Every music critic should spend some time teaching the music he or she is writing about.
It’s taken five weeks for me to feel like I’m starting to make connections with the 12 piano students I received from a teacher that’s taken a year’s maternity leave. Last night in particular, I was reminded again how the cliché about a teacher learning from students is so very true.
When I started reviewing for the Star nearly 12 years ago, I decided to start playing piano more seriously again so that I could remind myself every day how difficult it is to make sense of little black dots.
It’s one thing for me to have an internal dialogue at my home piano. But now I need to express musical ideas clearly and motivate, say, a teenager whose figurative cartoon thought bubble shows a middle-aged teacher going bla bla bla bla…
Wrapping history, biography, tradition, the fine art of musical expression and prescriptions for fixing technical hurdles into pithy instructions is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced. And I hope that this need to hone ever sharper-edged thinking about interpretation is going to make me a better critic.
In the meantime, I continue to marvel at how we throw the music of Mozart at instrumental and vocal neophytes. Are we are so easily beguiled by it that we forget how difficult it is — not to play in a mechanical sense, but turn into something musical?
One of my students is working on the B-flat major Sonata No. 14, K. 570. Besides following classical sonata form, it is very theatrical. It’s a little opera condensed into a little something for 10 fingers.
Like all Mozart, the music is absolutely transparent. One wrong finger blots an entire musical phrase. Played without forethought and preparation, the piece may as well be bowl of cold, congealed porridge.
I’ve avoided playing Mozart since the day I was no longer made to do so. This is not because I didn’t like the music, but because it continues to frighten me. It’s easy to spot emotion, shape and momentum in Liszt or Rachmaninov. Not so with Mozart.
My student knew nothing about Mozart’s penchant for the theatrical. She has never been to, or listened to, one of his operas. She doesn’t have any Mozart recordings on her MP3 player. So how is she to differentiate cold porridge from steaming Italian wedding soup?
I chose my words carefully last night, demonstrated a bit, and she played again — completely differently. I worried about whether she was acting strictly on my instructions, or if she understood what my wild gesticulations had been all about.
There was a glimmer of a twinkle in her eyes when I asked if she had felt a difference between her first play-though and the second, last night. She nodded, but it was that little flicker of inner light that made up for all the fears and frustrations of the past five weeks.
But, evil teacher that I seem to be, I want more: I want this student to be able to make her own interpretive decisions.
I thought I’d point her towards YouTube as an easy, convenient way to browse the possibilities, not realising that this sonata, being a prime assignment, has been recorded by more students and teachers than you can shake a handycam at. Here is a minefield all its own.
For teaching (and learning) purposes, YouTube needs to be curated, just like any other means of preparing and building people’s critical faculties.
Take these three of the hundreds of YouTube listening possibilities of the opening Allegro from Mozart’s K. 570 Sonata, starting with one of my Mozart references, pianist Mitsuko Uchida:
Now, here’s the rest of the sonata, from Uchida’s magical fingers: