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?)
In the years
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
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.
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
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 -
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
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
What do you enjoy about giving the workshops?
I love this new "un-master"
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 con
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 in
Another thing I take pleasure in is that participants in my workshops usually speak up
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
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
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
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 f
How did you come to discover these concepts?
Most of what I write about and teach is by no means new
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,
I have observed that playing "musically" all the time, i.e. shaping each phrase, making
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
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
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 www.williamwestney.com.