On Teaching

December 23, 2020

Gavin Black is director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center, Inc., in Princeton, New Jersey (www.pekc.org). 

Utterly miscellaneous

This month’s column is a grab bag of topics: a paragraph or so on several matters that have been on my mind but have not developed into columns of their own. Some ideas are about pedal playing and are a sort of follow up to last month’s column. However, because of the timing of the column-writing process, I cannot yet respond to any of the feedback I hope to receive from my December column. Most of the topics here are more-or-less random, connected with one another and with the phenomenon of this column only in that they could shape at least indirectly some of what we say or do with our students.

Pedal playing

Two things about pedal playing have been going through my mind recently. The first is the question of how to help people get comfortable going from one sort of pedalboard to another. For the most part this means flat versus concave/radiating. I tend to call the latter “round,” just because that is more concise. There are also differences among pedalboards within each of those categories. The Fisk organ at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, has a round pedal keyboard, but with slightly different proportions than American Guild of Organists standard. That instrument was my “go-to” organ for many years, and I probably performed over thirty recitals on it. So whereas a lot of my colleagues found it annoying to adjust to that instrument, I had, if anything, a bit of trouble when I wanted to play on a different round pedalboard. Also, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time playing flat pedal keyboards, and they differ a lot from one another. I believe that the key to success in moving from one pedalboard to another is to think of the act of playing a pedal note as involving points rather than lines. That is, it is the spacing of the spots on the keyboard where you are playing that matters, not which way the rest of the key is pointing. This is not rigorously true, and in particular, its application to heel playing is a bit complicated. But I think that it is a better starting point than a preoccupation with overall layout. This ties in with everything else about my approach to pedaling, especially the emphasis on keeping track of the motion of each foot with respect to itself.

The second point is about the concept of sitting comfortably. Something that I do not believe I have dealt with adequately in my earlier writings about pedal playing is the issue of sitting comfortably. Is it good enough just to do this intuitively: sit there and do what feels comfortable? Or is it possible that one has to learn how to sit comfortably, perhaps with advice from a trainer, physical therapist, orthopedist, or other professional—or perhaps with the aid of practices such as yoga, Pilates, Alexander Technique, and so on? I have always used the intuitive approach, and I honestly do not know as much as I could or should about the latter. I worry that learning anything non-intuitive about how to sit comfortably could converge with “you must sit this way,” of which I am very skeptical indeed.

Background music

Here is the first of my random points for this month. I have never, over thirteen-plus years, played music in the background while I was writing this column. But today I have done so. Why does that seem right this time? Perhaps I have become better at multitasking. There are two reasons I have not previously played background music. I am afraid that it will distract me more than it will relax me and put me in the right mood to concentrate; and some of the time, I am afraid that other music will confuse me when I write about some particular music, or even just about musical or music-tangential issues. Am I fooling myself? Can I really write this way? So far, so good.

Is the performer deeply engaged?

I recently attended a couple of recitals with some friends, both by the same solo performer. (Well, not too recently, alas.) And we all thought the performances were tremendous. We agreed that the performer played as if she cared deeply about every note. This crystallized for me how important it is to as a listener. It is also something that I try to convey in my own playing. But for a listener it is a feeling. It might not be literally true of the performer whom I am remembering, and, even more likely, it might well be true of many or most performances that do not happen to come across that way to me. It would be unfair and inaccurate, often, to assume that if I do not come away from a performance with that feeling, the performer was actually kind of indifferent to or uninvolved with the music, or took a cavalier or perfunctory approach. But that does not mean that it is not important. And what about with students? I like the idea of conveying to a student that this might be a value worth embracing. But how does one do that without it seeming to direct a particular style or type of playing? That would inevitably be the style or approach that the teacher responded to as conveying that feeling.

I wonder whether we are more likely to come away with this feeling from attending a concert than from listening to a recording. If so, is this because of the effect of the recording situation on playing or, more likely, because we listen differently in person at a performance venue than we do at home or in the car?

This may be one source of my commitment to helping students with music that they care about deeply and to avoid the situation of working on anything because someone has told them that they must. But I need to avoid conveying the message that it is insufficiently important to work on music about which you are curious, and which you may or may not come to care deeply about.

One thing that I have noticed about teaching during this Covid period is that some students have become more autonomous in choosing music. I usually help students choose music through discussion, which can be partially duplicated remotely, but not in as free-ranging and flexible a way, and through pulling music off the shelf and playing through different pieces. That we cannot duplicate.

A love of the sound

A while ago I was talking with a harpsichord builder, someone who reliably creates stunningly beautiful-sounding instruments. He commented that there was often a problem with organists that arose out of their love for the sound: that it could become self-indulgent, too sensual, and thus too inward-looking. At the time—quite a few years ago, in fact—my main reaction to this was to think that if anything this applied more to harpsichord, especially since the gorgeous, sensually compelling sounds of a great instrument are at such close quarters. More recently I have come to this question: why is this not a good thing? These gorgeous sounds exist to be heard and to convey the music and its associated feelings. Lately, I have been thinking about this, partly because I have spent months listening to recorded music at an even greater pace than I had over the pre-pandemic years, and trying very hard to delve into that experience as deeply as I can. But also, I suspect, it does have something to do with the point above. The sensory or sensual dimension of the organ and harpsichord is about conveying emotion. Therefore, it may be a disproportionately large part of what it takes to create that feeling I was talking about just above.

Surface level appeal

Related to this, it seems to me that often there is a surface level to a work of art that can be either appealing or unappealing to a particular person who tries to experience that art. And that if the art contains a message or meaning, that is in some way deep or important or lasting, that will only be accessible to someone who happens to respond well to what is on the surface. For example, I have never liked The Simpsons. I have experienced all sorts of people whose views I respect, and often agree with, tell me that this show is really good: funny, literate, witty, and with underlying social and political views that I would approve. I do not doubt any of this, though I also do not know firsthand that it is true. I find the drawing style of the characters really off-putting, and, in particular, I cannot stand the voices. That is not to say that I think that the performers and directors are not talented and skillful and doing a great job. It is a matter of my particular taste, based on upbringing, experiences, psychology, etc. I have tried viewing a few times and cannot get through a single episode. I am blocked from getting to know whatever really lies deeper within the show.

I recently had another similar experience with a modern dance performance that I interacted with the way we do for now—on my computer screen. I watched the event, and I certainly thought that I detected really interesting narrative, emotional content, perhaps philosophical questions being dealt with. But the out-and-out style, the way people moved, was one that I found annoying and disturbing. After watching this piece I happened upon a description of it by one of its creators. I read that, hoping that it would be interesting (and it was), and that it would unlock the piece itself to me. When I summoned it back up and tried to watch it again, I still found it annoying and disturbing: actually more so, since I now knew that there were things at the deeper level that I would have liked to connect with but still could not.

What’s in a name?

I have always wondered what his friends called J. S. Bach. Did he have a nickname or informal version of his name? I have heard that “Basti” is and has been for many years a diminutive of Sebastian. Did anyone call him that? Or a different informal name? He may have only been called “Sebastian” and presumably some version of “Father” by his children. As far as I can tell we simply do not know. But I do not want not to assume that because we think of him as so august and unapproachable he cannot have been addressed other than formally. The point of this line of thought is to try to get away from thinking of him that way. (For me that project was greatly helped along by taking a look at the facial reconstruction of Bach done several years ago at Dundee University. You can find it by doing an internet image search on “Bach reconstruction.”)

There is evidence that Johann Christian Bach was known to his family as “Christel.” This comes from the top page of a stack of J. S. B. cantata manuscripts that we know were divided between
C. P. E. Bach and J. C. Bach. An inscription there says “Carl u. Christel,” the first name in the handwriting of J. C. Bach himself, and then his name in the hand of his mother Anna Magdalena Bach. I learned recently that James Madison, also someone whom we might have trouble thinking of as “just” a person rather than an august historical figure, was called Jemmy. I would love to have more of these little windows into history.

Competition-based model

I was recently reminded by something that I heard on a televised golf game of the story that Arthur Rubinstein used to tell about his first time hearing Vladimir Horowitz. The gist of it was that he thought to himself, “This young man is really good. I’d better practice more!” As best I remember it, Rubinstein was indeed talking about the most basic thing: that he was hearing someone who was better than he was at the “right notes at the right tempo” side of playing, and that he had better work to get equally good at that. I have always shied away from, and encouraged others to shy away from, that sort of competition-based model. My fear about it is that it encourages too much of an emphasis on the things that can be measured and copied and discourages emphasis on playing one’s own way. But that is another thing that I want to muse about a bit. The things that can be measured and copied are also part of the picture. Is an awareness that others might be better at some things always a toxic way to motivate oneself? I have always felt it to be. But the amount of anxiety that such comparisons give to me may be higher than it necessarily is for others. Maybe I am too afraid that if I hear something that is clearly better than what I am doing my response will be to give up rather than to practice more. Or, more to the point, I have not sorted out a way to discern how this works for each student: it has to vary quite a lot.

If this kind of comparison- or competition-based model can ever work it has to be very clear that one is being spurred on to do an even better job of what one wants to do, of what constitutes one’s own individual contribution: not to copy as such. All this will bear a good deal more thinking about.

And that is all for this month.

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