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4 minutes reading time (776 words)

Winds of change

Time's passage has been much on my mind of late. The winds of change blow on. We rush toward the future, the way paved by technologies that only get faster and more pervasive. I long for a leeward island, enough out of the wind to consider the things that don't change, or shouldn't.

Should piano teachers perform? There is more than one answer. Teaching a beginner, we need not demonstrate our pianistic expertise; how we influence young students, how we invite them into the world of music, suggesting the mysteries and delights that await, is far more important. To know the goal—the happy ending (love of music and an ongoing connection to it)—and to set the students on the path with useful tools and skills, is enough. We don't need to play Feux follets to do this.

Teaching advanced students who want to become professionals is different. Indeed, can I teach Feux follets without being able to play it?

The longer I teach, the more I struggle to balance the time and energy my teaching requires with the time I need to keep my playing at a level consistent with my own standards. For one thing, my standards are higher than they've ever been. For another, I am devoting more time to teaching than at any other time of my career. Finally, I'm getting older and it takes more time to learn a new piece. With time's continuing passage, I know that I'll never get to all the music I'd like to know deeply. Guilt and sorrow fill me. I should have practiced more. So much time wasted.

Still, I can teach Feux follets (if I have to) because I have played Chopin's Etude for Double Thirds. It took me years to come to terms with it, but I can do it. This hands-on experience helps me guide my students— yep, been there, done that. It's hard. Don't expect to master it in a week unless you are so gifted you don't really need a technical guide. And then, maybe I can help you avoid the temptation of empty virtuosity, thanks to my work on Années de pèlerinage.

At least this is the theory. With the passage of time, I am aware of entropy in the profession. As we institutionalize music, chopping it up into curricular niblets, we lose sight of the unlimited nature of this miraculous art. We create sameness when we should be aiming for variety, for imagination, for development. Sometimes I wonder if I wasn't a better teacher when I didn't know how to play the Double Thirds Etude!

We become slaves to our methods. Those of you on college campuses are likely aware of the assessment craze, the latest attempt by non-teachers to standardize the activities of real teachers. Again in theory, there is merit. We should know if what we are trying to teach is being learned. Unfortunately, many of the "experts" seem to want to control something that thrives on freedom. There is a mechanistic approach to an endeavor that requires creativity. List the learning outcomes of the course. No more than three, please.

Try listing the learning outcomes of piano lessons; I predict you will still be going strong as you approach twenty or more. But for fun, let me mention three learning outcomes of performance that I hope never change.

I have learned that there is no such thing as an insignificant performance. One's best efforts are required whether the venue is Carnegie Hall or the church basement down the street. A performance, by definition, contains the sum total of the musician's abilities and hard work. We put everything we've got out there, for better or worse. Judge the quality, but don't judge the venue.

We can say that Feux follets may be quantifiably harder to play than Kinderszenen, but a sincere performance of the Schumann will be infinitely more rewarding—for both performer and listeners—than a blustering attempt at Liszt's multitudinous notes. Young performers who are rewarded in competition for playing "the hardest piece"—when in fact they are only making the loudest noise—should sue the judges for malpractice.

A performance is a social contract between performer and audience. There is no guarantee that months or even years of hard work by the performer to play the pieces as well as possible will result in human communication. Sometimes we meet a person whose eyes are so open that we feel we've always known her. This is the gift of a great performer—from the first notes, we feel connected to an authenticity of emotion, a clarity of moment. We trust the performer and go with her on the voyage of art.

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Bartók's Rhapsody from For Children


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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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