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!

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Breaking down walls in classical music

In case you missed it, there’s a buzz in the air about the future of classical music. What can we do to get more people out to concerts? Are we “beating a dead horse” by insisting that our children take traditional piano lessons? Does anyone really want to hear me play that (Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Schubert…) piece when they could download Horowitz’s performance?

Alex Ross (The Rest is Noise) spoke at Wigmore Hall this week for the annual Royal Philharmonic Society lecture.  This appeared in the Gramaphone article

As for solutions, Ross was keen to emphasise that he hadn’t arrived at the Wigmore with a set of prescriptions. However, he did make two suggestions. Interestingly, neither was linked to clapping. The first was that the invisible wall between the performer and the audience needed to be broken down, and that the way to do that is for the performers to talk to their audiences. His second suggestion was for the concert hall lights to be dimmed, in order to encourage the audience to focus on the stage rather than on their programme notes or other distractions. He also suggested that, were we to axe the rules, we would by no means descend into chaos; instead, audiences would simply work out what felt right, and most of the time they would be.

I’m happy to say our recent Theremin & Rubberball Piano performance was a good example of breaking down that wall . We performed part of the program by candlelight and there was plenty of informal give and take with the audience members. I’m looking forward to more ‘relaxed’ performances at The Music Studio, such as this Jazz Salon with Dave Leonhardt coming up on March 19th.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Every day I’m reading about creative and talented new performers, fresh new ideas, and timely marketing advice for classical musicians.  Stay tuned, as upcoming posts will feature more pianists that are taking their performances in new directions.