Early Education is a Responsibility Shared Equally Between Teachers and Parents - 10 Questions with Lucy Chen, Pianist and Chair of the Music Department at Edward Waters College
Dr. Lucy Chen migrated from China to North America with her parents when she was seven years old and her family settled in Canada. Chen had a natural love for music as a child and she was drawn to classical, pop, and jazz. It was out of this love of music that a young Chen began taking piano lessons at the encouragement of her mother.
Chen's parents took her schooling very seriously. They viewed music as an important academic subject and because of that, her musical pursuits were not that of a hobbyist. During her adolescent years, Chen spent four-hours each day practicing. She dreaded the long hours of practice but remained dedicated to her development as a musician. It wasn't long before Chen's music teacher asked her to take part in piano competitions. Having access to the arts at an early age set the trajectory for Chen's adult life.
Chen received her Bachelor of Music degree from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the first music institution of higher education in China. She then completed her Graduate Degree and Doctorate at Boston University, with a focus on piano performance. She moved to Jacksonville during the final year of her DMA program, where, in 2014, she began working as an Assistant Professor of Music at Edward Waters College (EWC), Florida's oldest historically black college. It was during that same year that Chen founded Keys on Parade, an initiative that provides tuition-free group piano programs to students in underserved neighborhoods.
Through this program, music majors at EWC serve in mentoring roles to students at John E. Ford Pre K-8 School. The objective of Keys on Parade is to encourage confidence and enthusiasm in beginning musicians through a comprehensive approach to learning music. In a group setting, children learn to sing songs, dance to rhythm activities, play music theory games, and perform ensemble pieces as a team.
During the 2017-2018 academic year, Chen was named Chair of the Music Department at EWC. She also was selected to serve as a teaching artist in residence during the pilot year of Lift Every Student, a collaborative arts integration program between Any Given Child Jacksonville, the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, and Duval County Public Schools. The inaugural year of the program was made possible due to the generous support of David Engdahl, a private donor and Jacksonville based sculptor, and PNC through their Arts Alive grant program.
In her role as teaching artist, Chen will work with students and teachers at John Love Early Learning Center. Her residency plan is titled Music Engineers: Making Instruments with Math. Chen will instruct students on how to make boom wackers, tuned percussion tubes engineered from PVC pipes. Through the construction process and ensemble performances, students will develop problem solving skills while strengthening their core knowledge of math, science, engineering, and music.
10 Questions with Lucy Chen
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
The truth is that I can’t actually remember the start of any of my projects. At any given time, I have a number of somewhat vague ideas that I’m working on in various ways. Some may be merely concepts that I’ve bounced off a colleague once or twice, while others are serious endeavors that I’ve spent months or years thinking about: none of them are born with a plan.
I tend to work feverishly on ideas that I’m passionate about, whether or not I have a clear picture of how they will evolve. Sometimes that passion leads to something fruitful, like Keys on Parade. Plans tend to evolve organically.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
Most importantly, I learned that I am fortunate to do what I love.
While completing my graduate studies, I found a passion for working with children. As I became more adept at educating young musicians, I became equally passionate about sharing my methods and ideas with other educators. Eventually, teaching our future teachers became my job. But, conveying textbook education methodologies is something easier said than done. Doing it right means taking a hands-on approach, so after moving to Jacksonville, I brought one of my visions to life by starting my group piano outreach program Keys on Parade.
The first year was really proof of concept - I still have a picture of all the instruments sitting on my living room floor. Gradually, things started to pick up. My young piano students in the program won awards and competitions; the program partnered with Duval County Public Schools; we received funding and sponsorships; and since Fall 2017, our program is operating in multiple schools.
Through building the program, I learned that nobody can be a one-person army. I have three dedicated EWC college students - Asha McPhaul, Joston Honore, and Kervin Ferguson - who serve as program mentors, spending several hours each week teaching our young pianists. While their support is crucial to Keys on Parade, they are also primary beneficiaries of the program. I have watched them grow tremendously as educators over the past two years.
How do you define success in what you do?
This is a quote from John Wooden: “Make an effort to do the best you can regularly: the results will be about what they should be.” For most musicians, success equates to perfection – we expect the outcome of every note, phrase, and project to be flawless. In reality, the end result - whether a recital or academic endeavor - is only the byproduct of our efforts, and not the final step of the journey. Success for me is the self-satisfaction in knowing that I have made every effort to do the best of my capabilities.
What assumptions or expectations did you have for the program and partnership between Edward Waters College and John E. Ford Pre K-8 School and how do you assess your original assumptions or expectations now that the program has been operating for more than three years?
Early education is a responsibility shared equally between teachers and parents. For a program of this type to be successful, it absolutely requires dedicated parents who are invested in their children’s future. I expected the program would attract highly motivated parents and I was delighted when it did. I also expected enthusiastic students and support from John E. Ford. With great students, support from the school, and devoted parents, we hit the jackpot!
I am very proud to say that many of our past graduates have received “Superior” ratings at statewide piano evaluations, and we are currently preparing one of our second-year piano students from John E. Ford to attend the Florida Federation of Music Clubs state convention in 2018!
In addition to the piano lessons, Keys on Parade strives to bring diverse segments of the community together through the joy of music. Our annual concerts provide an opportunity for the school aged-children to showcase their achievements and involve family, friends, and the community. Last year, our Winter Concert attracted an audience of over 300! This year’s concert will be held on February 11 at the Jacksonville Public Main Library. We will feature Keys on Parade students from John E Ford and Jacksonville Beach Elementary alongside the Ancient City Brass Band.
The success of our students, the growth of our EWC educators, and the support of our parents, schools, and community represent a tremendous success for the program. Not only has it met my expectations, it continually exceeds them.
You're currently serving as a teaching artist through Lift Every Student. How are you using music to teach science lessons and how do you think arts integration initiatives can benefit students as they learn science, mathematics, and English language arts?
Well, I must admit that I have a secret weapon when it comes to science, math, and arts integration: I married a scientist. We worked together to develop lesson plans and activities that engage the students in chemistry, physics, math, and of course music. Recently my husband joined us in class for a day where we learned about the science of sound. We used a tone generator and a Chladni membrane to learn about resonance frequencies, we made Oobleck dance on a sub-woofer, and we bounced a laser off a rubber membrane to visualize our own voices.
Throughout the semester, we’re building a boom whacker orchestra that we will eventually use to perform an end-of-semester concert. Through the building process, the kids must practice their understanding of measurement units, fractions, and arithmetic. The experience provides a rare opportunity to understand engineering. Practice sessions with the boom whackers enable lessons in rhythm and note reading. I see the integration of these cross functional fields as a way to maintain focus in an age group where attention span is an ever-present issue.
You are both an arts educator as well as a professional artist. In the role of arts educator, you cultivate the talent in others, while in the role of professional artist you seek to master your own artistry. Each requires a high level of dedication and development. How do you find a balance between the two roles?
I wish I could say the answer to your question was as simple as “I spend 3-4 hours a day doing this, and 3-4 hours doing that, and so on.” In reality, we have only so many hours a day to devote to our goals and, at any given time, one project might consume all or only some of my time. It’s a constant struggle to find balance between artistry and education.
You have developed collaborative projects that pair music with other artistic disciplines, such as a program with Paula Merritt that showcased and explored the equilibrium between music and poetry. Are you interested in participating in more collaborative opportunities in 2018? If yes, what do you look for in collaborating partners and what are some basic metrics you use when determining a need for an initiative and measuring its resulting impact?
I am always interested in exploring future collaborative opportunities! I find that all art forms share a common goal of expressing emotion; the only difference between them is their medium. My collaborative projects are geared toward the general public, with little or no music background. By implementing narration, illustration, or dance alongside music, we can bridge the gap between sound and context/meaning. I find this tends to help enable the audience to experience music as composers intended.
You received both your Graduate Degree and Doctoral Degree in Piano Performance from Boston University. What criteria did you use as points of comparison when selecting a university to pursue post-secondary education? Additionally, what do you feel are some of the benefits or drawbacks of pursuing more than one degree at one educational institution?
I completed my B.M. at one of the best music schools in Asia (Shanghai Conservatory of Music), and while I could have stayed there for graduate school, I chose to study in the US to gain exposure to different educational and artistry principles.
I pursed my M.M. at Boston University because of the exceptional faculty I found there. The faculty at BU are renowned artists, but they are also very approachable and down to earth. They welcomed us into their homes, spent many after class hours working one-on-one with us, and taught us not only to perform, but to be modest and humble.
The decision to stay for my D.M.A. was partly because of the exceptional faculty, and partly because my husband was working on his postdoc at MIT. I had no desire to leave Boston, but doing so would have been very complicated either way. I have zero regrets.
What do you feel are the creative and artistic aspects of learning to play the piano? Furthermore, what do you do to encourage your students to reach beyond just learning the play notes and actually invest themselves emotionally into what they're performing?
Playing any musical instrument is an outlet for creativity and self-expression. We sing a happy tune when spirts are high, and a sad lament when spirits are low. Humming a tune is human nature, but mastering a performance requires practice and nurturing. My goal is to help my students enter a state of “flow:” a mindset most successful athletes, musicians, and artists have experienced at some point in their careers.
The term “flow” was used by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi to describe a feeling of complete focus and concentration: you have a sense of inner clarity, know what needs to be done, and all your worries and concerns drift away. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? In order to achieve the flow state, I try to encourage my students by having them learn a repertoire that they enjoy, develop the skills to meet the technical demands of the piece, set clear goals, and focus completely on the task.
We often think learning music is just about hitting the right notes, but the true value in studying an instrument goes beyond that. It instills grit and confidence, and I find these to be the most universally valuable traits one can possess in life.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow the city's arts and cultural sector?
Arts and culture are unequivocally important components to a high quality of life, and their production contributes to the urban economy. Furthermore, a growing body of studies have found compelling evidence connecting arts studies to academic and social benefits. In order to sustain and continue future growth in the sector, it’s crucial to have a variety of arts and music programs for the youth. I am delighted to see new arts initiatives and music programs offered through DCPS, the Cathedral Arts Project, and other local organizations. I hope to see continued emphasis on arts, and hopefully, an increase in funding for cultural programs in the public schools.
We'd like to thank Dr. Lucy Chen for her participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for reading.
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