Performance - A Teaching Obligation

October 31, 1993

Often I leave a concert experiencing feelings of both amusement and annoyance. This mixture of emotions stems from what I sometimes think is a double standard. The post-performance comments I typically hear invariably center around how the music was interpreted: "I thought she really played the second movement beautifully," or, "The tempo he took for the Beethoven was ridiculously fast." Rarely is the music itself addressed. That's to be expected, I suppose. After all, the music cannot and should not be separated from the performance; if nothing else, this state of affairs brings home just how critical the role of the performer really is. In recognizing the pivotal obligation performers have, we justifiably target our educational efforts towards instilling those concepts that will ultimately, we trust, produce informed performances -- performances that are not only stylistically knowledgeable and authentic, but also individually shaped and interpretatively convincing. Moreover, we are certainly all aware that as the performer changes, grows, and reevaluates, so does the performance. Indeed, if the interpretation doesn't change, we might even have reason to become suspect. As Billie Holiday put it: "I can't stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession. If you can, then it ain't music; it's close order drill or exercise or yodelling or something, but it's not music."

Fair enough. But I sometimes wonder if we recognize to the same extent, the right -- in fact, the similar obligation -- of the teacher to produce informed performances in the classroom, and with the same type of conviction and constant reevaluation of materials that we legitimately demand of concert performers. Of course, it is absolutely essential that the body of materials we as teachers must impart to our students be done accurately, as a foundation from which both they and we can grow. But I would argue that it is the very presentation of whatever those facts or ideas are that frequently sticks even longer than the materials themselves. Indeed, if I can speak of exiting concertgoers discussing how a score was interpreted by the performer, then I must confess also that I just as frequently hear students leaving a class debating the merits of how the instructor dealt with a specific topic, rather than addressing the topic itself. Could it be that the teacher's performance in the classroom transcends the lesson, and perhaps even becomes the lesson?

As performers, we may listen to recordings either as paragons to emulate, or perhaps as examples to be dismissed. Either way, in listening, we learn. Like wise, teachers serve as models whose interpretation or presentation of an idea will surely strike individuals differently. Students may choose to follow or reject our specific views, but, one way or another, they will have to decide. Here I think of the simple yet eloquently expressed words of Virginia Woolf: "I have no model in mind to turn this way and that" (A Room of One's Own , 1929) She was referring to history's failure over the years to publish the writings of countless female writers -- writers who might have served her well as models. Just as importantly, her metaphorical turning of these models "this way and that" should ring a bell with any performer, any teacher, any interpreter. Woolf recognized the need to see things from different angles, through different sides of a prism. She knew that in learning, we must consider things from diverse and changing perspectives. Perhaps as performers we should, too -- both in the concert hall and in the classroom.

2224 Last modified on May 7, 2013
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