Saturday, June 21, 2008

teaching and performing

Many musicians I know have seen Bruno Monsaingeon's film "The Enigma," a documentary about Sviatoslav Richter. I haven't seen the film in a few years, but I do remember it being a fascinating glimpse in to the mind of a truly devoted artist, someone who was about as far removed as one could be from the superficial aspects of life and the "entertainment" aspect of music (for better or for worse). As my teacher, Patricia Zander, says, there is Good Richter and Bad Richter, and his insistence on plumbing the depths of the human soul at all times is good for some pieces of music, but not for others.

(Amazon's listing of the video is here:

In any case, there was also a companion book published, which one of my students gave to me. (Thanks, Natasa!). In it are considerably more of Richter's private thoughts, many of which are presented in the context of some journals he kept, chronicling concerts or recordings he heard and his reactions to them. Again it demonstrates a complete devotion to music, and also gives a glimpse in to the musical world of Soviet Russia - what a fascinating and strange time and place that was! So many great, great musicians, who at times seemed to succeed in spite of the idiocracy (is that a word?).

(here's Amazon's listing of the book:

Anyway, the point I am trying to get to is a statement he made that teaching ruins you as a performer. I don't remember the context of the statement, but I do remember he did not elaborate. Perhaps he was explaining his own lack of interest in teaching. I wonder if this is true. It is certaintly true that anything that cuts down on practice time hinders us as performers. Teaching definitely cuts down on practice time, but so does being a parent or going to a movie or sleeping at night. Oh yes, and blogging also cuts down on practice time.

Now I am definitely a better pianist than I was before I started teaching - but would I have been better anyway, just as a result of more experience, more ideas, more practicing, more maturity, etc.?

But I think Richter was not only thinking about the time and energy drain of teaching. Perhaps he saw that teaching a lot *can* sort of "ossify" our ideas as musicians. After teaching, say, the Chopin G minor Ballade for the umpteenth time, one tends to have a certain way of explaining what to do with the piece, how to do it, why to do it, etc. Truly exploring the possibilities of a piece, together with a student, is too time-consuming and inefficient. Piano students in particular need to cover a lot of repertoire and as a teacher it often seems more useful to be right to the point and not experiment with different musical possibilities.

This "efficiency" is bad news for an artist. The worst thing we can do is become formulaic. I've had the opportunity to play some pieces in my repertoire dozens of times, and it is the re-questioning and re-investigation and re-construction of these pieces for each performance that (I hope) makes the performances sound fresh - even if, after re-thinking a certain passage I end up playing it exactly the same way I've always played it.

We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

I am a fan of the show "Top Chef," which completed its fourth season recently. (How is food so successful on TV? Wouldn't you expect the lack of taste or smell coming from the TV to doom cooking-related shows? But I *love* watching them!). On the last episode, Eric Ripert, a famous chef, was shown learning about some new cooking techniques from one of the competitors (Richard was using liquid nitrogen to do something I didn't quite catch). Ripert noted that a chef is in trouble when his ego prevents him from learning something new. I have definitely seen this among musicians, and I can imagine that teaching can push us towards this point where we become less "teachable." Unconsciously many teachers probably feel that they cannot show any doubt or self-questioning to their students - it would undermine their authority as teachers.

I certainly hope that will not happen to me.


Stan said...

I have to confess I don't know anything about Richter. But his attitude makes us ask ourselves, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it...yada yada yada. I would think that music is essentially a form of communication, and if somebody feels he doesn't need to be 'infected' through communication from others, it may limit the value of what he has to say. As your chef pointed out, the problem is Ego. Whatever it is you're doing, if you overcome ego, you will be able to learn. Richter seemingly felt he was way too good to learn from anyone. Then why would anyone want to hear what he had to say?

ckoh71 said...

Eric Ripert is my fave guest judge. He seems actually open to learning something new from contestants, and his comments are always perceptive and constructive - unlike the idiotic comments that sometimes emanate from Padma or Gail. I haven't been to Le Bernadin yet, but I'm looking forward to it since Ripert is held in high estime by everyone in the culinary world.
You really love 4 Quartets by T S Eliot, don't you? I remember you referring to it quite a bit even in college:)