One of the curses of the competition mentality is that it forces talented young players to present fully groomed interpretations early on. There is no time for experimentation, for exploring dead-ends, for making mistakes, for trying daring or outrageous options. In short, the student has to sound like a (usually boring) CD as soon as possible. My teacher, Gordon Green, used to say to me: “My dear boy, forget about competitions. I don’t care how you sound now, it’s how you will sound in ten years time that interests me”.
This quote gives the Independent Piano Teacher some very good advice. Perfectionist personalities, which certainly are not unknown in our profession, need to take note of the path we map out for our students as they begin to scale Parnassus, that lofty mountain range in central Greece that was, according to mythology, sacred to Apollo and the Muses; and today is symbolic of the journey to artistic excellence.
One day an elderly woman knocked at my studio door and gave me some old worn copies of the music of her youth. Glancing through her collection I sensed going back to a different age and time. My eye spotted a yellowed and wrinkled copy of a tome I’ve, up to that time, only read about – the famous Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus) by Muzio Clementi. As I carefully paged through the aged book I was not only transported back in time by each of the torn corners; but also by the musty smell that rose to my nostrils. This volume was probably not opened for decades. Gradus ad Parnassum taught pianists of the late 18th and earth 19 centuries how to reach the summit of piano performance, Parnassus. If you remember, even the great Mozart was deemed technically inferior to Clementi when these two went head to head in a pianistic duel. On this count we must give Clementi his due. And we must also take note to his path to the summit of technical mastery given in hisGradus ad Parnassum.
Today’s scaling of Parnassus is centuries removed from Clementi yet we have a lingering nostalgia of that historic time. Even though piano technique has vastly changed since Mozart and Clementi’s time this book of exercises still has a great historical interest. Clementi’s image of scaling Parnassus is a very useful metaphor for all those who embark of a journey of musical and technical excellence. This metaphor brings with it a broad panoramic and sweeping image of a long and arduous journey. The trap for the piano teacher today is to take that lingering nostalgia and its broad panoramic view and to apply it myopically to our teaching tasks.
Essentially, what we do is to take a binocular view of our Gradus an Parnassum only we look through our binoculars backwards. The broad panoramic view is perfectly discernible but totally miniaturized. We see perfection in miniature. We teach in a manner that applies perfection not to reaching Parnassus but to view every step, every pebble, every blade of grass, every weed as needing perfection because we become so accustomed to looking through our binoculars backwards. This is why the opening quote is so meaningful. Stephen Hough’s teacher had the broad vision of Parnassus still in view in his comment …
My dear boy, forget about competitions. I don’t care how you sound now, it’s how you will sound in ten years time that interests me”.
I think if we give due weight to this panoramic view we can make some significant changes in our teaching that will actually shorten the scaling of Parnassus. Yet, as the quote suggests, so much can be learned when we don’t demand perfection at every point. Much can be learned by experimenting with interpretive ideas that eventually do NOT work. Have a student work on a tempo that’s too fast. Have the student discover for himself what this tempo will require by giving him. Allow the student a few weeks of trying to discover what this quicker tempo will do to the interpretation. These “dead ends” will be very instructive when future interpretive decisions need to be thought through.
Here are some thoughts in keeping the broad panoramic view in scaling pianistic Parnassus …
Choose pieces with the goal of building skills instead of performance perfection.
There is so much material available that one shouldn’t waste time on any composition that a student is not enthusiastic about. A piece may be an excellent piece to teach staccato, but if a student isn’t enthusiastic about the composition you are going to find several staccato pieces in the near future that the student will enjoy where you can give the student good instruction to execute staccato correctly. The awareness of the task and some basic instruction is sufficient.
If a student has never worked on a composition that requires different touches from each hand it’s very important to find one or more pieces that require this technical task. So much “educational” material is written with performance in mind that pieces designed for building skills takes a back seat. Teachers that have Parnassus in the forefront of their thoughts will not look at new compositions simply for their “performance” value but will also be giving great attention to a pieces value at building pianistic and musical skills.
Both Rome and scaling Parnassus isn’t done in a day so perfection can wait. Begin to look out of those binoculars from the correct side.
Take time. Subtlty is learned panoramically.
I think method books throw some concepts at students far too quickly. One such concept is that of dynamic gradations. Don’t move students into mezzo piano or mezzo forte until they can produce a solid forte and a controlled piano AT WILL. It’s wasted time to teach subtle gradations when basics are not thoroughly mastered.
Analyze the notes used when first introducing a new musical concept.
Again, method books, in their rush to get all the bases covered often give too many editorial markings to make it musically more interesting TO THE TEACHER’S TRAINED EAR. There will often be many crescendos or diminuendos in a score. FIRST choose crescendos that are most easily executed. I find that five finger scale passages are the easiest and most logically ordered for a successful first exposure for the beginning student.
Repeated sequence passages are also among easier to execute successfully. Ostinato passages are also rather easy to give interest and dynamic shape.
After a student has mastered these more basic executions; THEN something more difficult may be explored. Don’t be dictated by editors or composers by throwing too much sophistication at a student not yet prepared.
In the composition ENIGMA, to your left (click on hypertext to see in Adobe Reader); to students that are rhythmically able I will add accents on the final beat of measures 1, 3 and 5. This accent gives a new character to the composition and makes the piece more interesting. I don’t hesitate to do this to any piece (except for master composers) if the student is ready for the added sophistication.
Choose recital and audition songs wisely.
The main thing we look for in choosing a recital or audition piece is it’s attractiveness. Certainly this is of prime importance but it’s not of SOLE IMPORTANCE. Take into account other issues.
- How much lesson time is this going to take? I personally do not like choosing selections that max out the student. I often find that if a student learns a piece that is too difficult that they want their next piece to even be MORE difficult. This is a very very bad precedent to begin. There’s plenty of time to scale Parnassus. TAKE IT!! Keep the journey fascinating and keep the ascent gradual and the goals attainable. Make EVERY PIECE intriguing and keep their mind totally stimulated as to what each piece represents musically, historically, theoretically and technically.
- Does this piece in some way help us scale Parnassus? I’ve so often been to workshops and with great pride have often heard the clinician comment – This piece makes the student sound better than what he/she is! Again, don’t make this the only criteria for choosing a recital or audition selection. If you’re going to spent extra time in learning a composition it MUST have purposes grander than the student will look better than their true attainment. Keep Parnassus in view. Make sure the extra time will be spent attaining goals that move your student forward to greater accomplishment. Don’t be taken by superficiality. Remember clinicians are there to sell you music which is fine, but keep your teacher hat fully attached too. You are at the clinic to help your students reach their Parnassus.