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Spring 2021: I Wish I Could Answer That


Playing the piano can mean searching out middle ground, and that ground may be similarly ill-defined, well-nigh slippery, or even mired in paradox. Let's start with the easy examples. I'm not sure that it's particularly more difficult to play non-legato than staccato. But a portamento passage is a dreaded occurrence in the life of my students. Maybe they're so wedded to notation that staccato dots send their hands flying even when accompanied by slurs? Whatever the reason, this particular gray area eludes them with astonishing consistency.

Likewise, pedal is all or nothing. Tell a student that Debussy liked the pedal, and you may say goodbye to hearing the notes he wrote (which he presumably also liked). Or ask for clarity in Mozart and perhaps bid adieu to color and resonance. If the student were operating a vehicle, I fear they'd either be stalled or winning the Grand Prix—no speed limit variants available.

And articulation and pedaling are relatively straightforward. At least a half pedal is a quantifiable entity; one can feel its tangible existence and measure depth. And non-legato can be simulated by playing a succession of notes with one finger, aiming diligently to connect though prevented from entirely doing so by the requisite lift. These things can be taught.

But how does one teach a student that evenness is both a cherished goal and a mark of humdrum mediocrity? That a string of eight eighth notes needs to be even— while, at the same time, infinitesimal variations in length are a lifeline to musical speech.

Then there's touch. I was told as a student "Play into the keys; make every note solid." Piano 101. But really? Don't some notes travel, preferably airborne, while others sit and settle in? Teach solidity and you achieve stolidity. Teach flight and you achieve flightiness. "Into the keys" is great advice that can easily leave you stuck at sea, no wind, while without it you're simply unanchored.

How about dynamics? Start with soft. The obedient student obliges. But then they're told that p stands not just for piano but also for "project." How can that be? Isn't soft actually soft? Depends on the hall, the instrument, the context. And then there's the inevitable confrontation with further variants: p, pp, ppp, pppp. For the likes of Schubert and Debussy, soft is where life begins, strays and explores; it is anything but a single landing point. My poor students who want answers get quests they never requested.

This is all well and good when a phrase or period is willing to happily announce its closure. But what about the notes that are both beginnings and endings (Bach's specialty, though other composers happily follow suit)? Written and spoken sentences have the good grace to end with finality; musical phrases are far less cooperative and frequently elide. How does one tell a student that they must hear a note as both a start and a finish? How can they hear in two (contradictory!) ways at once?

In addition, sentences have the good grace to appear one at a time. But musical lines can pile up vertically as well as horizontally. And when they do, we try desperately to hear each one independently despite their simultaneity. But what about the composite they form? That too must be given its due. Notes are once again cast in multiple roles, and, again, they play these roles all at once. Words are simpler creatures; except for puns, they generally mean one thing at a time.

And finally, what about rhythm? One might hope that its reliance on numbers would guarantee a modicum of clarity. No such luck. Play rhythmically, of course—but don't show beats. Oy, weh! Isn't rhythm made up of beats? Again, the truth hides in apparent contradictions. One hates to hear a concert where one hears that someone isn't counting, and one hates to hear a concert where one hears that someone is counting.

Perhaps we're doomed, for the very worst of contradictions exists in our recalcitrant instrument itself. Every note we play is fated to die. And yet our job is to keep it alive. In the end, we must defy not just logic, but physics.

No wonder our students are dazed. They're being asked for smoke and mirrors, and they wanted a single truth. They wanted to measure and achieve success. I struggle to give them the clear answers they crave—try this metronome speed, work that number of hours, label chords, practice dotted rhythms, position your elbow here. I write it all down, and they gift me with a practice log detailing their diligence. But we're searching for the wrong kind of recipes—we need the kind that specifies a pinch of this and handful of that, taking delight in precisely its lack of precision.

For that we need to invoke open ears that cherish the tiniest of distinctions, a lifetime of attention to singers and string players whose instruments resist mechanical sameness, and genuine love for the infinite variety and subtlety of sound rather than the simple pleasure of its blatant existence. In the end we're talking about listening— with care, attention, and joy. And our well-worn verbal instructions are a paltry guide to the complexity of the world we'll encounter.

In a related, though separate, topic, our instructions on performance are equally flawed. We tell students not to feel judged, that music isn't about humdrum correctness, that memory slips are just a tiny bump in the road when one plays from the heart. And yet… we hold "juries" which are surely so named because they entail judgement and can be failed as well as passed. We encourage competitions where imperfect performances and performers are eliminated and the tiniest of slips can cost a prize. And in our hearts, despite disclaimers to the contrary, we know that memory slips, at least major ones, can seriously affect a performance. Our assurances that self-expression trumps precision ring hollow; we want both, for an art so anchored in the search for perfection can't fail but recoil at its absence.

Where does that leave us as teachers? In muddy waters! I do want my students to aim for exactness, and I want them to care about every detail. But I also want them to love what they're doing, to forgive themselves mistakes, and to regard performances as celebrations rather than examinations. They can't help but know that if an audience can approve, it can also disapprove, that an art with right notes must have wrong ones as well, that a beautiful tapestry with a hole in the middle is less beautiful than one that's intact. And yet I want them to forget all that—sometimes.

At a pre-COVID exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I watched a video on the annual refurbishing of the Great Mosque of Jenne. It showed thousands upon thousands of community members coming together to cover their mosque with a layer of mud, which, over the coming year would bake in the sun and protect their sacred space. The ceremony would be repeated the following year. Perhaps that's how it is with us—we're working with mud in our own sacred space. That mud is messy and it won't be pinned down, but if there's enough joy in our coming together and enough reverence in our undertaking, we too will make of our "muddy" waters an affirmation. Our answers won't be pristine and clear, but, we, like those worshippers, will simply keep at it; permanence and perfect clarity are not the way of the world.

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