John Steinmetz

bassoonist, composer, writer, satirist, speaker

Six Talks on Music, #3

John Steinmetz

Okay, stand up again, jump up four times, raise your hands, and say, “Ste-pha-nie is cute.” [In the previous session a teacher had created lyrics like this.] Then turn around in the opposite direction from the way you turned around last time, just to keep the world in balance.

And then sit down.

All right, class! No more passing notes! I'm sorry—we have lots of interesting things here, and no time to respond to them. So stop responding. [Reluctantly, the audience settles down.]

Let's see, when we last left our hero, he was off screen. So let's start off screen. [Video screens go dark.] Bye. Thank you.

Our hero was worried about how to accept praise. He had no idea how he was doing in his performances. And he was thinking about technologies.

When I was talking about the unexpected, unwanted side effects of different technologies, I only talked about hardware technologies. I think the trickiest ones are the software technologies.

One software technology that has proven very valuable for our species—and has also caused us endless trouble—is language. Language is, of course, what we use to help us think. It shapes our thoughts, and it helps us communicate with other people. Language also has the unfortunate side-effect of screwing up our thoughts, and screwing up our communications with other people.

For example, this afternoon I might say some things that will seem like the truth. It's really helpful to remember the advice, from whoever it was that said it, that for everything that's true, there's also something that's opposite and equally true.

Language cannot encompass this very well, and, because our minds are shaped by our language, we can't hold on to this very easily. So we have to keep reminding ourselves.

Another example of the language problem is the ongoing debate about whether one should start practicing with the technique or with the expression. Which of those two things should be emphasized?

Of course, they're not too different things. They are the same thing, like different parts of the same elephant felt by two different blind people. If you don't have something to express, then your technique will be of no use, and if you don't have any technique, you won't be able to express what you want to express. Those two things are hopelessly intertwined—or hopefully intertwined—with each other. They're not different.

This is an example of how language messes us up. The only way we have to talk is about the two different aspects of this thing in the middle that they're both a part of. We don't have a name for that thing in the middle, other than “Music.”

Okay, we have a musician who is suffering and trying to stop suffering. We'll say that I'm now a recovering musician, and we're going to start a group called Musicians Anonymous.

How did we get into this mess?

Every musician brings his or her own unique emotional baggage to the task of making music, and certainly part of becoming a professional musician is learning to overcome, or at least cope with, one's emotional baggage. We are very lucky to live in a time when we can talk about these problems openly, when there's lots of help and encouragement available.

I think past generations of musicians didn't have that knowledge available to them. Their bookstores weren’t exactly overflowing with self-help psychology books. They didn't have permission to say, “Gee, I gave a great performance, and everybody clapped really wildly, but I feel lousy.” They wouldn't be able to talk about that before. Now we can, and that's great.

But in addition to the personal baggage, which is different for each of us, I think that we also have some professional baggage. As our teachers passed along the tradition to us, they also, completely unknowingly, passed along the baggage. This baggage has been handed down through the generations of musicians, in the same way that disorders like alcoholism get passed down through the generations of a family.

When we were music students, our well-meaning teachers, hoping to raise our standards and help us meet our potential, pointed out our mistakes. And even the most loving, gentle, and supportive teachers spend almost all their time telling students what they need to do differently.

I still catch myself teaching this way, and that's the way I was taught. Unfortunately, there's collateral damage from this kind of teaching: students become more or less deaf to their successes. We don't ask them to practice hearing what they're doing right. We ask them to be ever more attentive and ever more precise about what they're doing wrong.

And so, the ability to recognize what is okay atrophies.

Now, going back to what I've been saying about technology, if that's our technology of teaching, you can see that it's well-meaning: the way to make somebody good at music is to find everything that's bad and cut it away. However that technology has a really significant side-effect that all of us have felt—or at least a lot of us, judging from the number of people that have come up to me in the hallway. We need to think about that technology and that unexpected effect.

A friend told me that he had once burst into tears at a lesson. Through his tears he said, “Don't I ever do anything right?” His teacher was surprised by this outburst, and somewhat taken aback. He said, “Oh yes, of course you do lots of things right. I just don't have time to talk about that.”

That's the voice of our professional baggage.

According to our baggage, the teacher's job description is to improve the student. That's not so bad, is it? No, but if you think about it from a certain point of view, this implies that the student is somehow inadequate. Even if the teacher doesn't want to, he or she gets forced into the role of judge. Our current teaching technology, based on finding faults and correcting them, has this undesired side- effect—undesired both by the teacher and by the student.

I want to emphasize that this is not the result of malice on anybody's part. This result can come from people who are being loving and helpful.

Another aspect, another side-effect of this professional baggage, is that an unhealthy relationship develops between the student and the teacher. It can lead to teaching in which the student focuses not on the music or the sound or the feeling, but on pleasing the teacher.

There's a clinical name for that kind for relationship. It's called codependency.

That can lead to such things as the teacher asking a question for which there's only one right answer. The student has to read the teacher's mind and guess what the teacher is thinking, instead of the student examining the music, or the student examining her own heart, her own reactions to the music.

This codependent relationship can coexist with love, and intelligence, and courage, and the best intentions in the world. But it is not healthy. It results in students who know what their teachers want, but not what they themselves want. It results in students who never learn how to please themselves.

It results in students whose main job is not to create beauty or joy, but whose main job is to be correct.

I certainly know about this, because I've struggled with it myself as a student and a teacher. I find these kinds of teacherly statements coming out of my mouth, and I see my students looking to me to tell them how they're doing.

I'm seeing it happen now with my daughter, who is playing the violin. She studies with a wonderful teacher, and I coach her practice. She is already, I think, starting to lose her joy in the music that she's making. She is already looking to me more to see how she did, instead of listening to herself. And she's only five years old.

What can we do about this problem?

First of all, I would think that the remedy is not to give out more praise, because we're simply too good at ignoring it. I just heard in the hallway from somebody who went up to thank one of the performers for a performance here, and the performer replied, “It had its ups and downs.”

It might help if we could learn to collect and dispense more balanced data. We might look for ways to gather detailed information about what we're doing right, in order to balance the details we collect so expertly about what we're doing wrong. If we had more complete data, then we might have a more accurate picture of our playing. To help our students have a more complete picture of their own playing, we might help them to see what they did well with same clarity that they see what they didn't do well.

Musicians, after all, ought to be able to recognize what works as easily as they can recognize what doesn't work.

Here's some advice that I once received about how to teach: “Make sure you say something positive before you give your negative comments.” But if a teacher gives a positive comment only to soften the blow for a negative one, do you think anybody is going to hear that positive comment as positive?

On the other hand, if positive comments were given not as praise, but as important data to help the student get a clearer picture, maybe that would help. It has helped me to make a distinction between praise and data. Praise and data are two different things. Both seem necessary for psychological health and musical growth. But they're different.

In the past, data have been exclusively negative. I think we need data that are both positive and negative. (Perhaps this means that we also need cursing and swearing to balance out praise. I'm not sure about that.)

Part of what good teachers do is to stretch the ears of their students, to help them notice things they hadn't noticed before. That's a really great thing to do. Unfortunately, teachers usually help their students become aware of unnoticed problems, not unnoticed successes. Is it any wonder that so many professional musicians aren't sure how they're doing, or are pretty sure they're doing badly?

As teachers, we could help our students learn how to know what their own standards are, recognize whether they're reasonable, and recognize when they're meeting them. We could help them develop and modify their standards in order to develop both their performance and their awareness.

This doesn't mean that teachers have to stop criticizing. But they have to say what's bad and what's good, so students learn to hear everything they're doing. Striving to get better doesn't require ignoring it when you're good.

A cellist who attended Gregor Piatigorsky's class is a friend, and I gave him a paper that I was writing about this [ Resuscitating Art Music]. He wrote back, “Piatigorsky encouraged us to play the passages we did well over and over. He said that no one needs to be told what he does poorly, but we all need to know what we do well.” Play the passages you do well over and over—how about that? “And then if we did that, the sense of musical well being could spread to infect the rest of the music, including the difficult stuff.”

Once I was backstage after a student performance, and I overheard the teacher say to the student, “That was great!” And the student immediately began listing all the things that had gone wrong. The teacher interrupted him and said, “Hold on, here's what's supposed to happen. First I say, ‘That was great.’ Then you say, ‘Thank you very much; I'm glad you enjoyed it.’ Okay. Let's do that again from the top.”

When a performance is over, it seems that the only language that we have available to us to talk about what happened is an evaluation language. We have our little clipboards in our heads, with our rating sheets on them. Was it any good? How was the rhythm? How was the stage presence? On and on. We've got our inner rating sheet as performers and as listeners.

I think we need to rediscover other ways to talk about musical experience. I don't think any child is initially drawn to music by the pleasures of note accuracy or good rhythm. What drew us? There was some other thing, something about wonderful sounds, amazing feelings, maybe the physical pleasure of working the instrument. Isn't it sad that we don't talk about these things more?

Of course they're hard to put into words, and of course it's very personal and kind of intimate. You feel bad when you put it into words. But if we don't talk about what's most important, if we don't talk about what moves us and what gives us pleasure, then our discussions of performances contain everything except what's most important to us.

Perhaps we thought that all those important things went without saying. Or maybe, like that teacher, we thought we just didn't have time for anything but those little details. As one of the master teachers in a session here said very eloquently, we hate mistakes. And so, as a result, we concentrate on what we hate.

I think that when we don't talk about what we value most, and about what moves us, then these precious things slip away, and we're left with a big mountain of technical details and a vague feeling that something is missing.

I've been thinking that, if the job description of the teacher is to make the student better, and the job of the student is to be inadequate and strive for a perfection that can never be attained, maybe that's not such a healthy job description. I've been looking around for a better one. I couldn't think of one, except something kind of vague, like what I've been talking to you about. But just three days ago one of my colleagues, not knowing that I was thinking about all this, said, “Hey, I found an article you might like.”

I read through it, and I put five stars next to this paragraph. This is by somebody named H. Wesley Balk, whom I had never heard of before. He teaches singer-actors, people who want to sing and act at the same time—seems like the hardest thing imaginable. Here is his idea about a different job description for the teacher and student:

We can become aware of one of the beautiful paradoxes of life and performance: we want to become different—more skilled—than we are at what we do; but we can best attain that goal by totally loving what we already are. Loving what and where we are now, not criticizing, judging or regretting it, is the best possible way of allowing that state of being to change. Love equally what you are and what you want to become.1

I think that somewhere in there is an idea for how we might rewrite our job description, and how we might revise the software technology that we've inherited. We didn't invent this technology. It's come down to us, it’s almost two hundred years old now probably, maybe older. I think we can use a lot of that technology to good effect. We have brilliant strategies for helping people get better, and I don't mean that we should throw those out.

But I do think we need to hold that technology in a different way, in this way that Balk is describing. People do their best when they stop trying to do better. I know I've certainly experienced as a player, I've seen it happen in students over and over again, and I hope you have noticed this, too. When we are content—not complacent, but happy and loving toward ourselves—then we are able, almost by magic, to get better. That's the beautiful paradox that Balk is talking about.

Now, this is another one of those things that language struggles with, because we have to hold both the wanting-to-get-better and the loving-ourselves-just-the-way-we-are at the same time. We can't do that with language. I'm hoping that we can begin to do that in our hearts and with our actions.

Thank you.

Footnote 1 H. Wesley Balk, “A Workbook for the Performing Modes,” p. 12. (A supplement to Performing Power, Univ. of Minnesota Press.)