What is your first memory of the piano?
I remember sitting at the piano at my Grandma Packy’s as a very little girl and being completely entranced. We didn’t have a piano and I would pick out songs and create my own whenever I found one. I wanted to take lessons for years as a child but my parents refused until I was 9. My Grandfather Zickert was an opera singer and they didn’t want that life for me.
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
It wasn’t a matter of whether I was going to teach—it was what. I remember getting in trouble for bringing all the little neighbourhood kids to our house and playing school when I was 7 or 8. I am pretty much a born teacher. You know the old saying, “them that can’t teach”? I don’t think it means what we commonly think. To me it means that you can’t do anything else because it is your true nature—your true calling.
I started teaching when I was in high school. As much as I would do things differently with those early students now, I know that that those first teaching experiences—good and bad—are the rock that my teaching and blogging are built on today.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
All my teachers have been memorable. Some in positive and others perhaps not so much. I learned both what to do and what not to do from them all. From my childhood teacher, I learned to read music, basic theory, and how to create basic arrangements. From my undergraduate professor, Patrick Meierotto, I learned that music was an entire world of sound, thought, and communication with others—the most important lesson of all in my opinion. Once that lesson was well and truly ingrained, I was able to build on it and grow into myself. As I practice and teach bits of advice from all of my teachers and coaches bubble to the surface and it’s like I have this great support group. Sometimes it can be quite startling! I still chuckle over Johana Harris’ simple little gem, written in my copy of the Poulenc Flute Sonata, “Don’t hold over gone notes.”
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
Obviously, my teachers and coaches have been a large influence. But, I think the most important influences are my colleagues and my students themselves. Both continually both validate and make me question my choices and that is an excellent thing.
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
I have had a lot of memorable experiences over the years, but, here are a couple that have truly stuck in my mind.
A high school transfer student I’ll call Marcella had had lessons with me for about 18 months. She would learn the nitty-gritty musical details alright, but never really seemed to be able to make the music come alive or have much connection to it. I did everything to bring it out of her and was beginning to think that perhaps she just didn’t have it in her. One night at studio class, we did an activity where I played recordings of a piece by 3 different artists. I had the students fill out a form which asked what they liked and didn’t, details of patterns and repetitions, and form, as well as how they thought each artist used interpretive details to convey their personal view. Marcella’s insights were stellar—by far the best in the class. She had really heard and learned everything I had been trying to teach her. She just couldn’t make it come out of the piano. By the time she graduated, she had become only somewhat more able to be expressive herself but I was content that I had given her something that would last a lifetime—the ability to appreciate music at a deep level.
An adult student who came to the college had many holes in her background. The biggest was her ear. She could only hear the melody and everything else went by the wayside. During her 3rd semester we were working on one of the more accessible Beethoven sonatas in hopes of building her musical conversational skills. It was quite a stretch for her. We spent many hours working on recognizing the layers and letting the voices interact with each other. One day she came in and said I heard it! I heard it! She had made the connection in an 8 measure section of the piece. After that, she began to be able to apply what she had learned to other sections. At her jury, she performed her piece with many mistakes but with such determination and understanding of the voices and musical content that I was brought to tears, I was so proud.
Neither of these students had demonstrated perfection in performance by any means, and yet each had broken a barrier and transcended themselves. I continue to be changed by each and every student I teach.
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?
I love teaching adults. They are motivated extrinsically for the most part. They come to lessons because they want to. The biggest challenges are that they get frustrated easily and their learning habits are ingrained. Because they have clear goals, they don’t always have the patience to let the process have the time it needs. Since their learning habits are ingrained, it can be hard and sometimes very emotional to change those habits. Adults also often get fixated on details and fail to see the larger picture. ( i.e. a missed Bb ruins the entire lovely tone and mood they created in a piece) You also often have to work through a great deal of fear.
What do you expect from your students?
I expect them to do their best and push themselves beyond that which they think they are capable. I want them to be themselves but the best themselves possible. That’s it.
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
These are important parts of becoming a professional pianist. For those who will go on to other careers, they are important because they give concrete goals to work for. Participating in events like these are a trade off because the lessons and practice are differently focused. Some of my students participate and others’ time is better spent in deep practice and discovery of a larger variety of music and creative projects.
What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?
Beginning students need to learn what practice is and how to do it. It doesn’t matter what skill or concept you are learning. It matters how you work. Students have to learn to work smart and not get down on themselves just because something doesn’t go right. As they advance, they need to continually refine these skills to adapt to their repertoire and adult lives.
Another important thing all students need to learn is that listening to music of all genres is essential to being a good musician. As they mature, they need to learn to bring their total experience of life into their music.
What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects of the job?
The best aspect of the job is that I get to do something I love and it’s new everyday. I get to help people grow and stretch themselves through teaching, workshops, and blogging. I also get to work with a lot more repertoire than I could ever keep up on my own. The worst aspect has to be some of the parents. It’s so sad when they stand in their child’s way and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
My favourite student funny of all time went something like this: Me: How are you doing today? 8 year old girl: Not so good. My brother and I had a fight. Me: Oh no! what happened? Girl (clearly disgusted): Well, he said there was no such thing as F Major!!!
What is your favourite music to teach? To play?
I am really quite eclectic in my tastes. My favourite music is always what I am working on at the time somebody asks. That said, Beethoven is definitely my boy! I also am continually drawn to 20th century and contemporary composers and I teach quite a lot of that repertoire.
Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?
Our home library consists of about 75 linear feet of 78s, 33s, and CDs plus a large iTunes library and my YouTube channel. I love listening to performers from all eras and discovering their unique approach to a piece or a time period. It really does keep you honest and put details such as ornaments, tempo, and touch into perspective. The common thread I find is that rules, such as ornamentation, touch, stylistic details, etc, never drive the interpretation—the music itself does. It drives me quite crazy when someone discounts an entire performance because of a preconceived idea of an ornament , tempo, or slur.
Gail Fischler is an MTNA Nationally Certified Teacher, and a past president of both Arizona State Music Teachers Association and Tucson Music Teachers Association. Gail received her undergraduate degree in music from San Jose State University and completed her masters in piano performance and her doctorate in Music Education and Piano at the University of Arizona. Her teachers and coaches have included Patrick Meierotto, Johana Harris, Marilyn Thompson, Ozan Marsh, Rex Woods, and Carol Stivers. She is a recipient of the Janice McCurnin – Beatrice Searles ASMTA Honored Teacher Award.
Gail was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the National MusicLink Foundation and has served as Southwest Regional MusicLink Coordinator. She has performed across Arizona and presented lectures, workshops, and research presentations throughout the United States and in Canada. Gail has adjudicated for the Arizona Study Program, Roberta Slaver Competition, Prescott Fine Arts Association Piano Scholarship Competition, NAU Adele Piano Competition, ASMTA Honors Recital, TMTA Scholarship Audition, AMEA Solo & Ensemble Festival, Cochise Young Artists Competition, and NAU Concerto Competition.
Gail currently teaches private and community class piano at Eastern Arizona College and maintains an independent studio in Tucson. Her students have won honors in state and local competitions, evaluations, and festivals. She is co-author with Neeki Bey of Latin America, a volume of original, folk, and popular pieces coming in August from Piano Accents. Gail also runs Piano Addict, a website for piano students, teachers, and avocational players and The Musical Adjectives Project, an interactive Wiki to aid pianists and musicians in describing and understanding the emotions and character within repertoire. She holds Permanent Professional Certification in piano from Music Teachers National Association.