Thursday, November 01, 2007

The teacher retaught.


At 2:23 p.m., I was standing outside her house, uncertain of what to do. "The street is shaped like an L," she'd written, "and my house is the white one in the corner, with the hedge." I had imagined it would be in the opposite part of the corner; I had forgotten that houses here are almost never detached and that I thus would not be looking for a single white building. There was only one white building with a hedge. I walked up the block, trying to kill another few minutes and my nervousness.

It was low-level nervousness, I'm glad to say. I kept reminding myself: you are a student. You are not here to perform. You are here to learn. And if you don't like her, you don't have to come back. As I turned around and began walking toward her house again, I realized that finding a piano teacher might be like finding a therapist: I might not match up with the first person I tried. I might have to gather more recommendations, try more people.

As I stepped into the hedge, I could hear the sound of a piano. I was in the right place after all. I stepped to the door and stood for another couple of minutes. At 2:29, I rang.

The woman who will be teaching me piano until August came to the door, showed me into her living room, invited me to sit at her beautiful grand, fetched out the two pieces of music I'd told her I could probably still play, even after eighteen years. But before we began, she asked about my history with the instrument, about my motives for coming back to it. She wondered aloud whether guilt at having quit was part of my return. I told her no, filled her in on the things I've already told you. We talked about sight-reading, particularly, and I realized all the more forcefully how much different it is to learn when you know how to ask the right questions. I will think about this issue more before I return to Gambier: how do we help students learn to ask the right questions about what they do not know? How do we teach them to ask for a piece of knowledge or a skill that will fill in a gap? First one has to be able to see the gap. I was able to explain how frustrating it is not to know how to make my way through an unfamiliar piece of music.

She had me play a scale. I played with both hands, my fingers falling right back to the correct fingerings, the ways to add a second octave, where the beat falls, how the fingers curl and push and rest. As soon as I was finished, I knew I was with a teacher. "I can see so much about your history just in that scale," she said, just the way I might read and respond to a student's diagnostic writing. "You have strong fingers, and none of them is particularly longer than the others: these are good fingers for the piano. Your form is excellent. You're putting the beat at exactly the right place. You obviously remember your fingering. I can tell that you must have been quite accomplished when you were younger." None of this sounded like flattery as she said it aloud. It sounded like frank appraisal, and a statement of confidence that, in fact, I have the potential to learn and to develop again under her tutelage. "Now play it again," she said, "and be more aggressive with the instrument. You're being timid, and I know why. But give it some volume." And I did, and it was wonderful. It was better than returning to something that I used to love. It was being told not to criticize, not to be afraid to trip up.

When she asked me to play a C minor scale, I couldn't do it. Now I look it up; now I see what it should have been. Even on the walk home, I was figuring it out. But this: this is what slipped away in those 18 years.

When she put Beethoven in front of me and asked me to start playing, I was more careful than I've ever been not to let my memory do my work for me. And what I found was that I could pay attention to more than I thought I could: I could watch the fingerings and follow them, rather than just doing what I remembered from long ago. At the first stopping point, she stopped me and began disassembling the piece--not just separating my hands, but peeling back the measures so that I could see the harmonic structures under lines I've known more than half my life. "Play it again," she'd say. We talked about dynamics, emotion, where a crescendo should come, how a decrescendo should start.

Her next pupil rang the doorbell.

We made a plan: regenerate this piece that I used to know and love so well, but regenerate it from the inside out, looking for the structures Beethoven uses. In all my years of lessons, I don't remember ever having close-read my music, ever having learned how to do the equivalent of formal analysis.

And the best of all, better even than being told that the amount I've retained after nearly two decades is impressive, was to be encouraged to think about the pieces I'd love to learn to play. This, too, was never the way when I was young. I played from a set book; we went piece by piece, building up and up and up. When it came time to leave the set book behind, my teacher chose my music; for the last two years before I bailed altogether, none of the things she suggested were suited to my taste or to my pre-teen fingers. But when I told my teacher that I want to learn the Goldberg Variations eventually, she didn't tell me I was crazy. When I told her that I want to work on this Beethoven piece again, she told me which edition of the music to buy: the Urtext. "We don't want editorial interference," she explained. "We want to get as close as possible to the author's intent."

Editorial theory at the piano. My heart sang all over again, sang as it had been singing from the moment I touched the keys, even when I made mistakes and flinched as if I'd been scorched. ("Don't worry," she said. "Don't worry. Play it again.")

When I returned home, having walked, it seems, all over Cambridge today--for my teacher lives nearly three miles away--the Verlag edition of the Urtext of Beethoven's Sonatas (volume 2) was in the crook of my arm, and I was still smiling.

It seemed only fitting that in both my coming and my going, graffitoed figures sang heartsongs, too.

5 Comments:

Anonymous The Mother said...

Oh,joy! How wonderful for you!!

4:09 PM, November 01, 2007  
Blogger four inches of ego said...

But can you play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?"

And hooray for your fingers!!!

12:14 PM, November 02, 2007  
Blogger Gryphon said...

How utterly beautiful! I'm so glad that you've rediscovered your music, and found a gifted teacher on the first try. I hope to hear you play!

1:44 PM, November 02, 2007  
Blogger Poking-Stick Man said...

Ah, but I suspect that you'll never be able to bring the kind of dirge-like quality that I do to such pieces as "Three Blind Mice." For in my rendition, the blindness of the mice figures forth the arbitrary nature of suffering in the universe -- and it is signified by painfully slow playing and rhythmic irregularity.

7:02 PM, November 02, 2007  
Blogger Dr. S said...

But I can dream, man. I can dream.

7:10 PM, November 02, 2007  

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