On Teaching

April 30, 2020

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

The way of the world

The meta theme of this column over the last several months has been unpredictability. As I have recounted, it was as early as October that I became aware that a shoulder injury was preventing me from working on upcoming performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. This was a bit awkward, as the subject of the column was supposed to be the process and progress of my work on that piece. Then after surgery in December, I found myself unable to write, which precluded my January and February columns. When I was ready to resume writing, I found that I could not find a fruitful way to write about The Art of the Fugue or about music and teaching in general—partly because I still was not actually playing, and partly because of my state of mind as I recuperated. I started recounting some of my experience of that recuperation, particularly of physical therapy, which had some interesting implications for the music learning process and teaching.

Then the current public health crisis hit. As I write this, a scheduled presidential primary is not taking place, sections of the country are in quarantine, most businesses in the area where I live are closed, and various curfews are in place. My practice of watching a bit of a baseball game or golf tournament to take a break from writing is in abeyance—most of what we all do is in abeyance. When you read this, six weeks or so further on, things will likely be different, but we do not know in what ways they will be different. All of our mid-March selves hope that by early May things will have turned the corner. But we do not know.

I am not sick, nor is anyone I know personally. That is one of the things that may change. My shoulder feels almost fine—close enough not to impede most activities—and I have gotten past the malaise that accompanied my early recovery period. Therefore, I should be able to focus well on writing and on practicing. Indeed I should be able to take advantage of the relative absence of things to do to catch up. But rather than that, I find it harder to concentrate and focus right around now than at any other time that I can remember. So do many people.

I have written about my attempts to be assiduous during my physical therapy exercises, and that those attempts have been fairly successful, if not quite as successful as I had hoped or even assumed. I can report that on one recent day I simply forgot to do them; I forgot that I was a physical therapy patient. The next day, my initial reaction was to wonder whether I should bother to start them up again. I did, though it was a kind of half-hearted job.

This is a global concern that affects everyone’s focus. I have read and agree that teachers in general should not evaluate or judge their students right now. Perhaps we need to do away with grades and exams for now and tolerate mediocre or late work. For this week and next, I am not seeing students for any sort of regularly scheduled lessons, not even remote ones. These are said to be the two weeks when we either will or will not turn things around. Nothing about long-distance teaching would violate the kinds of measures that we are being asked to accept and implement. My reason for taking a short break is about focus. As I recently put to a colleague, I need to take a deep breath. I believe that a number of my students also need this, though I am aware that for some of them lessons right now would be a good distraction. (I have balanced that possibility with my own needs at the moment by making it clear that I am happy to chat with anyone informally or answer questions by email.)

My time off has reminded me of something. While this is a global concern, every student always has their own concerns. I think that I try to be aware of that as a general matter and to react to whatever a student brings to a lesson based on their life circumstances. Music is a part of life, interconnected with everything else. Our awareness of this is heightened at a time like this, but so is our awareness of the complexities. Some people would like for the time being to put lessons aside and focus on the gravity of the situation; others would like to delve even more deeply into music as a distraction or as an affirmation of life, or as some of both. Some people use their involvement with music to help them with difficult things by heightening emotions and awareness, while others use that involvement as a way of gaining access to joy or peace or certain kinds of understanding.

A few random thoughts from the last month or so:

1) I mentioned in an earlier column that during my convalescence I was experiencing music more by hearing it in my head than by actual listening. I later realized that most of the time whatever piece was going through my head was doing so at a very slow tempo. For example, there was a time when the piece in question was Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca,” the last movement of the Sonata in A Major, K. 331. This is a piece that I have never played. I tapped out the beat in my head at about quarter note equals 95 beats per minute. The slowest recordings that I found of it in a brief survey were at about 120. Another time, the piece was one that I have played a lot: Bach’s Fughetta super Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot, BWV 679. As it went through my head, I discovered that the eighth notes were going at about 110 beats per minute. Recordings of it that I checked were all between two and three times that fast.

So I began to speculate, are these the tempos that I really want? I certainly like the admittedly abstract experience of “hearing” them that way internally. Each of those pieces, and others, seemed to have a wonderful feeling of suspense and freedom as well as a convincing overall arc. But this is imaginary. Would I like actually hearing them this way? These tempos were extremely slow. If I really would like them this slow, does that mean that I could expect other people to? Or is it something quirky about me, or about how one hears one’s own playing as opposed to anyone else’s? As I get back to playing and teaching, I want to re-think tempo, mainly as a matter of influence. Where should we get our tempos? Our own innermost thoughts? If not that, why not? Do students feel free to try to get in touch with their own innermost feelings about tempo? What about other interpretive matters? Where might those feelings come from? How can I help students connect with them?

2) There are periods in history that have seen the creation of music that reflects difficult times. Composers in the seventeenth century lived through the Thirty Years War. I have always assumed that this is one source for the sadness and intensity of much of the organ music of Scheidt, for example. The mid-twentieth century was of course another such time, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is one response to it. As I write this it is much too soon to know what scale of misery, dislocation, and sadness the current public health emergency will end up creating. But I find that this current state of affairs gives me a more real and human awareness of how such things might have affected people—even those great artistic figures whom we struggle to know not just as names or monuments but as people—all those years ago.

3) I noticed something interesting in my approach to physical therapy exercises. It is usually not the exercises that are new, difficult, or painful that I am tempted to skip or shortchange. Rather, the ones that have become easy, that seem to have “worked.” Take, for example, rolling a big ball along a table. I essentially could not do this at all a month ago. But now it seems so effortless that after I have done it once or twice, it takes more willpower than I can always manage to do it the prescribed thirty times. This reminds me of one of the characteristic dangers of the practicing and learning process: that a piece or a passage that has become basically learned—or seems to have done so—will be neglected thereafter. I do this, and students do this. When there is limited time or concentration, it is tempting to focus on whatever seems to need the most work. That is not always a source of danger, but it has to be monitored for becoming one. Often the passages that seemed easy in the first place or that seemed to get learned easily end up being the shakiest in performance.

I say that I am prone to doing this, and that is true. But it is fascinating to see myself falling prey to the same temptation in a situation when I am without any particular expertise or overarching awareness of the dynamic of what is going on. To put it another way, I am doing the work at someone else’s behest, something that I never do when playing music. This may change my way of thinking in my own practicing or conversations about it.

4) I have been trying to turn back these last few weeks to thinking about the music that I want to play. That means The Art of the Fugue, of course, at least in large part for now. However, I find myself thinking more about counterpoint in very general terms, that is, about the concept of counterpoint as a part of life. This is abstract and, perhaps, just the musings of someone who was abstracted from normal life and activity for a couple of months for one reason and now expects to be for another couple of months for different reasons. But I have felt strongly the force of what I think of as the basic definition of counterpoint, namely two or more things that are different from one another happening at the same time. This is a way of looking at it that at least somewhat downplays such specifics as voices, motifs, and subjects, not to mention answers, inversions, countersubjects, cancrizans, diminutions, and so on. It requires us only to have an awareness of what it means for things to happen at the same time and of what it means for things to be different from one another. There can be interesting things to say about each of these around the edges, since they are both recognizable, familiar concepts that arise not out of music but out of life.

I had that thought vividly the first time I entered the physical therapy clinic. Here were people (the patients), none of whom had ever met or heard of each other, and who were not exactly meeting now. They were there doing similar but different things in a kind of dance or counterpoint. Of course, this is a clichéd or trite point.

As far as music is concerned, this reminds me of several ideas about counterpoint that occurred several years ago, mainly as a result of my experiences with theater, in particular immersive or participatory theater. (I have briefly alluded to this in prior columns, and will soon—the Fates permitting—write about it at length and relate it to memory, to the passage of time, and to The Art of the Fugue.) The notion is that whereas it is normal, valid, and important to think of counterpoint as a conversation between two voices or among more than two voices, it makes a different kind of sense and has a different kind of power to see counterpoint as a representation of or analogue to all experience, whether of people passing through the physical therapy center together or of the planets circling one another—or millions of people working from home and staying in touch as best they can.

To be continued.

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