Excerpts

SELECTIONS FROM

THE TYRANNY OF TRADITIONS IN PIANO TEACHING

From Chapter 1, The Genesis of Cognitive Impairment

The fundamental mistake of traditional piano teaching is that the intellectual component, the use of the mind, is either marginalized or ignored. By neglecting this primary cognitive force, teachers are left with only two components: the physical and the emotive. To compensate for this void they have developed the now customary alternative: the rituals of mindless repetition for many hours, together with a perpetual leash—the musical umbilical cord connected to the authority of a piano teacher for an interminable number of years. This type of piano teaching has trained students to disable a substantial part of their brain functions, the most significant of which is listening skills. It is with this method that most music institutions breed and train students in a system not dissimilar to that of a domestic animal’s learning process of repetition and emulation.

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When students are forced into a regimen of mindless repetition, their ability to think becomes progressively impaired, inevitably producing unsatisfactory results, and prompting relentless reprimands from an intransigent teacher—all this while the teacher persists in prescribing precisely those antiquated ideas that produce unsatisfactory results. Since mindless repetition has zero creativity, piano study becomes disagreeable and increasingly wearisome—followed by more admonishments. We see this relentless and heartbreaking cycle every day: appalling teaching, students getting blamed, and parents supporting the teacher. In fact, parents rarely listen to or respect the opinions of their own children and, more often than not, become the enforcers of the teachers’ recommendations or requests, regardless of the consequences. Thus, the victim, prey of the traditions of piano teaching, is also the condemned.

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These traditions have left its victims with a lifetime of intellectual and emotional burdens, sadly the predominant condition of piano students, young and old. Abusive traditions of piano teaching leave lasting scars in a young person. With the traditional tactics embedded in the psyches of nearly every piano teacher, it is not surprising that the behavior of so many of them becomes unreasonable, including that of past and present pedagogues who achieve fame.

From Chapter 5, Musical Asceticism

Frederick Wieck, Henri Herz, Louis Plaidy, Camille Stamaty, Theodor Kullak, Charles-Louis Hanon, Josef Pischna, Carl Tausig, Isidor Philipp, among others, produced an enormous amount of technical methods devoid of any musical significance—indeed, anything remotely attractive had to be expunged. Moreover, what could be construed as moderate, occasionally benevolent authoritarianism early in the nineteenth century exploded into a system based on despotism and fear, a modus operandi that became the conventional teaching approach irrespective of the teacher’s local or international reputation and which was to linger for more than a century. This behavior enabled an evolution from the merely unattractive or boring studies of Clementi and Czerny to the truly dreary and mind-numbing exercises. These works became every pianist’s accepted regimen of torture.

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In a frantic desire to achieve fame in their profession, authoritarian piano teachers made their students slaves of these methods, converting them into passive and unquestioning followers. The more they studied these works, the more the student’s cognitive ability suffered, and hence the more submissive they became, elevating the piano teacher to the indispensable, all-knowing father and master who must be unquestioningly followed. The actual enjoyment of music and the study of high-quality compositions was basically an afterthought, nearly obliterated by the overwhelming obsession with finger development. The forces of emulation, cult-following and boot camp mentality became inevitable. Indeed, the era of the great musical anesthesiologists had arrived: the use of technical exercises as an anesthetic to thinking, making learning more difficult, whereupon the anesthesiologist-teacher aims to correct the problem by saddling the student with still more of the same concoctions which caused the problem in the first place. Such prescriptions doom students into a downward spiral from which recovery is all but impossible. Yet blame is always placed at the students’ feet.

From Chapter 6, Toxic Mix: Clementi-Czerny and the ReligiousZeitgeist

In the nineteenth century, the influence of the Christian Church on the mindset and education of musicians was overpowering. The similarities of the traditions of piano teaching with prevalent Christian doctrine are instantly recognizable. The studies of Clementi, Hummel, Czerny, Hanon and countless analogous works, blended seamlessly with the ideals of the church, creating a potent but toxic mix and a frame of mind that sought gratification through physical abuse, and praised forgiveness (or better still, forgetfulness).

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Abusive behavior, absolute obedience, and large-scale indoctrination became the norms in piano teaching of the nineteenth century—regrettably still practiced today in some parts of the world.

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Piano students are taught from the beginning to adapt themselves to a very narrow world, one that is exclusively defined by the teacher—to be submissive. Piano teachers assume the power of an autocrat in a monogamous musical marriage so that the idea of playing for another teacher—a disturbing thought—is viewed as musical adultery. With the exception of college athletics, where one individual, the team’s coach, assumes controlling power, there is no other profession where instruction in the student’s primary area of interest is granted to one person for many years. Autocracy does not believe or respect Rousseau’s insistence “that each person has a unique temperament that needs the freedom to flourish.”

From Chapter 7, The Legacy of Emulation

Piano teaching since the days of Clementi has been almost universally based on various degrees of emulation, imitation, and replication, the intensity of which varies according to the teacher’s temperament and philosophy, ranging from friendly persuasion to menacing commandments. In any case, accepting a teacher’s word as the law remains a time-honored custom. Already true with beginners, it gains in intensity with the more advanced student. Common enough in local teachers, it becomes unyielding and intimidating with a celebrated teacher. Exceptions are rare.

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Many who teach piano follow the same principle of the drill sergeant by tormenting students with horrible exercise drills that not only promote abhorrence to practice but also eradicate enthusiasm and musical imagination. Piano taught under boot camp conditions is a primary example of musical abuse. A great majority of piano students trained under a boot-camp mentality eventually flee from this daily abuse and quit piano studies. The few surviving pianists invariably play with admirable technique but without creativity or joy, and devoid of any emotional connections.

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For young pianists, the freedom to think as they wish, unimpeded by a piano teacher, is crucial to their success. Obviously, it helps to be blessed with a teacher who does not hold back a student’s natural instincts or restrain curiosity, however eccentric or even weird it may seem. Chopin was extremely fortunate to have two teachers who made no effort to restrain his natural dispositions, allowing him “to develop his own method of playing, hitting the notes he wanted with the fingers he thought appropriate, not with those specified by textbooks.” Bartok’s teachers did not inhibit his individuality; they made no effort to “correct” the unorthodox pianistic style typical of his distinctive compositions. Heinrich Neuhaus acknowledged that he taught Sviatoslav Richter almost “nothing”—in other words, he allowed Richter to be Richter.

From Chapter 8, The Legacy of Abuse

For many great pianist-teachers, there is a major difference between playing and teaching, a difference that goes beyond beliefs or systems; it becomes a contrast between two personalities that are physically connected but musically unrelated. They were able to somewhat remove all the musical rubbish from their youth; their intelligence and cognitive powers paved the way to extraordinary accomplishments in piano performance. Yet when they teach, they are transported to a world that echoes their student days of indoctrination, demands, yelling, intimidation, bullying, and fear. They are completely free when they play, a gift that made them successful, but they are still in chains when they teach. Their indoctrination is such that, although their teachers may have died a half-century earlier, they still obey, follow, and, yes, fear them.

From Chapter 10, The Compound of Impressions and Cognition

Man’s personality and behavior are molded by the confluence of the genes imparted by nature together with the nurture acquired from the environment. Likewise, effective instrumental teaching is not just the product of inborn talent or natural skills, but also of healthy musical predispositions, the indispensable nourishment received from teachers and parents, without which talent counts for nothing. An enlightened piano teacher understands that there should be no division between those who consider the human mind a tabula rasa, and cognitivists who consider internal motivation the main source of intellect.

From Chapter 11, The Mind and Creativity

Like painting, writing, or cooking, the pleasure of playing a musical instrument derives from the ability of the player to be creative. Since creativity derives directly from cognition, a thinking mind is synonymous with invention and innovation. There can be no thinking without creativity or creativity without thinking. By the same token, there can be no pleasure or passion without creativity and vice versa. These connections are analogous to the relationship between life and breathing: there cannot be one without the other.

From Chapter 14, Rejection: The Golden Century of Piano Performance (1882-1982)

While not a prerequisite for greatness, poverty among the brightest often proves to be a powerful motivator. At the dawn of the twentieth century, much of the musical energy and innovation in America and Europe came, ironically, from those musicians who could least afford a pianoforte. They were the underprivileged, persecuted, and oppressed: the blacks in America and the Jews in Europe. They were poor, victimized in innumerable ways, and living in societies where their civil rights were regularly violated. A child born into this environment learned early on to accept disenfranchisement as an ordinary, inevitable fact of life and to deal with the tortuous maze of intolerance on a daily basis. Living in these circumstances required imagination, independence, creativity, and mental calisthenics—the kind that would ultimately be reflected in their ability to figure out the sounds and intricacies of the keyboard, often with minimal or no guidance and support, but ultimately attaining enviable accomplishments.

From Chapter 16, Contemporary American Music Education

Though they have developed advanced technical skills acquired by repetition, the most significant weakness of this generation of piano students is their inability to think. It brings to mind Rousseau’s admonition of the disadvantage for a young student to have “more words than ideas, for him to know how to say more things that he can think.” What is the point of having a great vocabulary if an individual has no ideas to communicate? What is the point of having good piano technique if a young musician has no musical thoughts to convey?

From Chapter 19, Discipline

Discipline evolves from mind participation; an inactive mind equals a lack of discipline. It is hard to expect discipline from a young student who is given music he does not like, understand, or even abhors—the boring exercises or the many sequential “technical studies” now commonly used. This is compounded by teachers’ expectations of unwarranted long periods of practice—usually beyond the student’s ability to enjoy and concentrate. An older student may have the fortitude or indoctrination to believe that such medicine is essential, but a young person, certainly those under fifteen, cannot grasp the wisdom of such aggravation; he must silently abide by his teacher’s instructions. Unpleasant exercises and boring music are harmful to a young person’s innate musical impulses and sense of discipline. Therefore, it is not hyperbole to include the assignment of such repertoire and its attendant practice requirements as prominent components of the traditions of abuse in piano teaching, especially to very young people.