On Teaching

August 30, 2020

Taking stock

I had intended to make this, finally, a normal column, and as recently as a couple of days ago that was still my plan. I was going to write on toccata form, or as I conceive it, the “toccata principle,” a topic I have wanted to write about for some time. This is an approach to constructing pieces and to creating continuity that is crucially important and, I believe, somewhat under-discussed. It segues quite well out of my long, though interrupted, discussion of J. S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue that has occupied this column for the last year, since it stands mostly in contrast with the construction of that work. I will get back to that plan, probably next month. 

However, following discussions with readers, colleagues, friends, and students, I have decided to return once more to discussing the current crisis and some of its effects on our kind of work. I have recently been on a bit of a vacation, and that has been a good opportunity to ponder some ideas. Since this has been a time of reduced responsibilities and very little distraction, it has been impossible not to think through things. For at least some people, morale and motivation are newly problematic as this situation goes on for longer than a lot of us had anticipated, and in particular, as a new school year and church year loom right around the corner. 

I want to write about some of my own concerns, problems, and experiences. I have become increasingly aware as the last few weeks have gone by of changes in my own patterns of motivation, morale, and focus, and in how I make choices about allotting energy and time. I wish to share some of this, not because I believe I have solutions or that my experiences are typical or atypical. In writing this I hope to elicit feedback to help me understand better how to think about and deal with what is going on. We are all in this together.

Every case study is potentially valuable when difficult things are occurring. I have heard from a number of people that they are having trouble staying motivated to do even what little they can do with their music or any aspect of their work, and they are not sure whether they are alone in feeling this way and are therefore feeling guilt. To me, not feeling guilty about any difficulties that one experiences in this sort of crisis is crucially important. No one is alone in any worries or concerns right now. Knowing that we are not alone should alleviate any guilt.

For those of us deeply involved in music, what is it that motivated or interested us in the first place? In normal times, what keeps us motivated? A lot of answers to these questions are universally straightforward and similar. For most of us there were early experiences of hearing music. Some of this early experience of music was about melody, harmony, rhythm—the elements of composition. Some of it was about instruments, voices, sounds, and sonorities. Some of these early experiences are tied to places, people, or activities that were valuable or emotionally forceful independent of the music itself. For a lot of those who end up drawn in particular to the organ this included the experience of church and church music. For some of us playing or singing music, this was an early source of connection to others. For others it was a source of approbation, solace, or refuge. For some it tied in to a sense of history or connection beyond the circle of people around us.

Continuing motivation comes from all of the above. Love of or interest in the music itself is a part of the picture. For me, my love of the sounds of organs and harpsichords is a major continuing source of motivation as well as joy. The connection to other people is often important. This can be through singing or playing together, through offering music to others or receiving music from others. It can also stem from being fellow students at a school or of a particular teacher, from talking about music together, agreeing, disagreeing, reinforcing one another’s feelings, changing one another’s minds, or agreeing to disagree.  

There is also the matter of earning a living from music. Related to this is the fact that we who work hard on our music and try hard to be good at what we are doing have invested some of our self-esteem in that.

My point is that all of this is currently under threat, except the pure love of the music itself. Not every detail of what keeps each of us enthralled with music is utterly gone for now; but a lot of it is, and all of it has been made to feel fragile. Thus we all have trouble feeling motivated.

I have a one-manual, one-stop practice organ with pull-down pedals in my home. The sound is beautiful, and the action is sensitive. Normally I love practicing on it, but I have learned that there is a bargain that I have made with myself without knowing that I was doing so. I can enjoy practicing on that instrument because I know that I will also get to go out and immerse myself from time to time in some of the infinitely varied and magnificent organ sounds that drew me to the instrument in the first place. Not being able to do that, I find myself looking at my beautiful practice instrument with a bit of a jaundiced eye. A couple of students have said something similar to me about their own harpsichords in relation to the now-forbidden instruments at the Princeton Early Keyboard Center studio.

There is also the matter of hearing music. Most of us listen to recordings. Earlier in life, I loved recordings more than I loved live music, and I still do. But they’re not the same. For one thing, the spatial dimension is not there. Imagine (or remember) sitting in a big room listening to an organ. The sounds come from all around: not only when there are antiphonal divisions or other wide separations. Even if the organ is all in one place, it is a wide and deep place, and the sound jumps and swirls and bounces. In the last few years I had rediscovered the pleasures of hearing symphony orchestras in concert. I grew up doing a fair amount of that but had gotten out of the habit. I was newly amazed at how magnificent that experience can be. In a good hall the sound is simultaneously clear and enveloping. I miss this as much as I do the organ.

Continuing to look forward

I find it very exciting that so many musicians are streaming performances via the internet. Certainly there are dimensions to this that will be worth continuing to explore once this crisis is over, for example, the coupling of performance with discussion, or giving listeners the ability to see things close up that are pretty remote in live concerts. Also the proliferation of interesting online performances may draw listeners in who would not otherwise have thought to go to concerts. But I believe that there can also be some strain involved in trying to feel that this is the same as live performance. Again, the spatial aspect of the sound simply cannot be the same, and as with all recording the sonorities as such cannot quite be either, even if they can be beautiful and interesting in themselves.

The current situation has caused me to clarify in my head a bargain I made with myself beginning about ten years ago. At a point where I was planning to step up the frequency of my public performances, I began to step up the amount of live artistic content that I took in. The hope was that I would become a better performer by absorbing as many as I possibly could. My emphasis was on things other than classical music, though that was not by any means excluded. I found myself emphasizing dance, theater (mostly small scale and somewhat non-mainstream), poetry readings, movies and TV, art galleries, gardens, and various sorts of unconventionally structured music.

I believe this plan has worked. While I cannot really know whether my performances over the last eight or ten years have been better than those of the preceding thirty years or so, I know they have felt more energetic and committed, and I have felt more energized. I have come closer to doing with the music that I play what I actually want to do with it. The bargain that seems to have arisen out of the plan is this: that I will feel excited about performing and give as much energy and commitment to performing as I possibly can as long as I can nourish that performing life with a steady diet of great artistic content from others. Of course, it is now all gone. Every few days or so over the last four months I have received an email confirming that something that I had planned to go to has been cancelled. 

I think that this is for me the biggest specific source of doubt or wavering about my status as a performer or even as a musician. I am willing to believe that there will be a moment for all of us to resume giving concerts, so I should be practicing avidly toward that moment. In fact, I could be savoring the fact that I have extra time to learn that which I plan to perform. Instead I feel like I have no idea how to grapple with artistic output when I have no artistic input. I could/should feel like what I took in over ten years was enough. I certainly would not claim to have assimilated and manifested all of the possible lessons from all of that content. One reason it is hard to do that is that it would have to be too analytical—like “I learned from this concert or that play to do the following with this sort of music or in that sort of performance situation.” This is artificial if it has to be forced. There have been some concrete describable lessons like that along the way. But the process has largely been subconscious.  

Uncertainty is part of the situation, and the inability to respond to uncertainty is part of the problem. Most of the time I feel if I knew for sure that the things I miss most would someday come back I could be very patient with that process, regardless of how long it took. And some things will—maybe most. I will be surprised if in a year I have not been to a New Jersey Symphony concert. I am purposely mentioning a very well-established institution. Some organizations, especially less established, more experimental or controversial ones, may not come back. This will inevitably include some of the things that are most important to us. But not knowing means that neither can I just be patient and get on with what there is to get on with, nor can I mourn. 

The specifics of what I am describing are idiosyncratic. I know that many are experiencing the same thoughts, particularly organists and choristers. Here, too, there is uncertainty. For me recognizing that the uncertainty itself is difficult, separate from the loss or potential loss, is helpful. 

From the world of teaching I have one thing to recount that I recently experienced. A student wrote to me that she was frustrated working on a certain piece on her own because it was too difficult. She wanted to know whether it would make sense to put it aside and work on a few more straightforward projects. This is often a relevant question; however, I have a kind of sub-specialty in helping people figure out how to make difficult pieces seem manageable. But I realized I cannot conceive of how to do that other than in person. The process is too subtle and too specific. It depends on close observation of what fragments of the piece are the most difficult, what can be broken down into subsections, what changes can be made in hand distribution, based on the player’s particular hand size and shape, and a host of other small details. These have to be worked out by very close observation. For the first time I can remember, I simply could not come up with an alternative to “Yes, let’s put this one off for now.” Not a calamity, but frustrating. Of course, we are looking forward to picking that piece up as soon as circumstances allow!

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