I enjoyed reading V.com member Brian Hong's piece earlier this week about people playing pieces before they are ready. Brian is 15, and his thoughts provoked a veritable flame war. I know, from being on the Internet nearly as long as Brian has been alive, that it's a little weird to be the author when something like that happens, but Brian, it's all goodness. You made people argue, talk...even think.
In fact, the piece and ensuing discussion make me think about the issue of being ready for a piece. I believe Brian was referring mostly to people being technically ready, though he did touch briefly on people being expressively ready to play a piece.
And this is where my thoughts picked up: when is a student ready to play a piece, from the standpoint of expression?
I've heard the idea that sometimes children and teenagers aren't ready to play a piece because they don't have enough “life experience” to understand the feelings in a piece. I don't buy it. I've even heard of teachers saying that their student needs to “go get your heart broken a few times” before they can really understand most music.
How condescending, and how myopic.
You don't need your feelings inflamed and raked over by a love affair to claim ownership real emotion in life. Everyone has feelings -- deep feelings -- including children. These include: love, loss, longing, joy, exhilaration, panic, boredom, anticipation, excitement, melancholy...the list goes on.
Music is the universal language of feelings, and though your exhilaration might come from falling in love, mine might come from Northwestern University actually winning a football game. A two-year-old's might come from going down the big slide on the playground.
I can remember when my daughter was four years old, and she was visiting a friend that she had not seen in a while. When they saw each other, they bellowed each other's names from across the park, broke into a run, charged at one another, hugged, laughed, jumped up and down, and ran off together.
The other mother looked at me and laughed, “Imagine if we greeted each other like that!” We talked through the whole scenario, how we'd drop our purses, run at each other, scream at the top of our lungs...
Yes, kids have feelings, you might even argue that they feel them more fully than adults do. They are not immune to pain: parents divorce, friends turn on them, the family moves to a new and strange city. They are not emotionally empty slates.
So please, do not write off a child's expressive capabilities; they have plenty on which to draw. Before saying they are not “emotionally ready,” ask, have their lessons made them musically prepared? Are they building a musical-expressive vocabulary?
Building a musical-expressive vocabulary starts with simple expression, just as it does when learning vocabulary in a foreign language. You learn phrases and context, and later, you will put them together in your own, unique way. But first, one has to learn the conventions. For example: The staccato that feels bouncy, the legato that feels smooth; the musical interruption that feels startling; the low, quiet ascending pattern that feels sneaky. A teacher should help a student connect the feeling and the music, and build that connection into their musical vocabulary. The larger this vocabulary, the more tools the student will have for self-expression down the line.
Lacking a musical expressive vocabulary is not the same thing as lacking feeling or emotion. The musical vocabulary is teachable. And the feelings are there, you can be assured.
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