John Steinmetz

bassoonist, composer, writer, satirist, speaker

Six Talks on Music, #6

John Steinmetz

I want to try something that I've tried before, that has always failed. I want to try it once more: everyone please move forward as much as possible, so that we can all be together up front. Please stand up, pick up your things, and come forward.

[Pause for relocation.]

For those of you who arrived too late to hear the first assignment, the first assignment is, “Do not sit in the back.” Move up toward the front please.

Unless you really don't want to.

I want to start with thanks to Richard Chronister, who made it through the first sentence of my article and continued reading, and had some idea that I could do something here. He wasn't sure what that was, and I wasn't sure what that was. I was also, secretly, pretty sure that whatever it was, I couldn't. So I want to thank him for being wise enough, or crazy enough, or stupid enough, to try this kind of experiment.

I'd like to thank all the organizers of the Conference. To be perfectly honest, I think all conferences are irritating; I have to admit that right away. But I think this conference is less irritating than any other conference I've been to (someone said you should always give very specific praise), and that's because there were lots of things happening here that we could use to think with.

At most of the conferences I've been to, maybe all of them, the only thing available to think with was people talking. Almost all this talk was people making pronouncements, giving us the finished products of their process, not letting us in on their process. We got a list of twenty-seven thousand things that we had to remember, and that we were all responsible for doing from then on.

At this conference, we've certainly had some of that, but we've also had lots of process going on in front of us, and people have been willing to show us their process. We've had music, with which we could think about music and about teaching music. We've had teaching, with which we could think about teaching. And we've had a lot of words about these things, too.

I really enjoyed that mix, and I've profited greatly from it. Now I see a little more clearly why I was so annoyed with those other conferences that only gave me one very poor kind of tool to use for thinking about the issues.

I'd also like to thank all of you in this gathering—and those who were part of the Conference and have gone already—for being so helpful to me. When I started off doing this on the first day, I was pretty strongly aware that I wasn't going to be able to do anything of any use. In fact, after I finished my first talk, I was pretty sure that I hadn't done anything of any use. People came to me quite regularly in the hallway to thank me for what I'd said, and to say something about what it had touched in them. That helped me to get a better view of what I was doing, and what the effects, and the potential effects, were for the people here.

I think that's just one of many examples we've seen here of how teaching and learning are circular. It usually doesn't work very well if it's only going in one direction. If it's going out and coming back, then that usually seems—at least in my experience—to work better. It really works great when it goes out, swirls around, and then comes back.

So I'm really excited about all the buzz and talk, and about what you've given back to me here. I have learned a lot from all of you, so I thank you for your help.

I guess that's another example of how you can't have a good performance without a good audience. I didn't realize how much I meant by that.

Since this is my last shot, and I need to tell you those twenty-seven thousand things that you have to take home and remember, I want to say a little more about what my experience has been. It's a little elusive, so I hope I can get it into words. If I don't, you can catch me in the hallway as usual.

I told you that I was nervous, and maybe you gathered from what I said that I felt a certain sense of responsibility. That sense was very vague; I just thought there was something very important about being here. Well, you know, you're the Keynote Speaker—and it's even a pun, of course, at a piano conference . . .

So you've got to do something really important, and you have to know something. I wrote my article because I realized that I had learned a couple of things—a couple of things that seemed to me rather small, just beginning-stage things. I wrote this article, first of all, to find out what it was that was rattling around in my head, and then to share those couple of things around and see if they could do anybody any good. Also I was hoping to shake loose some people who had learned some better things, or some more things.

I've had some feedback from that article, and I have learned a little bit more. But it was just as clear as ever that I only knew a couple of things, and that I was going to be talking to quite a lot of people here who knew a lot of things. I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that it was clear to me that I wasn't good enough to do this.

I'm bringing this up because many of you have talked with me about the feeling, that we often have as performers, of being not good enough. Not ready. Not sufficient to do the performance. It has been interesting to see how much one can accomplish from that place of being not good enough.

A fun part of this job is that I've had a chance to try a few experiments, just because I thought it would be fun to see what happened. Sometimes it turned out to have been a really good idea, one that fit in with something else that was going on. For instance, doing without the video screens and hearing from a few people about the differences; and to be able to take a vote, and do silly things like jumping up and down, and asking you to move up. It's been very nice to remember that advice my friend gave me, not to let that slip away in my nervousness, but to go ahead and try something that seems like fun.

Another part of my process was that, as you might have gathered, there are a lot of things about conferences that I'd hated. I took a lot of negative inspiration from those conferences, and from those other keynote speeches. It made for an interesting challenge, because negative inspiration doesn't tell you what to do; it just tells you what to avoid. That can tie into your nervousness in a really interesting way, as I'm sure all of you performers have experienced.

I had my usual very hard time figuring out what to leave out. I think you've seen all of us who have been up here suffering with that: having so many things to share. So much wisdom, so little time.

One of the hardest problems was to find a way to talk about this idea of a new technology of teaching, without using the old technology too much. That's tough, because the new technology, I believe, is not invented yet.

One way of thinking about the old technology is that every person has a zipper on the top of their head. The teacher can open it up and dump some stuff in, and then zip it back up. As many of you have told me, this way of doing things does result in a lot of knowledge, but when you zip that zipper back and forth so many times, it leaves a scar. Maybe several scars.

So that was an interesting challenge to me, and there were a couple of nights when I spent a lot of time writing notes and casting notes aside, and writing more notes and casting those aside. I might say, I was really glad that nobody was videotaping my process at that time. I was being extremely inefficient. I would stop in the middle of what I was doing and have breakfast, or do something else to dodge it. Last night it got so bad that I went back to my room, I thought about what I was going to do this morning, came to an idea about what would be okay, got completely ready to go to bed, and then realized I wasn't going to be able to sleep at all. I put all my clothes back on and went dancing. That turned out to help me more than anything else.

I guess the final thing I have to say about my process is that, in some very strange way, it turned out that the thing I had most to fall back on, and to use here, and to bring before you, was my own insufficiency. This is a very strange thing to say, and I don't propose that we all go out and do all the things that we're worst at.

The poet Robert Bly has made a point about something related to this insufficiency. He thinks that the best poetry, and perhaps all the best art, is created from the place where the artist has a wound. In the course of working with that wound, it can be turned into a kind of jewel, precious for the artist and for other people.

I'm not even sure if that's true, but it feels like it's related somehow, in some poetic way, to the experience I've had here this week.

The last thing that I want to talk about is the importance of all that you've been doing and thinking about here. I think it's clear what the importance is for teaching and for learning to play music. I've heard so many people talk about how they feel our art form is dying in some way, that the life is going out of it. The love that people wanted to put into it, somehow doesn't seem to be there. Whatever the good thing is that we believe is there, the audience isn't able to receive it. Maybe we're not sending it very well.

There's a lot of concern about that, which I share. I think it's clear that the things that we've been thinking about here are important to the process of making our art form more full of what we want it to be full of, and not blocked by side-effects of technology, by scars and wounds.

But I think there's another way in which what we're thinking about is important. This might be the most elusive thing of all to try and describe, but I'll give it a try.

Right now our country needs us to be doing this work. I'm not about to suggest that we need an Uncle Sam poster pointing at every piano teacher in the country, but I find—and many people have talked about this and felt this—that our society has a kind of soul sickness. Some people have even said that we're living in an insane culture.

It's certainly true that Bach’s music, as great as it is, has never been able to stop a war. There's only so much that music can do. But I believe that the things that we've been thinking about here have extensions that go to the depth of that soul sickness that we feel around us.

What's happened to the arts in America is that we've been marginalized. We're seen as a frill or, at best, as some kind of expensive and sophisticated entertainment. Those of us who are involved in the arts know that that's not so, that works of art offer things that are key to living. We've all felt that, even though we don't quite know how to talk about it.

Robert Bly, again, has written eloquently about this. He says, with respect to America's habit of denial of its problems, its unwillingness to face its problems, that one thing which can really help with this problem is great art and great literature. In fact, these are almost the only things that can help.

He says something very interesting: “What we need now is not avant-garde art but great art.” [This is from an essay in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.] He doesn't specify great art of a certain period; the emphasis is on the greatness. I think that there's a strong connection from that idea to the talk that you're doing about how to improve your teaching, and to the ongoing effort to improve the quality of the performances so that more of the artistry can come through.

In allowing ourselves to be marginalized, we're not just hurting ourselves as artists. In whatever little way we can teach with more clarity and compassion and awareness, to whatever extent we can play with real artistry and self-love and acceptance, to whatever extent we can do that, I think that we're going to help more than just our teaching, and more than just our art form.

I think that this is a kind of thinking and playing and composing—and being as human beings—that's really needed right now. We—all of us—have skills that we don't even know we have, or didn't know we had until we got here, amazing skills like combining intuition and logic, and using them together instead of in opposition; skills like being very precise about matters of heart and soulfulness; and other skills that are almost impossible to talk about.

What I'm saying is that these are valuable, and valuable in ways that we may not have realized. I certainly didn't realize this until very recently, and it's become more clear to me since being here.

I'd like to close by thanking you once again for helping me to see that and so many other things. I wish you all the best in your personal, unique, individual search.

Thank you.