Freeing the Fossils

Opening Remarks in Address to the World Piano Pedagogy Conference, 2000

by Matthew Harre

Keynotes, 2000

If I brought one of my 50-year-old adult students to play at this conference, one who started taking lessons at age 40 and in ten years learned to played as well as the kids playing here, nobody would care. Nobody would be impressed to see or hear her performance. Nobody would line up to "ooh" and "ah."

Why is it that a young person's accomplishment seems so impressive but a similar accomplishment by an older person, an adult, does not? Why is it perceived so differently? It certainly doesn't have to do with the learning accomplishment, because if anything, the adult's accomplishment would be even more spectacular.

Clearly, the world of the adult piano student is different than the child's. There are few similarities save that it's the same subject and that all students are different.

That we have adult students is fairly new, and we have a lot of them. For this to happen, we need a society affluent enough to have the disposable income above the basic needs of the family. We have to be affluent enough to be able to spare the time to take lessons and practice. We need a somewhat narcissistic adult community that focuses on it's own needs and not just the needs of the next generation. Perhaps we also need a society that has a certain "empty" feeling for whatever psychological or spiritual reason that may be. Our society is certainly characterized as such.

For those of us teaching adults, there are few guides and many questions.

Why do adults take lessons? We teachers tend to focus on performance and "doing it right"; that is, getting the right notes and rhythms, effective pedaling, playing stylistically, etc. While the adults are very involved with these concerns about doing it right, they also find other joys, perhaps more important ones, in their work at the piano.

A former student of mine, Kate Kimball, heading toward the intermediate level of development and intensely interested in music, wrote the following:

"So what keeps me coming back (to these lessons)?"

After rejecting reasons of insanity and the need to constantly fail she goes on:

"The explanation I like best is that I play for those moments when music plays me. It doesn't happen very often. It doesn't last more than a second or two. My playing may not even sound any better. But that moment when I am inside the music is about the sweetest feeling I have ever known and I will do anything to get back there. Even practice."

Not a student of mine, but another adult amateur, Melanie Rehack, wrote an article for the Op-Ed Page of the New York Times. A beginning student, she wrote of the frustrations of lessons, but concludes as follows:

"When I did finally manage to produce something resembling music, it was uneven; it rode upon a dubious tempo and was entirely unburdened by the imperatives of dynamics and proper rhythm. Nevertheless, I was beside myself with glee."

I think these women are telling us that music is a passion for them because of the process of learning to play the piano; not just because of the brilliance of their accomplishment.

As teachers we tend to obsess on the excellence of the finished product. Both of these women, one a lawyer and the other a writer and poet, are obsessed with perfection in their own fields, but clearly not solely focused on the brilliant product in their music. One of them dismisses the question as irrelevant (she doesn't even know if it's better or not) and the other keenly aware of her limitations. Yet both are having a wonderful time.

It strikes me that they are experiencing something of what we experienced as youngsters before we became obsessed with "doing it the right way" and becoming overwhelmed by our musical and technical inadequacies; in other words, before we became professional.

In our professional sense of performance, we may have lost some of our own capacity to experience the great joys and passions the amateurs find. In exchange for that loss, I hope we have found other joys. We must, however, honor and respect the feelings of our amateurs and be very careful not to steal these feelings away by insisting the professional experience is the only valid way.

After all, you can still pray even if you have not chosen to become a celibate priest. You can enjoy playing tennis even though you don't compete in major tournaments. So, too, with music.

We must be very cautious in our sense of superiority.

Peter Mose and I do an amateur adult program in the Czech Republic 10 days in the summer. Franca Leeson wrote our brochure and in there reminds us that we must remember that "a large portion of our music literature was written for amateur performers;" that great musicians have tended "to come from amateur music making families;" that the money that supports our musical life style comes from these amateurs; and that amateur musicians "continue to guide and manage the musical world as educators, decision makers, fundraisers, audiences, and consumers."

These people deserve the best we have to offer them, and it is our responsibility to offer them our best. That there is only one session devoted to adult amateurs at this conference is an impressive testament to our failure to take our benefactors seriously.

This failure is not limited to music. There are dozens of theories of intellectual development in children; but for adults, these theories are few and far between. There are theories of physical and neuromuscular development for children; but for adults, physical "development" seems to be a downward spiral --yet many of us know this is a very limited picture. There are lots of questions and not many answers about adult learning because few researchers have been interested in the growth of us older folk. That is part of our task today.

Copyright 2000 Matthew Harre


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