Monday, January 28, 2008

To Be or Not to Be Taught

I practiced that flipping sonata for a month, four to five hours a day, seven days a week. Mozart was my specialty. I got my first full scholarship in college playing a Mozart fantasy. By the time I was doing my Masters in Piano Performance and winning competitions, I had teachers from the Vienna Academy of music telling me that my Mozart was superb, and let me tell you, the Viennese don't lie, espeically about how an American plays Mozart. They own Mozart. If you don't have the "right touch" to play Mozart then they tell you, or laugh at you (in that evil German laugh) and say things like "stick to zie Gershwin, Cowboy."

So when I walked into my teacher's office on a sunny Teusday spring morning to premeire my Mozart Sonata, I expected the normal, lavish praise. Sure, it was a "lesson" and sure, I was technically paying for her to improve my skills: technique, musicality, artistry... but what I really wanted that day was for her to recognize my genius. All week long I had offered other piano students the opportunity to critique my playing and all week long, if they did anything but sing my praises, I wrote them off as a fool.

I waltzed through my teacher's office door, greeted the great Krassimira Jordan who was herself a student of the Great Russian School Virtuosi Emil Gilels, who was a student of Neuhaus, who was a student of Godowsky who was a student the great Franz Liszt, who was a student of Czerny, who was a student of none other than Ludwig Von Beethoven who was very briefly, a student of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself.

So to pump my Mozart-playing-ego further, I could claim a direct line from teacher to student, back to Mozart himself!!! (Which I still think is pretty darn nifty.)

I had studied another set of Mozart Variations with Krassimira and she had highly praised my Artistry. Krassimira had also been the head pianist at the Vienna Acadamey of music before Baylor threw here an insane amount of money and bought her a mansion to come and teach. Krassimira had won the Clara Haskil Award in Europe for her Mozart, the highest award for Mozart artistry.

Krassimira had praised my Mozart variations and it was time for her to praise my Sonata. I waltzed into her office, barely spoke a word, and with arrogant aplomb I soared into the Mozart sonata, swaying to and fro and reveling in my abilities. My fingers soared through scales, up and down the keys acrobatically as I had mastered some of Mozart's most difficult passages. As my fingers struck the last I 6/4-V-I chord progression, I laid my hands in my lap and awaited the expected praise. I turned to her and she was busy jotting down a few notes in my score, which surprised me. Then she shut the score said, very matter of fact, and without the faintest hint of pride:

(Imagine a deep, Slavic accent with rolled r's.) "Seth, you know, that was fine, and I think would have been beautiful if it weren't for the TRACTOR IN YOUR LEFT HAND."

My mouth dropped open, something in me cracked. I couldn't believe my ears. Before I could utter a word, Krassimira went to the piano and proceeded to show me how I was playing, and then showed me how it should be played.

My mouth gaped wider with every magical passage she played. There was no question, hers was better.

With God's grace it only took me fifteen or so minutes to get over the initial ego-pop and I proceeded to move on and drink and apply every word and criticism she could give me.

A few weeks later, I played the Sonata in masterclass for a Van Cliburn competition winner and he loved it. He actually complimented my left hand. When he did, I a quick glance to Krassimira. She silently laughed, stomped her foot, and pointed to herself. I raised my eyebrow, smiled and acknowledged that she was in fact, the wonderful one.

I think that sometimes, we, I, you, need help. Sometimes, we ask for help and all we really want is for people to tell us that we don't need help and that the world is dumb. As an artist, you are never closer to death if you are there. Yes, you can pick and choose what criticism to listen to and which criticism to chunk, but please, if you ask for help, expect it. More than expect it, be sure you want it. There has never been a great artist that did not have a brutal teacher. A teacher that cares more for your talent than they do about your ego. And sometimes, your friends and peers can be your greatest teachers.

Krassimira didn't earn any brownie points with me that day, but she did make me a better player. There were a few pianists who told me the same thing that she had about my left hand. After that lesson, I always listened to those people, and considered their criticism as a help, not a threat. Those friends became great assets to me in every aspect of my creativity. I still send them things to critique and desperately await criticism, knowing that it will make me better.


Joanna Martens said...

Proverbs 9:9
"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; Teach a just man, and he will increase in learning."

Seth Ward said...

excellent versage!

Chaotic Hammer said...

This is so cool. I've got to admit I'm pretty impressed by a good pianist.

But I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean by that expression "tractor in your left hand". Explain?

Seth Ward said...

Great question!

In most of the left hand passages of Mozart and Haydn, you find something called the "Alberti bass." If you were to play it on the piano you would place your left hand on the keys, pinkie on C, and the other four lying consecutively up on d, e, f, and g., which is called "C position." Your fingers are numbered: thumb-1 (on g), index finger-2 (on f), then 3, 4, and 5. Got it?

So to play the Alberti bass you play, in C position, 5,1,3,1 (pinkie-thumb-middle-thumb) and repeat that pattern. This little simple pattern pretty much changed harmony ever after. A composer could stay on one chord for measures at a time, something rarely done with Bach or Handel or the other composers before.

So, to answer your question - There are two problems with the Alberti bass: 1. Evenness of tone and rhythm: very difficult. Especially in fast passages. 2. Second problem stems from the fact that the Alberti is primarily an accompaniment pattern. (Distinctly different from the Baroque era, where both left and right hands played equal, melodic roles.) So, because it is an accompaniment pattern, and because it is inherently so busy, it is hard to keep quiet. But it is something that you should have mastered by the time you reach grad-school.

Krassimira was telling me that my alberti bass was as crude and loud as a tractor, a basic, amateur problem.

Super Churchlady said...

Wie ├╝ber Deutschen? Studieren?

Chaotic Hammer said...

Seth - Thanks for the explanation, it actually made perfect sense to me. I had a couple of years of piano lessons and several years of guitar lessons in elementary and middle school, so I still have a little basic music theory rattling around somewhere in my brain.

Strangely enough, when I took up percussion, it was a better fit for me than piano or guitar, but I never took any formal training in percussion. Totally learned and played by ear, but it came very naturally.

I also meant to comment on something else you mentioned -- the "apostolic succession" of your teachers, all the way back to Mozart. Just wow. That sort of boggles the mind. Seriously. I would say that it's important that you find at least a young prodigy or two to pass this knowledge on to, and make sure they understand their musical genealogy.

Detuned said...

I had a similar experience with my new teacher. There was less buildup to it, of course: I had been receiving compliments, but not from Viennese musical scholars. I played Sonata in C Minor for him (at least, the parts I didn't forget over the break between teachers) and he informed me first that I beat the piano like a readheaded stepchild, and second that I have the voicing ENTIRELY WRONG. Album title from the experience: "Welcome Ego Steamroller".

Seth Ward said...


There's hope for you yet, my young uber-talented friend.

kelly said...