On Teaching

August 31, 2018

Reflections from a trip

I recently returned from an unusually long vacation, and it has been around six weeks since I have taught or even played a note on the organ or harpsichord. For part of this time I was traveling in England—mostly London—with family members. I am in the process of discovering, as I get back to my regular routine, that there are aspects both of being off from work for that long and, especially, of visiting London that have lead me to reflections about teaching, playing music, the art of practicing, the business of helping to motivate students or to understand and work with their motivation, and various other tiles from the mosaic of the work that I do and that I write about. I want to set some of those reflections down here, before they have a chance to fade away. Admittedly, this column is a bit miscellaneous.

I grew up in an academic family, and we had various sorts of long breaks from our normal life at home. Some of those were the three-and-a-half month summer vacations that seemed to me growing up to be the norm. (More about that later.) But there was also an occasional sabbatical, when we would be away from home for eight or nine months, and really settle somewhere. During one of these periods, when I was thirteen years old, we lived in London. I also spent other, shorter, chunks of time in London in my teens, but, until a few weeks ago, I had not been there in forty-two years. (The reasons for this were varied and random: budget, logistics, other things going on, and my own aversion to air travel.)

The first, and biggest, phenomenon that I noticed being back there after all that time was just how powerful it felt to me—it was as if the years had melted away. It felt like a new and compelling combination of a dream and reality. Walking, and in some cases, re-walking the streets of London felt like one of the most important things that I had ever done. I knew that living in London had been important to me, but I was completely unprepared for how powerfully being there again after such a long time would hit me.

 

Early life experiences and later influences

What does that have to do with music, or with teaching? Well, it reminds me of, and sort of ratifies for me, the importance of early experience in shaping what we care about, how we think and feel, and what is more important and less important to us. Only some of that, of course, is about music—maybe little or none for some people, a lot for others. And it is not a point that is obscure or controversial, let alone specific to me. However, it came flooding back to me during this particular time, and that in turn reminds me to renew my commitment to helping students discover what it is that they most care about, what draws them to what they are proposing to do in music—why they are doing it—and to helping them to explore where that all come from.

In fact the first student whom I saw after I got back was a new student. And I felt like I could sharpen the focus of all of the questions that I like to ask, such as “Why are you here?” “What interests you about the instrument(s) and their repertoire?” “What is your first memory of being aware of organ/harpsichord/keyboard instruments?” and so on. I felt even more comfortable than I have in the past making such questions the center of the process of our beginning to work together.

Nevertheless, there were also things surrounding this trip that were much more specific to music and to my musical life. Not surprisingly, since I was thirteen, and the stay in London was, at seven months, quite a long one for someone at that formative age, I had a lot of experiences during that long-ago time that were directly part of my own early musical development. By and large, those resided in the fairly deep recesses of my mind, but they came flooding back. 

It was in London, during the fall of 1970, I really discovered the Beethoven piano sonatas. This was not so much as a player, but as a listener. I had the radio on much of the time that I was hanging around our apartment that year, and BBC Radio 3 happened to be playing, over part of that season, a large sample of Alfred Brendel’s early recording of the Beethoven sonatas. These performances were a revelation to me. I had certainly heard Beethoven’s piano music—and some of his other works—prior to that. Yet, until then, I found the pieces unsatisfying: sort of fragmented or arbitrary. Looking back it is almost certain that I was too young to appreciate them. My whole orientation to music started with Bach and Handel, and I think that Beethoven was frighteningly anarchistic to me as an eleven- or twelve-year-old. Occasional listening to a sonata played by Rubinstein, Schnabel, or Fischer had not enabled me to break through that. However, for whatever reason, these Brendel recordings made perfect sense out of the music for me, and in so doing opened up the whole world of post-Baroque music to me.

I noticed, a week or so after returning home from London, that the only music that had been going through my head since then were Beethoven piano sonatas! The experience of being in London has apparently re-awakened something amounting to a preoccupation with those pieces. I think that, if I had any piano (as different from organ, harpsichord, or clavichord) technique, or perhaps if I had a Beethoven-era piano to work with (and the requisite technique) I would quite possibly be interested in approaching those pieces as a player. Indeed perhaps I will sit down and read through some of them, though without expecting anything much in the way of rhetoric or interpretation, since I do believe that mastery of the instrument is as crucial as being able to learn the notes, and I definitely do not have that with piano.

So, in addition to the importance that early experience plays in shaping what we care about or are interested in, I am reminded of the notion that coming to something naturally, when the time is right, is a valuable process. I did indeed (try to) play a fair amount of Beethoven on the piano as a teenager. But, even though by then I loved listening to that music, I never felt any affinity for it as a player. Any work that I did on it felt forced, any practicing that I did of it (and I did much too little) was impatient and vulnerable to distraction. Of course perhaps I “should have” made myself work harder and better way back then, as a matter of discipline or dedication. Nevertheless, I could not or did not, and that process feels to me (even more so after the recent experiences that I am describing here) like a completely different one from working on something out of genuine interest and desire.

 

Early life experiences and later regrets

On the other hand, as I reflect on how the trip relates to my teaching, I wonder: What are the downsides to my strong focus on following one’s own deepest artistic interests? Would I, for example, have been better off if I had somehow found a way to get myself to practice Beethoven more effectively (and just plain more) when I was young? Suppose that specifically a teacher had managed to force or coerce me into doing so. Would that have been good or bad? Even if the process feels unnatural, is the long-term loss too great to indulge the preference for what feels to me natural, organic, inner-directed? Is it a shame that a fairly accomplished, middle-aged player feels regret about missing the chance to learn a particular part of the repertoire? There is always an infinite amount to regret and no one can do everything. Also it is impossible (isn’t it?) to know with respect to any given child, teenager, student of any age, what he or she will or will not wish that you had made them do along the way.

On another matter altogether: we walked past a house where Mozart lived for several weeks during 1764, when he was eight years old, and where he is said to have written his Symphony #1, K16. The house is located at 180 Ebury Street, just south of Sloane Square, which was a rural area at the time Mozart lived there. (As far as I can tell, it is indeed the same building that is there, on a quiet street very much in the middle of the city, now.) Mozart’s father, Leopold, was recovering from an illness at the time, and apparently this necessitated quiet, and thus his children were not allowed to play music. Thus, it was a good opportunity for Wolfgang Amadeus to focus on composition. 

There is a statue of Mozart in the square near the house and a plaque on the house itself. In fact, that block of Ebury Street has been renamed, or given the additional name of, Mozart Terrace. All of this happened a long time after the Mozart family’s residence there. Although Leopold Mozart was an esteemed musician, and both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his older sister Nannerl were known as child prodigy performers, none of them were earth-shaking celebrities back then.

This leads me to the principle thing that I was trying to achieve by visiting and contemplating the Mozartiana around Ebury Street: the elusive awareness that Mozart was a person—a real, regular (though phenomenally talented) person. When he lived in Ebury Street, Mozart walked with his own ordinary feet over the same ground that my family and I were walking on last month. Did he like to walk down to the river? Was he more worried about his father or consumed by his music? What was there to eat in the neighborhood? Did Mozart find the old buildings around London cool?

Standing in awe of geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, makes plenty sense. Their intellect is awe-inspiring, and there is something about perceiving their work as out of the ordinary that can be extraordinarily powerful. But this perspective is usually by default. It is important to remember that they were also ordinary humans with everyday lives.

By the way, on a perhaps somewhat macabre note, another spur towards trying to take in the sense of the great figures of the past as real people is to be found at Westminster Abbey and other places that house tombs of famous people. It is sobering and moving to walk past (or on!) the spaces that contain the actual mortal remains of, say, Elizabeth I,
or Dickens, or Handel. The very bones that held the pen that composed Messiah are right there . . . .

 

No one knows everything.

Thinking back to Beethoven and Mozart reminded me of something else, not from London directly, but about even earlier in my life. I recall that when I was something like six or seven years old, I came across both of those names—Mozart in a children’s book about composers, and Beethoven in the title of the song Roll Over Beethoven, which I probably heard sung by the Beatles. I remember being disturbed about the pronunciations of both of those names. I thought that “Mozart” should be pronounced with a “z” in the middle, and that “Beethoven” should be pronounced such that the first syllable rhymed with “beneath,” and the rest sounded like the appliance in which you might bake something. I was sure that the grown-ups had it all wrong. I had never thought of the notion of different languages using letters differently, or having different sounds.

My point is that this is an example of a simple fact that it is easy to forget: that you only know something if you know it. No one knows that which they have not yet learned. This is one bedrock reason, though certainly not the only one, for teaching at all. It is also, I believe, closely allied to this: that no one knows or can know everything. So knowing what we do know and what we do not is critically important. And knowing how to find things out is as important as, or maybe more important than, knowing things. 

Twice on the England trip I happened to walk through a space where someone was practicing the organ. One of these spaces was King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, with its famous Harrison & Harrison, and the other was Bath Abbey, where there is a Klais organ from 1997. I knew a lot about the King’s organ already, but nothing about the instrument in Bath. As an organ groupie, I was excited to hear both. So in each case I stood there listening for a while, probably staying a bit longer than I would have otherwise.

The experience reminded me of something I wrote in this column back in March: Performance is playing when 1) you know that you are playing, and 2) you know or think that someone is listening. So what about overheard practicing? For me as a random casual listener, this was performance, even though for the person seated at each of those organs it was not! It certainly had some of the significance for me that we usually associate with having heard a performance. Here I am remembering it a month or so later. Each of those brief listening experiences added a little something to the edifice of what it means to me to have spent my life hearing music, and to my awareness of what the organ is.

The last thing that I will mention for now is that, back in London, I poked my head briefly into Holy Trinity, Sloane Square. In 1970 we lived a few blocks from this church, and I used to go to short organ recitals there. I don’t remember whether it was a daytime or evening series—and if the former, exactly how I squared that with going to school. But I do remember that the sound of that organ and the ambience of the place helped seal the deal regarding my interest in the organ. I also remember that there was a strong sense of history there, that I found mesmerizing. I would not have recognized all of the names then, I assume, but I have now read that Edwin Lemare, Walter Alcock, and John Ireland were organists of the church at one time or another. I do remember there being a picture of Jean Langlais on the wall, taken on a visit of his to the place. I did not know much about him at that point, but I was nonetheless impressed!

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