Demystifying the Classics

Beethoven Waldstein Sonata (1st mvt)I recently had an intermediate level student ask me if she can learn Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata Op. 53, a piece dear to my heart. I’ve performed it several times and I still think the transition from the second the third movement is one of the most beautiful moments in all of Beethoven’s piano music.  I told my student that it was a wonderful piece, but there were many steps to be taken before she could approach such a big work. After all we still had many sonatinas of Clementi and Kuhlau to learn, and if she wanted to learn Beethoven she should start with Op. 49 No 2.

That conversation has been nagging at me for a while now. I started thinking about my own experiences over the years with teachers steering me towards certain pieces and away from others. I’ve heard “Save the late Beethoven sonatas for when you’re in your fifties and sixties“…“The Weber piano sonatas suit you well”...“You should only work on short pieces because that’s what audiences want to hear“…”Liszt not Brahms“.

Well, the years have flown by and my bucket list is still full of pieces that I hesitate to pull out for fear that I won’t do them justice — Beethoven Op. 101 and 110, the Schumann Fantasy in C, and Schubert Sonata in B flat d960. Intimidating pieces? Yes. But impossible? No.

That’s why Greg Sandow’s recent post hit home and gave me a lot to think about this week.  He says:

But let me press further. Why wouldn’t we believe a new audience is out there, eager for us to talk to it simply, directly, and personally?

Because we believe too much in classical music education. Or, more specifically, we believe that classical music is complex, and that therefore no one can properly understand it, without being specially educated. And even that no one even will like it, even in the simplest way, until they’ve been taught how to do that.

Which seems tragic to me. Do we have that little faith in our music? Or in the people we share our world with? This belief — that, without special education, we can’t spread a love of classical music — seems both insecure and arrogant. One one hand, we’re apologizing for classical music. “Oh, of course you don’t listen to it. It’s so complicated!” But flip the coin over, and we’re just about saying, “Hah! Of course you don’t listen to classical music. It’s way beyond you. But we know all about it, and we’re going to teach you.”

Maybe piano teachers can be part of the change that is needed. By allowing their students to (independently) dig into works that are “beyond” them,  teachers can demystify the piano masterpieces.  Even though they most likely won’t perform these pieces as teens, these students may return to them later in life with a deeper understanding. By challenging themselves this way students will improve their technique, sightreading, and analytical skills. And, perhaps most importantly, students will start to see that this music can be just as accessible as pop, jazz, or contemporary music.

Yes, and by the way, I told my student yes — if she wanted to take a look at the Waldstein she should go right ahead. She was thrilled!

5 thoughts on “Demystifying the Classics

  1. Wonderful, wonderful post, Catherine. I love your honesty and your willingness to share your own personal dialogue with yourself about the Waldstein question. I’m eager to hear how your student fares with this challenge that she seems to really crave. I regularly marvel at how often students will step up to the place to embrace something that’s “beyond them” in the practical sense. You never know what will happen!

    Thank you!!


  2. Thanks Erica. I don’t even know if she’s going to get that far into the Beethoven, but I just had to let her know that it wasn’t closed off to her. It would be sort of like telling a 9th grader they couldn’t read Shakespeare…and that they had to stick with Harry Potter.

  3. Thanks for quoting me, Catherine. And, above all, I’m glad my words could help you! And your student.

    I was very moved by your post. One thing I thought: Instead of slamming a door shut on your student (“You can’t play the Waldstein yet because I say so”), you opened one. She can find out for herself why she’s not ready to play it, if that’s the case. And even if she’s not ready to play it in any finished sense, she can learn some much — and have so much musical joy — from trying. In my teen years, I learned a lot from playing opera scores on the piano, even though my technique wasn’t equal to them.

    And another thought. The Waldstein (surprise) is better music than Kuhnau or Weber. Or Clementi. In a culture where people heard Beethoven all the time, maybe Weber could be accepted as a step on the road leading to the summit. But in our culture, maybe it’s better for people to play the best there is, as soon as they can manage.

    Or maybe it always was better…

  4. Catherine:
    I’m so glad you popped into my mind this morning at the thought of all the wonders available to me when I open my morning Twitterbox – This is a wonderful example of what I mean when I say the world is full of GoodNews – I love what you have to say here, and you have done so much good not just for this one piano student, but for all of us who will read about what you did in opening such a door for the student but I believe your one action will resonate like the waves from a stone thrown upon a still body of water, and reach out and be seen and heard –
    About the Waldstein and so many other masterworks – they all contain the basic elements that even near-beginners can “play with” – in this case the repeated thirds are like some Piano Book One Indian Drum Dance – and oh the change when it happens – a very young student can experience that magic.
    I love what you are doing. Thank you!

  5. Yes, beautiful post, Catherine. I’ve had the same thoughts so many times, and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve finally been able to appreciate the value of having a student explore repertoire that’s too difficult for them. I’ve been stuck in that “sequential” idea; must play this before attempting that. It finally dawned on me that the very desire to conquer a work was enough in some ways.

    Oh, to go back and “re-teach” some students!


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