Dave Ratcliffe Piano
piano wonder
P I A N O     W O N D E R
Teaching Philosophy

My Primary Goal
My Teachers
Collaborative Teaching

My Primary Goal

The primary goal of my teaching is to make the study of piano and playing music engaging, fulfilling, and fun. I have been and continue to be inspired by many teachers and have learned from them that teaching piano is not only about learning music. It is an opportunity to enhance and expand other life skills: good communication, patience, confidence, and joy.

To accomplish this I require each student’s active participation in the charting of the course of study we jointly pursue. It is essential for me to discover what a student’s interests are and what s/he wishes to learn about. While our first lesson is often conversational, it is undeniably musical. During each lesson I pay close attention to my student to ensure that what we are doing is understandable and clear.

Learning to play familiar tunes enhances the process of playing by ear. Ear-training is a natural boon to learning for all students, especially younger students whose alphabetical reading and number counting skills are not yet developed. For more experienced students the choice of song materials will include their favorites and my suggestions of classical, rock, popular, blues, boogie-woogie, ragtime, swing, and be-bop/modern selections.

My Teachers

My philosophy of teaching comes from people who taught and inspired me including Carol Hills, Nancy Zamfirescu, Mary Lou Williams, and Gary Fredrick.

Carol Hills was a life-long friend who profoundly inspired me with her generous and contagious enthusiasm, energy, and musical prowess. She loved music and played everything from Bach to Fats Waller. My love of the piano was ignited and catalyzed by Carol. She taught me to love the instrument and the music it could make. I have been honored to pass that enthusiasm on to her granddaughter Natalie.

Nancy Zamfirescu taught a class I took in computer programming. She possessed the rare gift of remembering how it feels to not know a subject and was remarkably skilled at translating that into her teaching style. She genuinely listened to students and was able to discern their level of understanding. Learning was fun because Nancy clearly enjoyed learning! Her teaching conveyed her own proficiency of a subject while relishing the call-and-response we would have during her lectures. Each student’s participation was rewarded with her thoughtful and deliberate responses; one came away with answers that were clear and illuminating.

After a year at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, I had the rare opportunity to study at Duke University with the extraordinarily influential jazz pianist, Mary Lou Williams. With her, I learned that teaching takes on many shapes and forms and covers a wide range of emotions. She sometimes would be frustrated with me and this was confusing. My friend and future wife, Nina Vansuch responded to my account of this with the observation, “She wouldn’t have done that if she didn’t think you were worth it.”

Mary Lou played through all the eras of jazz. I learned about the feeling in this unique U.S. art form, born from generations of people in slavery who rose above the experience with soulful singing and music. I especially loved her rhythmic and harmonic sense. It has had a significant influence on my own. When I met her, Mary Lou was on a mission to promote and revive, as Duke Ellington called it, the American Idiom, because of the great healing she knew it contained. I work to pass on this love and caring to those I teach.

My career path turned to computers, and for 15 years I worked at SGI (formerly, Silicon Graphics, Inc.) in Mountain View. While largely involved in the computer world, I continued to play and study piano. I was fortunate to purchase my first real piano: a 6'11" Yamaha disklavier grand on which I teach and play. Because of my belief in reciprocity and sharing the gifts I received from these teachers, I began to search for a more meaningful venue to explore in life and music.

I began playing piano in elder citizen homes and schools. In 1999 I met Gary Fredrick, the Music Director at the Shoreline Middle School in Santa Cruz, California. Known as “Mr. Fred”, Gary taught four piano classes five days a week in addition to the band classes in his teaching roster. Gary assigned me (as a volunteer assistant) to students who needed extra help. I was lucky to have my computer work schedule accommodate many hours a week of volunteer work in the classroom.

Gary and I also began our collaboration of the scores that he used in his advanced piano classes. This is where the disklavier piano comes in: Gary played songs as he would want the students to play them. I then translated his interpretations into easily readable scores for his students including In The Mood, Canon in D, Green Onions, Money, Happy Together, Every Breath, Feelin’ Alright, My Heart Will Go On, All My Life, Jump, White Room, Inspector Gadget, Secret Agent Man, the Mario computer game song, Paint It Black, Eight Days A Week, and Take Five.

I strongly identified with Gary’s teaching style. A life-long musician who speaks with an authenticity and authority the kids understand, Gary is the real McCoy. His teaching style is relaxed, patient, engaging, inclusive, and most of all, fun. After a short time of my volunteering in his classes, Gary encouraged me to teach private piano lessons; he also recommended me to parents asking for a reference to a piano teacher. (Please see Gary’s Recommendation for me written in September 2004.)

Collaborative Teaching

I collaborate with students to build their lesson plans. While I direct the piano lessons, the lessons are the direct result of our exploration of the type of music my students want to play and what specific music pieces they want to work on. My goal is for each student to have the experience of an open two-way conversation and active participation in the course of their study.

Many younger children don’t yet have a clear sense of songs they want to learn or what type(s) of music they like. Simple songs like Twinkle Twinkle or Mary Had A Little Lamb are usually recognizable by these students, ignite their interest in learning them, and are a great match for introducing ear-training. For sight-reading I present scores of songs I create on the disklavier. For example, in this version of You Are My Sunshine, the student plays the melody across both hands fingers:

You Are My Sunshine melody for 2 hands

For sight-reading, while I have used Alfred’s Basic Piano Library and the Faber Piano Adventures, I now prefer Donald Waxman’s Pageants for Piano. I find that Waxman’s books reinforce the collaborative spirit between teacher and student. (Mr. Waxman was the guest artist at the New England Conservatory of Music in classes for Piano Pedagogy that I attended with Nina in June 2003.)

There is no doubt that sight-reading is an integral part of playing music. However, for some students reading music is not the be-all and end-all of playing piano. I have learned that for students who are challenged by reading or math, learning songs "by ear" can give one a true sense of accomplishment. Getting the student engaged is the goal!

Most of my "ear only" students come around to reading music. I have found that even the most reluctant-to-read-music students are enlivened to practice the scores I make for them. Students who have “made up” their own songs can play them in to the disklavier, hear and see the piano play the song back, and eventually read their own song from the score I create. The disklavier and my computer can also create scores of any song a student chooses.

There are times when a student will ask for a song I have a score made previosly for another student. Today in 2022, I have a digital music score library produced over 20-plus years. Custom scores are fashioned to match a student’s current level of reading and technical prowess.

For instance, a student wanted to learn James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. Taylor’s version is recorded in D Major. Initially, assuming my student would want the score to be easier to play, I transposed it to the key of C:

Sweet Baby James, take 1, key of C

When I showed this to my student, she could distinguish differences in pitch and wanted to learn it in its recorded key. Based on her direction, I made a second version in the key of D:

Sweet Baby James, take 2, key of D

After working together with the second version I determined that the left hand was too complex for this student at this time. Rewriting the bass clef to predominantly use dotted half notes, we arrived at a version that was best tailored to this student’s level of interest and skill:

Sweet Baby James, take 3, key of D

Good communication, patience, confidence, and joy.