My good friend Carlos Kalmar, music director of the Oregon Symphony, made me arrive early here in beautiful Portland, as early as I never had to arrive before a performance: three days in advance. And since I was too stressed out with other stuff, I didn’t even realize until I got here, that I could have stayed two days longer at home.Somehow he wanted to rehearse the Schumann with me already on Thursday, even though the concert wasn’t until today, Saturday. And because for once I didn’t question my manager’s information, I booked my flight for Wednesday, although the Lufthansa direct flight from Frankfurt would have “delivered” me in time to the afternoon rehearsal on Thursday, or Friday….
Do I mind? No, I took advantage of my time away from wife and child, practiced a lot, found a victim to play tennis with, and yesterday I taught for about five hours, two private students, and one masterclass. No, I don’t teach for a living, I just do it once every other month if somebody asks for a lesson, and as much as I love it, I am happy that I don’t have to do it every day.
It is so hard, so tiring and it demands so much creative energy to listen and come up with sensible stuff to say to these youngsters with a variety of problems. I always feel awful, because I can’t really help anybody in one or even half hour time. And as much as I would love to just work on musical things, I can’t because the technical problems stand in 99% of cases between the players and the music. How can I talk about a musical line if the problems in the bow-arm forbid the players to play legato. My duty as the teacher is, to help the student overcome technical problems to be able to play music.
One thing which struck me yesterday was the fact that with one exception every student played a piece which was much too hard for them: twice the Dvorak, Elgar, Saint-Saens and Shostakovich No.1 – only the young boy with the Faure Elegy actually managed the piece. And what is the result? Besides rather poor intonation they get so tense that their problems get bigger the longer they practice. Only way out of this dilemma would be to take many steps back, go back to the basics and play pieces like Romberg Sonatas or Klengel Concertos.
Don’t take me wrong, I am not blaming these very sweet students for that – it is the responsability of every teacher to give their students the tools how to solve problems, and in most cases yesterday they didn’t even know that they had problems.Â But what bothered me most was the lack of musical statement. I felt everybody was using some tricks and mannerisms to actually say nothing – except in the Faure I didn’t feel any deeper emotion, never mind the technical inefficiencies.
No, I didn’t say anything like that, how could I? I don’t want to turn anybody away from playing an instrument, but when I think that most of them want to do this professionally, I get scared. I was impressed how confident these youngsters sat behind their instruments. They didn’t show any nerves which could be seen as a good thing, but maybe also as a complete unawareness of their actual level of playing. Maybe there is too much praise for the kids of today and not enough truth?
As parents we are fighting a tough war against all the distractions being thrown at the kids of today: computer and video games, TV, playstations, you name it. And if we are in the lucky situation that they actually do sit down to play music, how harsh are we allowed to be? Even if we tell them nicely that they have to work much harder because they suck, don’t we push them right in the arms of these distractions which are so much more rewarding to consume?
But if my father wouldn’t have told me every other week that I played incredibly out of tune, I would not have been aware of it, I would not have worked as hard as I did. So what am I supposed to do in a masterclass like that? I felt ashamed after yesterday, because I worked hard to make them play better, but at the end they didn’t, and I missed the chance to actually be truthful. Why? Because it would have hurt them, and they wouldn’t have like it, and they wouldn’t have liked me for it – and what else does one want but being liked….
I am 16 years, and play the violin. I understand that most people my age perhaps might not want to hear the harsh truth about their playing, but I find that it does actually inspire hard work. I can’t count all the times that my mom has come knocking on my door and commented on poor intonation, sloppy bow strokes, lack of musical feeling, or even minute details that the average audience member could not discern. Initially it does seem harsh, and I get angry and defensive, but then I feel that I can use that anger to improve and work harder. It is the same with my teacher, she never lets anything slide, and of course during the lesson it can be frustrating to be stopped five times per minute and to play a passage 15 times in a row, but then in the end I realize that this is what differentiates great players from mediocre ones. Maybe next time you could perhaps be more blunt with your students. My friends and I find it more hurtful when we play in a workshop or masterclass and the teacher tells us we sound fantastic when we know played horribly, and then says next and we walk away not having a learned anything. I think serious students come to lessons to hear criticism and be enlightened and must be willing to brave the difficulties, because after all when a students fails an English test, or flunks a class, that is also form of criticism, except we don’t take it as hurtful, but as indication that we need to work harder to achieve better results in the future, and ultimately to achieve our dreams and define our existence.
thanks a lot for this response, and I must say, that you are probably in the lucky situation of being on a different level than these young students of mine in this masterclass. Maybe I was even exaggerating in my comments in the blog (have to read it again – it was more an outpour of frustration after a very tiring day…) – fact is that I worked very hard with them. I didn’t praise them much but tried desperately to fix at least one or two of the major problems they were facing. Fact is that their level of playing a was such that they couldn’t really improve much because they were battling with the far too difficult pieces. And I was wondering if I should have told them the truth about these pieces are being far too difficult and they should come back with some more appropriate pieces like the Klengel- or Golterman-Concerti.
I think violin is taught much more methodical because it’s so much harder to play – with cello you get away with murder – even some great cellists do have technical inefficiencies with which a violinist could never master a Brahms concerto for example. What I mean is that you have to be much more economical to succeed as a fiddle-player than as cellist, and that’s why the cello is not being taught that well in general (well, that’s my very modest and isolated opinion…:)) Do I make any sense? Maybe I should sleep more, or just learn to sort my ideas a bit… too lazy 🙂
It’s funny that you say that the violin is harder to play than the cello, I can’t even play a one octave scale on the cello. But you do make sense about the different methods used in teaching the cello from the violin. I am not very knowledgeable when it comes to the cello, but I’ve had cellists as chamber music coaches, and I actually found them more helpful than violinist or pianists. I guess since they couldn’t really help me with technique they gave me more musical perspective than I might otherwise have gotten.
I think perhaps you could have told those students that they were not ready for the pieces that they were playing.
A couple of years ago I started studying with a violinist in the Boston Symphony. I came to the first lesson armed with the intermediately advanced pieces that I had been working on with my previous teacher. After I played and he told me that I needed to play with more ease and refine the system of “springs” in my bow hold, he, much to my dismay, assigned pieces by Fiorillo, Handel sonatas, one octave scales, and Vivaldi a minor concerto. I went home feeling really depressed, but that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because through slow but steady work on those “easy” pieces and open strings I was able to learn how to produce a much more beautiful sound and my intonation improved drastically. Now I’m playing the Khachaturian and Tchaikovsky violin concertos, and I shudder to think of how bad I would sound had he not made me go back to the basics, and I think students that you encounter would probably, after the initial shock, feel the same way.
You are right, Alex, I should have told them that these pieces were too difficult – I didn’t have the “heart” to do it? Is it really “heart” missing? No, it’s that I would have had to hurt them a little bit, and this is something I still have to learn. I don’t like any kind of confrontation – when playing music, I can do it, because I care so much. But to tell people that they are wrong or over their heads is something which doesn’t come easy to me. I’ll work on that!
Yes, I have made that experience too that cellists love to talk rather about music than about technique. And no, it’s not that cellists are better musicians, but cello playing is much easier, so we have more chances to care about the music – for example in Chambermusic. The piano and violin parts are so much more demanding, and often our cello lines are sight-readable… So we are the guys having more room to worry about music 🙂
Alban, does your son Janos play an instrument?
Yes, Josh, he plays the piano. He doesn’t show any special musical talent yet, but I believe it is very important for his development as a human being to play an instrument, to sit for 20 minutes every day and focus on one thing, to learn to move the hands independently from each other and to make some music. He loves it!
I faced a similar situation as a young college student. I went to study with Joseph dePasquale in Philadelphia, and he listened to me play “Der Schwanendreher” and said “no more of that for you for a while!” I was put on Sevcik, Kreutzer, Primrose scale studies, and Capagnolli, and only after about four months of this diet was I allowed to play the “Handel” Casadesus Concerto. I hated and resented it at the time, but it really put my foundation in place so that I could really build and play music after that. I think that truth in teaching is being lost in consideration of making positive contributions to the lives of students. Ironically, a bit more tough love would give these students the wake up call that they need and give them a chance to really shine.
yes, I agree, Charles, tough love is better than compliments all over, and that’s why I was critical with myself and a bit disappointed, because I could have given a bit more of that – at least tell them that it doesn’t help to play pieces which are actually out of your musical and technical reach…
Best wishes to Portland,
Wie lang braucht ein Solist wie du ungefÃ¤hr um ein neues StÃ¼ck “vorspielreif” einzuÃ¼ben?