On Teaching

January 30, 2018


Something that has been on my mind for a while now is the relationship between being a player and being a performer. This has been on my mind in one way or another for most of my adult life, but it has recently come to the fore and presented itself as an interesting subject for this column.

There are a few reasons for this. I have been playing more concerts over the last five years or so than at any other period of my life. As a result, I have been focusing directly and intensely on my own experience of being a performer and my feelings about that experience. I have had a larger than usual influx of new students over the last several months, and whenever that happens I have to focus as consciously as possible on my own thinking about the goals and needs of those students. Over the last five or six years, I have also been a more frequent audience member both at concerts and at other sorts of artistic endeavors­—theater, dance, and so on—than I had been over the preceding couple of decades. In this I have looked for (not totally) offbeat, non-traditional, semi-improvisatory, some-
times mixed-media, or otherwise somewhat avant-garde sorts of performance. This has been partly for practical reasons (a lot of such things take place near where I live, tickets are usually easy to get, and much of this sort of work is not costly to attend) and partly because this is an area—or a set of overlapping areas—that I had previously neglected. This has given me an interesting look at new aspects on performance as a phenomenon. 

By and large this column has dealt with two sorts of things over the years: the really practical, such as a protocol for learning pedal playing, suggestions for solving hand distribution difficulties, general practice strategies, or exercises for trills; and the tangential but relevant, such as tuning and temperament, an introduction to the clavichord, or my thoughts on the ways in which trying to learn golf has informed my playing and teaching of music. What I have not dealt with very much is the whole set of questions that bridge the gap between playing and performance. Some of these perhaps boil down to what might be called the fundamental question of musical performance: how do I know that what I am doing is valuable to those who are hearing it? 

But this in turn expands to a host of specific questions and things to think about. This includes everything that we call interpretation. Interpretation as a part of actual performance includes not just interpretive choices that we know we are making (tempo, registration, articulation, approaches to rhythm, etc.), but also all sorts of intangibles that make the worked-out and describable interpretation seem compelling and convincing. This “compelling and convincing” phenomenon is probably one reason that a given listener can like so many different interpretations of the same piece. The describable interpretive choices are by no means all of what makes a performance effective: you can make a case that they are often only a small part, or that they essentially just set the stage for effectiveness rather than create it. 

The relevant questions might well include things about presentation. Is the way I look while playing important? Is it important that a written program be presented a certain way? Shall I talk to the audience? Looking at it from another point of view, is it better to pay as little attention as possible to those trappings and think only about how the music sounds? 

The strongest reason that I have not dealt very much with the question of “Is what I am doing valuable to the audience?” in these columns is that I feel I don’t want to dictate anything to my students about interpretive choices. I do not want to say, “This is right, and that is wrong,” or even “These could be right, but all of those are wrong.” Nor do I want to say, “This is how I do it. Why don’t you try that out?”

Helping a student to become a competent, eventually exceptionally accomplished, player or to become a well-educated, well-rounded musician, artist, and person, can all be addressed without prejudice as to interpretive stance. Can that also be said of helping students to deal directly with the question, “Will what I do be valuable to the listeners?” I think that it can. But I also feel that this is one of the most elusive aspects of teaching and among the most difficult to describe. I think that I have deliberately (or let’s say subconsciously deliberately) shied away from trying to address it over the years. Indeed I am not going to answer it in this or any future column. However, in raising and considering all sorts of questions about what performance is and what it is to be a performer, I will perhaps approach some ways of answering it over time. 

The other big matter about performing is nervousness. There are all sorts of ways to help students deal with that. To start with, helping a student to be highly competent at all of the practical dimensions of playing, and to know and to trust that, is a major part of that picture. Perhaps other aspects of understanding performance as such can also be helpful.


Thoughts about performance and being a performer

So here are various questions and thoughts about performance and being a performer. I will address more of them in future columns. And we will see how many of them wind their way to answers.

Should students be expected or required to perform? When I was very young and taking piano lessons, I used all of my wiles to avoid playing in any of my teachers’ studio classes or recitals. I am pretty sure that from the moment of my first piano lesson in the fall of 1965 when I was eight years old, no member of any public ever heard me perform so much as a note at a keyboard instrument until mid February 1974. I was then 16.

My debut that month involved my playing one organ piece at a Valentine’s Day-themed service at United Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut. Do I think that my avoiding performing for all those years was good? Did it do any harm to my development as a musician? How do I square that history with the fact that I am now a more-than-average comfortable performer? (That is, regardless of whether a given listener likes my approach or doesn’t, I greet concert performance with very little nervousness these days, 40 years and more after the events described above.) 

Why did I not want to play for people in those days? It wasn’t for lack of interest in music or for lack of identifying myself as a musician. Both of those things were present in abundance. I spent a lot of time at the piano, not necessarily practicing what I was “supposed” to practice, but playing. I listened a lot to LP’s and to concerts. I even composed a bit. I think that I was influenced by a feeling that if I played for someone, it had to be perfect. The only thing I would have meant by that at the time was note perfect. This is an attitude that is very easy to pick up from our society and culture. 

There is a billboard that I often pass on the highway near where I live that says, “You don’t get medals for trying, you only get medals for results.” This may be literally true as to “medals,” but it strikes me as a harmful attitude to try to instill in people in general and certainly in aspiring musicians. To put it more neutrally, it is at least an attitude that has consequences. One way to frame how I felt when I was young and trying to play piano is that, in effect, if I would only get a medal for (perfect) results, then I might as well not try. That’s only about performing, not about engaging with music, which I did with great energy in private. 

I don’t believe that my early piano teachers (or other teachers or any adults in my circle) directly conveyed this fear of making mistakes in public to me. I imagine that many of them felt about the whole subject more or less the way I do now. But this is a reminder that being afraid of doing something wrong is a powerful force and one that we have to think about how to counter. One tremendous benefit to me from my memories of my own early refusal to perform is that I can tell the story to my students. Those who are more or less beginners and who are nervous about performing—and about whether they can ever learn to be comfortable performing—take a good deal of comfort from my history.

When I was a student at Westminster Choir College, the organ department was very systematic in introducing us to performance. With pieces that we were working on there were levels of performing that were pretty carefully stepped up. First there were two informal ones: the awareness that everything that went on in any practice room could be heard pretty easily by anyone who walked by, and the customary practice of students playing informally for their friends. The next step was studio class, where the atmosphere was relaxed, where all of the other people in the room were in exactly the same boat, and where you could play a given piece more than once as the weeks went by and get more comfortable with it. Then some pieces would be brought to performance class, the same sort of thing, but department-wide, with the ever-present possibility that some people from outside the department might be there. Then on to various recitals, shorter or longer, with or without memorization, depending on the student and his or her program. I credit this systematic and humane approach with a significant proportion of my evolution into a comfortable performer.

I have had students who start out thinking that they don’t want to perform.  Their interests in music or in playing organ or harpsichord are inner ones, and expecting to play for other people would only add a layer of tension to an experience that they want to be serene. I have a lot of respect for that sort of feeling. However, I can report that almost everyone who starts out saying something of this sort and whose inner-directed interest is strong enough to cause them to stick with their studies for a while ends up actually wanting to play for others, if only in an informal studio class, and getting a lot of satisfaction out of doing so. 

I am fairly certain that there is a different or competing reason that some people feel reluctant to perform or to be identified or to self-identify as performers rather than just as people who play music. In a way it’s the opposite of the fear of making mistakes or playing badly, but it also stems from a set of societal biases about performing. It is a fear of seeming arrogant, vain, or self-indulgent by putting oneself forward as a performer. This stems at least in part from the awareness that we tend to elevate performers to the rank of “celebrities.” It gives rise to such inhibiting questions as “Who am I to play this great piece?” or “Who would want to listen to me when they could be listening to X or Y?” Such thoughts probably exist and function mostly at a subconscious level. But I believe that for a lot of people they are present. The great, famous touring and recording virtuosi are doing things that many of our students are not going to do, and indeed that you and I might not do either.

The truth is that most of those things that are inevitably different are about circumstances. My experience is that almost any student can play at least as many pieces as effectively, with as much benefit to the listener, as any experienced or famous performer might play them. The chief difference is that the famous performer probably has a larger repertoire and performs more. There may be individual pieces that are too difficult for us to learn comfortably, at least given realistic limits on our practice time. But this knocks out only some of the repertoire and has no bearing whatsoever on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the performance of any other piece. The most beautiful and moving performance I have ever heard of Variation 25 from the Goldberg Variations of J. S. Bach was given recently by a student of mine at a studio class. That reaction of mine as a listener did not come about because the performance reflected my specific interpretive ideas. It aligned with them in part, but not in full. And I mention this example only because it is the most recent. It is one of many from over the years, on organ, harpsichord, and clavichord. 

At any given moment in history, there are many listeners for whom the performances of certain pieces by well-known touring and recording artists are indeed the finest performances out there. Those performers are not excluded from the community of those who might give great or even transcendent readings of great music. But no one who gains some level of competence at an instrument is excluded from that community either. It can be liberating to students to be reminded of this. The answer to the question “Why is that performer so famous and successful?” is not always or exclusively because he or she does things on a piece by piece basis that the rest of us can only dream of—not at all. 


Performance as improvisation

I feel that a version of this dynamic has been at play in my own life in the area of improvisation. If it comes up in conversation, I always say that I am not someone who can improvise. This is true of me as I stand now. But why is it? Some time very early in my engagement with music I decided that I couldn’t become someone who could improvise. This was in spite of my being a developing organist, and the organ’s being one of the corners of the “classical” music world where improvisation is most likely to be found. Looking back, I am pretty sure that I never chose to study improvisation and thereby find out what I could and couldn’t do in that field (which would have been the logical approach) because of two inhibiting assumptions: I couldn’t learn to improvise music of the quality of the greatest pieces in the repertoire, and I couldn’t learn to improvise as well as the great and famous improvisers. Were these assumptions correct? I have no idea. But I know that they cut me off from trying.

I close with a stray idea about performance, though as you will see, a logical segue from the above, which came into my head at some point over the last year or so. It stems in part from my experience watching certain theater and dance performances that included an element of improvisation. It is in a way an effort to counter the notion that as performers we must always be humble and self-effacing with respect to the composer. Such an idea is not without merit: it makes a lot of sense, especially, for me, as a kind of specific practical point. The composer probably knew a lot about the essence of the piece, and it might very well turn out that that knowledge can be of use to us in figuring out how we want to play it. (How we tap into that knowledge is a complex subject.) But I also think that too much reverence for the composer, especially when it is specifically expressed as humility, can be inhibiting.

This is not utterly unlike the ways in which too much reverence for other, more famous performers can be. So here’s my thought: one of the ways to conceptualize a partial goal of live performance of repertoire is that the pieces should seem improvised. They should have a kind of spontaneity and ability to surprise performer as well as listener—that we would ideally associate with something that was being brand new. This notion, though paradoxical when applied to a piece that we have leaned through hours of practicing, can be a strong antidote to staleness. But if I play a piece that was actually written by Bach or Franck or Sweelinck or Messiaen and I feel like I am improvising it, then I am embracing at that moment the idea that I am someone who could be improvising that extraordinary musical content.

I am in fact not such a person. Even a fine improviser would, here and now, be improvising that piece. In a way, I am playing the role of that person, in a way that is perhaps not the same as but also not completely alien to the way that an actor plays a role. This is just a concept. But it feels to me like one that can bridge the gap between respect for the composer and the fortitude necessary to perform.


More to come . . .


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