Saturday, September 22, 2012

Teachable Moments

First of all, my recital has come and gone, as things do. It was, I think, a big success in a lot of ways (the program booklet was widely admired), although it's hard for me not to remember the moments that got away (minor, but still...), and it's also something of a letdown to be done. What happened? Where did all that practice and preparation go?

As I get older, I find myself reflecting more on space/time issues - sometimes even in the middle of a performance! At some point in the middle of the 30-minute Brahms "Handel" Variations, I remember thinking that I felt kind of like a prisoner of space and time. I was tired, physically and mentally, and though things were going well enough and I was mostly focused on the music, I found myself reflecting on something rather obvious: I had no choice in that moment but to keep playing this difficult music with pinpoint focus (a focus not helped by my focusing on the need to be focused). I couldn't just stop, perhaps say something to the audience, go get a drink of water, recite a sonnet, or even take an unmusical breath. Yes, to some degree this is true of any situation where one has a job to do, but a musical work like this is particularly unforgiving.

Of course, riding a musical wave is also one of the joys of musical performance, so I don't want to sound like I'm complaining. Anyway, although I have much to learn from this experience (including that I wish I'd worked in a few "days off" leading up to the event since I played through the Chopin four days after the recital and it felt so much easier!), I have more lighthearted teachable moments to share today. In fact, they're lighthearted enough that I've already shared them in that frothy land of Twitter, but now they're getting the blog seal of approval.

The first moment of good teaching fortune occurred on September 5th as I had just exited my office on the way to music history. (I should probably capitalize "Music History," but I like the idea of "being on the way to music history.") We were in the midst of several Bach classes (alas, now passed/past) and that day's main course would be the Chaconne in D Minor, which is only perhaps the greatest example of human creativity ever. I've taught this piece many times, but still can feel at loss for words to describe it, as evidenced by the lame sentence preceding. As it happened, only steps from my office door, I heard none other than the Chaconne in D Minor coming from a practice room nearby. I correctly guessed who the violinist was, and knew her to be an enthusiastic student from the previous year's class, so I knocked on the door and asked if she might want to come play in our little cinderblock classroom. She graciously agreed, and suddenly everything about teaching it was easier because there's just nothing like live performance, right?

There's just nothing like live performance. Of course, we musicians say this all the time in a desperate attempt to maintain a sense of relevance performing music that has been recorded over and over. It's pretty much true, too (I hope) - otherwise, why would I have spent so much time learning music for my recital? Getting back to that space-time thing, there's no question that Chopin's 4th ballade is widely available in recordings and widely performed in recitals, but I still knew that every time I played it (even in a practice room), there was something distinctive about "holding" "it" in my hands in that moment of time. Not the score of course; I barely looked at it in the past month (which is probably bad, by the way, but that's a subject for another day). I mean that having the notes shaped in my hands feels like a "thing," elusive as its thing-ness is. (Are the notes in my hands negative space? No, let's not go there...*)

But back to Bach: because the Chaconne is written for solo violin and the violin-writing often verges on (or crosses over to) harshness, "it" struggles even more than the average musical work to communicate via recording. Violins are notoriously difficult to record. I read somewhere** that the heavy use of vibrato we now take for granted is partly an evolutionary adaptation prompted by the fact that early recording technology made straight-tone violin playing particularly unappealing. Add to this the fact that my cinderblock classroom has a pretty subpar set of speakers, and it reminds me of something I often forget: Recordings of the Chaconne sound pretty bad in this classroom.

Why do I forget that? Because I already know how the piece sounds for real, so I can easily hear the real "thing" through the imperfections. This also explains why opera buffs can enjoy historical recordings that often sound like desperate screeching to me. Once you've heard the real thing enough, you can filter out the limits of technology and hear what's not there. I wrote about this at some length in this post from 2007.

This is really one of the central challenges of teaching and talking about music. When you don't have the real thing there and the students haven't experienced it, words in a textbook/anthology and even recordings can ring as hollow as...well, a violin on a CD. Having this gracious student play extended excerpts for the class made the whole teaching experience so much easier. Plus, the human element of seeing the violinist battling the fiddle is a nice visual/social aid. The students clearly got this music in a way I haven't seen them get it before. So, the lesson is: always bring a real violinist with you to teach the Bach Chaconne. (I have done this before in a more planful way, by the way.)

[A couple of side notes. When I tweeted "Was heading to class to talk about Bach Chaconne; heard student violinist practicing it; she agreed to demo much of it (beautifully). Nice!", a clever follower tweeted back, "Talking about the Bach Chaconne. And next week, dancing about the Parthenon." He, of course, was alluding to the famous saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. I mention all this to boast about the newly invented aphorism this inspired from me: "tweeting about music is like twitching about architecture."]

[Side Note #2: Speaking of Bach, the Chaconne, and a failure to communicate, back when the "Joshua Bell in the subway" story was all the rage, I wrote a couple of sonnets to summarize the tale. I can sense that you're not about to follow that link, so let me tempt you with these couplets: " mention that a subway station / is really not the best location / for Bach's Chaconne (which I adore / -it's just not made for train decor.)"]

Now to teachable moment #2. For my afternoon "Survey of Musical Masterworks," a one-semester music history class for mostly non-majors, I like to have music playing the five minutes or so before we begin. For example, before yesterday's class introducing opera as the new dramatic kid on the block of the Baroque, I played this hyperdramatic music from Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie. (Skip to 1:20 if you like, and try to stay to the end.)

Well, later on that very same fortuitous Chaconne day, I got distracted by some computer-related issue and forgot to start anything up for my surveyors. Just as I was about to apologize for this oversight, I remembered that Sept 5 of 2012 happened to be the 100th birthday of John Cage, so the four-plus minutes of silence I'd played were the perfect music for that day.

And I have nothing more to say about that...

P.S. But, I did have one other felicitous teaching moment recently. I was discussing issues of Historically Informed Performance Practice with students, and the topic of unreliable metronome markings arose. As I talked about the problems of pendulum imprecision and veered off course to  mention Ligeti's symphony for metronomes, a student actually speculated out loud that one might be able to synchronize pendulum metronomes if they were on the right kind of surface. I don't think he did this to set me up for what followed, but THIS, of course, is what followed.

P.P.S. Notice I didn't include an audio link for the great Chaconne, for what should be obvious reasons. Go see if you can find a live performance in a practice room near you...

See also: Augmented Sixth Day

* that's a joke. sort of.

** just realized (20 hours later), via a helpful Twitter follower, that I first read about this violin/vibrato adaptation in Chapter 3 of Alex Ross's Listen to This where he, in turn, cites Mark Katz's Capturing Sound. And, to continue with the coincidence theme of this post, it just so happens that Chapter 3 of Ross's book is assigned for one of my classes for this coming Friday. (I last read the chapter a year ago, and thus the violin/vibrato information had lost its moorings in my mind.)

Final Postscript: It will be some time before I'll feel ready to listen to all of the recital recording (especially the solo stuff), but here are two samples from the second half that featured our new family trio, Montrieau (with my 13-yr old daughter on violin, my child psychiatrist wife on cello, and me doing my Piano Hero thing (meaning I didn't practice it enough!) on piano).

1 comment:

LaDona said...

Yes of course! That's it! Reason to keep the fingers well in shape before the students start arriving for lessons - rather than resorting to recordings - especially on Youtube which is too, too easy to access in a pinch.
I HEAR THROUGH the imperfections of recordings. My students don't. How CAN they?
Great post. Time to get to the piano and warm up the fingers...