An Excellent Music Education: Without Boundaries
As a world-class pianist, award-winning instructor, and director of MSU's Piano Pedagogy program, Derek Polischuk has no trouble infusing his passion for high quality music education into his students. But for Dr. Polischuk, inspiring his own students is not enough. He wants a high quality music education to be available to everyone.
"What I value," said Polischuk, "is the opportunity for my pedagogy students to understand the importance of making high quality music education available to anybody, regardless of their economic status."
In order to help make that happen, Polischuk and his students, along with other College of Music faculty and students, make visits each semester to the Cornerstone Schools in Detroit, where they offer master classes and consultation in piano, strings, voice, and early childhood music.
"We spend four hours at the school and give master classes to the students—it's kind of a public lesson," explained Polischuk. "It's really an event the students look forward to, and it's very exciting because families come to watch—almost like a recital."
MSU's involvement with Cornerstone's music program started in 2008 when Rhonda Buckley, associate dean for outreach and engagement, began looking for opportunities to reach out to the city of Detroit. According to Buckley, generous support from friends of both MSU's College of Music and the Cornerstone Schools has made the relationship possible. "As the College of Music began to increase its presence in Detroit in 2008," she explained, "this proved to be a wonderful collaboration to grow with."
Kathy Ferris is the music coordinator and string director of the Cornerstone Schools. According to Ferris, the school's vision for holistic music programming, in which every student participates in music starting in third grade, has given rise to a flourishing and rigorous group music program. "The kids are given excellent instruction in a group setting. We pick kids who are willing to work hard."
Polischuk noted that it's very unique for a school to have the resources necessary to support a group piano program. This is possible at Cornerstone because the quality of the program speaks for itself.
"People see a successful program and they like to support something that works," said Ferris. "It's a case of, 'if you build it, they will come.' We define ourselves by the excellence we present and we sustain ourselves through that excellence."
Polischuk and his colleagues at MSU are thrilled to have a part in that success. According to Cornerstone's website, "The MSU collaboration is a dynamic program designed to serve every student who walks through our doors. We are proud to say it is a music program unlike anything else in the city–or the country."
Ferris appreciates the quality and attention to detail that Polischuk gives each student, adapting to their level and ability. "That's what's so good about what he does," she explained. "He takes a small detail to work on and then expands it out to a larger concept."
That ability to perfect a small detail and then apply it to the larger setting of life is one benefit of studying music at Cornerstone. The students "have to know how high the bar is when they're out in the real world," said Ferris. "You don't get a B+ singing the National Anthem—you either sing it right or you don't sing it. And that's our job—to prepare them."
While such a high-caliber collaboration encourages the bright, eager students at Cornerstone, Polischuk is also deeply aware of the personal growth and professional development opportunity it provides to his own students. But not the kind of professional development that is typical in the world of music performance. "This is not common," he explained. "Much professional development focuses on boosting your own career goals—establishing a studio in an affluent neighborhood. But then it sends the message that good quality music education is for the rich."
"I want my students to know that there is a time and a place to take time out to work with people who otherwise wouldn't have this opportunity," he further explained. He doesn't want the message to stop with his own students at MSU, so he also shares his approach in presentations at conferences around the country, hoping that other piano pedagogy programs will adopt this kind of a model.
"It's not hard to do," he says, regarding the establishment of such a program, but there are a few logistical challenges, such as finding a day that works in everyone's schedule. "Some students may have to miss four or five lectures on any given day… it's a matter of getting other professors to buy into this as a beneficial experience for the students." However, the challenges are minimal and the benefits far outweigh any logistical difficulties.
In fact, upon graduation, several of Polischuk's students have gone on to teach at Cornerstone, a testament to the program's impact. Since 2007, he has taken about 35 graduate and undergraduate students to Cornerstone with him. "I want students to know that the work they're doing can lead to bigger things. The students see it as an honor to be invited."
Polischuk was one of six MSU faculty who recently received the Teacher-Scholar Award, which is given to early career faculty who, according to the College of Music's website, show "scholarly promise and…have earned the respect of their students and colleagues for their teaching skills." He has published for the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Journal, and says that his teaching and his scholarship are informed and influenced by his engaged work with kids.
"One of the things I really love," said Polischuk, "is that a lot of parents come out [to the master classes] with video cameras and a lot of enthusiasm. It's so heartwarming when I ask a student to play a passage a little differently than they have in the past, maybe a slightly different rhythm, tempo, dynamic, etc., and then they do it. The parents break out into a resounding applause. It's hard to describe that feeling."
With such affirmation for kids who have so much potential, and with such abundant collegial support from parents, students, teachers, and administrators, Polischuk says, "it's a program worth getting excited about!"