Monday, January 31, 2011


People study with teachers to learn things they don't already know: to obtain guidance on how to proceed, to find out how to do something, to understand things in a way they haven't been able to accomplish on their own. If I were to go through the history of all the music teachers I've had, it would take a long time and end up as a book, but the bottom line is that most of them did not tell me what I needed to know, or did not tell me in a way that I could understand.

Even in the years when what I desperately wanted was simply to play the cello as well as I possibly could, with the practical object of getting a job doing it, the teachers I had didn't help much. They spent a lot of time on airy-fairy discussions about emotion, or they told me to practice but didn't help me learn to listen to myself. They assumed understanding that I didn't have.

Every once in a while, I would have a great lesson or series of lessons when the teacher would get down to business. My best lessons from one teacher took place when I was learning the Beethoven A major cello and piano sonata. There is simply no way that piece is going to sound good unless the cello is exactly, precisely, in tune, and so this teacher finally showed me how to pinpoint intonation by checking each and every note in multiple ways. After that experience, I was able to focus much more on this aspect of cello playing in every other piece I learned. It's not that I didn't know you needed to check intonation; I really didn't know how, other than the occasional check against an open string.

At one point, I had the opportunity to take some lessons with David Soyer (the cellist in the Guarneri Quartet, who passed away about a year ago). The one really nitty-gritty lesson I had with him was when he showed me some exercises to develop tone. There were two parts to this. For one, he liked to use the Popper etude No. 6 (all running 16th notes in various simple patterns, all over the cello), and the drill was to practice a small segment first at the lowest part of the bow, next in the middle, and finally near the tip, using full force and almost, but not quite, scratching, but keeping the hand and arm relaxed. One was to do this first as written, then in different rhythms. The other exercise involved playing a fully covered scale (he liked D flat major), slurring across the string crossings, playing very slowly with the fullest, widest vibrato; then, he suggested doing the same thing with "The Swan" (that chestnut from "Carnival of the Animals"), putting slurs in the most difficult shifts and string crossings. The object was to keep the vibrato constant and minimize the sound of any breaks across notes.

Well! This just about revolutionized my playing, believe it or not. Ever since I spent some time doing these exercises (and I did them every day for some years), my tone grew richer and surer.

Perhaps these pivotal lessons struck a chord (so to speak) because I was at the right stage to learn what they taught me. I do know that what works for one student does not work for another. Maybe I had heard similar things at other times but they went in one ear and out the other. But my point here is that out of the hundreds of cello lessons I had over the years, I can pinpoint only these few as being truly useful as lessons (vs. as performances, or as scold-fests, or as hours of fluff).

As for the piano: I just counted them up, and I have had five different teachers. None taught me as much as I've learned on my own, with the help of some technological tools, in the past 6 years since I began playing the piano again. As much of a cliché as it's become, the Internet has made a tremendous difference. The community at Piano World, for one, offers a resource that simply wasn't available in the past -- I mean, you can go over there at three o'clock in the morning and pose a question ("What's a good fingering for the first four measures of Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3?") and within a few hours get at least one response. The availability of inexpensive digital recording options means you can record something and post it and get feedback from pianists all over the world – not to mention being able to hear yourself with pretty good fidelity. The online "recitals" have provided realistic, achievable goals.

So this has been great, up to a point, but I still have a lot of trouble sitting down and playing the piano in front of a live human being. Not that this isn't always difficult under any circumstances, but it is especially difficult when one does it as rarely as I do. For me in particular, the expectations of what could be my captive audience, friends and family, are unreasonably high. I am the most educated musician most of them know, so they seem to think it just comes out of me with no effort, and they are not all that impressed unless something is polished to perfection (which of course it rarely is, given my lack of practice performing on the piano, yadda yadda yadda, endless loop).

And then, the more time I have spent, the more I have wondered if I have been handicapping myself too much by not getting some direct, specific help from a live human being in the same room. I'm well into the second half of my life at this point; how many more years do I have to spin my wheels on this? It’s not like there is a deficit of piano teachers around here. It’s starting to seem silly not to at least try it. My fear in the past was that I would go to the lessons but would not practice enough in between to take advantage of them. Now, though, that I have developed a solid daily practice habit, I don’t think this is going to be as much of a problem as it has been in the past.

Another thing about that live human being: as helpful as the virtual world can be, it does not provide the full social and emotional experience of face-to-face contact with other people. I would like to somehow integrate my piano life into my interactions with the outside world. I have a sense that my playing is  not entirely real -- that it will be validated and recognized only if I can play for other people without the filtering medium, and anonymity, of posting recordings on the Internet.

Thus it has come about that I finally contacted a private music school and signed up for a semester's worth of lessons, which are to start tomorrow. The people at the school are aware of my background, so they have set me up with someone experienced who teaches other adults. I hardly know what to expect, but I am hoping I will be able to try my best to get something positive out of it.

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