December 2, 2011 Comments Off on Beethoven Speaks To Me
Lots of musicians lead full and productive lives without ever learning to read music. Whole musical civilizations rise and fall without leaving a written record. YouTube, iPods, Pandora, iTunes, Amazon and all the other cosmo-industrial recorded music machines can deliver sound to your ears from anywhere in the world and you never need to read (or play) a note.
Learning to read music is hard work for most people. As Stephen Pinker of Harvard said about learning to read words, the music-reading module isn’t part of the basic package of human skills. It has to be bolted on in every generation. We piano teachers are some of the people down in the shop, making that after-market addition to every year’s model. It is hard work for us and hard work for our students. Yet we happily do it year after year.
Why go to all this work? Why can’t we just learn by listening and copying, using our great technology to beam the music into our brains?
For one thing, the music that is written down comes out of a written music tradition. That kind of music developed along with the tools to write it. Musics that didn’t develop with a written tradition work differently. They have to be absorbable by the human ear and memory, which means certain types of complexity have to be left out.
If you’ve heard pop music described as being “only 3 chords”, you’ve heard a description of a type of music that can be learned without written notes. It is, for the most part, an aural music. The same is true of jazz. All those wondrous and elaborate inventions are hung on a harmonic structure that can be learned without recourse to written notes. Or at least that was true in its beginnings. It has become far more complex now and jazz musicians are increasingly sophisticated about music writing.
Even if you have a phenomenal ear and memory and can learn Beethoven easily from listening to recordings, as one of my friends can, you still need to grapple with the score. There is no other way to get inside the way Beethoven thought and played. The things he had to say he said on paper with pen and ink and the lines of the staff. If you want to get as close as you can to Beethoven or Chopin or Liszt and see and hear them play, you have to get your hands into their music, starting from the notes they left.
The illustration of this post is a page from Beethoven’s piano sonata “Quasi una fantasia”, the Moonlight Sonata. I’ve played and taught this piece a million times. Why did seeing this page stop me in my tracks?
What is astonishing is what is left out. All the familiar notes are there, the restrained melody, the ominous bass line, the worried triplets-but no helpful directions for the pianist on how to play it. No fingering, no attempt to line up simultaneous notes, nothing that really even looks like piano music. It is just pure music, ideas written down at speed, every shortcut taken but nothing essential left out. There it is, the real stuff. Direct from Beethoven to me.
Here’s the melody. Here’s the bass. Here’s the middle voice in triplets. The pen is confident, decisive. It is the work of a person who knows his music and knows how to get it down on paper.
There is also a message. It sings out, clear as a trumpet, across the 210 years since Beethoven put these notes on paper. It is a message you will never get from an iPod: you’re a musician, figure out how to play this. These are my ideas, now make them into music.
If my teachers hadn’t bolted the music-reading module onto me years ago, I wouldn’t be getting this message from Beethoven today. And that is why this afternoon I will be deep into the mysteries of notation with some school kids, so they can communicate with Beethoven and Chopin and Brahms and Scarlatti and all the rest, getting messages they would never get from their iPods. They are musicians, and we need to make some music.
September 19, 2011 § 2 Comments
A couple years ago my friend Cydney called to ask me a difficult question. It was a question about piano teaching and kids, the sort of thing I can talk about until my tongue falls out of my head, but this question stumped me.
You see, Cydney is a scientist. She’s a very logical and rational person who thinks there is straight path from here to anywhere. So, when her kids got to grade school, she figured it would be easy to find them a piano teacher. She’s used to reading resumes of PhD’s and post docs, so many years at this lab, so many publications authored, so many patents received, etc.
But how was she to evaluate a piano teacher? Piano teachers don’t do research, we usually don’t publish, we usually don’t have advanced degrees, we aren’t part of a network that a scientist can tap into.
When Cydney started looking at piano teachers, she was overwhelmed. It was all so murky and indirect. There was no agreed-upon criteria for rating piano teachers. Did you rate them highly because their students win contests? Do you rate them on the basis of where their (usually undergraduate) degrees are from? Who they studied with? What grades they got in Counterpoint 310? What kind of piano they had? Where they lived? How old they were? Some used only one method with every student. Some had stringent practice requirements. Some demanded recitals and group lessons. Some struck her as wishy-washy and vague.
She called me from Washington, D.C. in a panic: How ever could she pick a piano teacher for her kids?
Unfortunately Washington is several time-zones and a few thousand miles away from here, or we could have cut the conversation short and put her terribly cute kids on my schedule every Tuesday afternoon. End of problem. I know I could teach her kids, even though one of them is a little autistic and the other has a big problem sitting still for more than a nano-second.
I know how to teach kids like that and I know what Cydney is after: a good musical experience, basic skills, a sound foundation that won’t hold them back, someone who can take them as far and as fast as they want to go, lots of success, happy kids going into the lesson and happy kids coming out.
But how could she find someone like me in Washington D.C.?
I really didn’t have a decent answer for her at first. How do you pick a piano teacher? How do you tell your friend how to pick a piano teacher? I know how I picked a drum teacher for my kids, but I have lots of experience with music teachers. I knew my kids, I knew lots of teachers, I picked the one that I figured had the best shot at getting them playing and keeping them playing. But how did I make that choice?
In biology there is a phrase: a feeling for the organism. Barbara McClintock, whose work on corn genetics and gene regulation brought her a Nobel prize, used it as the title for her autobiography. It was her feeling for corn in its wonderful variety and her deep study of its genetic behavior that convinced her that genes were being turned off and on and modified even though such ideas were against current genetic dogma. She was reviled and ignored for 30 years but persevered anyway.
A person who has a feeling for the organism has an intuitive grasp of how that organism behaves, what makes it tick, how it will respond. If you are looking for someone to work on root rot fungi or orangutans or corn, you look for the person who has a feeling for that particular organism and a fascination with all its mysteries.
If you want to hire someone to work on corn genetics, you look for a person who eats, breathes, sleeps, dreams and talks corn genetics. You don’t hire the lima bean guy with the 3-mile long resume and impeccable credentials, unless he admits to a life-long yearning to get out of beans and into corn.
But you also don’t hire the corn lady with the long resume if she thinks she already understands everything about corn and genetics. If Barbara McClintock had thought that way, she would have ignored her data that showed corn was violating the genetic rules. She would have ignored what seemed to be wrong results rather than being intrigued by wonderful, unexplained behavior. Instead of making profound discoveries about genetics she would have been a hack scientist with a nice CV and a retirement fund.
Cydney knows about these people. She knows the difference between the bean guy whose eyes light up when you mention corn to him and the corn lady who can’t wait to get out of the office and get on with her real life. And, like me, she is a life-long fan of Barbara McClintock.
So she got it when I called back a few days later and said, “You need someone who has a feeling for the organism. Look for someone who is just nuts about teaching music to kids. Not someone who is looking for contest winners or perfect behavior or moms with 20 hours a week to spend supervising practice, although those people can be just fine. What you need first of all is someone with a feeling for those organisms which are your kids. Go for the person who looks even more interested when you tell them about the autism and ADHD. Pick the person who is curious and loves a challenge. And pick the one who thinks teaching music to your kids sounds like a blast”.
I was pretty proud of myself for making the connection between corn genetics and Barbara McClintock and piano teachers. It was a great moment when I taught a biologist how to navigate the murky world of humans and education. After all, we are the most interesting and complex organism on the planet.
Cydney picked a dynamite teacher for her kids. It took some work to find the right person. But the kids are playing up a storm and everyone is pleased. Only trouble is, I’m not real sure how to answer this question if someone who isn’t a biologist asks it. Any ideas out there?
September 19, 2011 § 1 Comment
One of my students was asking about an exercise written by a certain French pedagogue, Charles-Louis Hanon. Pianists have played Hanon exercises for 150 years. Teachers assign them automatically, without much soul-searching. They have passed into the realm of unexamined truths: everyone else plays them, they must be good.
Problem is, piano exercises are like penicillin. They can be wonder drugs or useless wastes of time or downright harmful. You only want to prescribe them as needed and only after careful diagnosis.
Watch out! Piano exercises can be hazardous to your health. Use only under supervision and only as directed. Do not attempt to operate machinery like a piano while under the influence of this stuff.
My student asked about one of these gems in her lesson book and I said, “For you, for now, no. It will just make you tighten up”.
To my surprise she started singing, “We’re gonna tighten up. Let’s do the tighten up. Everyone can do it now so get to it”.
I think Archie Bell and the Drells had a different idea about “tight” than I do. What do you think? Here they are with the Hanon theme song.