John Steinmetz

bassoonist, composer, writer, satirist, speaker

Six Talks on Music, #2

John Steinmetz

First of all, everybody stand up, jump up three times, turn around, and sit back down. Do not talk. Do not think of new ideas.

Okay, now we're all prepared to better enjoy these chairs that we've been so lovingly provided.

I think that what I have to say now will probably take two parts. I don't know exactly where I'm going to wind up, but I want to warn you that I probably won't be finished at the end of this precisely fifteen-minute section.

What I want to talk about first is the unexpected, unanticipated effects of technology. I'm going to talk to you for a while with the video screens on and my two friends with me [the speaker’s image on the two video screens], and then at a certain point in my talk, I'm going to ask that they please turn the screens off. If I didn't have a cold today, I would also turn my microphone off, but I'll leave it on.

I'm doing this not to show you that video technology is bad, but to show you that video technology changes the expression, changes what's being said.

A technology is a means that human beings use to accomplish something. Many of the technologies that we see around us here happen to be amplification technologies, used to amplify some human impulse so that more human beings can receive it. But there are, of course, other uses for technology.

There are hardware technologies—like a hammer, or fire—and there are software technologies—like language, or piano pedagogy. All of these technologies were invented to accomplish something, to help somebody do something that they really want to do. All of them have effects that their inventors didn’t expect.

For instance, the piano, as I think you're all aware, is an amplification device. It’s a technology for amplifying certain human impulses, and making them big enough so that more people can receive them.

An unexpected effect of this technology is that it can result in playing that is less expressive, because of the mechanical nature of the instrument. In fact, the piano can counteract the very purpose for which it was invented.

Another characteristic of the piano is that intonation cannot be adjusted during performance. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, the piano liberates you from the need to control intonation—if the instrument is in tune, anybody can play it in tune. On the other hand, this very freedom can foster an insensitivity to pitch.

Every technology has this kind of double-edged quality. We're familiar with it on the piano; everybody has learned how to work around these things, how to be aware of them. But as new technologies develop, I think we have to be aware, as much as we can, of those unexpected effects. Later I'll come back to teaching as a software technology, because the way we design and use that software also has unexpected effects, in some cases exactly opposite to the effect that we want—just as you see piano students who think they are sensitive to pitch when the piano is preventing them from developing that very sensitivity.

Let me say a little about some other technologies. Here at the Conference we're using amplification technology to make the sound of the piano audible to people in this room, which is, as you've all noticed, horrible for music. This is not a good room for music, so we have to help the room with amplification.

So the sound reaches all of us now, but the dynamic range and the timbre of the piano are altered, and the differences that are key to expression on piano, those very subtle differences of dynamics and timbre, are compressed by amplification technology. You've noticed, I hope, that people have a difficult time getting across the dynamics in their music in this space because the electronics are compressing the dynamics.

It was interesting to hear John Bayless perform here. I believe he has played a fair amount in amplified settings such as the Hollywood Bowl. He seems to know what he has to do in order to make us really get it about the dynamics.

So start noticing this about the other technologies that you see. There are tremendous advantages to something like a digital keyboard, and there are also disadvantages, which are usually exactly the same as the advantages. They’re just the flip side.

Before I say anything else, I want to express my admiration for all the teachers who have been talking up here onstage. [The Conference featured teaching demonstrations on the same stage, with three teachers and a student watched by a thousand people.] Having been here before, I realize how incredibly intimidating it is, and how difficult it is to get anything important said in such a short period of time. I think the grace that all these people have shown under pressure is really admirable. And thanks even more to the students, who have been willing to let us look inside their hearts in their practice videos. I think we all owe them a debt of gratitude.

I'm particularly grateful to all of them, because they are enabling me to see some things that I haven't been able to see before. So I want to thank people for coming up here and letting us look at you and learn from you.

I've also gained a lot already from people who have stopped me in the hallway with things to say, and I want to thank you all for doing that. Please continue to do that. I'm here not because I'm an expert on anything; I'm just another musician who's trying to figure some things out. There's a lot of expertise and experience here, and I've already profited a lot from things people have said.

What I'm going to say today has been particularly helped by a conversation I had yesterday with Bill Westney. Today’s talk is based on my article (the one that Richard referred to) but some of the ideas have been clarified by our conversation, and by some of Bill’s articles, which he gave me yesterday. I really appreciate that.

Sometimes people who are new to classical music ask, “Why don't the musicians look like they're having any fun?” And it's true that musicians often do look like they're suffering on stage. It turns out that many of us are unhappy.

Audience members are stunned to learn how ambivalent some musicians are about their careers. I know two fantastic oboists who gave up playing to go into the computer business. I heard that a successful conductor, whose career and whose work I have admired, is just barely hanging in there with conducting. He's thinking about taking the civil service exam.

I think we're all familiar with the picture of a famous soloist, someone at the peak of a career, who gives a fabulous performance and smilingly accepts the ovation, and then goes back to the dressing room to sulk in despair over some mistake that nobody else noticed.

Maybe one of the reasons that Americans have a hard time understanding the joys of art music is that musicians have a hard time understanding the joys themselves. Certainly musicians often have trouble perceiving the beauty in their own work.

Now I'm going to ask, please, that you turn the video screens off at this point, just to see what difference there might be. I don't really know, but I'm sure it'll be different for everyone.

Now, I didn't really get it about this kind of unhappiness among musicians until I caught a glimpse of this in myself. I had an experience with hearing two tapes of my own performances, and my reactions to those tapes really gave me a shock.

Here’s what happened. I had given a tour with a trio, and the tour was maybe the most successful musical experience I've ever had. All the audiences were wildly enthusiastic. The leader of the group was very happy. I was happy. I came home and said, “This was one of the best experiences of my life!”

About two months later, a tape of one of the concerts arrived, and the leader asked, “Would you like to hear the tape?” I thought to myself, No way! I'm going to hate that!
I smiled and said, “Oh, sure.”

I sat down in an armchair, and I gripped the arms of the chair—like preparing for some kind of awful takeoff. He played the tape, and I was really surprised—because I liked it. And then I was surprised that I was surprised.

Why had I been so sure that I was going to hate that tape?

About a month later, my wife and I were traveling, and we stopped to visit an old friend. He put on a tape of a performance that he and I had given at a music festival ten years before. I remembered the performance, but I didn't remember much about it, other than that it wasn't very well prepared, and the conductor didn't know the piece, so we just got through by the skin of our teeth.

He puts on this tape, and I hear myself ten years before, playing the way that I remember hoping that I would someday be able to play.

That one really threw me for a loop. I wondered: why didn't I know that I was meeting my goals? It wasn't that this was a perfect performance. It was just that the basic sound and the basic approach were what I had hoped I would someday be able to achieve.
As my wife and I drove on to our next destination, my head was spinning from these experiences with these two tapes, and I was wondering: what in the world had happened to me? Why I had been so deaf to my own successes as a musician?

It occurred to me immediately that, as a professional musician and as a student, I had received plenty of positive comments, but they had almost always been very general positive comments, like “Nice playing,” “Good sound,” “Great show.” The negative assessments, on the other hand, had usually been very specific and detailed, such as “That f-sharp on the third sixteenth note of the third beat of bar three is a little bit too sharp.”

This meant that I had been trained to see the problems in my playing with great precision, while having only a vague and general idea about what I might be doing well. My wife and I talked about this, or I talked about this, and she put up with it, while she was driving. She's a musician, too. "That sounds like Bradshaw's books about shame," she said, referring to some self-help books she was reading by the psychologist John Bradshaw. And I think, although I haven't read the books, that she might be right about that. If shame is a deeply-held conviction of unworthiness, then a lot of us musicians are suffering from shame.

Let's think about this for a minute. If you watch musicians at the end of a performance, when they stand up to receive the applause, do they seem to be enjoying it? I went to a violin master class given by Kato Havas, and in the master class we heard performances at all levels. The audience was the other students, and they would always clap enthusiastically for everybody, no matter how bad the performance, because they all knew they would soon be going through the same suffering. The students appreciated each other.

Sometimes, if people played badly, they wouldn't bow. And Kato would always say something like, “You must bow to receive the applause. You've just spent a long time giving out something to the audience, and they haven't been able to give anything back. Now it's their turn to give something back, and you must complete the circle by receiving it.” She advised us to watch people like Pavarotti, who receive the applause, and drink it in, and revel in it. She said, “If you do that, audiences will love you for it.”

In orchestras, to give a counter-example, musicians usually look like they can hardly wait to get off the stage. You'll see a lot of this [looking at watch], and it's not just because their fifteen minutes are up.

Watch a musician accept a compliment. Quite commonly we turn compliments aside, or we just say “Thanks” and try to get it over with as soon as we can. Meanwhile we're thinking, Those people don't really know anything.

We're familiar with receiving criticism, and we know how to use that to improve what we're doing. But we don't know what to do about praise. It embarrasses us.

I'm going to leave you at that point, in the middle of this thinking. This afternoon I'd like to talk about how we got this way, but I'd like to hear from you about how this connects with your experience.

I'd like to leave you with a couple of questions. As you watch the teaching, who do you think is having the most fun? Notice who is making discoveries. Notice who is the most animated.

Think about whom the student is trying to please. Is the student trying to meet his or her own goals and please herself? Or is the student trying to please the teacher?

Who is the most busy?

Think about those things, about what you've seen and what you're about to see. I'll be back to see you again this afternoon.