Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Joy of Learning

The Arrowhead Trio gathered yesterday for a coaching session with the premiere violinist and violin teacher in our area. Our clarinetist had warned us, "that may be more scary than playing a concert." Concertgoers usually don't know the music well, but here was an expert hovering over our scores as we played. We felt as if we were looking at pimples, wrinkles and hair follicles in a magnifying mirror.

Our coach focused us on something I didn't emphasize in my "Day of a Concert" posting -- preparedness in interpretation. His questions reminded us of conversations we'd had, then swept under the rug. Professionals know how the group will approach each decision point in performance. Amateurs may face the music with more randomness, failing even to recognize many of those decision points.

Music gets harder to play -- better, but more difficult -- the more you learn about it. My first violin teacher (I began taking lessons at the ripe young age of 51) used to laugh when I arrived at my lesson muttering, "I feel as if I'm starting over. I thought I was getting better and now I realize I'm still terrible." "You've passed another threshold," he'd say, "it happens to all of us." Let's call them levels of learning. Arriving at a new threshold, self-defined or induced by the way a series of method books is organized, we feel frustrated that so much remains to be learned, "I'm getting nowhere." If we keep plugging away, we settle into the new level and begin to feel comfortable again. Bam! We hit the next threshold -- "what was I thinking? I'm lousy at this." We keep at it or we quit.

A couple anecdotes come to mind, but please don't quote me because they may be pure fiction. Several singers told me stories about John Bullock (father of the actress, Sandra), a well-known teacher of singing. According to the lore, if Mr. Bullock accepted you as a student (far from a sure thing; you had to be good), you might go six months working on vocal production before singing a single song. I heard a similar story about Yo-Yo Ma -- that when he was a regional artist he asked Pablo Casals to teach him. At first, Mr. Casals refused. When the young Ma persisted, the elder master agreed on the condition that Ma not use his fingerboard for six months -- that is, he would exclusively work on bowing technique. The "sabbatical" supposedly helped Yo-Yo Ma break onto the international scene.

All of us draw different lines in our efforts to learn, for various reasons, including intelligence, natural talent, physical ability, discipline, time constraints, wealth, and cultural values. Some will look at Virginia and say, "What a shame! She could have been a star." Others will say, "What a gem! She's one star who has her head on straight."

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