Three Pianecdotes and a Question

Can a student become more gifted?

In the ’90s, I had a fascinating conversation with a professor of piano at a Midwestern university where I spent some time. She was Japanese-born; trained in Japan and then at the Paris Conservatory; a superb performer and teacher.

Teaching was close to this lady’s heart, and we were discussing it one day when she said, “Most students are not very gifted, but sometimes I can make them more gifted.” I probably looked surprised—I certainly felt it—and she continued, “One time, I closed the curtains, turned off lights, asked the student, ‘You love music?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You love piano?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You may play this piece once. Never again. You must show how much you love, how much you understand.'”

I said, “Wow! And what happened?”

“His playing was more gifted.” She smiled.

“And did he agree with you?”

“Yes.”

 

Why do teachers choose certain students to play?

In the ’70s, for an article about choosing a teacher, I interviewed teachers and attended studio activities. One master class was in the home of an older pianist of European background, internationally known. From my notes:

The studio is dominated by a big grand. The listeners, mostly older ladies, pay to attend. The performer is a student of the famous one, a young woman whom he has chosen to play Chopin’s G Minor Ballade. She also pays.

She does not play well. When she finishes, all heads swivel to Der Meister, in his Morris Chair. Long silence. A deep sigh. Then—he speaks!

“Ach, it is so ungrateful a task to destroy that which has been built up!”

He goes to the piano and sits down on the bench, which the student vacates; and while she listens, standing awkwardly beside the instrument, he gives a beautiful performance of the piece, following it with a charming informal talk.

That is, it would be charming had the whole sequence not made clear that the bad playing by the student—the student he chose—was merely setting the stage for the good playing by the teacher. In the hour and a half of the class, he says not one word, shows not one way to play a passage, does nothing that helps his student play better. Except by the example of his own playing, of course; but if the student were able to profit from that, she would have played better to begin with.

 

What happens when student and teacher can’t communicate?

My teacher in the late ’60s had side-by-side grands in his studio; and behind and between the benches was a stool for the next student. I was sitting there one day when the current student played a ritardando on a repeated 8th-note slur, a descending half-step.

He made a literal ritard, you might say, each note longer than the previous one. The teacher said, “Don’t play it like that. Play it like this!” And he played it keeping the notes in each slur together, so the pairs all sounded the same, and the ritard applied only to the space between them. I was struck by the obvious “rightness” of this, but the student wasn’t. He played the ritard the second time around the same way as the first.

The teacher exhorted him as though talking to a child: “No, don’t play it like that! Play it like this!” And he repeated the same demonstration.

I wanted to put my hands on their shoulders and say, “Student! Don’t you hear that he’s playing the ritard differently? Teacher! Don’t you hear that he cannot hear the difference? You have to describe it in words!”

I said nothing. They went back and forth, accomplishing nothing, and finally went on to something else.

 

Question: Are all these pianecdotes true? If not, which are fictitious?

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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