Master Classes: ESL Reflections From the Keyboard

At the height of the heat wave last month, I bought a 1-day pass to the International Keyboard Institute & Festival at Mannes College of Music in New York City. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would learn from a day spent watching world-renowned pianists coach aspiring young pianists on the brink of their professional careers. But as I discovered, observing these outstanding musicians and their students working side-by-side at adjacent grand pianos in a series of master classes provided ample food for thought, as well as a welcome refuge from the heat. Here, in short, are four lessons gleaned from this day-long cross-disciplinary experience.

First, I was reminded how inspiring and valuable it is to watch a master teacher at work. Listening to these musicians critique and polish their students’ performance of some of the greatest works of the classical piano repertoire was a thrilling privilege. Yet for far too many ESL instructors, the opportunity to observe masterful teaching ends with their student teaching experience. How many instructors have an ongoing opportunity each semester to work directly with the best teachers at their own or other institutions, watching them interact with ESL students in the classroom and learning the best that our profession has to offer? Conferences and professional publications certainly help keep practitioners up-to-date but cannot fully replace the intense learning experience that comes from watching the classroom dynamic in the presence of an extraordinary teacher. In a field like ours where the need to learn and improve never ends, it would be inspiring to have more opportunities to learn from our professional peers by watching them in action in the classroom with their students.

Second, listening to students and teachers jointly play short musical passages over and over and over again, until the student had attained the desired phrasing, attack, and dynamics, it struck me just how far we have come in de-valuing repetition in second language acquisition. Yet my recent interviews with successful independent language learners reveal that for them, repetition was central to their English language learning. “I played the DVD [of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts] to death, picking up words here and there” one autonomous language learner told me during a self-directed learning project. Another remembered how repeating short, pre-set dialogues helped equip him with language “chunks” he needed for real-life conversations. While I am certainly not advocating a return to rote classroom learning, I am not persuaded that we are helping our students when we give them the impression that English can be mastered without hours spent at home, between classes, repeating out loud certain key language chunks—from audiobooks, from DVDs, from CDs or even from their textbooks—until they have become second nature.

Third, not one student played from a score. Every piece at every master class—Liszt’s Funerailles, Chopin’s Ballade No.1, Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata—was played from memory. And yet memorization has been virtually banished both from the ESL classroom and from the homework we give our students. Are we really doing them a favor if we mislead our students into thinking that English can be learned without using their memory muscles? How often do intermediate or even advanced ESL students still trip over basic verb tenses because they were lulled into believing that there was no need to memorize them?

Finally, the master classes culminate in a public performance. The hours spent rehearsing alone in cramped practice rooms and refining a sonata in a master class before a handful of sympathetic classmates give way, ultimately, to a recital, where the student finally has the opportunity to communicate his or her interpretation and artistic vision to the public. The performance counterpart, for our students, of course, is the move from the safety of classroom communicative activities to real-life communication with English speakers outside of the classroom. Yet, how often do we simply assign reading or writing homework from a textbook or a novel, instead of assigning speaking homework that would require students to have an authentic communicative experience?

I realized that I myself, despite my avowed commitment to fostering authentic speaking opportunities, sometimes fall into a pattern of assigning homework that requires students only to read, write, or listen to English, but does not require them to speak. Walking out into the sweltering Manhattan evening after nearly 10 hours of music, I resolved to look for fresh ways to encourage my students to speak even more English outside of class—for instance, by asking students to uncover information that can only be discovered by asking someone who speaks English or by requiring them to report back to the class about the gist of an extended conversation they had in English with someone from their work, their place of worship, at a store or elsewhere in the community.


For more practical tips from language teachers who bring their insights to the classroom from extensive experience in other disciplines, check out TESOL’s latest book:
Language Teaching Insights From Other Fields

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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2 Responses to Master Classes: ESL Reflections From the Keyboard

  1. Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

    Thanks for your supportive comments, David. Since attending these master classes, I have tried to find fun ways to include repetition in my speaking activities. For instance, if students have been assigned to choose a news story to watch at home or to prepare a very short, 1-minute presentation, I have them speak first to one classmate, then another, then another. I find that as they tell the story multiple times, they self-correct many of their mistakes. They can see their own progress in a matter of just a few minutes and have told me how much this builds their confidence.

  2. Alexandra,

    I really enjoyed this and so glad you wrote it. I concur and lets keep calling out for these sound/logic priniciples to become standard practice. Enjoy the weekend and look forward to another post.


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