Sunday, December 19, 2010

My recent article in Chamber Music Magazine was entitled by the editor "Experiments of a Chamber Music Coach." My first reaction was puzzlement. Now I realize that that is how my work appears to others, particularly to other teachers. I have, in fact, been conducting a lifelong experiment in teaching and not just teaching chamber music.

I put the ear first. The ear is the motivator, the organizing force, and the source of satisfaction for the player at every level. Yesterday the proof of that came through more clearly than it usually does.

The student is a young woman whose younger brother is blessed with a gift of musical facility the outward expression of which is severely limited by physical constraints. It is nevertheless facility which she does not possess. What she does possess is an ear, not a musical ear as usually defined by the ability to imitate pitch and rhythm, but a responsive, emotionally informed ear readily affirmed by an astonishingly precise vocabulary.

Wanting to produce her own music, she has produced some very seemingly primitive music unlike anything anyone has ever produced: it is truly her own. Wanting to expand her possibilities I have suggested she learn some of Bartok's folk song settings in his brilliant For Children based on Hungarian Folksongs. She chose for its title one about a young girl.

Turns out it is not the happy piece she expected. Yesterday, after several weeks of puzzling out the unlikely harmonies we worked on combining their mournful colors with a rhythm that had to move on, as if relentlessly. The tension, the drama were all there: internal, transparent to her and to me.

I couldn't help but feel that, had it been the other way around, with the rhythm coming first the intensity of the sounds would not have penetrated.

Ironically I know that many great pianists advise their advanced students to do what she began by doing: take all the time in the world over each sound so that you digest it thoroughly before moving on. When this is integral to the learning process the stamp of the music is profound and indelible because so deeply felt.

I wasted years trying to do it the other way -- i.e., beat first, against my nature. The result: impatience, boredom.