On Teaching: Influences on students

November 19, 2022

Influence—a first look

By an odd and fascinating coincidence, on the day I received my copy of the October issue of The Diapason in the mail, I also read a short but significant piece of news about organ study at Westminster Choir College. As I understand, there is a plan in the works to reestablish the organ as a presence at Westminster. I do not know any details. I like the conceit that my column may have coaxed Westminster organ study back into existence, but I am not quite ready to attribute supernatural powers to myself. I was excited to hear the news, and I hope that it goes stupendously well.

I was prompted to think again about that October column and was reminded of one point I want to write about this month. The opening word at the top of the column here is “Influence.” What I am getting at is the whole range of things that shape or change what we are like as musicians. Under that heading I include several phenomena, quite different from one another, that can be sorted roughly into three categories: the influence of individual moments, whether planned/engineered by someone or just fortuitous; the cumulative influence of the ongoing pattern of our lives as they happen to unfold; and the influence of those who, in planning their interactions with us, make conscious decisions to try to influence us. These are all critically important, and all have the potential to be constructive and difficult, but also fruitful, harmful, or mixed.

I believe that many of us give too little attention to influences of the first kind. Something happens, and everything changes—this is a very common experience, if we take “everything” with a grain of salt. We tend to notice something like this only when it is on a very big scale—and perhaps most of all when it is catastrophic. There are small instances of this going on at any time, and any one of them can be deeply consequential, even though almost too small to notice at the time.

My first particular example concerns Dr. Donald MacDonald, whose passing was acknowledged in that same October issue of The Diapason (see pages 7, 20). One day perhaps thirty-five years ago or so, he and I passed each other in one of those organ department corridors at Westminster and chatted briefly. I had a recital coming, and he asked me what I was performing. I mentioned the Bach Trio Sonata in C Major, and I noted that I found it to be really hard. He nodded and then sighed, shook his head, and said “all those white notes.” Immediately everything about my thinking about organ playing took a small but important turn. It had never occurred to me that black notes—raised keys—help the hands by providing architectural guideposts, or that it was something to which I should pay specific attention. Something clicked in my thinking about hand position and its relationship to fingering. I believe that I also made a note in my mind about the falseness of the everyday belief that C major is an easy key!

As another example, in the summer of 1968 when I was 11, I attended a music and arts day camp outside New Haven, Connecticut. There, I met Paul Jordan, who would become a tremendous influence on me as my “official” organ teacher for a while and as a lifelong friend and colleague. One day I asked Paul how long it should take to “learn” Handel’s Messiah. What I meant was to learn to play the Schirmer piano reduction. My copy of that score was one of my very first musical possessions. Paul laughed, looked thoughtful for a second or two, and said, “Seven years.”

I took this very seriously, and for quite a while believed that this was simply the correct answer to that question. I was also pleased that Paul—whom I did not really know yet and who seemed to me to be a deeply established and rather august citizen of the musical world—took my question seriously and gave me an answer. I think that in fact he was taking me seriously, though not in as straightforward a way as I thought at the time. Any simple answer to that question does not really have any meaning to it, and the one he gave was probably kind of random, though well designed to seem neither unrealistic nor too daunting. However, he was certainly taking seriously my need and desire to engage with the question.

For the first few of those ensuing seven years I fretted about whether I was on track to learn Messiah on time. But then it began to occur to me that someone starting out where I was as a player did not learn something like this by working on it for seven years. Rather they got to be a progressively more skillful player through studying and practicing, and then learned this material in less than seven years. This incident also made me think about what Messiah was—that the piano reduction was not the real texture. (This saddened me at first.) As time went by, I discovered that to the extent that I was going to participate in accompanying that work, it was going to be as a continuo player.

In any case, I learned so much from such a brief, simple moment. I believe that over the years I have not consciously focused enough on how significant moments like that can be a great part of the learning process. I am not entirely sure what to do about that as a teacher, since it is hard to engineer something of this sort on purpose. These two moments stand out because they were isolated from other interactions. I was not studying with either of the others involved, nor did I see them to interact with regularly at those times. It is hard to know when something of this outsized significance has taken place as the teacher/catalyst, the party of the second part, so to speak. It may be powerful to the student right away or may seem so only in retrospect. For me the interaction with Dr. MacDonald was clear as to its importance right away, the interaction with Jordan seemed striking enough at the time but only revealed layers of significance later.

It is difficult to create a brief but telling interaction like those discussed above. But the sustained influence that we teachers have on our students, my third category, is something that we work on creating over the entire duration of our interaction with a student. Each of us has a somewhat different philosophy about how that influence should be established and maintained and what the scope of it should be. I am inclined to worry about influencing students too much or in the wrong ways. One of the reasons I am focusing on this issue right now is that I want to review as honestly as I can the question of whether I go too far in my attempts to avoid influencing my students. I am not talking about practical issues such as influencing a student to practice efficiently and learn music securely. I am largely willing to take that for granted. Rather I am talking about influencing students to more subjective and fluid matters: interpretation of every sort, choices about repertoire, answers to questions about what sorts of instruments are best for what circumstances, ethical or philosophical considerations about how to approach music, what school of thought one belongs to as to various matters, and so on. I am by no means expecting to give up my basic sense that we need to be very careful about influence and deeply aware of the possibility of heavy-handedness, of influence becoming a burden or constraint. However, I am in the midst of trying to review the whole subject as open-mindedly as I can. It is a fraught area, and each of us brings the influence of our own experiences to thinking about it or approaching it a certain way without consciously thinking about it; and that is what I am trying to revisit. Are my thoughts just habit, and how will they respond to conscious rethinking?

When I return to this subject, it will be to dig into this in detail. I am going to finish this column with a few stray thoughts and stories that are germane to my evolving thinking about this.

Several years ago a friend of mine told me about a conversation he had just had with the members of a string trio, people whom he had not previously met. They were preparing a performance of an arrangement of The Goldberg Variations—perhaps only the movements in three or fewer voices, though I do not recall. A question came up about some interpretive point, perhaps about tempo, and one of the players said, “Well, in the recording it goes like [such-and-such],” My friend asked, “What recording?” (After all, it is one of the most-recorded pieces around.) The string players said, “Oh, Gould.” This reflected a feeling, really an assumption, that the Glenn Gould recording of the work (not clear which one) was so standard, so obviously the point of reference, that one did not need to specify that, even talking to a stranger. This feels unambiguously to me like too much influence for one player or one performance to have.

My father used to tell a story of himself as a young child, maybe six years old or so. Apparently, his mother once said to him, in an exasperated tone, “You always want your way.” And he replied, “If I didn’t want it, it wouldn’t be my way.” He was making fun of himself for having been an obnoxious child, a brat. But his six-year-old self had a point, if a complicated and sometimes controversial one. This story of my father’s is one of the reference points for my own very well-developed feeling that I want to do things my own way. I am well aware that there are areas of life where this is either literally not possible or a bad idea. But it is possible, at least as an ideal, in interpreting music. My feeling so strongly about this for myself is one source of my belief that I should try to offer students the chance to do it as well. It is not rare for any teacher to feel that way in relation to final results. But my impulse has always been to start there as well. Even with absolute beginners and certainly for students starting new pieces at any stage I am almost flatly unwilling to answer questions of the sort, “How should this go?” Is this a strength or a problem? Do I take this approach too far?

Another brief story that I read somewhere years ago was about Artur Schnabel. A prospective student recounted that when he approached Schnabel for lessons, Schnabel asked him, “Have you listened to my Beethoven recordings?” The musician recounting this experience certainly took Schnabel to be suggesting that his recordings should serve as an interpretive model. This might not be true, or not entirely so, though it is unlikely that Schnabel was directing the student to those recordings in order that he might then ignore them. Certainly the student was suggesting that this was the point in recounting the story.

This brings to mind the whole business of “schools,” that is, not institutions, but traditions of playing passed down the teacher/student generations. “He studied with Serkin, so he plays like this.” “She studied with Dupré, so she plays like that.” This is common, of greater or lesser force with respect to different teachers. Is it good or bad? Or to put that another way, why am I so uncomfortable with it?

I noted above that I accept that influencing a student about practical matters is different from doing so with interpretive or other subjective and flexible points. But is this utterly true? I ask students to practice contrapuntal music in part by playing separate voices and pairs of voices. That is highly pragmatic, and I can sell it to myself that way. But is it true that it is neutral to the areas I am trying to tread lightly in influencing students? Or does it inevitably lead to a certain kind of playing or emphasis in playing? If it does, is that so different from a teacher telling a student to use this or that tempo, registration, phrasing, and so on? Am I being hypocritical?

I try hard to avoid “spoilers.” That is, if I am going to read a book, watch a movie, view a painting, or hear or play through a piece of music, and it is something new to me, I do not want to know anything about it beforehand. This is not just about plot twists: it is not only that I do not want to know how a story turns out. I do not want anything in even the back of my mind that might predispose me to one sort of experience rather than another. I do not even want to know that someone liked or disliked the artistic entity that I am about to grapple with or that the creator of it was or was not highly esteemed. Knowing none of this sort of thing is usually an unreachable goal, but I want absolutely as little as possible. This is a temperamental thing of mine. It has taken me a long time to begin to believe that some people really do not feel that way. Is this bias one reason that I want to offer students the chance to encounter as much as they can of our shared artistic world with as little outwardly sourced preconception as possible?

I will leave this here for now and take it up again soon.

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