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?

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