Monthly Archives: November 2005

Frustration: A "Good Thing"

Sometimes we think its some sort of problem when we get frustrated with our playing.

If all we ever get is frustrated, I agree, that’s a problem. (And not an uncommon problem for serious classical muscians.) But being frustrated a good deal of the time is, as Marha Stewart might say, “a good thing.”

I was talking about this the other day with one of my adult cello students, who by profession is a top piano tuner and technician (he tunes for major symphony orchestras and touring artists). He told me that every so often he’ll find he’s upset with himself. All of a sudden, it seems like every piano he tunes is a little off. “What’s happening to me?” he asks himself.

But he’s come to realize that it’s not that his tuning skills are declining. It’s his ears that are getting (even) better. He’s discerning increasingly finer gradations of pitch. Now he knows that when he feels as if he can’t tune a piano, what’s actually happening is that he’s having a breakthrough.

Whenever we raise our standards, our playing no longer reaches our standards. It can feel as if we are getting worse.

This happens a lot when students come to study music in college. All of a sudden, they encounter a new set of expectations. New dimensions of technique and musicianship are introduced to them, aspects of music they simply were unaware of before. It’s overwhelming, and as their own expectations forthemselves rise, it can seem as if their playing has suddenly gotten dramatically worse.

I had to remind myself of this today. I’ve been doing a lot of practicing against drones, listening as carefully as possible to the pitches are (or aren’t) lining up. It felt for a while as if I had lost some of my ability to play. And then I realized that I was listening more carefully,and being more demanding of myself. (Really careful intonation practice of any kind can drive anyone, even the best professional musicians, nuts.)

And once I realized that the frustration I was experiencing, the difference between what I was expecting of myself and what I was hearing, was a sign not of decreasing but increasing skill, I was able to stop being angry with and a little worried about myself, and rather happily embrace the frustration as, well, “a good thing.”

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Can You Hear the Difference? (Moving, Part II)

I’ve received some interesting comments on my “To Move Or Not to Move” post (just below). Obviously there are many of us who move more when playing solo than when in an orchestra.

I know one young string quartet which despite being off to a great start, having won a major competition, getting plenty of concerts, and having a fairly well-paid residency at a big graduate school, broke up. One of the main reasons was that the first violinist was a mover in extremis. (I’m just guessing that’s the Latin for “in the extreme.”) I loved this guy’s playing, but I can understand how it might drive the other players nuts–he’d be half-standing at times. It may be that he was self-induldgent in other ways, too, that made it frustrating to work with him.

The quartet had other challenges. One memeber hated travelling and used to say to my then-wife and I, “I just want to be able to stay home and cook spaghetti in my own kitchen.” Of course, we would have happily traded our envied kitchen and all our pasta to be in such a seemingly successful group.

Back to the writhing violinist of the quartet. It didn’t bother me. Lots of people complain about the way the great pianist Menahem Pressler (of the Beauz Arts Trio) moves about and makes faces. So what? Just shut your eyes if you don’t like looking at the guy.

Which brings me to another point. A reader asks the question: if you shut your eyes, can you tell the difference between someone who moves a lot and someone who doesn’t?

I don’t think so. Now that it’s going on twenty years since Jascha Heifetz passed away, some students (not serious violin students so much as less serious violin students and those playing other instruments) know that he was famous for his stoic appearance and lack of visible expression while playing. Listen to his recordings, and you hear an extraordinary passion, excitement, imagination, and range of feeling. The kids who haven’t heard of him before are surprised to hear he was once criticized for supposedly cold, unfeeling performances. How can anyone playing with such red-hot intensity not have moved?

Lynn Harrell, about whom I wrote in my previous post, doesn’t move much and there’s tremendous passion, imagination and feeling which comes through in his playing. (His Dvorak moved my 17-year-old son to tears. That’s my boy!) Jacqueline DuPre moved all over the place, and that incredible emotional identification comes through in recordings.

I read an article a long time ago (I don’t remember where) in which a prominent orchestral musician said that when he sees someone moving around a lot in an orchestra audition, he’d close his eyes and see if he could hear the emotion. Usually he couldn’t.

That’s an important point. Writhing around can be a (poor) substitute for putting the feeling in the music.

I’ll stick by one of my main points in the last post. Some of us are movers and some aren’t. Could DuPre have produced the same musical effect had she forced herself to adopt a Heifetzian reserve? Could Yo Yo? I doubt it. As a matter of fact, I’m convinced they couldn’t.

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To Move or Not to Move?

To move or not to move (when playing), that is the question. Should one be physically demonstrative when playing or not? Is the question one of philosophy or is it perhaps one of physiology?

Some of my DePauw students, my son and his girlfriend, and I went to the Indianapolis Symphony on Friday night. An all-American first half was followed after intermission by the Dvorak Concerto with Harrell as soloist.

Harrell is one of the most amazing cellists of all time, of course. His technical control and huge sound are almost without peer. He has an enormous range of sound colors, including the ability to create melodic pianos and pianissimos that project powerfully.

I had heard him play the Haydn D Major concerto with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood in August, just a week after hearing Yo-Yo Ma play the Barber concerto. They are such different players! Yo-Yo moves a lot, of course, and embodies the music in a whole-person manner as no one else. Perhaps Leonard Berstein was the last classical performer to so totally become the music. Yo-Yo’s technical command is amazing as well, and he plays on this level without ever (or “hardly ever”) looking at the fingerboard. Harrell, on the other hand, moves very little, looks at his left hand quite a bit, and yet is as deeply expressive as Yo-Yo.

Were Yo-Yo to try to move as little as Harrell, or were Harrell to try to move as much as Yo-Yo, I imagine neither would play as well. Some of us are movers, some of us aren’t. It is important when making music to surrender yourself to the process of making music and to honor your own personality and way of physically responding to music.

At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if full-time soloists who had a significant early career as an orchestral player tend to move a lot less. When you spend a good chunk of time in an orchestra, as did Harrell, you are trained not to be physically demonstrative. Orchestra culture is not kind to people who move a lot when they play. Janos Starker, who prides himself on the emotion being in the sound and not in his physical presence, also had a distinguished career as an orchestral player. Perhaps the two most physically extroverted cellosts of the 20th century were Jacqueline duPre and Yo-Yo Ma. Each a solo career from their teenage years, and neither had to fit themselves into an orchestral culture.

Would Harrell and Starker move more if they had never been full-time orchestral players? We’ll never know. I don’t know if I even care. But it is an interesting coincidence to notice.

I tend to move a lot when I play, at least on some occasions. I certainly don’t do it when I am playing in an orchestra, and I try to minimize it when paying chamber music. It is natural for me, and I often find I play better when I let my body be free. I feel music very strongly in my body. I love moving to music, and if I could live my life over, I might chose to become a dancer. (Oy! If there is a harder path to follow and make a living than classical music, it’s dancing.)

Classical musicians can debate and argue forever about whether one should or shouldn’t move and physically emote. Philosophies are articulated, camps form and, in the great tradition of classical music, denigrate each other. A friend to me she once played in a master class for Starker, who after seeing her physical involvement in the music made the curt and to her hurtful comment, “I was put on this earth to eradicate cellists like you.” And I’ve been at master classes where other teachers shamed players for not moving.

A high degree of theatricality can be used to try and compensate for a lack of technical skill. I’m not recommending that. Nor is it healthy to exaggerate one’s movements simply to draw attention to one’s self.

It seems pretty clear, though, that some people, when playing at their best and most authentic and most dedicated and surrendered to the music, move, and need to move to play their best. It is something deeply related to the way the player physiologically responds to music. Others don’t, and perhaps can’t move a lot even were they to want to.

It’s not a matter of right or wrong, it’s a matter of who one is.

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A Wonderful Piano Recital in Tampa

I’m in Tampa, Florida this evening, staying with my parents. My mother, Judith Edberg, is the piano professor at the University of Tampa. Well past the traditional retirment age of 65 (although she looks as though she is much younger than that), she continues to regularly perform, add works to her repertoire, and develop new courses.

What a fantastic inspiration! She played an all-Gershwin program Sunday afternon on the magnificant 9-foot Steinway in the university’s historic “Grand Salon.” The Three Preludes, six Gershwin songs arranged for solo piano by Gershwin himself, and the Rhapsody in Blue, accompanied by one of her colleagues, Tara Swartzbaugh, at the second piano. Tara studied piano many years ago with Florence Patterson, my mother’s mother (and my grandmother) in Royal Oak, Michigan, before becoming a piano major at the University of Tampa where she studied with my mother. Tara told the audience tha when she was in sixth grade, her parents took her to hear my mother perform Rhapsody in Blue with the Detroit-area Jewish Community Center Orchestra. She was quite awed, in that special way that only a serious student can be of an accomplished artist, and so, she told us, it was quite a special moment to now serve as the “orchestra.”

As far as I know, everything on the program except the Rhapsody was a first perfromance for Mom. That’s the way to be a college music professor: to keep growing and developing. That’s the way to be a human being in general, too.

My mother continues to play with great power, beautiful sound, wonderful musicality, and imagination and sensitivity. It was a beautiful afternoon.

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