by Khoo Hui Ling
Opening up to music, which is Part 2 of What It Means To Have A Lifelong Friendship with Music, is very much like opening up to a friend. It is about connecting emotionally with music. It is about seeking to learn and understand first before making any judgement. The former requires humility, while the latter, curiosity.
Leon Fleisher, a pianist greatly revered not just for his commanding musicianship but his gentle soul, is a living embodiment of humility and curiosity. For those who may not be so acquainted with the pianist, in his mid-thirties and at the height of his performing career, Mr. Fleisher lost the use of his right hand due to focal dystonia. Resilience saw him through thirty or so years of experimental treatment, as well as a spectacular career as a teacher and conductor. Half his lifetime later in his seventies, he regained the use of his right hand and cut a CD Two Hands. Not too long ago, he celebrated his 90th birthday, performing in major music festivals.
In the article “Lessons I Learned From My Dad” written for the New York classical music radio station WQXR’s blog, Julian Fleisher calls his dad, Leon Fleisher, a “badass”. I think for many of us, we can only aspire to be that bad of an ass. It is an easy and humorous read which you can explore here: https://wqxr.org/story/lessons-learned-dad-leon-fleisher-piano/.
“A few years ago, Leon came to town to play chamber music. Sadly, due to a gig of my own, I wasn’t able to attend. The next day, as is the custom in our family, I called to ask how it went. To my surprise, he wasn’t happy. On the subject of his concerts, he’s rarely jubilant — but then again he’s also rarely blue. He offered that the problem was that there was one piece by Brahms on the program that he just didn’t know very well. In disbelief, I replied that he’d been playing Brahms for more than 80 years! How could that be? His answer left me speechless: ‘Not this piece. I’ve only been playing this piece for 5 years.’ Let that sink in.”
Yesterday, a student asked me, “When can I move on to a new piece? I’ve been at this for 7 months.” Armed with the above artillery of a story, I shot back at her, “7 months is just slightly over 1/10th of Mr. Fleisher’s 5 years.” It helped that she was good at math, because her jaw dropped. She’s a smart egg because she quickly returned the blow with, “But, 5 years is already half of my current lifetime.” She had a point. I realized then that I had forgotten what being a kid was like, that there were much better ways to nurture curiosity and to explain to a little one that getting to know a piece of music intimately is a lifetime’s work.
To hone curiosity, it is insufficient for teachers to encourage finding answers to questions. We must nurture a knack for asking the unanswered questions in our young. Why, how, when, what, so what? Some questions reflect higher order thinking. However, for starters, creating a safe environment where no question is ever labelled as a lesser question is crucial. Teachers can even walk the talk by asking questions and finding the answers together with the student. When asking questions is positively reinforced, children are encouraged to take the first step towards probing for a deeper understanding of the pieces they play. Seeking unanswered questions shows us how there is always something new to learn, no matter how long we have lived with a piece.
“If Leon’s contribution to music can be distilled down to one thing, it’s this: Serve the music, honour the composer’s intent. When he plays, there is none of the romantic, self-dramatizing gesturing that typifies many soloists in the classical universe. He plays with an absolute economy of motion, as if to say, ‘Don’t look at me, listen to the music.’ What the soloist ‘feels’ is of no use to a listener. I’ve no doubt that if he could place a screen between himself and the audience, he would seriously consider it. When translating between two parties, make every effort to keep your own ego out of the transaction.”
To many young students, performance is about showcasing their skill. It is about featuring them as virtuosos. This can actually be a wonderful trait. In fact, for those who are shyer and more susceptible to the symptoms of stage fright, cultivating a healthy diva confidence is a good thing.
However as mentioned, opening up to music is like opening up to a friend, and any relationship can’t just be about ‘me’. It is about understanding what the composer sought to express, empathizing with that and then having the courage to express those raw emotions vulnerably. It takes humility to prioritize the composer’s intentions above our ego, and then to emote sincerely in front of people regardless of judgement.
It is all very easy to philosophize, but how do we teach humility? Humility is not a skill, but a state of mind. It is not something that can be developed with practice drills. Rather, it takes awareness. This is why conversing with a student is so important. Some would feel that it is a waste of lesson time. On the contrary, I think if a teacher is able to understand and instil personal awareness in the student through meaningful conversation, students take away not just musical lessons but life lessons.
A ZEST FOR LIFE
The more I reflect on the matter of opening up to music, I realize that it is part of the bigger picture of opening up to life. Through curiosity and humility, the world around us becomes a universe of the undiscovered, and joy in learning becomes a way of living. Isn’t it wonderful that through music teaching, we could inspire more than just a love for music, but a zest for life too?