A LEARNING PARTNERSHIP DOES NOT INVOLVE "COMPLIANCE", "FORCE", OR SUFFERING
Updated: Jul 4
The most beautiful illustration of the nature of relationship and teaching style under which I thrive, came when recently I interviewed, and was interviewed in a "trial lesson" by, a potential new piano teacher at the Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco. A shout-out to Robert Brownstein, a paragon of excellence in setting the stage for easy learning, especially for this late-life mature student.*
My experience during that hour contrasted greatly with what I do NOT want with my next teacher: a demand for, or even expectation of, compliance or a demonstration of force and inflexibility.
The above "compliance" or "one up-one down" teaching philosophy and dominance--submission relationship with any teacher that I eschew, may be found in Heinrich Neuhaus' famous book, The Art of Piano Playing. He asks the question, what can help all learners?
A footnote answers that this concept "includes compliance, adaptability and hence a certain degree of imitation." (page 18). In discussing how to inculcate an artistic ability in a child student, Neuhaus said "the child should be made, at the earliest possible stage, to play a sad melody sadly..." and "Not a single accidental accent should be tolerated..." (emphasis added).
Clearly, Neuhaus viewed any flexibility on his part as a "concession to satisfy a weak pupil" and lowering his requirements. He was not hesitant to admit that on some occasions he had had hissy fits and yelled at someone he perceived to be a "lazy" student -- usually a woman.
No one -- man, woman, non-binary, or child -- should be "made" to do anything during a piano lesson. Furthermore, there is no occasion that justifies yelling at a student of any age. A student, especially an adult student, dissolving in tears, or even feeling them come on during or after a lesson, is never acceptable. Yet that happened to me several times with one of my teachers who pursued a version of Neuhaus' teaching philosophy. In hindsight I realized that the very first time (of five total) I felt tears come on signified a critical difference in the style of teaching I desired. The teacher's style crushed my spirit and enthusiasm in the end, and I was immensely relieved after some months of "giving it a go" to terminate lessons and move on.
As has been said:
"At first when young, you take the jobs you have to,
but then you reach a certain point and you take the
jobs you want to"!
Thad Carhart understands the statement above, and at least the foundation of my concerns, likely shared by many adult piano students. He's a writer who returned to the piano some 20 years after giving it up, wrote a jewel of a little book in 2000 when he was living in Paris,The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. He described being captivated when passing a tiny piano shop and gradually learned the French ways of purchasing pianos. Quaintly to an American, in France you needed a personal reference and introduction from a prior purchaser or from a member of "high musical society" in order to be let into the back room where pianos for sale were lodged! When he finally achieved his goal and purchased a rebuilt Stingl piano, then found a piano teacher, he said:
"One of the revelations of taking up the piano again as an adult
was to find that, other than in musical matters, my teacher was my peer...(...practicing my piano) was an unexpectedly pleasant form of self-discipline;
this travail wasn't for my parents or for the teacher or for the year-end recital.
This was for me." (emphasis added)
I was also captivated to happen upon some comments by a member of Ilinca Vartic's pianocareeracademy.com, that I just joined. Responding to Ilinca's frequent statements
in her vlogs that "from comfort comes freedom," he said:
Most of us - especially in the "progressive western world" have painfully
come to "understand" that we need to abandon the idea that life can be fun."
Neuhaus was surely a child of his age when learning the piano was considered work and not fun, and when gender roles were quite rigid and sexist. He wrote his book sometime before his death in1964 (it was not published until 1973) when the second wave of feminism was just taking off in this country. Thus, to happily read his book to find pearls of wisdom, the feminist or pro-feminist reader must tolerate a number of his examples of inadequate or hard-to-teach students -- in his book, 99% of whom turned out to be women! (Perhaps the women with high ability knew his teaching style and went to another kind of teacher to learn?)
Of course, men were not the only advocates of what today might be called the "tough love" approach. There is a short YouTube video (undetermined date) of famed conductor Leonard Bernstein talking about two of his famous piano teachers, and one was Isabelle Vengerova when he was at Curtis Institute. She "made" him do various things such as learn to listen to himself play, and "she was a tyrant." Bernstein talked about a fellow student who was crying after a lesson to which Bernstein replied, "you just have to do it. You have to suffer because that's what we're learning." To me he sounds like the perfect student maschochist for the perfect sadist teacher.
Of course the 60s and before were squarely in the era of patriarchal models of learning and the "proper" rigid roles for both children and women, normally viewed as the same -- and then came men. Neuhaus' male students get lots of passes in his book, especially Richter and Gilels whom he periodically lauds as geniuses (not one woman is mentioned). Women are notably singled out as failures, or requiring a lot of work to get them up to a concert level of pianism, and if they protested or didn't live up to Neuhaus' standards (at least in one case of an adult concertizing pianist student), they were labeled as "hysterical."
Thusly, misogynist, sexist men characteristically used to put women down, never admitting that they (the teacher) could have been wrong and that our reactions could be reasonable and justifiable as anger or a simple difference of opinion.
Maybe it was because Neuhaus was trained by Godowsky, who was known to "...let fall a sarcastic remark or make a joke not devoid of venom." But at least Neuhaus knew and admitted that by the 50s and 60s, times had changed and that sarcasm and venemous jokes were not acceptable in a piano lesson.
I found one renown Polish pianist and piano teacher who died in 1905, who seemed to be the harbinger of a kinder, gentler teaching paradigm, Theodore Leschetizky (Wikipedia). He believed "it advantageous for both teacher and student...to operate in a system that encouraged candid questioning without the element of fear." He was said to be more of a mentor, therapist, father figure, sponsor, and general caretaker than a teacher, and it was written that "his most prominent quality was his extreme interest in the well-being of his students." Of course Leschetizky taught "highly-advanced" students and not late-life amateur students, and there is no information about his open or closed-mindeness to women vs. men students.
Obliviousness to the patriarchal mores of the times is not limited to teachers in before the mid- to late-60s when the US women's movement began to raise consciousness of gender politics. Not long ago in late 2022 I was amazed to hear a late-middle-aged piano teacher casually say that he had never in his long years of marriage to one woman, "tried to fix her." Yes, he did! For any man aged 50 or above today, it is inevitable that they have done so. All this statement proved to me is that his wife had never stood up to him when he did it, and thus, he had no motivation to engage in some introspection about how and when he had acted out his role as part of the dominant and privileged male class and culture in this country, and thus, had no motivation to change.
When I interviewed Robert and he interviewed me at the Blue Bear Music School, I was immediately set at ease by his friendly demeanor and dress: casual and informal, blue jeans, t-shirt and tennis shoes. He focused on me and asked questions about my goals. He had no evident agenda to compart information or demonstrate his expertise intellectually or pianistically. About 30 minutes into the easily-flowing back and forth conversation on music and pianism, he said he would play a few pieces from his classical repertoire, but that he had not been practicing them so they would not be perfect. That was perfect for me to hear because it relaxed me greatly. Then he sat down and competently and sweetly played Schumann's gorgeous lyrical piece, "Foreign Lands and Strange People."
That was a marvelous and mystical coincidence, considering all the classical and Romantic Era compositions from which each of us could have selected, because that was the precise piece I had decided to start out playing for him!
How could that have happened?
I suspect it was because it was meant to be. There is simply no rational explanation possible, so I didn't even try to find one.
When he finished, I asked him to please stand up, then I sat down and played the same piece start to finish and most likely, without one mistake and with a bit more alacrity and nuance because I had been practicing it for weeks just for this occasion. We both were gobsmacked, and he agreed that Schumann would have been pleased with my presentation.
Upon reflection I realized that I had had not one nerve in evidence while I played! No hand shaking, no heart palpitating, discomfort or distraction, no embarrassment, nothing that commonly, students feel when playing for a new teacher. I experienced calm and deliberate, keen focus on expressing the love I have for the piece I was playing. Amazing...and just the kind of response I wanted from myself during lessons.
Toward the last 15 minutes of our hour-long meeting, I told Robert that I had been struggling for weeks to express the dynamic range from pianissimo (p) to super-pianisimo (ppp), but was having not much luck. Trying about three different techniques had left me wanting my next piano tuner and regulator in mid-April one year after receiving my Duchess, to lighten the touchweight in the bass range in order to help. I was still having only 50% success in achieving the soft tone that I wanted on any particular note or chord or occasion; half the time it would sound too loud or too soft, or result in a ghost note.
Instead of approaching and hovering over me while standing by my side at the piano to demonstrate a new exercise that he said might help in my quest to achieve ppp, he came over, got down on both knees to the side of the piano and demonstrated the technique. (That reminded me of some hip young waitpeople who do the same at modern restaurants). Then he listened and watched me attempt to imitate it. I also came home with two other new-to-me suggestions to improve my phrasing.
In the above ways, Robert communicated that he saw me as an equal, not in terms of my abilities or knowledge about playing the piano or music, but as an equal in a respectful process of learning. That process was directed specifically at my stated goals, and not led by his goals for me.
That is precisely the type and nature of partnership process that I seek for my next piano lessons, and an attitude of "let's see what might work for you" in my next piano teacher.
*I decided not to pursue music lessons at Blue Bear not because of Robert. I felt I could learn a lot from him, but the student piano I played on was a "honky tonk" sounding vertical Baldwin. The other piano for student use that I did not try was a Yamaha, prospectively with a better tone. However, I need to play on a grand piano so that I can improve my control on my daily practice piano, The Duchess, a Steinway M. A grand is a whole other thing when it comes to manipulating a heavier touch to enjoy and create a broader range of possible dynamics, expression, and nuances.
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