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Breakthroughs: The sweetest moments in teaching


An Interview with William Westney 

I have recollections of a day, years ago, in graduate school. Like most days, I was frantically trying to get everything done, self-absorbed in my own personal cloud of pressures and deadlines. Practicing, papers, teaching - there was plenty to do. I may have had a vague notion that there was a guest presenting something on campus that day, but there was no time for this in my schedule - I had much more important things to worry about. Besides, as a graduate student I already knew everything there was to know, right? So, I arrived at school, parked, and hurried into school in pursuit of a practice room, or library, or something, when a funny thing happened on my way through the atrium.

I saw happy people, arranged in a big circle. These were people I knew - including other graduate students who should probably be practicing or writing or studying. Why were they wasting their time here? Wait a minute, though - there was something even more intriguing. They were smiling, laughing, dancing! What had gotten into these people?

I discovered that this merry crowd was under the influence of William Westney. He was the guest, and he was in the midst of giving a performance workshop. I couldn't help but be intrigued, and I decided to stay. I'll have to admit I don't remember the specific words, but I remember the concepts - letting go of inhibitions, relaxing, feeling music with the entire body, manifesting the spirit of music in meaningful gestures and movements.

This was a different kind of workshop, and the audience was clearly responding. They were not just responding, they were having fun, and they were all enjoying their active participation. (When was the last time you saw that at a workshop?) 

photo by Rebecca Cooney
photo by Robert Suddarth

In the years since, I've come to learn that this type of setting is the norm for William Westney. Like a performer who communicates his love of the music, his passion and feelings are infectious and inspiring. His ability to challenge our routines and help us explore new territory as teachers and musicians is both transformative and refreshing.

A Fulbright Scholar, Geneva International Competition Winner, and Yale graduate (DMA), Dr. Westney is an accomplished pianist with performances all over the world, including appearances on NPR and at New York's Lincoln Center. His workshops and lectures, including his renowned "Un-Master Class" have received critical acclaim across the globe, and his book The Perfect Wrong Note has

received adoration from teachers at all levels. He has recently been pursuing a broader approach to his ideas, applying them to other artistic disciplines and pursuits. He took some time out of his busy schedule to share ideas on teaching, learning, and other topics with Clavier Companion. 

The Interview 

You've been busy lately - in recent months I've seen you in Denver at MTNA and in Bologna, Italy at the ISME World Conference. What has been the focus of your recent work?

I've had the chance to branch out recently into other fields besides piano and piano pedagogy, and that's always stimulating. For example, in the last couple of years I've taken part in music education conferences in Australia and in Italy, an interdisciplinary philosophy conference in Denmark, and worked with university graphic design students on integrating the musical impulse into the visual arts. Mostly, though, what keeps me busy on the road are what I guess you'd call my "core presentations" - the "Un-Master Class" performance workshop and the lecture/ demonstration based on my book The Perfect Wrong Note.

I always appreciate having opportunities to interact with teachers and students around the ideas I care so much about; it's exciting, ever-changing, and never gets old. I learn so much from these conversations! Solo recitals are still a part of the picture too, and it's fun to set new challenges there and know that I'm learning new things as a performer.

What have you been discovering during your travels?

I'm finding more open-mindedness with audiences, more acceptance of divergent ideas than I found 8 or 10 years ago. I've also learned that teachers all across the country share a concern that many young students today are over-programmed, under too much pressure, and don't have enough time to reflect on things and think their own thoughts. Some of us get quite nostalgic for the easygoing, bike-riding, wool-gathering free time we had when we were 10 or 12, and no one much cared what we did all afternoon as long as we showed up on time for dinner and washed our hands.

At the same time, though, I've been deeply impressed by the mature poise of some of the 15 - 16 year olds who have performed in my classes - not only do they play extremely well, but they are willing to take part in some adventurous expressive exercises, right along with the adults. Clearly there is some excellent teaching going on around the country, and there are some amazing kids out there.

Is there some common thread, or a basic philosophy, running through both your book and the 'Un-Master Class' workshops?

It took me a while to figure out if there really was such a thread. At first the two seemed quite different, as The Perfect Wrong Note is focused on practical, specific ways to solve technical problems, while the workshop is free- wheeling and experimental. But the common idea that emerged for me was: when we stop trying to control every- thing, when we relax our anxious grip, wonderful break- throughs can happen. We can restore the kind of natural self-trust we had before our egos started getting in the way.

When I talk about relaxing our control I certainly don't mean drifting off into some kind of don't-worry-be-happy dream world. What I do have in mind is a mental state with strong focus and very clear intentions; but also with a certain kind of serene and healthy detachment. This can be such a refreshing and rewarding experience. 

What do you enjoy about giving the workshops?

I love this new "un-master" role, because it doesn't require me to deliver verdicts. I'm allowed to relinquish the traditional "control" of a teacher and can instead focus on helping students make their own discoveries and breakthroughs. I don't feel called upon to prevail in every encounter, or subtly bend anyone to my will. I used to think that it was the teacher's main job to know exactly how a student's rendition should be changed in order to make it better, and then get the student to do it. But such a top-down interaction doesn't interest me much anymore, and I'm not always sure what the point of it is.

Of course, just like any experienced musician, I have plenty of musical instincts about how I might like to per- form a certain piece myself. But why should I try to convince someone else to do it that way too? Should my instincts automatically trample theirs, just because I'm the designated teacher at that moment?

That seems disrespectful and a bit hasty. One of the nice things I've learned is that it's OK for me, and for the whole group I'm working with, to just stay with a problem a bit longer and get a feel for it, without offering an in instant fix. We can say "I can tell what you are trying to do, but for some reason I'm not quite convinced yet" or "Something is missing, but we're not sure what" instead of pretending that we have just the right solution in our hip pocket. We can offer simple, honest observations and feedback, without tacking on any specific suggestions for change. This leads to a refreshing and expansive sense of new possibilities, and the most fulfill- ing outcome is when a student comes up with a solution or a new idea that no one else in the room would ever have thought of. That's always a sweet and empowering moment for the student, so much more satisfying on many levels than simply giving teachers what they want.

Another thing I take pleasure in is that participants in my workshops usually speak up confidently and offer lots of ideas and impressions - including the person who is the performer for that moment. We have many lively exchanges. I never enjoy situations when students just sit there submissively, not saying a word, and " receive" the teaching or advice - it just feel s wrong on many levels. That's when teaching begins to feel a bit like bullying. 

William Westney gives a workshop in London.

Since you believe so much in breakthroughs, how can teachers help set the stage for them to happen? Is such a thing possible?

I do think we can set up conditions to invite break- throughs, instead of just hoping that someday they will happen all by themselves. First, we've got to see learning as an ongoing adventure, and embrace that unpredictability. Bring lots of vital energy to music-making. Relish the physicality of playing, and think of it as a sport whenever possible. This encourages healthy use of the whole body and a realistic attitude towards honest mistakes. If a particular passage is challenging, don't retreat or get cautious; don't revert to a self-conscious goody-goody approach. Instead, plunge in boldly and find out more about the nature of the difficulty. Let the body speak to you. Practice in little short segments, really focus on them, and bring unabashed energy to them. Relax in between segments, and let the body and mind digest what happened, without any overheated emotional reactions like "Yippee!" or "Oh no!" Just notice what happens in detail and don't take it personally. Be curious! This is much better than gritting your teeth and slogging away over and over at a passage without ever really coming up for air; that's stultifying for body and mind and the results are rarely good.

Don't test the finished product very often; keep taking things apart. This keeps our music-making fresh. Know that mastery tends to develop in sudden leaps, and that between these leaps it may look like nothing much is happening (although in fact there is a different sort of progress taking place - consolidating what we already know so we will be ready for the next leap). Stay serene and very focused, like in yoga.

Although some of these concepts may sound pretty sophisticated, I think they are actually quite natural to us as learners; think of how babies master skills so confidently every day. They do all the things I just mentioned - they are serene, determined, never self-conscious. They are persistent and fearless, and thus are rewarded with breakthrough after breakthrough. Our younger piano students are still in touch with this healthy way of learning, since they were babies not too long ago themselves. 

Why is this approach so important to you?

I do worry that students can get disheartened, bored, or lose the joy of music - often for reasons that are not their fault. We all have a need to meet with success frequently; that's what keeps us going. "Success" can mean a small victory, like solving a little counting or fingering problem, or it can mean a bigger breakthrough, like reaching a whole new level. The day you can dash off a virtuosic piece like "Fantasie-Impromptu" with speed and flair for the first time, you literally sense that you've become a new person. There's no turning back! If we don't meet with success regularly, how can we love what we are doing and stay motivated? The philosophies I believe in the most have a lot to do with enjoying, sharing, taking chances, and meeting with success.

How did you come to discover these concepts?

Most of what I write about and teach is by no means new with me! I learned an awful lot from the inspired teaching I received from others. And one of the core concepts - that it's liberating to let go of dualistic thinking - is an ancient philosophical one. By dualistic thinking I mean labeling events as good vs. bad, or success vs. failure. Even Shakespeare said, "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so." That gives me a good foundation to introduce the paradoxical notions I love, like "juicy mistakes." 

Would you give another example of 'dualistic thinking'?

Glad to! One of my favorite examples is the notion that playing is either musical or non-musical, and non-musical playing is "bad." I'd love to see us rethink the commonly- held and burdensome pedagogical idea that one should "always play musically." Why? That's like saying "You should always cook deliciously. While making your stew, remember that it should always taste delicious, from the very moment you put it on the stove." That makes no sense to me. There is a time to taste, and much more time when it's totally inappropriate and premature to test the results. Cooking is an art, but sometimes you just need to do purely mechanical things, like chopping the onions. That's OK! It doesn't make you a bad cook.

If we asked opera singers to always sing "musically," they would never be able to develop a strong, free, professional-level technique. We've all heard the weird shrieks, yodels, and growls singers emit as they build their voices, without worrying what they sound like or trying (at that moment) to be musical. It's all part of a necessary and healthy process which can lead to virtuosity and artistry. To scold them during their yodels for being "unmusical" or to decree "no unmusical sounds in my studio!" (as some piano teachers do) would simply be ludicrous.

I have observed that playing "musically" all the time, i.e. shaping each phrase, making dynamic contrast, cherishing the tone, etc. can in fact be the direct cause of injury. So it's actually dangerous. I've seen this time and time again over the years - especially with smart and eager-to-please students. This is because all those refinements involve subtle controls and physical manipulations, and these can take their toll over time, creating tension and robbing players of freedom, comfort, spontaneity, and ease. Teachers sometimes ask for such polished results much too early, before the piece is well-integrated physically, just because a student happens to be bright enough to really do it. This then leads to damaging tension that builds up incrementally. Nor is it healthy to perform those refinements every day in the practice room, even after the piece has been learned. That's like making withdrawals from a bank account without ever making deposits. In addition, if you play your "musical" interpretation every day, you naturally begin to get saturated with it and lose interest, so it becomes quite stale - no matter how good the interpretation is. It's like when you say the same word aloud over and over - it loses all meaning after a while. The brain rebels against over-repetition and tedium!

I worry that this insistence that our students always shape things "musically" - even a simple practice scale - is based partly on fear; fear that they aren't actually very musical at all. And a related fear that if they practice technical things just gymnastically, without musicality, this will somehow encourage mindless, unmusical playing in general. That seems simplistic to me, unfair to the student, and I've never found it to be true in all my years of teaching. Quite the opposite! It's actually a lot of fun to practice gymnastically, without the burden of musicality, and it sets the body free, since it encourages physical confidence, accuracy, flow, and relaxation. Later, when we reconnect with the music meaningfully, playing becomes a joy, and our musical instincts are still fresh. Now, playing the notes has become much easier than before, the expression is much more spontaneous, and subtler control is suddenly possible. That's the liberating experience so many students dream of - that's a real breakthrough! 

What else might we be re-thinking about pedagogy?

One observation that has emerged for me lately is that we teachers (and piano judges) need to relax our over-emphasis on "dynamic contrast." We so often say to a student, "very good, now let's make even more dynamic contrast" and that usually means make the soft passages a lot softer. Admittedly, pianissimo can be a beautiful touch in terms of musical style, but the fact is it takes a lot of experience and technical know how to play pianissimo with control and good tone. It's not fair to ask students to do something if they don't really have the skill yet. Managing quiet sounds can be quite frustrating - oftentimes the notes respond unpredictably, or might not even speak at all. The problem is, the inexperienced student will usually respond to the idea of playing pianissimo by pulling up and away from the keyboard, retreating, barely touching the notes, simply "playing less" as I like to put it. Holding yourself back in this way is not good technique, and too many students have been coached so much on dynamics that they end up basically underplay- ing all the time. This leads to general insecurity, body tension, and watery tone. Knowing this, some of the wisest piano methods for beginners, like Bartok's Mikrokosmos, ask for only hearty fortes for all of Book I, and maybe most of Book II as well.

I would much rather see 6-year-olds really play like 6-year-olds exuberant, unabashed, very physical. Maybe a bit rough around the edges. These are the lively ones having fun who will want to keep on playing for years. There's plenty of time later on to concern ourselves with subtle dynamics. In fact, this seems to me to be the way humans master all motor skills, quite naturally: we learn to do them first in an enthusiastic but somewhat unrefined way, and then as they become more integrated we become capable of much more nuance and control. 

Dou think piano pedagogy is moving in new directions these days?

Yes, and most encouragingly. I think it's wonderful that many students start out now with holistic, non-performance music classes like Musikgarten and Kindermusik - nothing could be healthier educationally than to sing, move, draw etc. to music, internalizing all the elements, before ever sitting at an instrument. So many piano teachers I know have revamped their practice in order to teach such classes, and they have the satisfaction of knowing they are really changing things for the better by starting those kids off with the all-important internal connection to music. At the other end of the life span, the much talked-about "Recreational Music Making" emphasis for retirees and other amateur adults is an exciting thing too. This focus on the joy of participating, rather than fretting over every detail and feeling apologetic, is humane and smart, given all the health benefits of music-making we are learning about. It redefines what the agenda ofa music lesson might be.

Both these modern trends share a wise insight: that expressive musical enjoyment is truly the birthright of every human being. 

To find out more about William Westney, please visit 

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