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Communion from Mass for the 4th Sunday of Lent
by Vidas Pinkevicius

On Sunday, Nov. 29 I was the guest on the podcast of Vidas Pinkevicius, a Lithuanian organist, teacher, composer, and blogger whose blog "Secrets of Organ Playing" is dedicated to "helping organists reach [their] dreams in organ playing." Vidas' podcast each week begins with him playing a piece he wrote for communion, which we talked about briefly, since I have recorded several of his pieces myself. This recording of mine features some obbligato birds that took up residence adjacent to our sanctuary, and serve to highlight the accompaniment pattern in the right hand, which Vidas said was influenced by the organ-composer Jean Langlais.


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week of Dec. 1:

first posted December 6, 2012

Practically everybody seems to have had some piano lessons in their past. Often they didn't go well. This year for Christmas I'm going to absolve you.

It takes two to tango, of course, and often the stories of woe center around the piano teacher. I can't tell you how many stories I've heard and seen about joyless and/or sadistic piano teachers who have driven their poor students to distraction and made them hate piano lessons and the piano. I can't really tell just how much of those encounters are actually the teacher's fault from this distance, but I can certainly imagine them getting a just share of the blame.

One of the issues is a lack of creativity. Piano teachers are often said to have no concept of musical creativity and to just try to kill it in their students. Many of my teachers in my formative years could have fit this bill, actually, but not the piano teacher. She was about the only one, some years, who didn't try to make me feel bad for changing the assignment slightly or trying to do something on my own initiative even if I wasn't really equipped for it. But I can imagine many piano teachers behaving the same way, and it saddens me. That's because many a piano teacher doesn't understand the creative process themselves, and therefore can't teach it; moreover, they may be threatened by it, and prefer to spend their time always trying to get the student just to read the notes in front of them and leave it at that. Possibly the most depressing story I read recently is from a well-regarded composer who said that he had learned to play the entire second movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony by ear--just by listening to it--and presented it at a piano lesson. "That's fine" said the teacher, "but did you practice your lesson?"

That's fine, she said. I don't usually want to slap people, but really. All that creative ability and she just sped right past it, because it didn't really count. Unfortunately there are always going to be people who don't recognize the value of being able to do things differently than they do. She probably said it sweetly and ever so firmly, primly, because, after all, it is all about doing your assignment.

Were this young man a student of mine, though, I do have to add that at some point we would want to make sure he had practiced his lesson. That's partly because discipline is very important if you want to accomplish anything, no matter how much it may chafe and no matter how often people complain whenever somebody makes them do something on the theory that they'll be better for it later. So is being able to play the notes on the page. There is a pretty fine line sometimes between creativity and incompetence (and rebellion) and sometimes it is necessary to stress putting your own musical whims on the shelf for a moment and trying--honestly trying--to come to terms with the music of people who really had something important to say to us. Still I think most piano teachers tend to err in this direction. Most students come with some creative ability and like to explore things and try them out. It is important to encourage this "goofing around." Because not only is it fun to experiment, it is also musical thinking. Maybe it really would sound better with this note instead of that note. As I mentioned, it is also possible that the student is changing the notes because they don't know how to read the ones on the page, and in that case a judicious case needs to be made for actually being able to do it. But even that doesn't need to be without fun.

I can recall many lessons from years past in which students were surprised that the lesson was over already. It wasn't because we weren't working hard. But you can tell jokes along the way and see things from a funny angle; you can forgive yourself for playing wrong notes but also practice in such a way that you probably won't miss them again; you can understand that you won't get everything to sound just right on the first try and set about creatively tackling the way to make it better, and learn to enjoy a challenge. Having fun and working hard don't have to be opposites, though I noted in childhood that for most kids that's exactly what they are. The minute any kind of rule is introduced, an organization, it isn't fun anymore. Too bad.

And that, unfortunately, is the other side of this albatross. There are a lot of bad teachers; there are also a lot of poor students. Piano playing always seems like it will be fun, but the mirage fades when it is time to practice. That's true of anything, but it seems especially true of piano lessons. Why? Well, for starters, if your kid doesn't do his math homework the teacher is on him or her the very next day. Your child probably spends about an hour a day on every subject taught in school under the supervision of the teacher, and sometimes two hours every day after school on soccer and volleyball and the next drama production. By contrast, the student spends half an hour a week with the piano teacher and then is expected to practice on their own for the next six days without anyone making sure that happens. Unless, of course, the parent applies a little pressure. But that doesn't happen nearly as often as it needs to. So, about a week later, when it turns out that your youngster is not the freakishly self-motivated exception to the rule, no progress has been made because sometime during the week mom got mad and made Susan march off to the piano where she pounded out a couple of songs once and that was five days ago and she hasn't touched the piano since. Seem like a recipe for success to you?

If you've sensed that perhaps you and I are on opposite sides of the line on this one--after all, I'm a piano teacher, and you likely are not--we can unite our frustrations here in much the same way that unites political argument: we can all blame the system. It's not really anybody's fault, per se, the system is just not designed for success.

Alright, it's probably not that easy, but you can see how if we, as a society, aren't taking music lessons all that seriously, in terms of spending time and/or money on it, we aren't likely to get results. Think about it. Johnny isn't doing so well in math class? The teacher sends a report home, there's a conference with the teacher and Johnny's parents (hopefully) and things get (at least somewhat) straightened around. That's how things work in a "real" class. Sports, too. You aren't doing your job? You're off the team. In music lessons, though, as numerous parents have told me, the object is for their child just to have fun. And if they aren't having fun....  Well, I think it should be fun, too. But if the minute it stops being fun you quit, you aren't that serious about it. Nobody threatens to pull their child out of reading or math if they aren't having fun. You do it anyway.

Now, many of you who have abandoned lessons are living with some degree of guilt, or embarrassment, or regret, and I promised I'd do something about that. So here are our options. 1) I can simply forgive you. As a member of the profession I can take it upon myself to represent musicians everywhere, and the muses themselves (why not? people pull stunts like that all the time) and tell you it's in the past and not to worry about it. Those negative emotions are really not so productive, you know? Why let them control your life, or form part of your character? Take charge, and let it go. There are enough pianists in the world that the species won't die out just because you are not among us. However it happened, it was your choice. Live with it. Go on. It's ok. Really.

2) If you feel like somehow this isn't enough, that there needs to be some sort of procedure involved, I can suggest one. I can't ask you to say 50 Hail Marys, but I could recommend you listen to some piano music. Maybe find 5 or ten pieces on the internet and listen to them. I mean really listen--don't do anything else with the music playing in the background. Pay attention. Or you could go to a piano recital. It doesn't have to be a professional one. You could go to a student recital and say encouraging things to the kids afterward about how nice it must be to play the piano and how you hope they stick with it. Do for them what you wished someone would have done for you, perhaps.

And that leads us to the next path: the path of involvement. There is nothing about this that is a done deal, permanent, unalterable. You could try taking piano lessons again. You could also say, been there, done that, don't really feel the need, not for me. That's ok. But if you think you might want to have another go, it is not too late. I've had retired people make wonderful students. Of course, you'll have to make time, and you'll have to practice. But don't go treating this like a New year's resolution where, two weeks into January, the first time you don't go to the gym, you give up on the whole year's resolution at once. Get back up on that horse and give it another try.

But you don't have to be a pianist to be involved in music. The NFL knows all about this. Every Sunday afternoon, or Monday night, or Thursday night, or Saturday afternoon, there are all sorts of people sitting on their couches watching football. They don't play football, most of them--maybe they did once, but gave it up, don't have much talent, and so on, but they are passionately interested in watching some other people play football. It is strange that that doesn't seem to translate to the piano. Practically everybody has given that a try at some point also. But the television is not filled with piano recitals, is it?

So here is something you could do if you are able. Support musicians. Go to concerts, talk to them. Encourage them. Buy their music. There aren't enough fans right now and you'd be doing something special. If you feel like you are lost in the world of piano music and need a primer, try reading the pianonoise blog with some regularity. Giving ordinary folks some insight into how all of that stuff works is exactly what the blog's about. And if you don't understand something, ask. That's what I'm here for. (try to be specific if you can) You could find yourself with a really interesting hobby, in addition to giving much needed support and encouragement to folks who could use some.

In any case, don't worry about it. I could have been a lot of things I didn't turn out to be; opened some doors, things didn't work out. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if things turned out differently. But I don't really mind how they did. I hope you don't, either.  Happy holidays. I'm going to go play some Christmas carols at a party. You can sing along.