Reasoning with your muscles.
August 11, 2014 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Every Good Boy Does Fine: A life in piano lessons. [SLNewYorker]
posted by Lutoslawski (16 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Sacrilege. He Deserves Fudge!

also related: all cows eat grass
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:49 AM on August 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

Empty Garbage Before Dad Freaks
posted by straight at 9:06 AM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

He deserved fruit according to the extremely elderly nun that taught me, and who kept a ruler handy for knuckle-raps to correct mistakes.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 9:07 AM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Every Girl Bakes Delicious Fudge

Every Girl Buys Designer Furs

These two mnemonics brought to you by a childhood embroiled in traditional gender roles.
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:47 AM on August 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

So I started that article expecting not to like it very much (I often find Denk's writing more style than substance) but finished it quite moved. It is an excellent exploration of teaching, and what can really be taught.

I've only really taught music myself, so don't know how true this may be in other fields, but this rang so, so true to my experiences:

One thing no one teaches you is how much teaching resembles therapy. [...] It’s an intimate thing, being shown these years of lost possibilities, and before long you’re giving advice about boyfriends, and explaining why parents are such a drag.

That aspect seems to be fairly unique to teaching that is one-to-one, master/apprentice in setting, but has been significant in my life as both student and teacher.

This also rings very true:

Teaching makes you understand what your own teachers must have endured—frustrations as great as any performer’s. Ninety per cent of a teacher’s job is directing students to read what’s plainly on the page. The other ten per cent is attempting to incite their imagination about what’s behind and between the notes, what could never be written down in any score—and sometimes this seems unteachable, like the creation of life itself.

It's a terrific reflection on how deeply meaningful and seemingly impossible great teaching can be. Thanks for posting.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:03 AM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The faculty rosters of music schools and conservatories are filled with the names of superb musicians who never had "big" careers as performers. Any music lover who knows the name of György Sebők probably remembers the records he made with János Starker. Sebők did not make many solo recordings, and the ones he did (mostly for the Erato label) probably had more currency in France than elsewhere. I was very happy to read this article and learn more about this worthy artist.
posted by in278s at 10:34 AM on August 11, 2014

As someone who spent a ridiculous amount of time in front of a piano, THIS ARTICLE. ALL OF THIS ARTICLE.

The first teacher I had who really influenced me to pursue piano more did something similar to this with me:

Welcome to the summer during which you will learn to hate me. We are going to do precision drills: Exercises in perfection of fingering, notes and rhythm. . . . Every slip means back to beginning.

I started my lessons with this teacher doing nothing but moving my fingers individually for 2 weeks, scales for 6 weeks, arpeggios for the next 6, and only then was I allowed to touch the Czerny etudes. Even then, those Czerny etudes confounded me, mainly because I never noticed all the notations on the page, aside from the notes and accidentals (though accidentals were missed more often than not). He pointed out crescendos and decrescendos that were invisible before, but now, all of a sudden earned me a disapproving look. Learning one after another wasn't enough for this teacher. He made me memorize them in groupings of 5 and only if I passed his examinations could I move on to the next 5.

Even though this guy was the one who made me fall in love with piano, he was a pretty big asshole, but I overlooked that at the time because I was 15 and he dazzled me with the words, "Study with me, and I can make you a concert pianist." I should have recognized the hubris right there and then. Funnily enough, up until this teacher, my parents had to monitor me daily to get me to practice. By the time I was kicked out of this guy's studio, my parents had to come to grips with the fact that I really did think about applying to conservatories to study music, much to their dismay. I found out after college (not a conservatory!) that similar things happened to other Asian friends: Parents pushed us to learn musical instruments then immediately tried to destroy our relationships with music once there was a slight chance we'd actually become musicians.

I learned this out the really hard way.

Learning to play the piano is learning to reason with your muscles.

It took me forever to really understand 2 against 3 rhythms without sounding like I was having a slight seizure over the keyboard. Then my very old, geriatric (He asked me how old I was every lesson every week), but brilliant teacher tried to teach me this thumb technique he liked to use for Debussy's Sunken Cathedral. It involved sliding your left thumb down one key at a time, smoothly enough and quickly enough to play a scale on white notes if needed. I never really mastered this one because my thumb is a bit too short and watching his thumb slithering down the keyboard always reminded me of some sort of weird slug movement and grossed me out too much.

It really wasn't until college, when I finally settled down with a piano teacher (I was moving teachers, on average, one a year. Most of it was my fault though.) that I finally got this same experience:

One thing no one teaches you is how much teaching resembles therapy. You can be working with a student you’ve recently met, and you begin to tinker with one thing, even the movement of an arm. It becomes clear that some important muscle has been blocked for a decade or more. It’s an intimate thing, being shown these years of lost possibilities, and before long you’re giving advice about boyfriends, and explaining why parents are such a drag.

I'd always joke with the other students my college piano teacher had that she unofficially adopted a bunch of 18-20 something socially awkward college kids. I am closer to her than most other students, and she really has 1) shown me years of lost possibilities, 2) explaining why parents are such a drag, but I should probably try to reconcile with mine anyway, and definitely lots of 3) boyfriend advice/attempts at being set up. She tried to set students up by pairing them up as piano four-hands partners. None of these attempts really worked though. I joke to her that I better be included in her will and better be inheriting her Steinway grand because no one else in her (real) family would appreciate the instrument. Hopefully I won't have to find out about that any time soon though.

The best thing about this teacher is that she also completely understood why I refused to perform much during college. I never did quite recover from the one disastrous memory slip I had in high school, and she never really pushed me to perform unless it was on my terms. She did wonders for helping me recover my playing confidence, though she did always tell me that that was what was holding me back the most, but I get the feeling that she is always secretly glad that I do have such crippling stage confidence issues because that meant I wouldn't pursue music professionally. She tried her best to dissuade her students from becoming pianists though, but to no avail for many of them.

I really do owe a lot to the teacher I had in college. Lots of good advice from the gloomy "Growing up is all about being ok with watching doors close" to etiquette "Don't wear a black bra next time under a white top." She also taught me how to savor vodka (she's Russian), but more importantly, how to out drink other Russians (achievement unlocked that at her family's Thanksgiving one year, a feat that included 13 bottles of wine). I've also definitely had my breath sniffed in a lesson more than once when I did exactly this:

The theme is a saraband—a slow Baroque dance in triple time—and Sebők demonstrated how to get a magical lilt: you subtly elongate the second beat and shorten the third, in effect playing the third beat slightly late. The next week, I offered him a limping, nearly drunken saraband; he was not happy.

Though my drunken sarabande was with a Bach Partita, which I guess made the error all the more egregious.

Another drunken piece I had was with Debussy's Les Collines d'Anacapri. I remember her telling me that one of the sections should scream, "vacation....with lots of alcohol." Though apparently I took it too far.

Wow. Thanks so much for posting this. There's so much in here I can relate to, and it's helped convince me to give piano another shot once I'm back stateside.
posted by astapasta24 at 10:43 AM on August 11, 2014 [10 favorites]

I took piano lessons, and while I was not a particularly apt pupil, my piano teacher taught me one of my most important and enduring life lessons. I used the mnemonics, struggling to extract a simplified Gerswhin piece from the thicket of symbols on the page with a mantra of All-Cars-Eating-Gas and Every-Good-Boy-Doing-Fine, and you could almost make out the strains of a fragment of Rhapsody In Blue in my halting, clenched, insecure way.

"Joe-B," she said, "You're tensing up. You know this. Just slow down. Whenever you're not fully comfortable with the piece, just breathe, and relax, and slow down."

I did not become a great pianist, and the lessons didn't last much longer, but I learned.

A few years ago, when I was buying a motorcycle from my former piano teacher, I returned from the MVA with my temporary tags for the bike and we had a nice chat, in which I thanked her for guiding my musical future with the simple advice to slow down until all things were equal.

When I was not comfortable with the music I was making, I slowed down.

And slowed down.

And slowed down.

And slowed down, until I would just hold down the pedal on the piano, strike notes, and then let them decay into silence over a long, long time, with the strings in deep, reverberant sympathetic resonance, harmonic partials rising and falling like waves on a deep, deep lake. Single pieces drifted on currents through minutes into hours, live gigs turned into four-hour meditations, and I felt like I was finally moving at the pace of the dreams I had about what sound was for.

"I listened to the CD you gave me," she said, smiling, "and I think you might have taken my advice to slow down a little too seriously. It's good stuff, though. Very restful."

"Thank you," I said, and the validation from my former teacher brought a flush of warmth.

"Don't tell your mother where you bought this motorcycle, though. You better not crash on this thing, or your mother will hunt me down."

We laughed, and after a time, I climbed onto my new-to-me light touring bike with panniers and two thousand five hundred and three miles on the odometer, and I headed off into the afternoon.

I am perhaps the slowest motorcyclist on the road, but I prefer to think of myself as an ambient rider. I slow down, the strings of code chattering on the wires of my nerves catch up with my senses and my pool of skill, and the world unrolls and billows around me like waves on a deep, deep lake.
posted by sonascope at 10:58 AM on August 11, 2014 [11 favorites]

Elvis's Guitar Broke Down Friday.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:34 AM on August 11, 2014

I've often thought how sad it is that so many music teachers don't seem to be able to remind their students why they're having to endure all these fingering exercises and scales and arpeggios and so on. How sad that they don't say things like "Remember, the drudgery of learning exercise X is necessary for giving you the technique to achieve fluidity and lyricism when playing Y." Instead it's an unremitting litany of everything the student is doing wrong (which of course is necessary, but still...), and Welcome to the summer during which you will learn to hate me, and on and on until all enthusiasm for playing is crushed out of the student's soul.

I had one or two teachers that did have ways of reminding me why I was doing this, but most of them didn't; and meanwhile most of everything else in my life - family, school, other teachers, middle-class culture - was telling me I was a fool for pursuing music in the first place (even though it was literally the one thing in my life I felt passionate about). The result was that of course I really couldn't ever "be a musician", because I took their negative feedback to heart and didn't put enough effort into the task to get anywhere. Self-fulfilling prophecy. Decades later I'm still wrestling with those old mental recordings and finding it hard to put in the time and psychic energy required to develop the skills that will let me reproduce what I hear in my head. Even though that's still one of the few things in my life that gives me joy.

Word to the wise: Prospective teachers, don't forget to cultivate your students' enthusiasm. Students, never forget why you wanted to be a musician in the first place. Even if you don't end up making a career of music, there's thousands of ways to have fun with it throughout your life. That's the other thing teachers don't often tell their students, that the pursuit of music is profoundly worthwhile regardless of whether you make money at it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:47 AM on August 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

That story was heartbreaking. I studied piano as a child, I blazed through Bartok's Mikrokosmos and then alongside it, basic Bach, and then one day when I was on a family vacation, I mangled the middle finger on my right hand, almost severing it. The End.
This week I am housesitting for some musicians, they have a wonderful piano. I recently uncovered my old Mikrokosmos books, so I figured I would take a crack at them and see if I could start over from the beginning. Maybe my adult musical sensibilities could help me through my total lack of dexterity. And I can even find an expert performance of the exercises online, I can set it next to the sheet music and play along to YouTube.
I worked through a few exercises, I was surprised to discover I still had a bit of muscle memory of the keys. Since I had a recording, I could almost play them by ear. It was both easier, and far more difficult than I expected. I developed a new found respect for what I had tried to do as a child, and failed. But listening to Mikrokosmos brings me to tears. Even in a positive key, the melodies are so sad and wistful, they seem like a reverie of a life I once lived and can never return to.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:14 PM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nothing brings back painful childhood memories like the Certificate of Merit.
posted by malocchio at 12:59 PM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by mothershock at 2:45 PM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've taught piano lessons off and on through the years, mostly to neighbors' kids and friends, etc... one student I had was a 9-year-old named Sara. She was really struggling with technique and absolutely didn't want to practice. She was losing sight of the joy of music.

I tried numerous ways to motivate her: stickers, candy, music-games on the computer, learning to play a favorite Disney song...but the one that I found really stuck with her was when I told her that I would teach her how to improvise.

To introduce her to this concept, I let her play that old duet-chestnut "Heart and Soul", with me on the bass notes. This was very exciting to her, because hey! I know that! (everybody it seems knows that one, to the chagrin of music teachers and piano store clerks everywhere). Then I impressed her by playing both parts of the duet by myself (it's trivially easy for an experienced pianist to do this). Then I really wowed her by turning it into a minor-key jazz inflected improv piece. She was completely thrilled by this. I said:

"You can do that too, Sara. If you want. I can teach you how to do that."

She nodded enthusiastically. We made the deal: if she practiced regularly and passed off the lessons as arranged, we would set aside the latter half of our lessons to learning techniques of improvisation. These special times, these "reward lessons" I explained, were not about rules or theory or technique in the strictest sense. Instead they were about freedom to express your thoughts within a limited range, going step-by-step through a series creative goals that would strengthen some aspect of her listening, coordination, rhythmic sense, or creative thinking.

Lessons were very different after that. She was extremely motivated and I rarely had to reinforce practicing since that time. Eventually they moved and I'm not sure how her lessons are going now, but I hope she was able to retain some of that creative spark to stay motivated through all the lessons in the years to come.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:37 PM on August 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Metronome! You need an outside policeman every time the inner policeman breaks down

Sigh. I heard the virtues of the metronome extolled frequently during music lessons of my childhood. Seven years of lessons...

All these years later, I sometimes run with a clip on metronome when I'm struggling to keep an even pace. It's still my policeman doing its unrelenting pock pock pock. The metronome is still a cruel mistress.
posted by 26.2 at 5:33 PM on August 11, 2014

Thank you, Lutoslawski, for posting this. It brings back memories of my own piano lessons, of my attempts at teaching piano, and some other, non-musical teaching I have done.

I took lessons for ten years. I was good. I was very good. Not so much as a soloist, but as an accompanist, which I did constantly. Still, I was always the last performer at my teacher's Christmas recital, and she always had some terribly showy arrangement of a Christmas song for me to play. Her big idea, I suppose, was to show the parents of younger, less-advanced students what wonders she could work if only their little dears would practice.

I thought about going into music when I went to college, but I loved music and knew that there were people who no longer loved it after four years of advanced study. Words and I have made a peace I don't think I could have accomplished with notes.

I haven't played for years. Fibromyalgia set in, and I had to choose between keyboards: the one I enjoyed, or the one where I was earning my daily bread. (Thus, also, went the guitar.) But this article reminded me of when I played and how much I did love it.
posted by bryon at 12:49 AM on August 12, 2014

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