Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Trees/forest, forest/trees

After a two year self-imposed hiatus from city adventures, I went to Philadelphia to hear the orchestra and have a happy family visit. When I'm in any city, I pay attention to the buildings right in front of me, the streets signs, and the traffic, particularly the taxis. I window shop and people watch, with little regard to the city as a whole. This is a nice way of saying I have a rather poor sense of direction, and I root myself to the spot I'm in.

On this trip we had lodgings far above the city with glass walls in the living room. The view of the city was spectacular, with rows of buildings stretching out to the horizon. It was a panoramic view. I loved it.

These two views represent one of the main ways I categorize students: tree learners and forest learners. The tree learners are the ones who fuss over every single detail in the piece. They don't miss articulations, dynamics, or chromatic signs. If they do, they become flustered and apologize profusely. It's great to notice the regard they have for the composer's markings. On the other hand, sometimes the larger picture gets missed, and the music is accurate but not placed into a larger dramatic arc.

The forest learners go straight to the heart. They "get" the meaning of the piece right away, and they dive right into it. The arc is foremost in their attention. It's just not always accurate in terms of what is on the page.

Truth be told, I've been both of these learners. There have been times when I decided that pleasing the teacher meant playing every jot and tittle on the page. Because isn't pleasing the teacher the goal? Most of the time, I'm the lover of the panorama. Friends say I'm a big picture kind of gal, and most of the time, that is true. Maybe that comes from being a decent sight-reader and letting mistakes fly by without concern.

I've also been both of these teachers, some days pointing out every tiny detail in a student's performance. Other days, it's all about the expressive quality of the playing. On my best days, it is some of both.

A student who gets rattled over a tiny mistake doesn't benefit from more needling over details. It just makes things worse. A student who is, shall we say, sloppy, needs more clean-up work in a lesson. It's always a balancing act.

The expression for seeing the details and the arc is inclusive awareness. While looking at the vast skyline of Philadelphia, I was able to pick out buildings I knew by their size and shape without losing the vastness of the city. Probably easier than picking out a specific tree in a forest of trees, but it's the principle that counts. It's the same principle we can apply in performance and in teaching.