Sunday, May 29, 2011

Who Says?

"I remember hearing Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach sonatas for cello and keyboard. It was the first time I’d ever heard him live, and I remember thinking to myself, 'Well he’s a superstar, so it will be note-perfect, I’ll be dazzled by his technique and he’ll look great, but I won’t expect any revelations.' But just the opposite happened. My reaction to his Bach was 'Man, that was weird!' He didn’t play Bach at all like I’d come to think I’d known it. He was not afraid to be coarse and edgy at times, nor was he afraid to go beyond the accepted norms of polite expressiveness we’d been admonished to consider proper. He’d obviously asked questions before he started to consider the piece." John Adams in his 2011 Juilliard commencement address.

Thank you, John Adams. I like your operas, but I love this statement.

Recently I sat with a student as we poured over her jury sheets. I really like this student. She works hard. She asks questions. She is a risk-taker. I get that. I rather identify with it.

She played Mozart, and she played it beautifully. It was expressive and expansive, and she took just the right risks for her.

But as I read the comments, I was thinking, "Who says?" Who says the music is too loud, too slow, too dramatic, too full of rubato, too much like Beethoven? Really, I mean, really?

I know who signed the reports, but I don't know who told them how Mozart sounds. Or who told the people who told them. And on and on like a house of identical cards.

One of my colleagues tells her students that they must play according to custom until they become great. Then they can do whatever they want. HMMM. In other words, train all students to mediocrity, and then hope that a few will ferret out the right questions whose answers will lead to greatness.

I know that students are not born with historical perspectives on style, and that we need to teach that. I know that learning is a combination of discipline and freedom. But at some point we need to say, "Go, and do thou unlikewise."

This is where the art of teaching is most exciting and most perilous. We have to weigh the gain or loss in a situation against the dreaded "norms" that John Adams references. It's a tough call.

But the great ones make the call. Steven Blier, artistic director of the New York Festival of Song, is possibly the most exhuberant pianist I have ever heard. He knows songs from all over the world, and he plays every one as though he had grown up in its culture. When I told him how much I admired the joyfulness of his playing, he said that he never went to graduate school because he knew "they" would take that joy away.

The dreaded "they". Who says "they" are always right?

One juror who heard my student play apparently heard the same performance I heard. The comments were "lovely, expressive, emotional". In other words, the listener was touched by the performance. Who says there is anything wrong with that?

Monday, May 16, 2011

How Hard Can It Be?

"My dad taught me early in my coaching career that football is an easy game, made complicated by coaches," Rex Ryan told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

I stopped mid-sip in my morning coffee to listen to the interview on the May 13th issue of Morning Edition. I mentally rewrote the sentence to something like this: "Piano playing is an easy skill, made complicated by teachers."

OK, not really easy, not very easy at all once we get to high level literature. However, it is quite possible that we teachers make it even more complicated.

Ryan, successful coach of the NY Jets, says that he approaches coaching by requiring the whole team to be in on sessions that involve defense, for example. While he does split the team for specific coaching, he always makes sure that every player understands every part of the strategy and the contribution of each part to the whole. Holistic coaching, you might say.

I like this idea. I like it a lot. While we know as teachers of young students that they don't always see the value of things we want them to learn, it is not a bad idea to consider when and why they need to learn them in the larger scheme of skill-building.

Let's take scales, for example. Yes, scales. Many years ago one of my friends asked me if I taught my young students scales. I said, no, I use other simple technical exercises first. "Oh," she said, "my teacher made me play scales right from the beginning." (Enter my default insecurity.) She followed it up with, "I hated that."

Right, because hands-together parallel motion scales are hard to play for most young children, and they don't know why they need to learn them when very little, if any, of their repertoire uses them. For that matter, hands-together parallel motion scales don't appear all that often in more mature literature. So right out of the gate, this child-now-adult hated piano lessons. It was too hard to do something that didn't make sense.

There are certainly easier ways to teach scales - hands alone, tetrachords, etc., etc. - but many students learn scales more quickly and easily at a later stage. Up until then, they can be working on musical skills like good legato, hand balancing and moving the thumb. These technical elements are central to good scale playing. When students mature a bit, they can add these elements to the other challenges of scale playing, thereby putting the parts into the whole.

I was reminded of how important it is to make skill-building simple while watching a clip of James Levine, noted Metropolitan Opera conductor and vocal coach, working with Placido Domingo, life-long tenor cum baritone of international renown. Domingo expressed a technical challenge for his voice, and Levine said every so kindly, "I'll show you how to make it easier."

Now that's good coaching.