Saturday, April 26, 2008

Student Performers

Regular readers may have noticed a tendency on my part to refer by name only to professional musicians, as opposed to students, such as those at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, or adult amateurs. This may be a reflection on my personal experience. One of things I remember about being a student, particularly a graduate student, was the way in which it seemed to grant me the ability to experiment "from a safe place." Education is very much a matter of exploration, and one cannot be a successful explorer by going down paths that have already been beaten smooth. Forging a new path, however, always carries an element of risk; and in the "real world" some of those risks could entail dire changes in the rest of your life if they are not approached with considered caution. Educational institutions provide at least some level of buffering against such drastic consequences, although, at a school like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are any number of subject areas where the potential risks to a student can be pretty serious. One of those subject areas is biology, which is one reason why I tend to worry about increased numbers of students choosing it as a major simply because they see it as the best choice for a career path.

In the performing arts the risks are not as serious as infecting the world with an antibody-resistant virus when an experiment goes wrong; but, from the point of view of trying to make a career, the risks are still there. The problem is a relatively simply one, even if it has to be expressed in totally inartistic terms: The demand ("slots" in blunt business-speak) for performers is an extremely small fraction of the supply (as is also the case in professional athletics). Thus, while I tend to take a dim view of what a "culture of competition" (which includes not only prize-awarding contests but auditions for employment) tends to do to both the craft and art of performing, that culture is an unavoidable consequence of the number of institutions that now contribute to the supply level. This is not to imply that I would be providing unfair advantage by naming students who will soon be contributing to that "supply population," since most competitions are conducted behind reasonably (but not always) effective barriers of anonymity. Rather, I am just trying to encourage that idea that, in an educational setting, it is "safe" to take certain chances that would probably impose too great a risk in a serious competition.

Another reason stems from the primary theme behind all of my posts about music, which is that we listen to music in order to be better listeners. To the extent that I would not call myself a "professional listener," I feel it is one thing for me to write about what I have learned about listening from Menahem Pressler or Michael Tilson Thomas and quite another to address this topic where someone not yet in the professional arena is concerned. After all, if I am trying to argue that learning to listen is a critical element in learning to play, who am I, still learning to listen myself, to dwell too much on others who are also learning? Indeed, if we go back to that remark by Stravinsky, which I so value, about the distinction between hearing and listening, we never arrive at a "goal" in the course of learning to listen, because we shall always be exposed to new experiences that will demand the synthesis (as I recently put it) of new strategies for listening. Thus, to invoke one of my least favorite clichés from the business world, listening to music is a matter of "lifelong learning."

From this point of view, a writer can do little more than document "evidence of things heard" (if I may warp the language of Paul's epistle to the Hebrews—11:1). This is what I tried to do yesterday in writing about Thursday evening's student recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. What emerged was not so much a review (at least in the sense of material that professional performers and their agents scan to harvest items to put in a press kit) as one person's account of what it was like trying to be a good listener at the event. To the extent that any text can serve to initiate a conversation, the difference resides in my writing for the sake of conversation with the students as well as the audience, rather than with any of the "players in the professional game." Within that context the "bottom line" of the entire post may be an account of listening to a student recital that provided as much of a learning experience as those master classes I have previously witnessed and documented. For those who insist on turning any such proposition into a value assessment, I would say that I can think of no better statement of praise for students preparing to "make it" in the professional world than such an assertion!

No comments: