I recently attended a master class featuring young pianists, all gifted “superstar” types who, more than likely, are frequent entrants and often winners in area competitions. They all played advanced repertoire and played it remarkably well. One of the performers in this class was a 10-year-old boy playing the first movement of a Beethoven sonata at an enviable tempo, and never missing a note — and the audience loved it!
Following his performance, the master teacher enthusiastically praised him. Then he said that he would like to offer just a few suggestions for the Development section and he asked the student to begin there. Dead silence! The young boy just sat there staring at him with a “deer-in-the-headlights” look. It was clear that he was totally unaware of what or where the “Development section” was and so the master teacher had to show him. As the session progressed, it became apparent that not only did this student not understand sonata-allegro form, but he was also unaware of a number of other very basic things about the piece. For example, how many main ideas does the composer “expose” in the Exposition? Do they also appear in the Development, and if so, in what form? What do performance cues such as Allegro, ma non troppo mean? The student also lacked basic theoretical knowledge of the piece’s melodic and harmonic structure, and most important of all, he seemed unclear about what message and mood he thought the music was designed to convey.
Even though this student had been expertly trained to deal with the technical demands of this sonata, if his study of it did not also produce an understanding of things such as those above, did he really know the piece? Most of us would agree that the primary performance goal for the study of any piece is to be able to project its musicality. In my opinion, this always involves going beyond the notes and should actually begin with the teacher’s initial presentation of the piece at the lesson. The latter would include:
1) hearing a performance of the piece (hopefully, a “live” one!), and discussing what it’s about (its title, style, expressive elements, overall character, etc.),
2) an analysis of its formal structure and marking and labeling its main parts (A-B-A, coda, etc.), and
3) an analysis of its basic rhythmic, melodic and harmonic structure and how each of these elements will affect the performer’s musical interpretation.
As students work on their pieces, an understanding of things such as those listed above will certainly facilitate the learning process so that the focus in both practice and at the lesson can shift off of mechanics and on to musicality as soon as possible.
Sponsors of competitive performance events could do much to encourage preparation which goes beyond the notes if the contest’s entry requirements specified that in addition to accuracy, secure memorization, and technical expertise, students will also be expected to have a general knowledge of basic things about the music they select to perform, and that the audition itself will include an informal quiz about some of these things. Surely it’s not unreasonable to expect that the preparation of contest winners will indeed have included the acquisition of such information.
Food for thought:
The tremendous influence of technology on today’s piano students provides a major challenge for those of us who teach music. Via the Internet, students have access to endless hours of amusement, recreational activities, visual and aural stimuli, and miscellaneous information about almost everything. They are conditioned to believe that all they have to do is turn on the computer, go to the Internet, click the mouse, and voilà! The whole world is at their fingertips. However, there are some things that the Internet cannot do. It cannot create a “live” musical performance. Nor can it deliver the personal satisfaction that can result from this experience. So our challenge as teachers is to be sure that our students’ music education goes beyond the Internet and always includes an ongoing journey beyond the notes which reveals the essence of the music itself. May their performances not only demonstrate a mastery of the keyboard, but also a clear differentiation between robotics and artistry in music-making!
About Elvina Pearce
Elvina Pearce studied piano in NYC with Isabelle Vengerova (whose students included Samuel Barber, Gary Graffman and Leonard Bernstein). Her concert career is highlighted by a solo appearance with the Chicago Symphony and recitals at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Elvina was a long-time pedagogy student of Frances Clark in Princeton, NJ where she served on the piano faculty of Westminster Choir College, and was also one of the founding faculty members of the New School for Music Study and the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy. Upon moving to the Midwest, for 14 years she taught piano and pedagogy and directed the Preparatory Piano Division at Northwestern University. As a resident of the western Chicago suburb of Naperville, she also taught at North Central College where she founded and directed its Division of Preparatory and Community Music. From 2000-2006, Elvina was Editor-in-Chief of Keyboard Companion Magazine. She has presented workshops, master classes, and recitals in more than 40 states as well as in Canada, the Republic of China, and Australia, and has also received national recognition as a composer of educational piano pieces. A brand new collection, Pictures in Sound, has just been released by FJH Music Publishers.
In 2008, Elvina was named as an MTNA Foundation Fellow, and in 2011, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy in recognition of her more than a half a century of dedicated service to music- teaching and music- making. In the Spring of 2014, she will be inducted into the Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame which publicly recognizes individuals who have received national/international acclaim for their achievements in the arts.