On Teaching

March 31, 2019

Gavin Black is Director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center in Princeton, New Jersey.

Students’ Listening I

Through the first years of this column’s existence, much of what I wrote about was practical, specific material regarding teaching—what I often refer to as nitty-gritty: an approach to teaching pedal playing, hand distribution, practice techniques, registration, etc. I would often go through pieces in great detail, suggesting how to put these ideas into practice.

However, over the last year or so, I have found myself interested in writing in a more general vein, tossing out ideas and questions about music, and admittedly, the relationship this has to the day-to-day teaching process is perhaps more distant or indirect. I would argue that even if more distant, that connection is crucial. One of the reasons that I have moved in this direction is that I feel more strongly that everything is about learning and, therefore, also about teaching. I increasingly notice that some of the most important things that I learned from my formal music teachers came from things that they said or did that had nothing to do with fingering, phrasing, or practice techniques, even though all of those things were crucially important as well. And much of what I have learned about my own work as a musician and teacher has come from outside formal or informal lessons.

I am also aware that there is some limit to how much there is to say about the purely practical. There might be a limitless number of approaches to pedal pedagogy, but there is a limit to how much one person should go on saying it! There are good reasons that method books are not as long as encyclopedias. At a certain point a teacher says what needs to be said, and it is time for the student to get on with it. Having started in September 2007, my column as a whole is approaching 400,000 words.

That is not to say that I do not expect to write about the “nitty-gritty” again. There are things in that area that I have not gotten to yet. (And if anyone reading this has suggestions for something that you would like me to address, I would be overjoyed to read them.) There are also things that I have written about that I want to revisit someday. The distinction between the practical and the fruitfully speculative is not absolutely clear-cut.

When I started the column, and for a while thereafter, I was typically writing about things that I knew about before the column ever started. My technical approach to pedal learning, my way of conceptualizing the importance of relaxation, my concerns about memorization, or any number of other subjects for writing and discussion were all there in some fairly thoroughly worked-out form prior to 2007. I may have rethought them in the course of writing them up, and I needed to subject them to organization. But more recently, a lot of what I have wanted to write about has been more in the category of things that are pending in my mind—new ideas that I am in part working out by the very process of writing about them. For me this is an interesting, exciting process. It exposes the very process of trying to evolve as a teacher and thinker about music and teaching.

In the next several months, I will write about issues that are either directly about specifics of teaching or related to that; and the following part of this column falls into that latter category. In subsequent articles, I will systematically explore my own current project as a player, namely relearning and performing J. S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Rather than being a detailed and systematic set of suggestions about how to approach a particular piece, it will be an actual account of my own grappling with the work of learning a piece. Be sure to watch for it in the May issue of The Diapason.

Music listeners

I was originally planning to call this column “What should students listen to?,” but I put that aside because of my aversion to the concept of “should,” and that title did not represent the scope of what I want to think about. The question is, what is the role of listening to music in the life of someone who is studying music, studying an instrument, or, specifically, studying organ? What has some of my own experience with this been, and what can we as teachers do to guide students in their lives as music listeners, if we should do anything?

When I was a student in a second-year music theory class in college, near the beginning of the school year, the teacher administered a listening test to all students. He played twenty recorded excerpts of classical pieces, and we had to try as best we could to identify each piece. I remember the number of examples well, because my results made it an intense and disturbing experience for me. Even as a classical music junkie and aspiring musician, I was able to recognize and identify only one out of the twenty. I was mortified by how badly I had done. But when the teacher went over the results with me in private, he said something in a very kind, concerned way about how I really should start listening more to music. I shifted from being mortified to being indignant. Prompted by that comment, I belatedly became aware of how narrow and biased the examples were. All but one or two were from the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. There was probably one Bach selection, and that was probably the one that I got right, and maybe one from either Mozart or Beethoven that probably sounded familiar to me, but which I could not pin down.

I would have been able to make up on the spot a similar test with Buxtehude, Schütz, Frescobaldi, Froberger, Pachelbel, Scheidt, de Grigny, Westhoff, Mainerio—and, of course, Bach. I told him, rather annoyingly, that I listened a lot, even maybe too much, and exclusively to classical music, but just not to the repertoire he thought one should know. I remember being impressed by the fact that he immediately conceded the point. He not only expressed agreement, even though that perspective had not occurred to him, but he acknowledged that he learned something from the exchange. I also learned something, although I was entirely within my rights to consider that test unfair and to maintain that I was an avid music listener, it was also true that I would benefit from expanding my own listening habits. There is great merit in the ability to differentiate Brahms, Chopin, or Stravinsky. One should always be open to listening to new music, but that there is also no reason to assume that any set of assumptions about what “should” be listened to are any better than any other set.

It makes perfect sense for a college music professor to believe that a student, otherwise unknown to him, might not be an avid music listener and might need some prodding to become one. After all, college students take classes for all sorts of reasons. As far as he knew, maybe it just fit my schedule, or maybe I thought that it would be easy. However, if someone has come for organ lessons and seems involved and committed to that process, it is likely that they have fairly strong ownership of their music listening habits. If we become aware that someone has focused somewhat narrowly—listening only to the music of one era, or perhaps listening only to organ music, or only to vocal music, while ignoring oratorios, or any electronic music—then we should certainly consider nudging them in the direction of whatever has been lacking. Or, I should say, some of what has been lacking, since there is always an infinite amount out there, and we can never fill in all of it. It is possible to push too hard, and this is about a student’s (or anyone’s) psychology. I became aware in that teacher’s office that it would behoove me to broaden my listening habits. I embraced that and internalized it as a concept. But nonetheless, I did not and could not jump right into listening to music that I did not like or that bored or annoyed me. I had to wait for the time to be right, for my mind to be ready.

The listening that I did back then was limited though extensive. I was listening to music that was associated pretty directly with the music that I most wanted to play. I listened to the composers listed above along with many others from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I listened to their organ and harpsichord music, to their chamber and orchestral music, and to their (mostly sacred) vocal music. These were the years when I was officially a student. But I do not think that the reason this pattern developed was related to the study of the music. The reason was that I chose to play music I liked best, and I chose to listen to music I liked best. Not surprisingly, the two were related. It was not a conscious choice; I did not say, “If I want to play Baroque keyboard music, I should listen mostly to Baroque music.” I was just drawn to that repertoire whether I was functioning as a listener or as a player.

Nowadays, it is not just chance, a change in my tastes, or an attempt to practice broadmindedness that has me listening mostly to music from outside the realm of what I mostly play. I have come to a different kind of relationship with various sorts of music. When I encounter new music by hearing about it, or reading through it, happening to notice the cover of a volume, or indeed actually hearing it, any music that is squarely at the center of what I most care about playing, my immediate relationship to that experience is framed by questions of performance. What would I want to do with that theme? How would I try to make those voices dance around each other? How much would I want to draw out that moment? Should that bit be viscerally exciting or more calm and considered?

When I was a student, my relationship to that repertoire as a listener was pure, intense, and primary; now that relationship has been somewhat eclipsed. It is replaced by my own attempts to play the repertoire. I am not quite sure how to describe this fully and accurately. It is not that I do not think that I would like or admire performances or performers, nor is it a diminution of the intensity of my involvement with that music or of my liking of it: quite the opposite. But one could argue that I am not objectively listening to the repertoire I am most interested in playing. I suspect that if I listen to a recording of Baroque organ music, I am doing that recording a disservice. I am not being faithful to it as a listener. I am over-writing the performance with my own imagined performance. This is paradoxically true with performances that I think are really good by players whom I admire and respect.

Whether to listen to other performances, that is the question.

To tie this in to our work with students: the question often arises of whether someone who is working on a particular piece should listen to other performances of that piece. My own answer is almost always the same: either listen to no other performances or listen to at least half a dozen. These are the two ways to avoid being, consciously or subconsciously, over-influenced by what you hear. If the listening process only reinforces a link between these notes on the page and that one particular sound, it is very difficult to break that link. Not necessarily impossible, though sometimes nearly so, but always a source of indirectness or inefficiency in working out interpretation. Half a dozen performances will, in this respect, cancel one another out.

There is a lot of pressure on students (and on the rest of us) to look for objective reasons for doing what we are doing. That is abundantly useful and good. It is always a part of the process of performing a piece that we have learned. The notes and rhythms are (usually uncontroversially) part of the objective. So is at least some of what we know about a composer’s particular intentions, often as to choice of instruments or registration, sometimes as to tempo, articulation, etc. But there is also always the less objective, fundamentally personal part of interpretation and performance. Fully manifesting performance decisions that are not objective can be difficult psychologically and emotionally: this is really me, this is what I really want to say to you, this is me trying my hardest to make you feel something. So I wonder whether a student’s identification of himself or herself as still in large part a listener might connect in various ways with the difficulties that leap into exposure. This connection could be helpful or it could be limiting. The limiting aspect of it is very likely to arise with the practice of listening to or identifying with only one performance. (“I am not really doing this, I am just serving as a conduit for something that someone else concocted.” I feel fairly certain that I had a great deal of that feeling when, in my high school and early college years, I was a devotee of the playing of only a small number of favorite performers. If in those days I tried to play a Bach piece, I was really trying to recreate Helmut Walcha’s performance of that piece. I would not have owned up to that, but it is what was happening.) The helpfulness might be that of hiding the personal nature of performance from oneself in a way that avoids a too frightening feeling of exposure.

My thoughts about this are most certainly evolving, but I suspect that helping students detach themselves, in some ways and in part, from a primary identification as listeners could be a useful if non-obvious project for a teacher. This could apply even when imitating recordings is not a problem.

Soon I will start with a discussion of authority in recorded performances, YouTube (a surprisingly important issue all by itself), listening to live performance, listening for instruments and acoustics, and circles of connectedness in music.

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