GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT MUSIC
Updated: Jul 9
Amateur instrumentalists are often assumed not to be “serious” about their music studies or endeavors; they are often assumed to be dilettantes, as pianist/teacher Seymour Bernstein says in his book Monsters and Angels. Bernstein says that "...amateur musicians protect the sacred art of music even more than most professionals do (while)...many professionals musicians, caught up in the vicissitudes of careers, have all but forgotten their initial love of music."
Referring to Websters’ online dictionary for the word “serious,” the initial definitions seem appropriate to apply to both professional and amateur pianists: “Serious“ –1: thoughtful or subdued in appearance or manner, as a sober, quiet woman. 2.a. requiring much thought or work; as serious study, or b. of or relating to a matter of importance;, as a serious plan. 3.a. not joking or trifling, being in earnest, as a serious question, or b. pious, or c. deeply interested, devoted, as a serious musician. However, I suggest that in common parlance and understanding of the word, most people think that amateur musicians are not serious at all and assign them lower status or importance. "Serious/not serious" smacks of the “one up/one down“, black/white, good/bad, either/or paradigm against which I often rail. It's a way of thinking that is characteristic of patriarchy, our dismal world heritage and institutional history. It’s a common male mindset that loves hierarchy and competition (cock fights?), but one not so common among women. Calling someone serious or not serious also smacks of labeling that I also eschew (see below poem).
Why not just be FACTUAL? That is, just describe a student or a teacher's majority student cohort based on facts such as: "young, middle-aged, senior, adult," "conservatory-bound," "interested in taking graded exams," "dedicated to six or more hours of practice a day," and the like? (But please don't use the word "elderly" as that invariably imputes disability and decline!) Credible academic research by now exists about the particular ways that women gather wisdom, develop values, and pursue actual and preferred ways of being, that is, by focusing on a win/win or community-oriented paradigm or context for their relationships and actions. On my part I've often blogged that a mutually-respectful and positive relationship with my piano teacher is as or more important to me than productivity, and in personal friendships I feel the same. Juilliard professor and psychologist-violinist Noa Kageyama recently posted a video interview with musician and professor George Wadell. Wadell is a performance science researcher at the Centre for Performance Science, and Area Leader and faculty member at the renown Royal College of Music in London. The topic was the value and the dark side of competition common in music school and conservatory training, as well as in orchestral auditions. I concur with Wadell about one situation where competition makes sense, and that is where a limited number of positions are available to be appointed to an orchestra. The audition is in the nature of a job application much as a mechanic might be asked to perform a mechanical task during application for a mechanical job.
Wadell also finds competition appropriate for notable piano competitions having age limits because those support and promote the development of talented musical young people. I would ask however, as does Seymour Bernstein, why not just award five top prizes to the top five students, and not just one? Usually competitors are all equally, if differently accomplished, and after all as Wadell says, "music is principally a subjective matter." Wadell stresses something with which I completely agree, that is, that we should find and encourage the celebration of many different ways to contribute to the music ecosystem, not just by becoming a performing musician. That one pursues the teacher track rather than the performing track in or after graduation from a music school or conservatory, does not equate with being of a lesser status or importance to the music world.
Why should we not foster foundationally for all students, music or not, the love and understanding of music? After all, judges in competitions assign points on the basis of what they hear in the moment, thinking that that is all there is. That may be true today, but it does not have to be true tomorrow. The student most assuredly or most likely will continue to improve over time with effective practice. I was convinced of that by the academic research of Stanford University’s Carol Dweck. Accordingly my self-confidence was boosted substantially, and I adopted her “not yet“ mentality - that is, I am "not yet there" but I can indeed improve overtime with diligent work, effort, and making the right choices among options in order to achieve better technique and musicality. As a late senior adult student occasionally beset with self-doubt, upon understanding Dweck's research and perspective, I quickly gave up my occasional thoughts that I could never learn! It’s beyond debate that people even into their 90s can reconnect and grow neurons and fire all parts of the brain plus develop a better sense of well-being and mentation by pursuing piano lessons and studying music theory. I was convinced of that fact by encountering
Dr. Oliver Sack’s book, Musicophilia. Then I discovered support in research by Dr. Daniel Levintin in his book, This is Your Brain on Music: the science of a human obsession. The important thing to me about music teachers is that a potential student should not rely on their performing status or fame to indicate the person will be a good fit as a teacher. They could be music spirit killers, as I experienced with one of my teachers—something I’ve heard and read is not all that uncommon. A good teacher should focus on how fragile all people can be (not just the young as Wadell mentions) and accordingly take great care to not wound the spirit and enthusiasm of students. They should principally focus on fostering the love of music in consideration of the goals of each individual student. I recently discussed the nature of lessons in the Dorothy Taubman technique with Bay Area pianist and teacher, Amy Brookes, who is affiliated with and who trained at the Golansky Institute. She's also an awesome composer of funk-psychedelic rock original songs with her band, Low Tide Level, and she makes me laugh! I plan to commence lessons with her in the near future in order to relearn what one might call a more ergonomic way of playing or gestural technique. This is to help correct my typical style at the piano, and computer-piano overuse resulting in troubling tendonitis.
I asked Amy if I might focus my studies - when we get to the point of playing pieces rather than learning basic, foundational notes, scales, and gesture - on romantic era compositions. Her answer was instructive and comforting as to her teaching approach. She told me without hesitation, “Of course! I am here to assist you play the kind of music that speaks to you, not tell you what to prefer. My job is to enable you to reach your individual goals.“ My individual goal as a serious amateur pianist and published poet regarding my deep musical love affair, is to both express and foster the love of music. I think Professor Wadell might well support me in those goals!
The problem with labels is that,
They give rise to judgments at best,
And inherently they include
Hierarchies of bad and good,
Things anathema to me you might know.
But if you don’t, then I’ll show
That those things I just won’t brook,
Nor stop to consider or look,
For freedom I value the most,
Less to me, is nothing but toast.
For if I cannot live free
Then I surely cannot be me,
Nor can you, except in my mind
Where surely you may find
The freedom to be fully you.
But if you’re afraid, in truth,
To go there with boundaries set loose,
Brook anxiety and stress as it comes,
And prevail o’er distractions not fun,
The rewards I promise are many,
Your travails so puny, if any,
And soar as you will in delight,
To the heavens you’ll surely take flight.
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