Tuesday, June 24, 2008

From Beyond

In the Yiddish language, the word for teaching and learning is the same—lernen zikh. When I teach, I'm learning, and I love this.

A young boy enters my studio and has difficulty making sense of the Adagio from Bach's Solo Sonata in g minor. I lead him to the piano. Without the problematic sustaining of chords through bow technique, but through experimentation at the keyboard, Bach's style emerges. My student awakens to the individual voices in Bach's awe-inspiring Adagio, and I feel myself on a journey with him.

Another young student is challenged by sight-reading and rhythmic discipline. His creative mind unleashes an urge to play whatever he desires, rather than adhering to the score. This poses a dilemma: do I let him have his way or rein him in? He's only ten years old. Instinctively, I choose the duets of Bartok and Hindemith. Through this repertoire, my student recognizes and begins to appreciate the value of a steady beat, a pulse. If I make a rhythmical mistake while playing, my ten year old is a step ahead of me, pointing out my silly errors. We laugh together. I'm doing my job effectively if he surpasses me. The method of duet playing reminds me of my early years, the years spent with my mother hovering at my side. She played the violin as an amateur, and lost herself for hours practicing. When my father threatened he'd divorce her because she failed to do the housework, Mom bought a quarter size violin and poured her energies into my studies. "I'll continue to learn through you," she said to me. "What can your father say to that?" She supervised my studies with zeal, and every teacher I had the privilege of working with was scrutinized, assessed, digested and regurgitated by my mother. The result of her insatiable appetite for learning was that I experienced a broad spectrum of genius artist/teachers in my life.

Those teachers are dead now. But when I work with my own students, it's not unusual for a visitation. I hear the voice of Jascha Heifetz: If you don't believe in yourself, how do you expect anyone else to believe in you? Erick Friedman reminds me that playing Mozart can be compared to cutting a diamond. Dorothy DeLay smiles and suggests asking the student to tell a story through music. Leopold Mozart—oh, okay, you caught me, I met with him through reading his Treatise—admonishes: One should not give a beginner anything difficult before he can play things well in time. Sarah Scriven, the teacher I adored more than all the others, whispers: Even the greatest artists have off days. Always remember that, darling.

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