The Win-Win Legacy of PPLP

Celebrating 30 Years of The Piano Pedagogy Laboratory Program

On a sun-soaked Tuesday afternoon at the E.V. Moore Building, Kelley Benson, coordinator of SMTD’s Piano Pedagogy Laboratory Program (PPLP), sits with a 13-year-old student at a piano and offers gentle advice. He is playing Sonatina in G major, op. 20, no. 1 by Jan Dussek and is working on strengthening his left hand in preparation for his end-of-year performance. Meanwhile, across the hallway, staff teacher Aya Higuchi is demonstrating technique to several focused younger boys and girls who intently watch, on the monitors above their synthesizers, as her hands move across the keys.

These children are just a few of the nearly 1,000 pre-college-age community children who have learned piano at the PPLP since it was launched in 1983. Their teachers are SMTD piano pedagogy and performance graduate students who gain invaluable teacher-training and hands-on teaching experience through the program. The result is an exceptional win-win arrangement for all concerned.

“The existence of PPLP is a wonderful gift, not only to the community children who attend the program, but for the University students who teach it,” said graduate student instructor (GSI) Sonya Schumann. “It has given me the opportunity to learn through teaching. I’m so thankful to learn from a program that has been successful for so long. Such an example of excellence has allowed me, and my students, to succeed.”

In honor of the program’s longevity and success, the PPLP will celebrate its 30th anniversary in October with a special day of events. Included will be a recital of performances by distinguished alumni and an informal meet-and-greet with current students and their parents. The concert will be followed by a festive gala dinner to celebrate the program’s legacy and to raise awareness and funds for its future development.

“I hope this event will be a celebration of what PPLP has meant to the community and to SMTD for 30 years,” said PPLP director John Ellis, who is also associate professor of piano, associate dean for administration, and director of community and preparatory programs. “It will be an opportunity for our alumni and former faculty to get together for the first time, and it will give us a chance to celebrate the past, talk about our current activities, and discuss our plans for the future.”

During the 2013-14 school year, 76 children were enrolled in PPLP, in beginning, elementary, and intermediate/advanced levels of piano study. Benson interviews each child who applies and assesses their abilities to place them in appropriate openings within the program.

Close to 100 GSIs have taught in the program over the years, with seven currently teaching, three at the master’s level and four at the doctoral level. “Teaching is one of those things that you can’t pick up just by reading books or going to lectures; it’s a hands-on experience, because anytime you’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with curveballs,” said Benson. “Our teachers get a wealth of teaching experience and will walk out of here really well prepared to go into advanced study or on to a faculty position.”

Benson knows that better than anyone; she was a student teacher in the pedagogy degree program when the PPLP was founded in November 1983. Originally, piano pedagogy was a master’s degree program that did not include a performance aspect. Joanne Smith, from Bowling Green State University (BGSU), was hired to help bolster and establish the program, following her launch of the very successful BGSU Creative Arts Program that encompassed piano and other instruments.

“It was Joanne’s assessment early on that in order for the piano pedagogy degree to have validity, U-M students needed a real solid practicum,” said Benson. Smith, Benson, and two other GSIs, Gail Ireland and Donna Stevens, interviewed students and initially set up two classes, with a total of 13 students, all beginners. “We started out with a weekly group lesson, and then that became a weekly group lesson plus a private lesson. In the next year, we expanded and added two more beginning classes and gradually built up the program.” When Benson graduated in 1985, she was hired as PPLP coordinator and has held that position for the last 28 years.

Smith retired as PPLP director in the spring of 2000, and currently serves as associate professor emerita of piano pedagogy. Ellis, who took over as director after her retirement, says: “Joanne Smith has a very strong reputation in the field of piano pedagogy, so I knew that this was a very important position. I was honored to have the opportunity to take on that challenge, and it’s certainly one I continue to feel excited about every day, because I’ve seen the program continue to grow and expand in a variety of ways.”

An important aspect of PPLP is the focus on nurturing performance, which is done informally, within group classes, and in front of peers. This supportive environment helps students feel confident in the formal piano recitals that take place at several different venues at SMTD. “It’s a celebration of the students’ perseverance for an entire year and being able to witness, every week, the growth they have made academically, musically, and above all, personally,” said GSI Leah Claiborne.

PPLP strives to keep up with best practices, including the use of technology as a tool in both piano teaching and pedagogical training. The current PPLP labs are equipped with Roland and Yamaha synthesizers with computer monitors; Mini Macs, which are used to access the web during lessons; and a camera system, created by SMTD performing arts sound and recording engineer Roger Arnett, that can zoom in and show the teacher’s piano on the student monitors.

One thing Ellis and Benson are very excited about is the creation of an observation room, to be added during the current expansion of the Moore Building. “The observation room will allow teachers and parents to sit in a separate space and observe a class without actually physically being in the room, which can be very distracting to six-year-olds,” said Benson. Ellis added, “This technological space will help us make high-level, high-quality video teaching portfolios for our student teachers to help them further their careers.”

PPLP staff members are very proud of their achievements, but they’re always looking toward the future and how they can continue to improve the program. “Personally, I would love to implement a more thorough music history and literature curriculum,” said Benson. “And I think that it’s essential for us to stay abreast of the latest pedagogical thought and the use of technology in teaching.”

A large part of helping PPLP thrive will be done through fundraising, endowment, and continued support from the community.

“PPLP has been and remains an important force in piano pedagogy internationally, and it is our goal to endow it with sufficient funds to expand our scholarships, special programs for PPLP student and faculty development, pedagogy GSIs, and technological infrastructure,” said Ellis. Benson also highlighted the importance of the upcoming gala, which will raise funds for scholarships. “To be able to provide merit-based scholarships for kids who are doing really well is a big thing,” she said. “They deserve that kind of recognition and encouragement.”

PPLP is a close-knit program that believes forming close connections and relationships is an important aspect of the piano experience. GSIs are deeply interested in how students learn and engage with music. Children have the opportunity to make friends who share the same interests and will support each other in performance. This sense of community facilitates lifelong connections, including the enrollment of second-generation PPLP students.

Deirdre L. C. Hennebury became aware of the PPLP program through her younger brothers, who participated in the 1990s. “My brothers’ experience had been extremely positive, and the PPLP seemed a logical choice when our eldest daughter reached grade school and showed an interest in music,” said Hennebury. The quality of the instruction, organization, and professionalism has since led her to enroll each of her four children in the program. “My husband and I continue to be impressed by the dedicated teachers and individual attention each of our children receives, and in our experience the PPLP offers a nurturing environment for piano instruction that truly emphasizes the development of the whole child.”


By Brandon Monzon, communications generalist and assistant editor of Michigan Muse.