On Teaching

August 1, 2017

August interlude

I have decided to take a partial break from my sequence of columns about helping students to develop fingerings and instead write about a few miscellaneous matters that have been on my mind. These are all small but interesting things that are hard to fit into columns that are about something well defined. So this month’s column is a grab bag or smorgasbord. I am influenced to construct this sort of column right now by the following confluence: it happens that I am writing this during a real heat wave (early summer mid-90s temperatures, with lots of sun and little wind), and this column will be distributed in August, when, around where I live, this sort of weather would be more typical. So it feels like time for a bit of summer relaxation and catching up.

A couple of things that I am writing about this month tie in with the business of teaching fingering. That may not be too surprising, since, as I wrote a few months ago, there is no such thing as keyboard playing without fingering. I will note these connections, but not go into them at great length, and then pick up those threads as well in the coming months.

As I looked over my notes about some of these points and thought about a few more things that have passed through my mind recently, I noticed that some of what I want to discuss is even more personal than usual: my playing, my own reactions to things, some of what I think has gone well in my work, and some of what has gone not so well. I believe most of us find it challenging to say openly: “Yes, I did this well. This was a success.” or “That didn’t work out. I am not (yet?) good at that.” Grappling with framing certain things in one of those ways is a reminder that everything that we do performing and teaching is a result and a reflection of our makeup and experiences. It is extraordinarily important that we remember that this is true of our students as well.


Forced into sight-reading . . .

I recently played a harpsichord recital for which I forgot to bring some of my music. (Is this going to be a trend? Do I have to do something about it? Not sure yet.) In particular, I simply didn’t have any way of obtaining a copy of a Froberger toccata that I had programmed. This is a piece that I have played in recital a dozen times or more over the last couple of years, more on harpsichord than on organ. It is also a piece that I know extremely well. I could probably write out at least chunks of it, and write in what I know to be my fingerings for those bits.

But that doesn’t mean I could play the piece from memory. (This is my first experience of bumping up against this particular practical disadvantage to my preferred approach of not performing from memory.) I noticed that in a Froberger volume that I had with me, from which I was going to play a suite, there was another toccata in the same key as my missing one. That meant that I could play it instead of the programmed one without making the printed program inaccurate or misleading. 

The only problem was that I had never learned this piece. I have probably read through it at some point in the past, since I have specialized in Froberger for decades and have read through all or close to all of his music. But if so, I didn’t remember that, and it would have been years ago. But I read through the piece once during my tuning and warming-up session and decided I could go ahead and play it in the concert. I did so, and it went fine: basically accurate, a wrong note or two, but not necessarily more than I or another performer might make in any piece; rhythms certainly accurate; tempos in the faster bits perhaps slower than I would want them following a normal amount of preparation, but not by much. It was a successful performance, though I hope that it was not as effective as it would have been if I had worked on it. If it was, then that casts some doubt upon my whole normal learning and preparation strategy!

So, what did I get out of this? I am certainly not recounting this to suggest that I am a particularly great sight-reader. Really I am not. I figure that by the standards of professional keyboard performers, I am probably about a “B-plus” sight-reader, and if not exactly that, then more likely “B” than “A-minus.” And I suspect that the several other toccatas in the volume would have been a stretch for me to sight-read in performance. They looked more intricate. It was a lucky coincidence for me that the one in the correct key was the simplest-looking one. But it is also important not to remain trapped in a sense of what we cannot do or what we are not good at. When I was in college, it would have been utterly out of the question for me to perform this piece without having practiced it for weeks. Could I have performed it after one read-through fifteen years ago? Five? I am not sure. But I was correct to intuit that I could do so now. 

We should also never remain trapped in a sense of what our students cannot do. What they (and we) can and cannot do should be changing all the time. While I was actually performing this piece, the feeling of playing it was more comfortable and serene than what I often experience while performing a piece that I know well, that I have prepared obsessively, that I feel ready to perform or record, that I consider part of my identity as a player. Why? How is this even possible? There has to be something to learn there about concentration, expectation, and anxiety. I do not yet know exactly what that is. It must start from the awareness that I had to pay close attention all of the time, every fraction of a second, like driving on a slippery road. But what about that would be good to import into the act of playing a well-prepared piece? Would there be a down side to doing so? Less spontaneity? My thinking about this is new and evolving, especially since this was the most recent concert that I have played as I sit here writing.

This also reminds me that there is such a thing as sight-reading fingering, or even a sight-reading approach to fingering. Fingering will be a different sort of phenomenon depending on whether you do or don’t know what is coming up next. To some extent this has to tie in with patterns and templates for how to play what sort of passage. How does this, or doesn’t this, have the potential to inform work on carefully planned fingerings?


 . . . and improvisation.

I am not much of an improviser. Long ago I was intimidated by improvisation and never even considered studying it systematically. That may or may not be a loss or a problem for me—after all, nobody does everything. However, I can play rather meandering chord progressions that often sound perfectly pleasing and that serve to enable me to explore the sounds of instruments without needing to put music in front of me. This very limited improvisation, or noodling around, is really derived from my continuo-playing experience. I am in effect generating bass lines, more or less at random, and then realizing them as continuo parts. I recently noticed that when I do this with a pedal line as the bass line, I find it almost impossible to involve my left hand. The influence of the feel of ordinary continuo playing is so strong that I can’t get any intuition going as to how to add chords and notes other than in the right hand. I find this interesting, just as a kind of archeological dig into my modest history of improvisation. But it also makes me think that I should try to make myself sit on my right hand when playing this sort of thing and force my left hand to get involved. Furthermore, I should urge any student doing this sort of thing to emphasize the left hand, or at least to be sure to give it equal weight.


Learning a magnum opus

I have played Bach’s French Overture, BWV 831, in three recitals over the last several months. This is a piece that I have loved for many years. I initially tried playing it when I first had regular access to a harpsichord on which to practice, about 40 years ago. It was beyond challenging for me at that point, so it pleases me that I can work on it, learn it, and perform it now. In order to do so, I have had to get past a little bit of the trap mentioned above: getting stuck in a sense of what I cannot do. But what has been most interesting to me about actually playing this piece in concert is that it is long, about 40 minutes, and quite intricate, dense, and varied. Since I have played many concerts that are a lot longer than that, even those that have halves longer than that sometimes, it never occurred to me that stamina might be an issue. However, in each of the three performances, my playing of the last movement, a sprightly and excited piece with the non-traditional title of “Echo,” has been influenced (really I should say undermined) by stamina issues. I believe that what happens is that as I get through the end of the previous movement, the Gigue, I feel my energy and/or concentration lessen, and, in trying to boost it back up, I start the Echo too fast. It is then hectic, helter-skelter, and more prone to note inaccuracy than I would like. Although I identified this concern after the first time I played the piece in recital, I was not able to prevent it from happening each of the next two times as well, though it has been progressively less severe. 

I have learned from this that the little opportunities to regroup in a concert that are afforded by breaks between pieces are significant and useful. Also, regardless of how well learned the various sections and movements of a program are, and no matter how tempting (and genuinely important) it is to focus on practicing hard passages, it is a good idea not to neglect playing through the whole thing. (Not that I have neglected that completely in preparing for these concerts, but I think that I underestimated how much of it I should do.) This reminds me to review my approach to any similar issues with my students.


The familiar and the unfamiliar

A few months ago I played a short lunchtime recital at the Princeton University Chapel. This is an extraordinary venue, for music or for anything else, and home to a justly famous and wonderful organ. But for me it is something more: a place where I spent thousands of hours playing the organ during the years when I was an undergraduate at the university. In the years since then, I have mostly pursued performance on mechanical-action organs and on harpsichord and clavichord, and the large Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner/Mander organ is not the most familiar sort of beast to me nowadays. On the other hand, this particular organ, rebuilt though it has been, and most especially this setting, evoke as much feeling of familiarity and as much deep nostalgia as any place or any instrument could. I was playing, in part, music of Moondog that day. Moondog is my second specialty along with music of the Baroque. I first encountered all of his pieces that I played this recent day during or shortly before my time as a student at Princeton, and I played them all frequently in the chapel back then. This was a powerful reminder to me that individual experience is what most informs our feelings about music, as about everything else, and that no two people—teachers, students, listeners, players—ever bring the same set of experiences to the way that they take in music.

I was also reminded that everything about technique, as well as about interpretation, is in part about the instrument. (That is, the instrument as a separate entity alongside the music, the interpretive stance of the player, the player’s habits and preferences, and so on.) Of course I know this, and have written about it. But this was a vivid real-life experience of it, with interesting twists because of the unusual blend of familiar and unfamiliar.


Hearing wrong notes 

I recently heard about a (not particularly recent) study that showed quite systematically that most listeners don’t consciously hear or notice most wrong notes. The study involved asking several talented graduate student pianists to record several piano pieces. These were pieces that they had not studied before, and that they were given a fairly short time to learn. This was to try to secure enough wrong notes to make the study meaningful. The listeners were undergraduate pianists, some of whom were and some of whom weren’t familiar with the pieces. The gist of the result was that the listeners reported only a very small fraction of the wrong notes. (Here is the link to the article about this study to which someone directed my attention: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/how-many-of-our-mistakes-do-audience….) 

This study tended to confirm my feeling that we as players exaggerate the importance of wrong notes. Of course there are questions. Does what this study found about piano apply equally well to organ, to harpsichord, or to instruments outside of our specific concern here, or to singing? Should we actually embrace for ourselves or for our students, caring less about accuracy than we might feel required to do? Is that a slippery slope? Preparation and practicing, and planning fingering, are in part about striving for accuracy. In fact it is easy to fall into thinking that that is all that they are about. Is there a way to juggle successfully both motivating ourselves and our students to try with all our might to prepare for extraordinary accuracy and wearing the need for that accuracy very lightly? Does a clear-cut study like this add to our intuitive sense? All of that planning, to the extent that it is not just about reliable accuracy, is about gaining enough control to do what we want to do expressively. Can we separate out those two goals and emphasize one more than the other? Are there differences in fingering choices that might arise out of this distinction? Or different ways of approaching the whole matter of fingering choices? How can we best help students sort this out?


The next generation

A short while ago I was visited in my harpsichord studio by a few students of a fine local piano teacher. These students were second- and third-graders. After they had played around a bit on several instruments, one of them commented to me that she liked the antique Italian harpsichord the best. That made sense to me, as a lot of people have that reaction. She then said, in explanation, “it has an intelligent sound.” I was really taken with that way of putting it or that way of hearing the sound. I had never encountered that particular image before. It resonated with one of my ways of experiencing instrument sound, especially that of organs and harpsichords.

I want to have the subjective experience, if I listen closely and without distraction, that the sonority seems to me to come directly from, or in a sense to be, a sentient being. Although this young girl had no prior experience with harpsichords, it reminded me of the description by the very experienced Keith Hill of clavichord sound, which I quoted in last April’s column. It includes the statement that “clavichords should have the sound of thought.”

Next month I will buckle down, so to speak, and get back to work on our extended look at fingering.


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