You can tune a piano but…

Mike Lawson • August 2009 • August 5, 2009

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…you can’t tuna fish. So goes that stale, old joke that is nevertheless ever new in my world. I work with beginning band students, and for most of them, it’s fresh and still quite funny. But while working with beginners carries with it the opportunity to incessantly recycle old jokes and instructional anecdotes to ageless success; localizing one’s career to beginner band jobs does have its drawbacks as well. “Sending them on” to their blue horizons can touch a director’s soul in curious ways.

For instance, one of my clarinet students is moving on to study with a new private lesson teacher, one who is recommended by the high school she’ll be attending. Its elite and competitive music program offers very little advancement opportunity to a student who does not follow prescribed channels, and this instructor is one of those channels. Cassandra feels somewhat guilty for leaving her more rudimentary lessons with me and going to a more accomplished instructor, but I encouraged her to go wholeheartedly into this new era of study. How do I convince her to not feel bad about this change? Right now the music halls of her future are still just bare stages. She doesn’t know much yet about the parade of personalities she’ll meet as she begins to “swim” in that world.

Speaking very generally, she and her mother drew some conclusions after her first lesson, stating briefly the impressions made by the woman who is Cassandra’s new instructor. Their comments offered the following information: this new teacher is arrogant; however, she’s arrogant because she has a legitimately weighty resume. That resume details her studies at the best music schools, followed by a lifetime of performance work, and not just on clarinet, but on other instruments as well.

I learned that she likes to use the idea of teaching clarinet from the same perspective that prompts that metaphor about teaching a man to fish so he’ll eat for a lifetime, rather than simply giving him a fish so he can eat for a day. As best I understood it, this metaphor explained her rationale for extracting technical instruction and making it the sole material for private lesson work, removing all focus from the study of clarinet literature. She considers her job to be best defined as teaching the nuances of physical skills, no matter that they are isolated from specific musical application. With good technique, any piece can be played well. I confess I learned all this second-hand, so I may be misinterpreting her priorities in pedagogy. And my young student may only be receiving what will be but a first stage of many in this teacher’s instructional method, but my reflections on this teacher’s initial approach sent my thoughts back to my own days of being “taught” to play the flute, long before I became the band director for scores of beginners over the years.

When I was Cassandra’s same age, my own junior high band director referred me on to a “higher level” instructor, too. Amy, another girl who was a year ahead of me in the same band program, had been referred to higher level instruction the prior year, so I expected to be sent to the same teacher who was teaching her, but Mr. Church referred me to a different teacher. Why? I wondered. Mr. Church sent me to Brinkman, a teacher of whom I’d never heard and who lived farther away than Evans, the man who taught my friend. Why not send me, like Amy, to study with Evans? He had certainly impressed me as I could hear Amy’s great facility when she played. Did I not show as much potential as Amy? Did I not deserve as “good” an instructor?

So I screwed up my courage, and I asked Mr. Church about it. He had a rather strange look in his eyes as he gave his answer. “I sent her to Evans and you to Brinkman because Amy plays from her body, while you play from your soul.” He considered that to be answer enough.

It took a long time for it to be answer enough, but eventually his wisdom shone sun-bright into my playing, because I did study with Brinkman. She taught me whatever degree of musical facility I had in the context of experiencing the heart of some of the greatest historical works available for my instrument. Mr. Church was right: if I hadn’t had the music itself as the underlying driving force, I would not have cared two cents about the development of physical skills. Those skills had to become necessary to me because I needed them if I was to perform the music because doing the piece justice was the greatest desire of my heart. With that context of application ever before me, any effort required of me felt worthwhile.

Now, if I were to give any parting words to my own young student, just in case those words could apply because I believe she, too, may be a player from the soul the words would be to offer her this follow-up to her new teacher’s metaphor:

“Cassandra, if the ‘fish’ are your skills, then don’t forget to consider why you’re going after them in the first place. Are you learning fly-casting or hiring that deep sea fishing guide because you want something exotic to mount on the wall for all to see? Or, do you simply love the taste of fish, and long to eat and serve your catch to others who also have a taste for fish? How much does it really have to do with you, the fisherman with you, the performer?

“But I believe it can go a little deeper even than simply learning fishing (or performing) skills. Mr. Church left performing behind him years before he taught me, but I’m incredibly grateful for the wisdom of old music teachers like him. They are people often hidden and hard to find, so if you find such teachers, Cassandra, count them as gifts, because what those teachers want for you, as a performer, is not fame for yourself, but that you learn to bring the music alive for its own sake. They know that you as a performer can take great joy in a technically perfect performance, but they also know that your greatest joy is not found in technical perfection alone. Your greatest joy as a performer is the swell of tears that form in the eyes of your listeners tears that spring not from awe at your magnificence, but rather from awe at the beauty of the moment you have just given them, a moment of magic. Only then have you presented the soul of a piece of music with purity, and nothing parallels the glory of such a moment for either the listener or the performer! These rare ones in the world of pedagogy will remind you that the fish and the fisherman must first be one in their love of the sea, as are the student and the teacher in their love of the music.

“So just remember, Cassandra, that every type of fisherman has his or her place. The important thing is discovering which type you are going to be and staying true to your nature. Mr. Church always said to our band, ‘The piece isn’t ready until you give me goose bumps when you play it.’ If we never moved him to experience those goose bumps, then he assessed that we hadn’t learned the soul of the piece, and so we wouldn’t perform it. We hadn’t earned the privilege of public performance. With him, it was always about the music. As long as the music stays larger than your technique, Cassandra, you’ll never be bored with your study, and you’ll never be satisfied with anything less than what it demands. It wants more than glib metaphors; it deserves more.”

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