Friday, April 26, 2013

Unexplained Importance




I recently read “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, a brilliant article by pianist Jeremy Denk published in the April 8th edition of The New Yorker. This piece affected me so much that I actually jumped out of my chair and went immediately to my computer to find Jeremy Denk and electronically grovel at his feet (That means I went to his website and sent him an email. BTW, he still hasn't responded. I'm okay with that).  


Denk's article is a reflection on piano lessons throughout his life, relationships to his teachers, the impact this study has had on his playing, and finally, his own work as a teacher. Many others have written on all of these topics. But Denk writes in a way that I think lets us into his inner life. He writes in a clear, yet emotional way, bravely telling details about his struggles and triumphs. I think that is what is so attractive to me. For those of you that don't know, being a concert pianist is one of the most difficult careers in which to be successful on the planet. Competition is fierce, both externally and internally. Most concert pianists I know are very obsessive and a tad neurotic. Rightly so. By opening the door to his inner life, Denk makes me think I could sit down with him at Starbucks, embrace the obsessions and neuroticism, and have a fascinating conversation, . I also know I'll seek out his next Philadelphia-area concert, because now I'm curious.  What kind of music comes out of someone who writes with such emotional clarity and power?

He has also affected me as a blogger. I find his posts interesting; I'm curious to read the next one and the next one. I also admire what feels like an ease in his writing style; he's talking directly to me, not you.  Finally, he lets me into his work and life without overwhelming me with too much information. Reading his blog has thrown me into a pool of questions about my own blog. What do I say? How do I say it? Is that what I want to be saying? Is that how I want to be saying it? Fascinating, and absolutely the reason I haven't been posting more frequently to Creatavita. Here's the link to Jeremy Denk's blog, Think Denk

You must read this article. If you have any curiosity about creativity at all, no matter what your level of expertise, you really have to read this article.  

And that's going to be a problem, unless you're a subscriber to The New Yorker (It's another reason why this post has taken so long to appear). From what I can figure out, The New Yorker posts articles from their current issue (it's a weekly magazine) for one week. Then the articles are shipped to their archives, which you can only access if you have a subscription. So I've been spending some time, trying to figure out the best way to get this article to all 25 of you that read my blog (thank you, by the way!). Here's the solution:

Post a comment to the blog and I'll send you a link to a pdf of the article which is happily waiting for you in my Google Drive and Dropbox.

To whet your appetites, here are some of my favorite ideas from the article:

On Practicing – if you've ever seriously studied an art form, participated in an athletic pursuit, taken up Pilates or yoga, or even tried to lose weight, you've encountered the concept of practice, even if that particular word wasn't used. I have had a lifelong love/hate relationship with the idea and execution of practice. What is practice anyway? Denk says practice is “the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens”. See that? Yes, the daily, but to me even more important are the following words, “rite of discovery”. I gasped when I read these words. I did. Here was another artist, another educator succinctly saying what I've been trying to say for years. We practice – to discover. Discover mistakes? Sure. Discover the notes and words we don't yet know? You bet. Discover ourselves? Oh my friends, my friends, indeed. To discover ourselves. No wonder we're afraid of it.

...bridge the gap between boring technical detail and the mysteries of the universe” is another phrase that jumped off the page at me. “Exactly!”, I thought to myself, “That's exactly what I strive for as well!” Where's that place, that moment, where the technique works so well I can dive into the rewarding work, the deep expression of my self?

As I taught my students at Bloomington, I absorbed the ironies of role reversal. When you give ideas to students, they tend either to ignore them or exaggerate them.” Silence took over my brain and a tinge of sadness took over my heart as I read these words. Denk is right. Communicating with students is one of the mightiest, perpetual struggles of being an artist AND a teacher. I remember one of my voice teachers saying to me, “Think of the most talented student you have who doesn't do the work you know she needs to do, the work you tell her to do. That's you to me.” She was right. Ouch.

One thing no one teaches you is how much teaching resembles therapy.” I get a lot of flack from colleagues, friends, even students (go figure, they're the ones reaping the benefits) for my approach to teaching, which can, on some level, resemble therapy. I gladly take the flack because I agree with Denk. Being a teacher is much like being a therapist. I've often thought of training as a therapist. If I did, I'd start the therapy session exactly like I start a voice lesson – at the piano with vocalization and go from there. I think that would be fascinating.

...the desire for perfection could be a deadly weakness. Living comfortably in that paradox, without even knowing it, is part of being a musician.” My friend Jean and I have an ongoing relationship with perfection. We affectionately refer to ourselves as recovering perfectionists and sadly, must keep each other on the non-perfect wagon with some regularity.  This is a huge topic, which I shall address in a future post.

And finally, There's a labyrinth of voices inside your head....Sometimes you wish you could go back and ask your teachers again to guide you; but up there onstage...you must simply find your way....the only person who can solve the labyrinth of yourself is you.”. I put this one in my mental pocket and used it at a performance of Bach's Easter Oratorio earlier this month. Performing within the labyrinth that Bach and I created together gave me somewhere to go, somewhere beyond “gees, I hope I get that passage right, I hope I sing that note well, I hope the orchestra likes me”. A somewhere that was a glorious pasture of music, art and all things beautiful. That's a better place to sing from anyway.


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