On Teaching

January 1, 2018

Gavin Black is director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center in Princeton, New Jersey. His website is www.gavinblack-baroque.com. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

Seeing the Music

This month I write about seeing the music: vision, glasses, light, editions, page turns—things that have to do with the practical act of conveying the notes of a piece to the player through the player’s eyes. As the years have gone by, I have become more and more aware of the importance of all of this, and of the role in the learning process, and therefore also in the teaching process. Part of the reason for this growing awareness has been the evolution­—that is, the worsening—of my own eyesight as time passes. This has been, as far as I know, very much within normal bounds, as part of the process of growing up and growing older. But I have seen my own relationship to the physical act of reading notes change, gradually for the most part, but quite a lot over the years. This has made me aware that I should have been much more observant much earlier on in my career of the ways in which aspects of the physical reading of the notes have from time to time influenced the learning process for students. I have started paying more attention to these matters over the last several years.

It occurred to me as I typed the title of this column that the phrase “seeing the music” could also mean something more abstract: that is, perceiving and understanding, as deeply as possible, the content and, in some sense, the meaning of the music. And that in turn reminds me that I hope and intend at some point to write about the whole realm of analysis as it relates to performance and to teaching. In so doing, or perhaps after so doing, I may have to venture out onto the somewhat thin ice of relating interpretive choices to analytical conclusions. That discussion could include the whole set of questions as to whether it is acceptable to make interpretive choices without analysis, or even against the current of analysis. And from there it could go on to the general problem of interpretation, objectivity, and subjectivity.

Why am I even mentioning all of this now when it is decidedly not what I am going to write about here? Because getting right the things discussed here can make it easier to grapple with more abstract, difficult, sometimes controversial, and interesting questions such as these. It has this in common with good practicing and with everything else that allows notes to be learned well, and thereby opens up the doors to all the mysteries of performance. But the topics I am writing about this month also have these two features: they are so easy to get right that it is really a shame not to do so; and, nonetheless, most of us often ignore them or give them low priority. This is the source of utterly unnecessary and frustrating inefficiency in learning.

I recently included Buxtehude’s La Capricciosa variations on a harpsichord recital program. I have played this work over the last 25 years or so and recorded it in the mid-1990s. It is a piece that I have at various times practiced a lot and that I know very well. Sometimes I use a computer-based music reader these days (more on that later), and I set up this music to be visible on that computer, one page of the score at a time. As I started going through the piece to revive it and, as necessary, rework it on the particular instrument and for the particular performance, I began to have a disconcerting feeling. It felt like music that I had never played before—maybe I should say that I had never even seen before.

There are a couple of short passages in this piece that are very hard, up to tempo, just as to getting the notes. Those passages I drilled years ago thoroughly, and they came back pretty well on an almost unconscious basis. However, most of the piece was frighteningly shaky. And I do mean frightening: I had visions of a humiliatingly bad performance. (To be honest, this was all taking place closer to the concert date than it should have been. But after all, it is a piece that I know really well.) I was hesitating a lot over fairly easy notes and was not able to make anything sound natural. Not surprisingly, the punch line is this: I reconfigured the score in such a way that instead of there being two or three variations per page, each variation was its own page. This made the music about twice as big and much easier to see. My first read-through of the piece with this newly set-up score was more or less note perfect and very comfortable. The performance held together very well.   

In a column from a while ago (May 2010) I mentioned another event from some time in the 1990s. I heard a student at a masterclass ask the harpsichordist Colin Tilney what his preferred edition of The Well-Tempered Clavier was. I assumed that the questioner and the audience were expecting an answer that was about scholarship—accuracy of the printed text, suitably detailed critical notes, descriptions of sources, and so on. Tilney is, after all, a performer with a wealth of knowledge and a track record of scholarship of his own. However, he said that he had always liked the old Bach Gesellschaft edition because it is nice and big and therefore easy to read. He added something that I also liked a lot, namely, that ideally a player or student should consult all of the editions and sources and in effect create his or her own edition.

I have tried to buy a copy of the old BG Well-Tempered Clavier. It was published in 1866 and is long out of print, and I have yet to find one. It has been reprinted, but never, as far as I can tell, full size. When it is shrunk to be more or less a normal book, the text seems dark, cramped, and hard to read. The big old originals are indeed extremely easy to read, as much so as the Buxtehude on my computer.

In a similar vein, I like to play from the large format version of the Peters edition of the Bach organ works, also rather hard to find. The details have changed for me over the years and vary from person to person as well as over time. But the point is that if you can’t see the music easily, you are wasting time and effort. Sometimes this is out of necessity, and like all things that are necessary but not ideal, we deal with it as best we can.


Suggestions for seeing music

Here are some things that I suggest to students to clear the decks of unnecessary and destructive impediments to seeing the music clearly and easily:

1) Favor editions that are clear, large enough, easy to read. This is the first step, and it is the point of the Tilney anecdote above. It is not always possible: sometimes the edition that is the most readable is honestly not all that readable, and there’s nothing to do about that. But it is important to take this into account. It can seem mundane or not very interesting, but interesting or not, it is important. If there is a conflict between easy readability and other important characteristics of an edition, that can be a problem that does not have one good answer. If there is an edition that is clearer and more comfortable to read than others but has editorial changes (slurs, dynamics, etc.), I might, with regret, pass it up in favor of the next one down the readability list. If the additions were just fingerings and pedalings, as much as I do not like for these to be engraved in a score, I might accept that in order to achieve the easier reading. It can vary on a case-by-case basis, but the point is not to short-change the clarity of reading.

2) Use enough light and the right kind of light. This is something about which we sometimes have to compromise, but we should not simply fail to consider. I have failed to take enough account of this over the years, out of a combination of not wanting to be a nuisance—if a performing venue isn’t well-lit and getting good light seems to give trouble—and a kind of vanity, not really about my vision, but about my adaptability and my status as someone who can get along and make do. Concerning the right kind of light: many people like little spotlights that are affixed to music desks. This can be fine, but sometimes these lights are bright enough to cause squinting or cast shadows. Make sure that the light is really doing what you want it to do. Also, ensure that there is no extraneous light source in your field of vision that is bright enough to be distracting or to make your pupils close. This is a more likely problem with harpsichord or piano than with organ.

3) Glasses and eyesight: this is the big one. Wearing glasses, getting one’s eyes checked frequently, making choices about bi- or tri-focals or progressive lenses, contact lenses, and so on, is all complicated. It involves not just practical issues and their solutions, but matters of style and fashion, self-image, concern about age, the passage of time, and—back to the practical issue—expense. I like glasses. I find the technology cool. I always enjoy the moment of putting my glasses on and seeing whatever is in front of me become clear and crisp. I like having several pairs of glasses, and I am happy to juggle them as needed. This is all random and irrational and a matter of luck for me. Some people find glasses annoying or uncomfortable. I am lucky in that as my vision has changed over the years, it has done so quite slowly, and often in ways that enables me to re-assign rather than discard older glasses. For example, the glasses that I use nowadays to watch television are ones that used to be my real distance glasses, for use while driving or at a movie theater. They are not quite right for that now. It is often less costly when getting new glasses to get new frames rather than to place new lenses in existing frames. If you do it this way, you can keep the old glasses around and try them out from time to time for various purposes. Good music-reading glasses can emerge that way. 

It is a very good idea to have dedicated, single-prescription, music reading glasses that are focused at about the distance of a music desk. This is usually about 22 inches. Traditionally reading glasses are designed to focus closer than that. Glasses that focus at that longer distance are often described as computer glasses. But anyone measuring your eyes for eyewear prescription can set the focus wherever you ask them to. It is a good idea to describe what you want quite specifically. Glasses that are not single-prescription can be a problem for playing music. They can require the player to hold their head (and therefore really the whole body) in an awkward position. They can make it easy to read part of the page but hard to read other parts. They can make it hard to see the keyboard(s) on any instrument or the stop knobs on an organ. It is best not to depend on looking at the keyboard. However, somewhat paradoxically, the ability to see the keyboard peripherally out of the corner of the eye can be orienting and can reduce the amount of out-and-out looking directly at the keyboard that is (or feels) necessary.

This can also be about lighting. I feel much more inner pressure to look at the pedals playing an organ where the illumination of the pedal area is poor rather than playing one where it is bright.

My impression is that the glasses-buying process is in flux. It may well be that there are internet-based options that are less expensive than what we are accustomed to. I don’t know much about this and cannot say anything specific about it. It is also the kind of process that is bound to change quickly. Some people have health insurance that will cover glasses. What I do know is that reading music without the right glasses—that is, without being able to see easily and perfectly—is extraordinarily inefficient. It is worth doing whatever is possible to avoid it. I have said to students that, in a pinch, the right glasses are more important than any given dozen lessons. And it is better to download old, free, public domain editions of repertoire and read them with the right glasses than it is to buy the newest editions, pretty much regardless of how much better those new editions are. 

In the 1990s, I had a student for several years who had been a church organist for decades and who had studied with several teachers. This was out of insatiable curiosity and devotion to the organ. Two or three years into her lessons with me, she started to notice, as did I, that her playing was deteriorating. Hesitation, inaccuracy, poor rhythm: these were all creeping in where they had never been. On a bigger scale, it was like what I described above with me and the Buxtehude piece. She began to speak of giving up playing, at least playing in church. She was ready to believe that she was in decline due to age, though she was only in her early seventies at the time. She was fairly serene and philosophical about it. Then she got new glasses, and the problems went away instantly. (I honestly don’t remember whether I had known enough to suggest an eye exam for her, whether she thought of it specifically as a possible source of her problems playing, or whether it was random and well timed. I do know that watching what happened with her alerted me to the importance of vision in the playing and learning process. I don’t think that I began to act on that awareness with other students as promptly as I should have.) She kept playing after that for at least another dozen years, well into her eighties. 

4) Copying, enlarging, and computer music readers. In theory, a copier can be used to make music bigger than it is in its bound form. If the music is hard to read because it is too small, then this is worth doing, even at the cost of some time and even at the cost of more frequent page turns. Likewise a computer music reader allows flexibility about size and clarity. A tremendous advantage to the computer-based approach is that it makes page turns easier: more so with harpsichord, since the turning can be accomplished with pedals. For me as a harpsichord recitalist, this has actually been an extraordinary boon. It is not just a practical matter either. It often makes possible more artistically successful pacing of movements and pieces than can be achieved when paper page turns are necessary. On organ this is more complicated, of course, because of the pedal keyboard and pedal parts. (With the piano it is in-between, since the feet are sometimes otherwise occupied, but there is probably at least room to put the page-turning pedals.) However, the hand-driven computer page turning cannot be less convenient than paper page turning, I would think. On a device such as this, you can reconfigure pages, as I did with the Buxtehude, to fit as much or as little onto the page as you wish, and to locate page turns at more convenient spots. This process is all still rather new, and it will evolve. Perhaps in a few years it will be understood that everyone reads music this way. Or perhaps it will have turned out to be a fad, or have been superseded by something else. I would not say that everyone must rush out and get a system of this sort. It is not even nearly as important as clear, readable music, good lighting, and good glasses. But it has its uses.

Getting back to paper copying for a moment, if you are copying or printing out music onto paper that will be placed on the music desk as individual pages, use card stock. Ordinary typing paper will slip down or off the desk, will curl, blow away at the slightest provocation, get crumpled in transit, and so on. Card stock, paper with a rate of 60 pounds or greater, will behave beautifully on the music desk, in your brief case, everywhere. It is astonishing what a difference this can make. I have seen people play with the music obviously about to curl under itself and disappear down onto the pedalboard. They are clearly and appropriately anxious about this. That anxiety makes proper focus on playing impossible. Sometimes players tape or glue pieces of music to cardboard. Printing on heavy enough paper makes this unnecessary and saves time. 

I should note that with all copying and also with printing out music that you have found online there can be copyright issues. There is some sort of understanding that copying to facilitate page turns is usually permissible. However, I certainly don’t know the details of that in every jurisdiction and cannot make any specific comments or recommendations about it except that one must inform oneself as necessary.

5) About page turns: very often page turn moments, and even the move from the bottom of one page to the top of the next when the two are in view simultaneously, turn out to be weak spots in a student’s playing of a piece. This can be dealt with head on by specific practice. If the page turn goes from one measure to another, then copy these measures, place them next to the page with preceding and following measures, and practice thoroughly without a break. With two pages that are both in view, just be aware. Choreograph the motion of the eyes from the bottom of the left hand page to the top of the right.

All of the above is basically common sense, and any or all of us can figure it out or adapt it as necessary. I have written about this because my own experience shows that students often do not address these things until prompted to do so, and that teachers often do not give them as much weight as they deserve. And because they come from common sense, they are mostly quite easy and direct to address and can yield great benefits.

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