the Millennium
16. Contemporary American Music Education
17. The Legacy on the Best and the Brightest
18. Rituals and Myths
19. Conclusion
Chapter Notes 
Index 2


The Age of Enlightenment released an outpouring of intellectual energy that swept through the eighteenth century like a tsunami, unleashing new ideas, motivating multitudes of people to rethink, and ultimately change, centuries-old traditions, customs, and morals. It was not just the American and French revolutions, or the energy gushing from the pens of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, but also the stimulation of an environment that produced a string of great composers, starting with Johann Sebastian Bach, who died mid-century, followed by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and, born at the end of the century, Franz Schubert. Though many great composers lived before and after, many professional musicians would agree that the quantity and quality of Western European music written in the century between 1728 and 1828 has remained the Everest of classical music.

It was also the time when the pianoforte replaced the harpsichord as the most important and valued musical instrument in the household. It was the birth of the piano, of pianists, and of piano teachers. But “Enlightenment” portends that there must also be darkness. Hence the age that produced the astounding repertoire from Bach to Schubert also brought with it the rather uninspiring and often unpleasant didactic-instructional compositions of Muzio Clementi, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and later Carl Czerny, the earliest piano pedagogues. They launched a teaching tradition based on profit and athleticism. The power and influence gained by these pedagogues engulfed piano playing for the next two centuries.

Every generation claims superiority over the previous one. People have the wisdom and ability to accept change, adjustment, and progress. Education, for example, has developed continuously from one generation to the next in response to scientific advances of the time, integrating many of the conclusions reached by the ongoing investigations of psychologists, sociologists, and other scientists. However, the style and methods of piano instruction developed soon after the rise in popularity of the pianoforte have, for the most part, remained insulated from new ideas or progressive trends.

Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Émile exercised enormous influence on all aspects of education in the nineteenth century, but piano teaching remained immune to Rousseau’s extraordinary force. Sigmund Freud’s far-reaching conclusions, in particular the long-term repercussions of childhood experiences, had a significant impact on education in the twentieth century. Piano teaching, however, remained impervious to these developments. Even the teaching concepts of the most successful piano pedagogues like Franz Liszt, Arthur Schnabel, and Heinrich Neuhaus were largely ignored. Instead, a great majority of piano teachers favored the principles established by Clementi. His Gradus ad Parnassum, became the paradigm of piano methods for the next two hundred years.

Insensitive authoritarianism and absurd mind-numbing requirements have been devastating to students’ cognitive skills. Consequently, the ability to change or adapt has been difficult for piano teachers precisely because the learning and teaching of the instrument have been based on legacies that render inoperative the human’s capacity for adapting. Students become dependent on the nurture provided by “indispensable” teachers, past an age when self-reliance should be as natural as not having a baby-sitter.

The force of Rousseau’s writings shadows every page of this book. In that spirit, my ultimate objective is to stimulate piano instructors to reassess how we teach, to re-evaluate our actions and behavior, and to seek a more efficient, inspiring, and healthier way of teaching the greatest repertoire ever written for any musical instrument.