On Being a Student of Music (The Inner Game)

      It is interesting to consider what it means to be a student of music our whole lives. The split between student and teacher, or performer and artist, complicates this consideration. There is an argument about whether Moyse was an artist or even a great teacher, and whether certain etudes are art or even valid teaching components. It is important to see the relationships between music and scales, sonatas and etudes, teacher and student, performer and listener, and artist and technician played out in this debate.

      Pablo Casals once said that every time he sat down at the cello he needed to find the E natural. To hear him play, you had to believe that he didn't always find it… yet there's something unparalleled in his unaccompanied Bach performances. If Moyse had his moments of dubious intonation, it likewise does not take away from his moments of interpretation or ability to share that perspective through his teaching. For those who take an artistic impression from that experience, he is an artist—end of discussion. As far as whether he should have also been a composer in order to be fully knowledgeable in his craft, there are many performances of pieces by flutist-composers given by non-composers that exceed the performances given by the composer. Interpretation, it seems, is therefore not predicated on the ability to compose.

      With the study of technique there is, of necessity, a lack of focus on the musical. Sometimes you may sing just the rhythm of a piece, which is a lack of focus on the tonal. But this doesn't impair your ability to play the melody, nor does it make you a slave to rhythm. So a technical approach won't impair your ability to be an artist—that is a separate thing. If we become slaves to mechanical performances of questionable musical selections, we do so for other reasons.

      The choosing of pieces to play presents a similar situation. Some etudes are scales, patterns and arpeggios—so even if you choose to practice them with emotion, they were not intended to be coherent pieces of music. Depending on the level of intention and emotion you bring to them, they could still be art for you (though I might not be interested in seeing them performed in concert). Other etudes, like the music of Andersen, are coherent little pieces of music to lesser and greater degrees.

      A piece of music allows for a third element: interpretation. Were someone to bring sufficient intention, emotion, and interpretation to Andersen No. 42, I would happily watch it in concert. It would therefore be art for them and for me, so it passes the bar. Apparently then, nobody gets to decide what art is—and everyone gets to decide! Were someone to come out and just play a C major scale and make a special moment out of it, then the C major scale would be art. Even all the "mindless" exercises could be artistic endeavors intrinsically dovetailed with the rest of our repertoires. So I don't see any value in an argument about whether or not Moyse is an artist or the Andersen 42 is art. No one is in charge of that ruling; everyone gets to be in charge of that ruling.

      Those who choose to learn from individuals who have distinct boundaries to their musical universes generally have their own boundaries and do not need to be convinced of their teachers’ points of view. In the more fluid way of sharing musical vantage points, there is still the same opportunity for the student to learn everything in the teacher’s system. There is also plenty of opportunity for the teacher to learn things in the students’ musical universe. This can lead to some of the most valuable moments of teaching. It is that dual role of listener, and that skill of listening to music, that makes one a better performer of music.

      When you teach, listening to your students, they share with you how they hear, what sounds really take them away, what pieces or performers they like. Many people are fine musicians in the way they listen to music, in the way they can hear the inner game of it. You never know when one of these people will pass your way—you have to be ready for it. Who knows, it might be one of your students.