Polyphony: The Rhythm of Musical Development, the Music Lesson and the Academic Year

By Magrath, Jane | American Music Teacher, June-July 2005 | Go to article overview

Polyphony: The Rhythm of Musical Development, the Music Lesson and the Academic Year


Magrath, Jane, American Music Teacher


Q. You have spoken about the sound ideal for a piece and of the importance of projecting a musical interpretation and performance to that very high level. Would you clarify this?

A. In the mind's ear, one has an ideal of the perfect performance of a piece. You may have even heard this perfect performance, perhaps by a concert artist, on a recording or even in a wonderful interpretation by a student. This ideal is all encompassing, including tone, tempo, interpretation, inflection, finesse and, most of all, the piece is convincing in energy and emotion of that work. The sound ideal refers to the mental image of how a piece of music in an ideal form might sound in performance. It is the highest imaginable level of performance a person has for a particular piece of music.

What happens in teaching is that, while we want a student to come so very close to that sound image we have in our minds, sometimes a teacher will allow a student to stop working on a piece of music when the student's performance is too flawed or too far from achieving the quality the student can achieve. Sometimes the teacher unknowingly becomes influenced by hearing a poor rendition week after week from one student or from several students, in which case, the teacher loses the high standard she once strived for in a particular piece or with a student. A singer friend of mine calls this the "Caro mio ben" affect. This piece, known by many pianists who accompany singers, is part of the standard vocal repertoire and sung especially by beginning singers. While the vocalist may sing the notes correctly at the correct tempo and with proper pronunciation, the artistry and nuance are not there. Hearing a Pavorotti recording of a native Italian speaker using all his mature art to sing a lovely song brings the teacher back to the ideal to be strived for--brings life to this piece so commonly sung and not always sung artistically.

The remedy is first to be aware that this is possible and to do everything in our power not to let this happen. Teachers always must continue to surround themselves with high-level, artistic musical performances and want to continue to play and study as much as possible. Listening to music, live and recorded, is vital to keeping our musical ears open to the enormous range of possibilities for interpretations, colors and finesse in musical performance.

It is acceptable and desirable to demand high levels of performance from a student. Most successful teachers know the right time to leave a piece, when the student has reached his own capacity and when they are pushing a student too far. Likewise, they know when not to stop working on the piece of music.

We live in an increasingly goal-oriented and immediate gratification culture. You may find students who race through books with a conscious or unconscious attitude of "I learned the notes, so I'm ready to go on." As the teacher, you may hear the "insignificant" but regular stumbles that signify the piece is not truly learned. Full security is achieved by being able to play a piece in a satisfying way, not just most of the time, but consistently, every time they play. I address ways to achieve this in the answer to the next question.

If you hear that sound ideal in your ear and the piece is appropriate in terms of musical and technical difficulty for the student, there is no reason not to experiment by asking more of that student. Students will mold themselves to our expectations, and if the piece is right for them, we should expect the best of the piece and the best the student is able to give. Any demonstration in the lesson on the part of the teacher is helpful in this regard.

Q. Sometimes my students seem to locked in a performance interpretation. What can I do to change that?

A. If a student can play a piece at three different tempos, and perform convincingly at three tempos, then often she or he really knows that piece well. …

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