Somewhere along the way, in my early 20s, I made the mistake of relying on a teacher to pass down the precise details of technique, fingering, pedaling, phrasing, and ultimately interpretation as I learned new repertoire. When I got a wonderful fingering for a section of the coda of Chopin’s 4th Ballade, it was like getting a special family recipe handed down from my great-grandmother. An unusual syncopated pedaling in the last movement of the Waldstein Sonata identified me of a member of a particular teacher’s studio. Many pianists even make a game of tracing their piano teacher lineage (What a burden to have to bear!… You studied with someone who studied with someone who studied with Beethoven?)
But what happens when a student leaves the comfort of the conservatory nest and doesn’t have a teacher coaching and demonstrating the repertoire every step of the way? Are they prepared to tackle a large piece and polish it to performance level on their own?
I wasn’t. At least I thought I wasn’t.
But I did have choices. For a while I decided I’d play only “new” music, challenging technically, but less so musically because there’s no tradition to follow. Then there was the job playing popular standards in a restaurant…no quicker way to become a sloppy pianist. Once I even tried free improvisation by rolling rubber balls inside the piano…very cool, but really??
Every pianist I know has a “bucket list.” Mine includes Beethoven Op 109 and 110, Schumann Fantasy in C, Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie Op 61, Brahms Handel Variations, Schumann Carnaval, and many others. I know my 16-year old self wouldn’t think twice about tackling one of these “big” pieces. And now I’m happy to say, with a few months consistent practicing under my belt, I might be…finally… ready to put aside the doubts and insecurities that have taken root and dive back in.
As a side benefit, this experience has taught me a lesson about my own teaching. Over the past few years I’ve been demonstrating less and demanding more from my students. I’ve become less micro-managing, and hopefully better at instilling confidence as well as knowledge. My goal is that every student will want to sit down at the piano and explore a new piece of music when they reach adulthood.
That’s why this blog post from Bruce Brubaker struck a chord with me. He says:
I prefer to believe that what’s happening in a “lesson” is the scrutiny and exploration of process. That’s why very satisfying work can occur with music not known in advance by the “teacher.” All those details of enunciation, metric grouping, fingering, the pedal — are not the point. From lessons the student comes to know, as Schoenberg puts it, “… that one must come to grips with all the problems — not how to.”
When explanation and singing won’t do it and I succumb to playing during a student’s lesson — it feels like a little failure. Better for the synthesis of ideas and the grappling with issues to lead to sounds arising from within the student, the analysand.