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2019 Collegiate Writing Contest Winning Essay: Helping Students Develop a Mature "Why"

This past May, the Piano Magazine held the ninth annual Collegiate Writing Contest. Collegiate students from across the country submitted 1,500-word essays on pedagogical topics of their choosing. The essays were blind reviewed by a panel of pedagogy professors: Dr. Barbara Fast, Tony Caramia, and Dr. Diana Dumlavwalla. We thank the judges for donating their time and expertise; we congratulate the entrants on writing thought-provoking and inspiring essays about important topics. The winning essay, by Alissa Dorman, is printed below.


2019 Collegiate Writing Contest Winner: Alissa Dorman

Helping Students Develop a Mature "Why"

It was the summer before my freshman year, and I was panicking. I was struggling to determine how I planned to use a piano performance degree to significantly impact others. I knew I wanted to teach, but what was the point of teaching students how to properly press black and white keys other than providing a hobby that doesn't kill brain cells?

Well, I thought, studying the piano had made a bigger difference in my own life than that. I'd cultivated self-discipline, diligence, patience, persistence, and other character-refining attributes. Perhaps I could improve the lives of my future students by helping them develop these qualities. This rationale patched up my troubled mind long enough for me to stick with my decision to study music, but I was never wholly satisfied with it. These attributes are wonderful byproducts of learning music, but I wasn't convinced that they were the purpose of music. After all, there are countless ways to instill these traits. Was the end goal of my education to accomplish what a high school basketball coach could manage just as well? What made music different and worthwhile? The sensory pleasure, perhaps? No, that seemed too shallow. The emotions and imagination that sensory stimulation invokes, then?

I felt I was getting warmer, but I still could not figure out the point of triggering emotions in an audience. How could that benefit them? Was my purpose as a pianist merely to entertain, to offer a transitory experience that died with the fall of the curtain—was fleeting sensation all I would be able to offer after years of musical schooling?

To put it succinctly, I had not yet developed a mature "why." My motives for pursuing music were ill-defined and almost entirely self-serving.

Fortunately, it did not remain that way forever. One night 
toward the end of my first semester, I was cooped up in a practice room, cursing Chopin as I wrestled with his fourth Ballade. Playing the piece all the way through was an eleven-minute prayer—the kind you offer when your fifteen-year-old starts driving and you're frantically pleading to make it through the ride in one piece. I knew I was missing something. I took my fingers off the keys and pulled out a sheet of paper. I spent precious practicing minutes meticulously assigning a personal memory to each section of the piece and jotting it down. I read over my memory map a few times, and then I began to play.

Something extraordinary took place. I played the opening string of Gs, each one a pearly footfall stepping deeper and deeper into my memory. When I arrived at the light at the end of this tunnel—the middle of measure 2—I was overcome with a burst of rosy childhood memories crystallized in innocence.

In the space of a few measures, I envisioned myself in denim shorts and blond pigtails playing on the front lawn; I watched myself create LEGO® masterpieces in the basement with my older sister; I experienced an unthreatened bliss that I had not felt in years.

I lingered in this picturesque world until the final beat of measure 7. At that moment, my finger struck a chilling C. The golden recollections dissolved instantaneously. The subsequent D-flat and B-natural tipped the mood in a more sinister direction as I meandered into the darker corners of my memory.

As the music melted into that penetrating, yearning, haunting theme we all know, I allowed shadows to surface that I was accustomed to suppressing. I was no longer frolicking on the sunny lawn. I was lying awake in bed, squeezing my pillow around my ears, gazing through a hot, teary film at the thinly sliced moonlight seeping through my blinds and soaking into the carpet.

And that was just the first page!

By the final torrential cascade of triplets, I had explored some of the most painful experiences of my life with a daring candor that I had previously been too hesitant to experiment with. I didn't fear my feelings, a freedom I was completely unfamiliar with at the time. I was not transformed into an artist overnight. I still struggle to sift through technical obstacles to the point where I can consistently plunge to that musical depth, particularly under the intimidating gaze of an audience. However, I did find my "why" that night—I discovered what music can do for me and what I want to offer others through my abilities.

I discovered that music provides a universe in which one can safely explore the entire gamut of emotions without consequence. I learned that music creates a sacred space to freely embrace the emotions that life circumstances pressure us to hide or disregard. I realized that music fashions a mirror dimension that contains the dangerous shrapnel of rage and insulates joy from cold reality. Most importantly, I decided that constructing this world for myself and for others—as well as teaching others how to create this experience—was why I wanted to study music.

How does one ascend from the mire of brainless, mechanical performance to the sort of catharsis I experienced that night (and that great artists seem to experience on demand)? I do not pretend to have achieved musical nirvana. I can, however, offer three simple strategies my piano professor suggested that guided me to this pivotal point in the discovery of my own "why" (and that can be easily taught to any student).

  1. Listen. Listen to quality performances with quality sound—live, if possible. Listen deliberately and cognitively. (Plugging in headphones while working out or doing homework won't cut it!) Notice how the music activates your imagination and emotions. Purposeful listening helps students experience music on a deeper level and identify how they want to impact others through their own performances, which leads them closer to their "why."
  2. Articulate. Many of the feelings music instills within us transcend the capacities of the pen and the tongue. However, there is inestimable value in using the most specific language possible to describe how music influences us and how we want our music to influence our listeners. How might a student's performance improve if he were to aim for an enchanting, ethereal, atmospheric sound as opposed to just a pretty one? Verbalizing target sounds and emotions will pave students' way to verbalizing the target  experience they intend to create, which contributes to the maturation of their "why."
  3. Contemplate. Consider inviting your student to contemplate what his or her purpose as a musician is. Perhaps, like me, she has devoted countless hours toward mastering an art without really considering why. Perhaps all she needs to begin her journey toward developing her "why" is to be asked. I once emailed my professor asking how to cope with the horrible stress I was feeling about an upcoming audition. He responded,

"My best advice to you would be to work with your expectations and reasons for being a musician. We all feel pressure to play well when we perform, but I think when we assign great meaning to every little thing that happens in a performance situation...we lose sight of the overall purpose of music...and our reasons for doing it...It's a challenge, but I think in anticipating a performance, we have to switch gears from our deeply analytical mode in practice and lessons to a zoomed-out, 'big picture' mode. "What do I want to express? Why? Am I more worried about looking good to others or impressing them, or am I more interested in the serving the real artistic purpose of making music?"1

Just as this invitation caused me to seriously reflect on my musical objectives, directly asking your student to contemplate why he or she makes music plants a seed that will blossom into a mature motivation.

Remember: every musician has a unique, individual "why." The world's most celebrated composers prove that there are numerous personal—though equally noble—causes for creating music. Handel "wished to make [others] better."Bach famously declared that "The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul."3 Schumann felt it was "the duty of the artist" to "send light into the darkness of men's hearts."Copland asserted that music gives "expressive meaning" to the "human spirit." 5

Why is it so imperative that teachers guide students toward developing a "why" that is meaningful to them? If we musicians want to reduce depressing dropout rates from music lessons, we must help students find a deeper motivation besides pacifying hopeful parents or impressing peers. If we want to convince school boards and policy makers that fine arts programs are more than just frills, we have to be prepared to explain why. And if we want to make a contribution to the world through our art that goes beyond sensation alone, we must have a "why" to fuel that drive.

NOTES
1 Stephen Thomas, email message to author, January 3, 2018.
2 Handel, ed. David Vickers (New York: Routledge, 2016), 4.
3 Gregory Wilbur, Glory and Honor: The Musical and Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach (Nashville: Cumberland House Publishing, 2005), 1.
4 Katherine Sophie Dreier, Western Art and the New Era: An Introduction to Modern Art (New York: Brentano's Publishers, 1923), 78.
5 Aaron Copland, Aaron Copland: A Reader: Selections Writings 1923–1972, ed. Richard Kostelanetz and Steve Silverstein (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 32.

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