Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fear Elise

"I just don't teach 'Für Elise'," my long-time good friend and fellow piano teacher confessed over lunch. I picked around in my salad and made a similar confession. "Yes, I used to avoid it as well." My memory went back to the "salad days" of teaching, when I would make such pronouncements. I thought about the reasons for avoiding one of the most unavoidable pieces in the whole piano repertoire. Here they are, along with my updated understanding:

1. So overdone!  As a young teacher fresh out of grad school, I had had recent exposure to much contemporary music. Like many young musicians, I thought it was ingenious, rebellious, and a harbinger of the future of music. I wanted to be in the avant-garde of the avant-garde, not continuing musty traditions.

Update: Much of the music I was heralding as the wave of the future never gets played any more. Für Elise still has wide-spread appeal. Don't get me wrong - I still teach modern music. I also teach pieces that are considered staples in the repertoire.

2. It rarely gets played as well as it should be played.  I had such high standards for how I thought this piece should be performed that I have to laugh about them now. As musty as I thought it was, it was also somehow sacred.

Update: One of my current sayings about my profession is that I hear wrong notes for a living. I do. I hear incorrect rhythms. I do. And awkward pedaling and limited dynamics and, well, the list goes on. However, I am a teacher. It is my job to help students avoid and weed out errors. I do that. I do. Why not do that with a piece the student loves?

3. It is SO repetitive. Dee-dah-dee-dah-dee-dah - you get the idea. That one half step, over and over and over and over. Come on, students, find something with more variety!

Update: There are a number of avenues of brain exploration that demonstrate the brain's desire for pattern. A wonderful word that surfaces in this context is "fractal". Here is a direct quote from http://mathworld.wolfram.com: "A fractal is an object or quantity that displays self-similarity, in a somewhat technical sense, on all scales." We see fractals often in nature, as demonstrated by this plant clip art. The leaves are not identical to each other in dimension, but they certainly exhibit self-similarity in patterns. Beethoven figured out how to bring back a pattern that seems natural to the listener, just as the leaves of this plant are pleasingly similar. Boring, or genius?

 4. Playing the piano is self-motivating.  No need to give in to students' wishes to play war horses like Für Elise.

Update: This one must have some of you laughing by now. Those of us who have chosen to make a career centered on playing the piano probably have a different motivation from a 12-year-old student. That student may want to play something he or she has heard friends and relatives play. As one of  my students told me, his friend knows one piece of classical music: Dee-dah-dee-dah-dee-dah-dee-dah-dee. His friend doesn't even know the title, just the opening pattern. When my student masters it, he will be reaching out to a potential future audience member for classical music by playing it for his friend.

If you are old enough to remember the TV show "The Wonder Years", you may also remember the episode in which the young male character, Kevin, works and works and works and works to prepare Für Elise for his piano teacher's studio recital. I have seen students do the same thing in my studio. Unlike Kevin's teacher, I never double-book this piece. My students know this, which attaches an extra honor to being THE performer to play the "big" version of Für Elise on the annual recital. And that is something worth the work.

Which means, as you can tell, that I have come full circle from never teaching this chestnut to almost always teaching it. It is not only for Elise, but for Emily, Chad, Grace, Jeremy, their parents, their friends, and, oh, yes, for me.

Click to see and hear:
Für Elise for my students