On Teaching

March 26, 2021


Last month, as I was finishing up the column recounting my youthful discovery of the playing of Alfred Brendel and discussing some of the effects of that discovery on my life and work, it occurred to me that my affinity for Brendel was something that came about utterly at random. I alluded to this briefly at the end of the column, but I have continued to muse about it.

Randomness is a flexible concept as well as one that is subject to various interpretations or restraints. I would not expect to be able to sort all of that out here. Instead, I will posit some of the ways this randomness affected my own story—some aspects of music making that seem to engage the idea of randomness in a fruitful way, and how this might benefit teaching.

I invested a lot of time in 1970 listening to BBC 3 and thus hearing its broadcasts of Brendel Beethoven records was itself random. It was also a matter of chance that I was then at a particularly receptive moment to encounter that music and those performances. In other words, that receptivity did not arise out of, or have any connection to, my having injured my back, my wanting to skip school as much as I could get away with, my family being in London at the time, or the BBC’s choice to program that music. I wrote last month, “As a ‘classical music person’ in the latter third of the twentieth century and thereafter, I would certainly have been familiar with Alfred Brendel.” But at a later time, I may have gotten little or even nothing out of my encounter with that playing. Or I might have gotten more. In any case it would have been something different. By that point, perhaps I would have more-or-less given up on piano listening and not paid any attention; or at another time, maybe I would have been so inspired that I would have decided to rededicate myself to actually learning piano, and would thus not have ended up as an organist or harpsichordist.

Another development in my education as a musician came about at random and yet was of tremendous importance. I took bassoon lessons during the 1968–1969 school year. Late in that year my teacher, JoAnn Wich, downsized her record collection and gave me a pile of LPs. Among those was the recording of Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, conducted by Paul Paray with Marcel Dupré at the organ. At some point I listened to this at random: I had essentially never heard of Saint-Saëns and thought of myself as someone who did not like post-Classical-era music. I could easily have never listened to this record. In fact, I fell head-over-heels in love with it: the music, the performance, the sonorities, even the discussion on the record jacket of the recording technology that was used. I became an instant Saint-Saëns fanatic—I still am—and Paray became one of my favorite conductors, which he still is. In discovering Saint-Saëns I allowed the first crack to form in this resistance that I had to music from after the Classical era.

It would be impossible to overstate how strong that resistance had been up to that time. I can still remember the feeling that music after Beethoven engendered in me (come to think of it, maybe music after early Beethoven). It was a kind of fear of chaos or anarchy—probably, really, death. I thought that it would be wrong as well as dangerous to engage with that sort of music.

I do not know where those feelings came from. I suspect that I got from Baroque and early Classical music more of a sense of order and reassurance than I would want to get out of that music now, and that later music challenged or upset that sense in a way that I was not ready for. It took a while for that crumbling of my resistance to bear fruit. As I wrote last month it was in 1974 that I first became receptive to Schumann, and later to Liszt, for example, or for that matter Brahms.

Most germane to my work at the organ was that I discovered Dupré, and this is where it gets particularly interesting, since the story is not that I became a great devotee of him or his playing, as much as I do indeed admire both. The first thing my exposure to his playing of the magnificent Saint-Saëns organ part did was to help push me away from the bassoon and back toward keyboard playing. I was forcefully reminded that I was excited about the organ, even though the return to keyboard playing meant, for the time being, going back to piano lessons.

Second, it got me interested in Dupré and the kinds of organs that he was generally associated with. As I grew up and became generally a bit more diligent, that led to a significant amount of time reading about and listening to Romantic organs, especially in France, but also Germany and England. I already knew that in my own playing I wanted to focus on Baroque music and the instruments that pertained most directly to that repertoire. This is something that has never wavered. But the chance encounter with that Saint-Saëns recording is the specific source of my awareness of organs and organ music beyond my own performing specialties. If I never had that encounter but had returned to and stuck with study of the organ I would someday have had to learn about all manner of details about the organ and its music. Perhaps my interest in doing so would have been sparked by another chance encounter; after all, I grew up less than a mile from the Woolsey Hall organ at Yale University. But maybe I would have simply had to grapple with that music as a part of my education, understood to be necessary. It occurs to me now that discovering something by chance or at random can give an extra jolt of excitement and can help it to feel more personal.

Randomness in music

So what about randomness in music itself, be it performance, improvisation, perhaps composition, and maybe even instrument design? I will not write about composition or improvisation here, since randomness in those settings is complicated, and I do not have direct experience with these concepts myself. Besides, other scholars have canvassed these topics at great length. But I have some thoughts about instruments and performance.

One of these concerns harpsichord voicing. In the case of harpsichords, voicing means causing the plectra to be the way that you want them to be. It is about size, shape, and relative rigidity or flexibility. It affects volume of sound, character of sound, and touch. The plectra are relatively ephemeral, and voicing has to be reworked or touched up on harpsichords rather regularly. Many harpsichordists do most or all of their own voicing, and I have done so for several decades. In thinking about voicing, the voicer probably has a template in mind for all the notes of a stop on a harpsichord. That could be that all the notes should be the same strength as one another; or that the middle two octaves should be even and the volume and touch should gradually ascend in the high and low outer octaves; or that the middle should be even, the top notes gradually louder, and the bass notes slightly quieter; and so on. I feel convinced from my own experience that whatever the template may be, the result is more effective musically if there is a small amount of random variation from that template. When I do a total voicing of a harpsichord stop, I do the initial, rough voicing as carefully as I can, according to whatever plan I have in mind. Then I wait until the following day to do the final refining of that voicing, which rarely needs to be done.

I believe that these very slight deviations from the theoretical ideal help to enliven the sound and compensate for any aesthetic stiffness that might come from the lack of player control over dynamics. But there is something about the way that this works that I had not sorted out until now. It is actually critical that it be genuinely random, not a planned-out slight deviation from the plan. That would just be a second, more detailed version of the template. The randomness is what makes it feel alive. Random variation will relate in various ways to different pieces in different keys, without any danger that the voicer will favor one over another. 

I suspect that there are similar things to say about organ voicing. This logically should relate differently to a wide variety of harpsichords or organs. It is a subjective reaction, but still an example of the way that randomness can come into play in music.

This puts me in mind of an aspect of the sound old natural horns make. Some notes have a sonority that is completely different from the adjoining notes—vastly different, on the scale of placing a few Vox Humana pipes throughout a stop that is otherwise a Gedeckt, for example. These notes are distributed at random with respect to any given piece and add a surprisingly vivid color dimension to the effect of a performance.

I have observed similar concepts about interpretation and performance. As players we often have templates for how we want pieces to go: tempo and registration, but also details like articulation, phrasing, rubato, dynamics or dynamic inflections, voicing of chords on piano (a different use of that word, of course), arpeggiation, and so on. We map these things out; doing so is an important part of the process of creating our interpretation. Drilling the results of this planning into our fingers and feet is an important part of making an interpretation into a performance. However, my own experience tells me that a bit of random deviation from what we have planned and drilled so diligently is usually a good thing. It is as a listener rather than as a player that I have noticed this. In particular, I realized that performances in which a fugue-subject phrasing or the shaping of a recurring motif is exactly repeated without change tends to sound sterile, boring, and, eventually, annoying. There can be planned deviation from one instance of a theme to another. However, I feel that a little bit of random variation, including from the planned variation, brings the results closer to feeling alive and human.

Random choice of repertoire

Another aspect where randomness seems to be a fruitful lens through which to ponder is that of finding repertoire for students. There are various ways of approaching that task. At one extreme is the concept of having a list of pieces that you expect all students to work on, perhaps in a set order. (This is, I believe, rare as a practice, but is a concept that can inform the process.) At the other is simply letting students bring in and work on any pieces that they happen to like. (I am temperamentally inclined to this, though I do recognize the glaring problem with it, namely, that it fails to introduce students to pieces that they do not already know about or happen to hear or otherwise discover.) Most approaches are a hybrid, and many approaches can work. But it is fun to ponder how to randomize this process: line up all of the pieces ever written on the desk, swirl around until dizzy, then lunge over and pick one! Or put them all on a dartboard and throw! These are joking ways of describing the idea. But I wonder whether choosing the occasional piece utterly at random might be a way to enliven study and might not teach both the student and the teacher something about the learning process.

If the actual experience of working on the randomly chosen piece was boring or fruitless it might be humane to let the student drop it after a while. But in order for this to be a good experience or experiment, the student would have to want to give any such piece an honest try.

I plan on choosing my own next piece this way. I need to concoct an actual method for doing the random choosing. But I am very curious to see how it feels to work on a piece for none of the sorts of reasons that I usually have. That should mean starting the work itself with fewer preconceptions or expectations. That is part of what is intriguing about it, and I will report back at some point.

Next month I will write about some of the feedback that I have received about my pedal method column from several months ago. I have not done that yet because other things have come up and because that feedback is still coming in. Interestingly, most of it by far, though not all, has been about shoes.

So, I shall kick off the discussion in May by talking about shoes.

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