Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Monsters and Angels"

A few weeks ago, I finally decided to order Seymour Bernstein's book, With Your Own Two Hands. This has been a curiously difficult book to find, given its popularity. A small music publisher, Manduca Music, now sells all of Bernstein's books and music (he is a composer as well as an author and teacher). While I was browsing their site, I noticed another book of his that looked interesting but that I had never heard of: Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music. I was in one of those what-the-hell-I'll-order-it moods, so I threw it into my cart along with the With Your Own Two Hands; a CD, Retrospective; and a book on Chopin's notation. When my package arrived, I opened Monsters and Angels and then couldn't put it down until I had finished it.

The general public has the notion that there are some absolute measures of musical success, beyond being able to play; that "studying with" someone renowned as a player or teacher automatically confers the latter's wisdom (one often hears a student spoken of as being a "child" of such-and-such teacher); or, contradictorally, that lessons are sort of interchangeable, and that no matter which teacher you have, if you attend certain celebrated music schools you will acquire certain skills. Those in or of the system have a vested interest in maintaining this set of beliefs.

The fact is that there is no one right way to go about learning how to be a musician, and no one person or institution has a lock on the secret, because there is no secret. Also true is that there are a lot of really, really bad teachers out there, ranging from incompetent to malevolent.

As I read Bernstein's book, I had one jolt of recognition after another. The most striking was his description of attending the Mannes School of Music, where he was accepted into the studio of a very famous teacher who turned out to be one of the "monsters" of his title. After a miserable month or two, he succeeded in persuading the head of the school to let him transfer to another teacher and proceeded to have a productive year of lessons, classes, chamber music, and performances. However, the famous teacher's nose was put seriously out of joint by Bernstein's successful end-of-year concerto performance with the school orchestra, and so she used her clout as their biggest name instructor to engineer his expulsion from the school. From the book:
In spite of my mother's and everyone else's support, I, and I alone, had to face the fact of my expulsion. I felt isolated, like being on the stage. . . . the realization of just how vulnerable and insecure I was made me even more depressed. . . . Weeks went by during which I did not so much as touch the keyboard.
I experienced something similar -- in fact, it was eerily similar. I was not so accomplished a performer as Bernstein at that time, but the scenario of famous teacher being petty and vengeful played out in an analogous fashion. The school in question, however, would have been happy to continue taking my money, but I bowed out, vowing to never pay tuition again. I emerged from this intact, but I carried a sense of failure for a long time, as well as the feeling that I was defective and alone.

This is just one example of the many deeply felt observations in the book about a life in music. The section describing his stint in the Army is fascinating and could be a book in itself. I also greatly appreciated the many passages in the book describing what it was actually like for him to play in public -- both the angst and the pleasure -- and how he prepared, how hard it was for him to judge the worth of his own performances (many times when he felt he didn't play well the reactions of others were quite different), how he learned what he learned.

I should add that although one senses that these are stories he has probably wanted to put to paper for many years, Bernstein's overall approach is not negative or vindictive. He tries to understand his monsters and what made them that way, and he expresses compassion for them. There is some bitterness about opportunities missed but also serenity in his acceptance and appreciation for what life has offered him.

After I had read the book, I went searching for a review of it and could not find one, other than a few reader comments on and Google books (at each site are two reader reviews, one negative, one positive). It was published in 2002, but apparently did not make much of a splash (compare with Mozart in the Jungle, somewhat along the same lines though not nearly as well written or as historically interesting). Is it because in many cases he named names? Did it cut too close to home for the New York Times?

I hope this brief description of the book will turn up in some online searches and at least spur a few people to read it. In any case, I deeply appreciate this book. I only wish I had read it years ago.


Mark said...

>>"....I hope this brief description of the book will turn up in some online searches"<< -- It did! :-)

Why not put this (or some modified version) on the Amazon page?

Harriet said...

That's a good idea, Mark!

Thanks for reading.

Jeffo said...

After viewing the documentary on Netflix, I watched some related youtube videos where Seymour mentioned the books. Like you, I couldn't find any reviews of the books online. I'll take a leap of faith and buy both books for $80, mainly as a way of thank Seymour for his life's contribution. And, thanks to you for investing the time to write a review that shared your own experience, reminding me of the excellent movie Whiplash with JK Simmons.