January 2015

Play it really fast!

Sometimes you’re lucky enough to teach an especially talented student. I suppose what I mean by that is a student who is not only talented but also very advanced. The prospect is made that much more interesting when the student happens to be very young. A student of mine for example who is somewhere around the 11 year old mark and about to take grade 8.

This student is very technically adept. They actually practise (a lot!) and when you ask for something to be done, it somehow magically is. This is almost the dream student... almost...

There is however, a tiny thing missing. But what an important thing it is. Imagine tackling a second movement of a Mozart sonata. Now, something I’ve come to realise with more musical maturity is that the key to understanding Mozart’s piano sonatas is listening to and understanding his opera. The more you know about Mozart’s opera (or at least his symphonies) the more you understand his piano writing. You start to hear opera in the sonatas - you can imagine the kinds of voices he could have been thinking about for each passage.

Second movements tend to be slow. They also tend to be very lyrical - soaring right hand melodies. In fact, during my A-level teaching, I often have students mistaking them for pieces from the romantic era. You get the idea, theses are pieces that have to be loved and understood.

Imagine then the frustration of hearing a young student playing it really rather fast (almost double the speed) and proclaiming that it is much more interesting when played fast. It’s not that I can’t understand their point of view - at that age, it is fast and exciting things that tend to stand out. But I see someone who has talent and technical ability but as yet lacks the musical maturity to understand that music can be slow and beautiful. Trying to explain that playing the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique is (in some ways) as hard as playing Chopin’s first study is something of a lost cause.

I am of course always pleased and proud to have a student who is so dedicated as to be able to play Chopin’s first study should they wish. These people do not come along too often. To nail the point, I suppose it is that I recognise that they are so tantalisingly close to perfection. Yet there is no way to make them see it. I shouldn’t wonder as I think I had the same effect on my teacher at a similar age. It is something that (for most people) only comes with age. One more example. Have you heard of Einaudi? Modern composer who tends to write lots of relatively slushy but to some extent attractive piano music. Young people seem to lap it up - it really seems to inspire them to learn various passages which I’m all for. The amount of students at my school who ask me to teach them how to play various little sections of one of his pieces. But what happens? They go off and play it at more than twice the speed of the original!

I know they will change - one day, they will take as much pleasure in playing a beautiful slow movement as they currently take in playing something flashy. Its just a shame it can’t all come at once.