The Method Behind the Melody: Bethany Clarkson

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I had the chance to speak to Bethany Clarkson, a young pianist and piano teacher currently studying at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. In September 2019, Bethany organised and staged an interactive music gameshow for children called The Treblemakers. This show was made possible through the efforts of a team of like-minded music students, and a grant from careers and entrepreneurship program MCM Ignite Lab.

I was so impressed by Bethany’s passion for music education when I saw her present at the 2019 Ignite Lab showcase, that I knew I wanted to interview her for Fever Pitch Magazine. Bethany currently offers piano lessons in Narre Warren along with a range of accompanying services. You can find her details on her website.

Bethany at piano teaching conference Piano Pivot Live 2020.

When did you start to realize that you wanted to pursue music more seriously than a hobby?

It was actually quite late for me. I initially thought I wanted to be an artist, because I liked to draw. Which is a questionable reason to want to take it to university!

My circumstances changed a lot when my own piano teacher passed on some students to me. She would always do stuff like that, she was forever a learner. So I took on the students. I was terrified at first, but I really enjoyed myself. And by the end of the third lesson I realized, this is what I have to be doing with my life. I was like, yeah, that’s it!

Then I was like, okay, what do I do now, where do I go now? I had to really assess where I would be studying next based on what was going to be profitable for me. I think I entered university with a different mindset to a lot of other students because I was very career-oriented. And focused on what was absolutely essential for me to become a music teacher. I’ve been sculpting my study experience that way.

So for you, a career in music education is definitely what you are striving for?

Yes! Even with my undergrad subjects, I’ve been very specific with selecting subjects with the focus of, what is going to be more useful to me. So no gamelan ensemble, stuff like that…

A lot of young people get thrust into the idea of, okay, you’ve got to go to uni now, while they’re still working out who they are as people. But thankfully I was given a bit more of a vision.

Are there particular areas of music education that you’re really interested, perhaps focusing more on the instrumental teaching side of things, or classroom teaching alongside instrumental teaching?

I love teaching from home because I love the connection that you can have with children. When their face lights up because they learnt something new and it was really cool to them. I’m also a massive music history nerd, I grew up listening to classical music from a very young age. My mum would just stick it on just as background music and I ended up getting really obsessed. So I love the chance to bring that to young students.

Bethany presenting at the 2019 MCM Ignite Lab showcase, where recipients of Ignite Lab grants presented a reflection on their projects and what they learnt during the process. She is pictured wearing the costume which she wore during the show.

I would love to hear more about the interactive music show you created for children. You mounted a performance of this show in September 2019 with the help of a grant from Melbourne University’s Ignite Lab program (then run by Susan Eldridge).

So the show was called The Treblemakers, and it combined what I was speaking about before, the idea of music and music history being fun and interesting. I wanted to present those things to children in the form of an interactive games-filled show, incorporating fun characters and a lot of silliness.

The first hour was broken up into fifteen minute chunks. Each chunk was devoted to a different category of classical music. For the Baroque section we talked about Bach, the development of opera, stuff like that. And then we had a game where the children would all contribute their own sound effect, like a fart noise or clapping their hands or whatever they wanted, and then our sound engineer Dan Johnson turned it into music. Which they adored!

One little boy was hilarious, as soon as he heard his own voice being played back, he quickly blocked his eyes and ducked his head down. I was so nervous during the show, but one thing which cheered me up was hearing some child singing Hallelujah, *fart noise*, Hallelujah, fart noise* as their chosen sound!

For the Romantic era game we did a quiz where we played excerpts and the kids had to pick what the pieces were called from a list of names. So we played Chopin’s Winter Wind, which starts out peacefully and then it goes nuts, and the options for possible titles were Sleeping Peacefully, The Happy Little Thing, Winter Wind and Getting in Trouble, that sort of thing.

The show was made possible through the efforts of a fantastic team. Everyone had their own job and put in an amazing effort.

  • Uma Dobia (Creative Design lead, scriptwriter)
  • Athaya Anaduta (Creative Design team member, Powerpoint designer)
  • Dan Johnson (Sound Design lead, game technician)
  • Holly Defina (Sound Design member, accompanist)
  • Malak Usama (Marketing Design lead, basically all design work!)
  • Rosie Yang (Marketing Design member, Facebook management)
  • Anji Dang (Production member, helped me with everything, especially team management)
  • Isaac Williams, Allen Ru, Esther Battersby (performers)

I had a representative from every instrument family. At the end of the show, we had a miniature recital where everyone played two pieces, one from the classical canon and one from pop culture. We tried to link the pieces with a theme. Uma’s pieces were Hadel’s Lascia ch’io pianga, which is about someone who wants to be somewhere else, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow which is also about someone who wants to be somewhere else! We tried to make it really clever.

Almost all of the children who saw the show expressed an interest in learning an instrument and could choose their favourite era of music. I heard from one adult in the audience that their child had been struggling after their parents’ divorce and had grown very shy. However during the show they were having a great time and even volunteered to come on stage!

What did the project teach you logistically? Because there’s so much involved in getting a project that size off the ground. And the amount of work that you have to do to wrangle/ work with other people, with no matter how fabulous or committed they are…

I’d never actually run a group of people like that before. Being a team leader, is one of those things, as Susan would say, where you just have to do it!  You say to yourself, I’m a team leader now.

One thing that I would be conscious of next time: when I delegated a task to someone, my team members would have respect for me because I was the team leader, but it would occasionally be difficult to get them to treat the person I delegated the task to with the same respect. That was tricky sometimes.  

Overall, I learnt the importance of being professional in everything that you do, in how you speak to people, in keeping really accurate lists… One thing I could have done better on the day would be the to-do list I kept, because some things got left out because I was just so stressed.

Bethany performing with fellow Melbourne Conservatorium of Music students. Piece composed by Bethany, ‘Thus Sings My Soul’.

How do you approach time management as a student?

I put everything in a mental box. During the Treblemakers project I put everyone in teams, so that made keeping track of things much easier. So I would think to myself, okay, what is the marketing team doing right now? Then I’d move onto the creative design team.

Also, keeping to-do lists, not just on your phone, actually writing them down. I have a daily planner on my desk which I fill in every single day. Even if it’s just a day where I go to university, I put it there. So keeping lists and compartmentalizing.

What do you think are the essential qualities to be a switched on teacher who truly sees each student as an individual person?

It can be tricky with some students, if it feels like they’re not into it. So I needed to learn how to generate that enthusiasm myself so that I could pass that on to them. Regardless of how the student is tracking, I try to always be passionate about what they’re learning. Even if it’s a simple little nursery rhyme.

It’s important to know what you want your student to be. Which sounds controlling, but if you are only focusing on their exams at the expense of everything else, you’re going to stress out the student. I want my students to be well-rounded musicians who do music because they enjoy it.

I try to be there for my students as people. Coming to their music exams to help them stay calm, or helping a student organise a talent show… I’ve seen the same advice on a lot of teaching blogs, to listen to your students, be someone they can trust. I’ve had some lovely moments with my students, like when a student learnt a piece secretly to surprise me and played it for me during a lesson!

Bethany performing at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Videos of her performances can be found here

Did you have any teaching books that you would recommend for aspiring instrumental teachers or music teachers?

Melody Payne’s book Teach Piano Today. When it comes to dealing with performance anxiety, it’s got to be Bulletproof Musician. Tim Topham has also written some excellent resources.

Any final pieces of advice you’d like to add?

For anyone reading this interview, who might feel similarly to how I felt three years ago… thinking, I love music, I love working with children, I want to combine the two. The advice that I’ve received from Susan and from lots of other people, is to make your own opportunities. Try to be different in some way. I want to go above and beyond what the norm is. And to work with other people.

What tends to happen is, people go to university thinking their options are performer or nothing. And then they finish uni as a pianist, and there are four billion other pianists out there, so they can’t find work. So they settle for being a teacher, with little to no training in it.

It’s a very important job, it requires a lot of thought and training, but a lot of people just end up settling for it. I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to think, ‘Oh I can kind of do this, I’ll get them through some exams and their parents will give me thirty bucks’.

I really love is the idea of the piano getting out of the studio, working with other instruments. AMEB recently updated their exam structure so that from grade five to grade eight you can do collaborative exams. So a pianist and a flautist can be examined together, or a pianist and violinist, etc. And that’s just so useful. Before I got to uni, I’d never played piano with anyone else.

I would love to see more interaction between music teachers, more of a sense of community. I know a local flute saxophone and clarinet teacher, and I collaborate with her. I’ll accompany her student’s exams, and we may do a recital with our combined students at the end of next year. It’s fantastic when music educators can work together to teach students to think creatively.

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