Left Hand, Right Hand

Left Hand, Right Hand

     In the two decades of my life between kindergarten and completing course work for my Ph.D., I had dedicated teachers from whom I learned a great deal.  But I cannot consciously identify a single thing from their pedagogies that I have actually taken into my current teaching. My childhood piano teacher, by contrast, left me with a great storehouse of ideas about education, which – though I was long unaware of the connection – led directly to my own involvement with Decoding the Disciplines.  Long before that term had been invented, many generations of music teachers had decoded their own practice, making explicit what they did automatically, breaking it down into manageable pieces, modeling these operations, giving students opportunities to practice each component in isolation, and maintaining motivation by providing consistent opportunities to experience mastery of increasingly complex forms of musical expression.

     This pedagogical tradition was passed on to me by a very skilled teacher, Alfred Teltschik, who embodied the core task of Decoding.  As a successful concert pianist, he was clearly an expert in his field.  But he never lost the ability to understand how things that were so simple to him could be daunting to a beginner. 

     I had no particular talent at the piano, and I abandoned the instrument long ago.  But very deep in my consciousness is the experience of moving forward through evermore demanding works, practicing the right hand slowly, than the left, bringing the two together, then returning to individual hands to increase control and speed, and, finally, once I had real control over the material, adding feeling and an individual interpretation.  My teacher had the insight to keep me continually within Vigotsky’s zone of proximal development,1 where I was always being challenged to move beyond my current skills, but never presented with tasks that were completely beyond me.

     When I became a teacher, myself, I initially forgot all of this and repeated the strategies of my own college professors, who often did the equivalent of setting the sheet music for a Chopin etude or a Rachmaninoff rhapsody in front of a beginning piano student and devoting the entire class to a discussion the dynamics of an ideal performance. When over the years it slowly became increasingly obvious to me that this pedagogical strategy was only working for those elite students who had been “preeducated,” I began to slowly move towards what would become – with essential input from an entire community of other educators – Decoding.  Like my childhood piano teacher, I began to break large tasks down into their components and give my students opportunities to master each, before I asked them to apply these new skills to more complex tasks.  It was only after Decoding had become a movement within the scholarship of teaching and learning that I finally recognized that in many ways I had simply followed a very circuitous route back to a practice that I had first encountered when I was ten.

     Because of my gratitude to my teacher and to the great tradition of music teaching that he represented, I have been particularly pleased to see that a little of my debt to musicology is being repaid, as music educators are beginning to use Decoding to explore instruction in areas that had remained untouched by the pedagogical tradition that I experienced as a child.  

     The first musicologist to take this step was J. Peter Burkholder, who had encountered Decoding as a Fellow in the Indiana University Freshman Learning Project,2 the faculty learning community in which the paradigm was created. He began with a fascinating question: just how does a musicologist recognize different musical styles or genres? This skill is absolutely essential to students in his field, but it is almost never fully broken up into its component parts and actually shown to students.  He divided the task into two parts– first, identifying the distinctive features of particular styles or genres and, second, using that knowledge to classify unknown examples. Next he worked to make explicit the steps that he, himself, followed automatically to achieve these results. To translate this deeper understanding of what students need to learn into practice, he devised detailed strategies for modeling these processes, for giving students opportunities to practice them, for motivating them to persevere, and for assessing their success.

     The article, in which Burkholder shared all this3 is an example of early Decoding at its best, and it has had an impact on teaching in his field. Jennifer Hund, for example, built on his work to develop a strategy for helping non-majors in her music appreciation courses learn to write about what they hear.4  But it was Robin Attas, who helped move musicology into the realm of what I like to call Decoding 2.0. 

     Like many teachers, Attas emerged from her own decoding interview very aware that she had not been sharing with her students all of the operations that were necessary for success in her courses:

“In the classroom, I presented musical analyses as completed products by asking students to submit finished work and then offering feedback by showing them the answers that an expert would obtain. Rarely did I address the process of how to achieve those right answers. Students didn’t use my analytical processes because I hadn’t taught them explicitly.5

     However, Attas recognized that she did not just think about a piece of music, when she was subjecting it to analysis.  She also played it, singing along, sometimes just repeating the chords. She marked up the texts in a variety of different ways.  And throughout all of this complex series of seemingly disparate actions, she was constantly creating provisional interpretations of the work, dropping some, revising others, until a clear vision of the work began to emerge.  At the end of this process, Attas came to view “this expert process of music analysis as an engagement with my ‘whole musical self,’ an inclusive practice that includes listening, singing, playing, composing, and sometimes movement, as well as the more intellectual (and often silent) practices of thinking about music from various disciplinary perspectives and looking at a score.”  It was this multi-faceted experience of music that she needed to share with her students, and not just a narrow intellectual analysis. 

     In this process of self-analysis, Attas was helping take Decoding beyond its original focus on cognitive processes and making explicit a much broader range of behaviors that often remain unnoticed even by the experts in the field who are automically – and unconsciously —  performing them.  It was this multi-faceted experience of music, which involved both physical and intellectual activities, that she needed to share with her students.  Like the brilliant scholars of teaching and learning at Mount Royal University,6 she is taking Decoding into realms that were not envisioned in the early days of the paradigm and redefining what it is that we need to teach.


  1. S. Vygotsky. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.
  2. Joan Middendorf,  “Facilitating a Faculty Learning Community Using the Decoding the Disciplines Model,” in David Pace and Joan Middendorf, eds., Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking (New Directions in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 98 (Fall 2004), pp. 95-107;
  3. Peter Burkholder, Journal of Music History Pedagogy, (February 2011), Vol. 1, n. 2, pp. 93–111.
  4. Jennifer L. Hund, “Writing about music in large music appreciation classrooms using active learning, discipline-specific skills, and peer review.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy2 (2011): 117-32.
  5. Robin Attas, “Uncovering and Teaching the Process of Analysis to Undergraduate Music Theory Students.” College Music Symposium. Vol. 58. No. 2. The College Music Society, 2018.
  6. Janice Miller-Young, and Jennifer Boman, eds. Using the Decoding the Disciplines Framework for Learning Across Disciplines, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 150. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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