Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

John O'Conor: Beethoven Boot Camp and the Business of Piano Teaching

Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

John O'Conor: Beethoven Boot Camp and the Business of Piano Teaching

Article excerpt

When it comes to the piano career, there is no question you cannot ask John O'Conor. He is open to discuss both his career's greatest moments and defining events, as much as he is open about the fact that he was brought into music without any expectation to be a concert pianist. His are the types of comments which cut through the mystique of the route to the classical musician's career. We began by doing away with the George Bernard Shaw slag, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Having been criticized for becoming a piano professor rather than solely a concert performer, John O'Conor is the first to say, "Those who can, do. Those who can, also teach. Those who can't, become music critics."

I spent two weeks at John O'Conor's Beethoven Boot Camp in Dublin, where a group of five pianists played and studied the vast majority of the Piano Sonatas and each of the five Piano Concerti of Beethoven. The master classes were frankness mixed with spontaneous wit; repertoire was covered chronologically with reference to the other repertoire of Beethoven which contextualized Beethoven's piano writing and compositional process. Though the focus was solely on Beethoven's Piano Sonatas and Concerti, the result was not an overwhelming one: in fact, the curiosity sparked by O'Conor's was total and resulted in both inspiration and intrigue.

The teaching of John O'Conor is very experiential and its aim transparent. Initially striking is the remarkable clarity with which O'Conor describes Beethoven's personality, convictions, and tendencies. Equally important is his generous humour without insouciance: when he feels a phrase ought to be more beautifully played, he asks the student, "Did you like that?" Sometimes if the point has not been totally understood, O'Conor explains the changes he wants made, with the caveat that his ideas are his own, and not rules dogmatically to be followed. The dogged imagination is something which does not thrill him. John O'Conor's depth is in the way he brings unbeatable and unthreatening energy into teaching even when the pianist is not entirely sure of themselves. To this end, he provides deft suggestions about technicalities of playing in order to simplify the most daunting passages, causing immediate improvement in technical fluency and confidence of the player.

His own pianistic success was made after he won First Prize in the 1973 Vienna International Beethoven Piano Competition, and, though the predominant perception is that this launched his international career, he emphasized the work that went into preparing for the competition, but after as well. He began unexpectedly,

"I always loved teaching," he said. "I adore bringing people to love the music that I do, and I love opening doors for them. If they have a technical problem I can probably solve it. I was twenty-four when I went to Vienna, and lied my way into Dieter Weber's class: I told him I had played Chopin studies before, but had never played a single one. Upon discovering this, after the school year had started, Weber put me on Hanon and Pischna exercises, and every week I would bring them and play for him, and he would remind me of every single thing: shoulder, elbow, wrist, finger flexibility: all of it. And he was just wonderful at it: he had incredible patience."

"Since then, I've been forty years in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, having been offered full-time teaching job when I was twenty-two. My parents so strongly opposed my going into music that I had to put myself through school for the most part, by teaching lessons. I never saw it as an impediment to my real career."

Worried that Weber would reject him from the school, John O'Conor approached a colleague and revealed that Weber had him practicing Hanon and Pischna while the others were all playing the real repertoire. He was astonished to learn from a fellow student that Dieter Weber had told the other students, "If you all practiced like O'Conor you'd end up with technique! …

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