Today I experienced two versions of the ideal student: One, relishing with delight his discovery of the potential subtlety differentiating a left hand from a right hand passage in Beethoven. "This is hard!" he proclaimed, smiling, loving every minute of it.
The other had played his current repertoire for an astonished audience of peers, therapists, social workers, and parents at a center for developmentally challenged young people. Among the selections he had played were some he had taught himself, having learned them from his iPad. Whenever I suggested he use all ten fingers instead of pecking with just one per hand, as he likes to do, he changed effortlessly and without missing a beat.
One of his favorite pieces, by Bartok, involves the contrast between pattern and surprise: the pattern moving at first without conflict, and then clashing unpredictably with dissonances in the other hand. Adjusting his internal timing he could make each transition without stumbling. That he did so without prompting from me was remarkable.
What makes each of these young men an ideal student is their love of the music they play. That is all I can really teach anyone: How worthy the music is of their love, and of mine.
People who have been told that they will never be able to do the thing they most want to do have a special advantage: Because out of the running they are free to pursue their own timetable. Having been told so many times by so many people that I would never be able to play the piano, I recognize the power of motivation not only to outlast all of this discouragement, but also to illumine the path of impossibility.
The primary insight that shines that light is the power of the individual. I see reflected in my young students, even those with pronounced physical and mental challenges, the tremendous organizing power that produces reliable coordination within the realm of shared sound.
The students learn that from one another.
I have worked a lot with amateur chamber musicians and with beginning piano students, two populations that are responsive to their feelings as they play because unprotected by technique that usually covers up every possible non sequitur, every trace of vulnerability.
If more professionals noticed how it feels as they play audiences would be drawn into the music rather than simply dazzled by virtuosity for its own sake, by perfection on parade.
As a young student I was advised to go hear Mieczyslav Horszowski though warned that I would not like his playing. To this day, more than 50 years later, I recall my astonishment. The sound held my full attention; interpretation seemed irrelevant.
If you play ping pong the way I do you are so relieved to hit the ball that it never occurs to you to put a playful spin on it. Gnip gnop gnip gnop - the regularity of it was my major achievement.
That explains why there was no future in it: not only did no one want to play with me, but even I was bored.
Isn't chamber music a bit like that? I'm talking about real chamber music, the kind enjoyed among friends. If the point is "to report for duty on time in the next bar," as a former student put it, I don't want to do it, even if (especially if) you are my friend. The point of any good chamber music composition has to be that it takes however many human beings to play it: ping-pong doubles, triples...you get the idea. Imagine the possibilities.
The term "post-modern"enters this blog sort of tongue in cheek, especially in relation to Beethoven. I am writing this post in Berlin where I am enjoying the privilege of playing Beethoven sonatas almost non-stop for my dear friend, composer Ursula Mamlok. As I have learned so much from her about how a composer's mind works I feel it is my turn to give back to her how a performer's mind works in regard to these sonatas which she so dearly loves.
Today it was two of my favorites: Opus 27 - the No. 1 that nobody plays because it makes so little sense, and the No. 2 that "everybody" plays without noticing its secret sense-- the "Moonlight," one of my big numbers.
As I was playing yesterday for the first time in public in about thirty years I was aware that many people in the audience might not agree with my reading of Debussy or Mozart. I don't require that people agree with me or even that they approve of how I play. All I need is to know that they are paying attention.
I could taste them doing just that.
One of the very first public recitals I played in New York City was memorable in that, on the way home with some members of the audience there was a heated argument about my interpretation of whatever it was - I no longer recall. Just before getting off the bus, however, one of them stopped and said: "I didn't agree with what you did, but I realize that I heard every single note!"
That's all I want: for you to pay attention.
Yesterday I was privileged to hear Ole Hjorth, a fiddler who had learned old-style Swedish fiddling from his father starting in his infancy 85 years ago. I have never heard anything even remotely resembling that sound, that voice.
Empowering beyond anything I can even name, I will carry the image of that sound with me for the rest of my life.
Isn't it funny that nobody tells children when they start learning real music (which is, hopefully, with their first lesson) that music truly comes alive when they are not playing it: in their imaginations, in their thoughts.
One of the most satisfying children I ever taught told me once that she didn't practice because she didn't have time, but that she dreamed about the music. That turned out to be more than enough to keep her engaged into and beyond some of the most intricate compositions around: sonatas by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, for example.
In a recent post I mentioned the possibility that we no longer know what a dog sounds like. The analogy I like to make is that the profession of piano teaching as mostly practiced rather evokes images of typing teachers teaching computer skills.
This post is being written on the day before I depart for Stockholm to play my first solo piano recital in a very long time. I am positively thrilled to be doing this, as it comes at a time when the subject of my entire life's involvement with music has come to fullest fruition. Now I can truly say what it is that has motivated everything in my musical life; I have even said it in print, in my books on Tonal Refraction, the second of which is being printed as I write this; and I can play the piano in such a way that, even without a clue what you are hearing, you get it.
Time to take the show on the road.