Thoughts on teaching
Teaching music can be one of the most rewarding pursuits for a musician. Above all, it allows us to share what we have learned and pass it on directly to others.
When teaching, it is necessary to consider many aspects at once, including physical requirements, musical and historical aspects, and theory. All are indispensable for becoming a well-rounded musician. Attending to the physical side is necessary so that there can be ease of execution. If proper positioning and movement are worked on right from the beginning one can eliminate most of the common problems that result from too much tension in the wrists, elbows and shoulders. Two of the finest short books on how to play the instrument are Piano Technique by Gieseking and Leimer and Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing by Josef Lhevinne. Musical and historical aspects, on the other hand, aid in giving the process of learning an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual fulfillment. And regular discussion of the theory behind the notes simply allows the student to read and comprehend the flow of the music with greater rapidity and fluency. If one continually teaches harmony through the pieces that are being learned, it will make for better reading, memorizing and improvising in the long run.
A few thoughts on reclaiming the transcription
and improvisation traditions in piano teaching
In recent years, pedagogues have been devoting more time to the problem of how to re-introduce improvisation into traditional piano instruction. It is a difficult issue that has long preoccupied me as well. I believe that the main reason we still have so much difficulty implementing improvisation is because, at the grassroots musical level, we spend so much time and creative energy learning masterpieces by great composers. The humble products of improvisation just cannot measure up to this. We are further hampered by the “urtext” philosophy as a means of achieving correct stylistic performance. What is more, we still insist on applying this philosophy to eras such as the 18th Century when such a concept was all but unknown.
Improvisation was once taught methodically to every piano student, as is shown by a number of treatises by Carl Czerny, one of the greatest piano pedagogues of the 19th Century. A fine example is found in Czerny's 110-page Systematic Introduction to Improvisation on the Piano, Op 200 (1829) pictured above. Another related work by Czerny is the 130-page The Art of Preluding, Op 300 (c. 1833). However, by the mid-twentieth century, the canon of great composers and masterpieces had become such an overpowering and even intimidating presence among musicians that the compulsion to compose and improvise decreased dramatically. Why would we as musicians want to make up our own humble music when we had an already ample supply of the greatest music ever written? This feeling, together with the triumph of the philosophy of the urtext edition (which, theoretically at least, gave the musician direct access to the composer's unedited thoughts), more or less ensured that the desire to develop improvising skills (along with composing) had mostly died out in traditional teaching. All that was left of the improvising tradition was to be found in certain specialist circles such as the pipe organ world (where improvisation is still a required skill) and a very small handful of concert pianists. Only in popular, jazz and folk traditions did it continue to thrive in a natural way. Happily, among classical musicians, there are now definite signs of a renewed desire to take a chance on improvising.
Unfortunately, throughout most of musical history, there were no recordings and the countless improvisations that took place over the centuries are forever lost to us. Mozart, for instance, wrote numerous sonatas but only a tiny handful of notated fantasias, which are essentially written-improvisations. In real life, literally thousands of fantasias spilled from his fingertips throughout his short career. Clearly, we have a somewhat lopsided view of music from the past simply because all we can see is what Mozart and others actually put down on paper.
I would also offer the suggestion that as teachers, we pluck up the courage to give ourselves the freedom to allow students to at least experiment a little with deliberately altering the notation in standard works. And even, eventually, make their own arrangements of them if they see fit. For many centuries in the history of classical music this was a routine musical activity. Hummel made many arrangements of Mozart's piano concertos. Liszt did not hesitate to rewrite passages in standard piano works by Beethoven and Schubert. Godowsky arranged the Chopin Etudes in multiple ways, as did many others. And, of course, virtually everybody helped themselves to Bach (just as Bach had once helped himself to the music of his own time). Changing and adapting the notes of the masters thus has a long and very honourable tradition, and we should not hesitate in passing that fundamental concept of music history on to our students at every available opportunity. It used to be a natural part of musical life. It can be that once again.
A related aspect is the so-called "interpretive" edition, typically edited by famous musicians who add their own musical thoughts to the composer's markings. Such editions fell into serious disrepute with the triumph of the urtext philosophy. Even the most brilliant musicians such as von Bülow, Schnabel, Bartok, Cortot, and Busoni, were severely chastised for adding dynamic markings and slurs where Beethoven, Mozart and Bach had not written them. We need to take a fresh look at the tradition of interpretive editions and teach our students to respect it for the very considerable musical wisdom that it can still impart to us today. It is far too valuable to be thoughtlessly dismissed.