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Gradus ad Parnassum


Music study is the best and worst of all worlds. At its best it opens a young mind to a world of meaning, values, idealism, self-discipline and the selflessness of sharing of what one at whatever age deems beautiful. At its worst music study becomes an intensely competitive activity that measures talent and teacher success by whether a student can play the Chopin F-minor Ballade at age 12 or La Valse at 15. Not that studying the Chopin in the throes of adolescence, given the technique to play the notes, is necessarily unwise. It may enable an understanding of the piece by age 45, after the music has had time to “seep into the soul,” as Claudio Arrau once remarked.

Teaching as part of being a musician is universal and a calling that can be deeply rewarding. Those who are young, let’s say college age, will learn that it is a calling that at its worst becomes ruled by fear. You already know that fear. From early years you have been taught respect for technical honesty, traditions of interpretation, and the fulfillment found in creativity. However dedicated the private faculty member may be to fostering a continuation, “higher education” unavoidably requires conformity of the many to standards of “juries,” auditions, recital approvals, and degree recitals in which, as in competitions, a mistake of memory becomes the kiss of death. How difficult it is to push back nagging concerns about how my technique compares with that of my peers, whether I play Mozart too “romantically,” whether my realization of ornaments in Bach is well-founded, whether my present concept of a tempo is too fast or too slow – ultimately, every decision attended with fears of shortcomings, criticism and failure.

After leaving the unnaturally crowded population of a school of music for the real world of one’s studio, where one is responsible for the advancement of others, the fears only wear a different mask. What will another teacher – maybe an older, experienced teacher – think of my teaching? What will the contest judge write on my student’s comment sheet? Even if I might not agree with said comments, will my student lose respect for me after reading them? How can I teach what I hold to be true if I encourage my students to think for themselves? How will I develop a studio to which gifted students and their parents desire admittance if I am not selective but instead work with any young person who is “hungry”?

The unfortunate result of all this professional turmoil can be a career of hiding behind concepts of music-making having little to do with the art. It may be technique on display, as when one hears a recording of the third movement of the “Moonlight,” not that difficult technically, in which an unknowing lack of imagination for agitato hides behind a tempo intended to sound awesome. Or it can be heard in a metronomic beat hiding the uncertainty of the pacing of unlike ideas in the progress of the movement, or the sterile demonstration of performance practice in the playing of a Bach suite hiding the improvisational wonder of the music – as a perceptive student once remarked, “This music should sound as though it is always beginning.”

The most difficult challenge in being an interpreter is not playing all the notes, as demanding as that may be, but being receptive to the invisible spirit in the world between the double-bars and aligning one’s thinking with that spirit. “Spirit” always asks questions of our imperfect answers, answers that we soon learn can never be perfect.

It may be a question such as what is important in the crossed-hands section of the first movement of the Beethoven Pathétique, maintaining a strict beat or taking time to hear the conversation? Do the sforzandos affect the length of the dotted half-note? If the tonal indecisiveness of the first four measures of the Allegro – in F minor and C minor/major – is answered by the tonal decisiveness of the next four measures, will you modify the tempo accordingly to reveal the difference in character? Why would Czerny write that the development section of the Adagio movement of the “Moonlight” should grow in dynamic level and increase in tempo before settling down to the reprise? Does the appoggiatura, the first note one plays in the Mozart B-flat Sonata, K. 333, possibly tell us that the music is an expansive aria for the piano? Certainly more fertile ground for revelation of its beauty than running pell-mell into the movement with four fast even sixteenths.

This communion of mind and fingers and heart with the beckoning spirit is sacred above all mundane degrees, honors, and renown and beyond any fee.

An American president once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We pianists might adapt those words to our calling: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself of our shallowness being exposed by the spirit.”


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