Ready or Not!

The Curmudgeon curmunicates. “When I was still posting to that teachers’ group, somebody asked, ‘Why are the ‘Pathétique’ and ‘Moonlight’ so hard to teach?’ And I answered, ‘Because so few students are ready to learn them!’ This offended some teachers; I can’t imagine why. I mean, I love salmon in pastry, but I don’t expect to learn in one day how to make it: I can barely boil an egg! And a student who can barely boil a pianistic egg may love those sonatas—I’m glad if so!—but can’t reasonably expect to learn in one day to play them. But some do expect it.”

This started me thinking about what “ready” means, as in “ready to learn a given piece of music.” As we know, the process can be very different for different students. For Student #1, learning and memorizing the “Pathétique” may take only a few days. Exploring the depths of the piece takes time, but #1 quickly conquers the initial learning.

Student #2 may take eight months to arrive at the same point, learning the notes more slowly, and also having to identify and master new problems in technique and musicianship. How to play the right hand melody pianissimo in the “Moonlight” first movement, with the triplet accompaniment in the same hand not covering it. How to play the left hand tremolo in the “Pathétique” as fast as marked, yet delicately, so the right hand can remain expressive.

With these or other difficulties to be solved, a piece may act as, not a mere addition to repertoire, but a kind of “laboratory” for improving one’s playing. And how rewarding this is!

But say Student #2, given a piece that will indeed take eight months to prepare, is assigned a recital date only four months away. (Ready or not!) What will happen? Perhaps the student will improve so radically that the performance will be successful. The reason might be a new teacher, some potent new personal motivation, a sudden gain in musical understanding or physical command. This can happen—and isn’t it thrilling when it does!— but it’s once in a blue moon, and best not counted on.

More likely is that, being unprepared, #2 will give an unsuccessful performance from which nothing will be learned except, “I hate piano.” And that will be a sad failure of pedagogy, for the student will have learned wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong synchronizations. After all, every passage that isn’t yet right is…sadly…wrong. And it ain’t the student’s fault.

Can we stop assigning students pieces for which they’re not ready? Can we define “not ready”? Let’s say it means there’s a good chance the eventual performance will have built-in defects.

Suppose a student insists on learning a piece for which s/he’s “not ready”? That is a completely different story! See a future blog.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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