The Performer as College Music Teacher

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Up to now we have thought of the performer-as-teacher in the following terms:

1) The performer is a person of special talents in playing, singing, conducting. These talents have been developed by unremitting discipline in practice and have been refined by years of performing before the public.

2) This person works with young people to help them to develop along the lines that he or she grew up on. He assigns them weekly lessons in performance, criticizes their work, prescribes musical and technical material necessary for their development.

3) The teacher-student relationship is one-to-one and often includes some personal advising and counseling.

I have no dispute with this system. I grew up in it and I am happy teaching in it. I am very happy that so many college music departments are taking it on. But I have also noticed this: so many performers I have made music with (in chamber music especially) have more to say about music than just how to play (and teach) their instruments. Their ideas on the interpretation of musical compositions, their ideas about values in given pieces, their analytical intuitions and insights are interesting and valuable.1

There are many performers now teaching in colleges who are multi-talented as teachers. I know of performers who are excellent analysts, performers who compose and conduct. Why shouldn't a performer be an excellent teacher of ear-training or of a general introduction-to-music course? Is there an unbridgeable gap between performance and scholarship? Charles Rosen is an outstanding individual, often pointed out as an exception among performers. In fact, I believe, he is an exception among musicologists also.

Performers in music departments can, in addition to taking over course teaching, function most harmoniously as collaborative teachers. At Stony Brook we have instituted three graduate level courses which are taught by two teachers, one a performer. They are: Performance-Practice of Baroque Music, Workshop in Composition and Performance, and Performance and Analysis. So far the results have been most stimulating.

In the baroque performance-practice course, some of the class sessions are rehearsals of baroque music held in the open, with comments coming from the students as well as the teachers. Embellishments, cadenzas, realizations of the figured bass, harmonic rhythms, hemiole, appoggiature, and so forth are not only topics to read about and speculate on, they are to be heard. The teacher-musicologist assigns readings in both baroque sources and also in modern scholarly writings dealing with the same topics. There is classroom discussion and writing of papers as well. The benefits of having performance approach are as great as the good that filters out in the other direction—that of enabling scholars to hear music come to life in performances which try to be true to the spirit of their own times.

The Workshop in Composition and Performance has similarly developed great interest and musical excitement. The enrollment is divided between composers and performers. To put it most simply, the student performers perform the music that the student composers compose. The composition teacher is there to guide the young composers and the performance teacher to guide the young performers, but comments cross freely over these boundary lines. We have found it desirable to exercise some control over the enrollment of the performing complement so as not to have all treble and no bass instruments, for example. But in fact, almost any mixture of instrumentalists can produce an interesting task for the composers. At the outset we found that it was best for the composers to write small sketches using sound effects, special fingerings, harmonics, multiphonics, extreme ranges and so forth. As the class continued, the composers took charge more and more. A particularly fruitful area was rhythmic ensemble, precise metrical modulation on the one hand and simultaneous cadenzas played aleatorically on the other. How good it is for composers and performers to have a collaborative relationship in contemporary music. How much the participants gain in hearing their work with the ears of the "other"!

The Workshop in Performance and Analysis is a fascinating course which tries to tell performers how to build a structure for an effective interpretation, how to find guidelines for the interpretive ideas that they must have. It is amazing (and not widely understood) how much creativity goes into a great performance; some of it is extra-musical, some of it wildly subjective on the part of the performer, some of it guided, it would seem, purely by the performer's nerves and muscles. A counterpoise is needed of strong musical understanding and feeling. Playing a piece of music can be as theatrical as singing a Schubert song. In music, there must be a knowledge of structure, a sense of how the composer fashioned, shaped, and finished the work. The analyst takes over to help. He may call the Schenkerian birds-eye view into play where appropriate. Serial analysis is used where it will do some good. Once more the benefits of sharing the teaching seem clear. The performer-teacher and the analyst-teacher are present at all class sessions.

The analyst has much to tell the performer, but doesn't it work the other way too? The great performers have always had the power to make us listen to music in "new" and vivid ways. But, as Edward Cone has pointed out, analysis is how we "hear" a work of music. Having a course of study in which the two disciplines can stake out their claims to the disputed territory seems a most beautiful way to illuminate this problem.

Finally, I would like to describe a course which I think performers could teach to historians and composers. It might be called Performer's Analysis. This analysis involves the decisions of phrasing which are to be found in the acts of breathing, bowing, fingering and pedaling. Every good performer and performing-teacher knows the satisfaction of practicing a piece of music over and over almost endlessly and then having a ray of insight such as, "If I take a breath here then I do not have to breathe there, and then this phrase can balance and offset this other phrase which sets up the surprise in the later section where the composer has done it in reverse. . . ."

"By beginning on the D string I can keep this group of notes in one homogeneous tone color until this point where there is more time to shift because of the phrase ending and new beginning. . . ."

I believe that the physical act of performing a piece of music can tie itself closely to the very impulse of the pure musical idea. As a matter of fact, that is precisely what measures a good performance: how closely the physical act is moved by and identifies the pure, mental-emotional impulse of what we call the musical idea. When the identity is complete we can speak of the re-creative miracle of performance.


1Is it surprising that one who performs music gets to know a lot about music? To some people it is, even to some college music teachers in our age of specialization, where one is usually either a musicologist, theoretician, educationist, composer, or performer. It is assumed that a performer knows a lot about how to trill with the fourth finger, but not much beyond that. In some circles the conclusion that a performing musician may know a lot about music is not only considered surprising, it is flatly denied. I will not argue the point here; I will just state that it is possible that performing music is not a bad background for a well-rounded and interesting musician and teacher(!).

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Last modified on Monday, 12/11/2018

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