“Daniel, you need to read and read and read. You need to consume books on music, composers, interpretation, teachers, treatises, journal articles”
This was what was said to me upon graduating from my first undergraduate music degree. It is a statement that I followed with an almost religious obsession, consuming tonnes of books and pedogogical knowledge. You know what, though?
It’s a load of garbage. I probably use less than 50% of that knowledge base. As someone who constantly reads and researches, I only do so regarding what I love and what is pertinent to making me a better educated pianist and pedagogue. I developed the crucial skill of reading what is necessary and disregarding what isn’t.
I always hesitate to write on perspectives such as the above. The reason is because everyone leads their own musical life differently; it’s so inherently personal that it seems trite to say ‘this is how you become a great musician’.
The above statement has stayed fresh in my head over a decade later. I’ve thought about it and how to come up with some sort of retort. I was annoyed that it had stayed with me for so long, niggling at me to no end! This niggling took a huge turning point when I had a clean out of my cupboards.
Last year, I made a huge personal decision: ‘I am not the sum total of my university qualifications’. I opened my old cupboard which housed hundreds of undergraduate assignments, postgraduate course work, and a few theses…
and I threw them all out.
I had a few friends who objected to this. Ultimately, it was a really good decision and one that illuminated a possible response to that teacher from many years ago. This response has to do with the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Guillame du Fay. (Please note, this is just a personal perspective of my own journey, however universal it may seem!)
I can tell you nothing about Schoenberg or Du Fay other than:
1) Schoenberg made some pretty crazy sounding music (based on my cursory knowledge of serialism and having performed a few of the Klavierstucke)
2) Guillaume du Fay was some guy who wrote some things (legitimately, I cannot tell you a single thing about this person off the top of my head)
Here is the thing: I wrote two undergraduate essays on both composers (2000 words each paper!). Not only that, but I achieved a distinction for both. So, why can’t I remember anything about either of these people?
It’s simple: I am not interested. I don’t believe I would have been interested then. I did it because that was what was required. It was at this point that I realised that you do NOT have to be an authority on all aspects of classical music in order to be a fantastic or WORTHY classical musician.
Since then, I have wasted no time in espousing this ideal to much criticism. Some replies I get are as follows:
- “Oh, Daniel! How do you expect to get a well rounded musical insight when you teach?” – the same way a lot of other pedagogues gain their musical insight: by reading about things when it matters. Researching what is necessary is a skill all on its own. Researching what is NOT necessary is a worthless mission.
- “How do you impart musicological knowledge to your students?” – in the same manner that a student will say “I don’t want to learn that piece”, I see no point in teaching anything detailed about Schoenberg unless my students are performing a work by him (or a contemporary). I advise on what to read and I teach what is needed. Anything beyond that is encouraged but not required. This is the same as when I am doing my own research.
- “Aren’t you grateful for being exposed to such composers, even if you did not like them? Don’t your students feel the same?” – firstly, I wanted a music degree and aimed to have music as my career. This isn’t the same as a student in year 9 who comes to their lesson after school, after soccer, after a movie date with friends, to sit and learn piano. Personally, yes, I am grateful to have been exposed to these composers. It further strengthens my obvious informed (?) disregard of them in my own musical life.
- “Do you think this skews your own teaching and performing?” – absolutely not. I have never told a student they couldn’t learn a piece because I don’t know anything about the composers or the style. In fact, I try and expose my students to as many varying styles and composers as is possible at their particular level. To do otherwise would be totally unrealistic (and stupid!) in today’s world. As for my performing, I am at the level in my life where I mostly perform what I like to, not what I have to. This may sound arrogant, but I am not totally dismissive of a composer like Schoenberg (I have performed his works before), it just isn’t my go-to when choosing a program (I have written an article of my journey with Modern Music down below)
There are more, but the answer to them is mostly in the same vein.
EXPECTATION VS. REALITY:
There is an almost unspoken expectation that if you are choosing a specialist area then you are required to know every corner of it. While this may be helpful in some jobs, unless you’re in the area of musicology, it is totally impossible to have a detailed knowledge on all composers over a 300-400 year period. Universities now, more than ever, are pushing for all musicians to be experienced in multiple areas. For example, we had a lecturer who used to say “as a pianist, you now have to be a jazz pianist, a church pianist, a wedding pianist, a popular style pianist. You need to be versatile” – and, yes, they are correct, but only in one aspect.
Modern musicians do need to be versatile. They need to adapt to many musical situations and take on roles such as repititeur and accompanist. Telling a pianist that they need to be experienced in all areas of music in order to be a success is not only grossly misleading, but is merely a form of blind optimism. It is the age old saying of ‘you can’t be all things to all people’. How about training pianists to be good pianists, regardless? Secondly, universities are demanding versatiliy in their musicians but then have separate strands for Jazz studies? Jazz aural? Jazz theory? Even then, you are asked to choose your ‘strand major’. Hardly versatile by any stretch…
What universities should say is: “we are going to expose you to everything, you would be well advised to follow your strengths and interests”. I once met an amazing classical pianist who could play a Mozart, Haydn, or Clementi sonata so well that it was life changing. I was then in a recital by the same pianist when he tried to thump through a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody with a horrendous outcome (it was cringey…). After the recital, I asked what the hell had happened. The answer was simple “I can’t stand Liszt”.
So, what’s the point? Why do that? Why program it?
The issue here is image. Specifically, the classical musician image. You only need to attend a classical piano competition to see the push for pianists to be able to play all styles, speeds, and periods at an exceptionally high level. I understand this, especially considering how large the classical piano ouvre is. However, there are a few things that need to be considered from a purely subjective level:
– you only like what you like. Most good piano teachers understand this with their pupils. Students are, for the most part, brutally honest. They will tell you if they don’t want to learn something.
– you are not a lesser musician because you choose Hummel over Beethoven, or Haydn over Clementi. Similarly, if you like Miles Davis over Zez Confrey, or Noszkowski over Nickelback, you shouldn’t be subject to criticism.
– Versatility does not denote experience, professionalism, or success. Further, it brings to light the saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ for many musicians. For example, I simply adore Angela Hewitt’s Bach playing. It’s stunning and has cemented her as an authority on the master. Does this mean that everything she performs is of a similar excellence? Does her devoted mastery of Bach mean that she is poised to play any composer with a similar excellence? No. Personally, her Beethoven is less than ideal for my ear and her Chopin is so languid that it often lacks control for the sake of over-sentimentalism.
This all being said, this is a personal approach that is almost always condemned. The world does accommodate, still, for those who love to perform only Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Being able to perform a rendition of ‘Hot and Cold’ by Katy Perry in a church service on an old pipe organ does not mean you’re versatile nor is it necessary to be ‘well rounded’. If you’re renowned for your improvisatory piano stylings in a Jazz bar, does that mean you are inherently better at extemporising Bach? No.
Do what you love. Play what you love. That’s what puts the butts on seats. And for teachers, listen to your students. Don’t force them to play something they don’t want to.
By the way: Guillaume du Fay was a Franco-Flemish composer of the renaissance – thanks, Google.