I would describe myself as a lifetime student of music, but also of learning itself. How one learns, what is learned – or isn’t – and why, are really fascinating topics. These variables change from person to person, one pedagogical style to the next, and of course, end results also differ a great deal. I spent some of my summer at the Aspen Music Festival, performing as principal viola of its Chamber Symphony, and giving several masterclasses, and this was one of the more enlightening teaching experiences I’ve had. Allow me to share a few observations.
Music education is at a point where, unlike in previous centuries, specialization is prevalent and most musicians primarily focus on a relatively narrow skill. If you are an aspiring instrumentalist, you rarely learn to conduct, compose or play another instrument with high proficiency. Instead, if you are, say, a violinist, you are likely to spend many years aiming to produce a quality sound, with good variety of expression, stable intonation and rhythm, various bow- and left-hand techniques. If all goes well, you graduate from a conservatory with a performance of one of the major concertos for your instrument of choice. This process may take fifteen-plus years on average, just to get there. Anyone who has gone through this can tell you that the majority of the time in the practice room – but also in the classroom, with your teacher one-on-one – you work on solving the problems in the pieces. How to play chords better, make a bigger sound, play double stops with ease, make good reeds, and so forth – definable, objective factors, and certainly very difficult to do well. A lot of the time in school is really about the musician becoming proficient at the craft, and a devilishly complex craft it is.
What I have been seeing a lot my teaching practice is an almost complete absence of awareness of the bigger picture, and of the less tangible qualities of music that are absolutely crucial. Here’s an example. I like to ask a simple question, such as, what is the mood at the beginning of this piece? What is the emotion of, say, the beginning of William Walton’s Viola Concerto? If I am lucky, I will get something like “expressive“, but most of the time there is a lot of hemming and hawing, and something like “it’s kind of sad“ or nothing at all. I’ve never heard a more precise, personal description, something like “melancholy“ or “quietly pensive“. I find this unacceptable, that music, which absolutely has to express something all the time, and is arguably the most esoteric of the arts, isn’t thought about in a way that highlights its most important qualities.
Too many students are focused on putting things together, on being able to play well and executing what is on the page, while spending little time thinking about mood, texture and layering it, overall architecture, color, creating a narrative and its coherence, projection of one’s ideas onto the listener, and so on. These are the things that are more subjective, that aren’t in the score or are just hinted at, and one has to develop an affinity for these based on intuition, experience, developing one’s inner ear, knowing a lot of music in different genres, as well as other arts, learning how to trust oneself, and so on.
I’ve run this observation by a number of friends and colleagues and an almost universal response is that having ideas and a vision primarily depends on a lot of talent, imagination, and curiosity, which we don’t all equally possess, and that it seems reasonable to build technique first and then try to express oneself. I’ve been thinking about this and while their reply sounds logical, I am not sure it pans out in the end. A likely reason for that is that the esoteric qualities of music cannot be divorced from its more objective ones. I don’t believe that craft can be learned without it having a purpose, and you cannot ‘reverse engineer’ music in this way. Plus, I believe everyone can get better at this with a sustained effort.
Craft is learned better and faster with a more thorough understanding of the big picture and a clearer idea of what one is trying to say, as it has a reason to be.. Your technique will be stronger and you will play better if your inner picture is more developed.. And yet that inner picture is nearly an afterthought a lot of the time. I don’t believe this is a question of how gifted one is, as the question “what is the mood of this piece“ can be answered by anyone with a decent ear and an ability to feel. All it takes is a pencil and marking moods every eight or sixteen bars in the music, and that’s a good first step. It does take practice to develop inwardly, just as it takes practice to develop outwardly. Any music student could try to regularly run pieces in their heads from the beginning to the end to refine those aural images with time. More classes on score study, on possibilities of interpretation and its philosophy, would go a long way, as well as a more sustained effort by teachers to gear their students in this direction. However, tangibles beat intangibles in any educational system, because a system needs results…
Let’s take auditions as an example. I often see people trying to “do” excerpts, to play the notes, respect all the markings, play the right dynamics, and drill solid intonation and rhythm ad nauseam. Many schools give a lot of weight to this kind of training, and many musicians try very hard to live up to superimposed expectations – and fail. Why? Because there isn’t enough of something personal to bring out, the music isn’t sufficiently internalized, because it never becomes our own. How could it, when the average student – I hesitate to say “musician” – has only a vague idea of what they’re trying to communicate? (I’ll be writing about auditions more soon.)
We ought to believe that every musician has the ability to feel something in the music they play, and we need to help our students bring it out! Our profession will be all the richer for it, and this may be an important first step to making classical music more relatable. For our focus on getting technique first is getting in the way of communication, and without communication, we cannot continue to have an audience.