They Didn’t Laugh When I Sat Down to Play

Sarah Cahill’s goading me about my piano skills (in the comments) brings to mind an incident from my youth that I’ve been remembering lately. I foolishly quit taking piano lessons late in my undergrad career. Three years go by, and, finishing my doctorate at Northwestern, I thought I should study piano again while I still had the chance. I was assigned to Lawrence Davis, a sharp, meticulous, expert chamber musician who spent his life grooming his hotshot undergrads to become concert pianists. (He’s no longer listed on the faculty; seems like he was in his 50s 27 years ago, and may well still be around.) He was not happy about having to mentor this great, hulking composition student with rusty finger technique, but to his eternal credit, he realized I was more knowledgeable than his budding Horowitzes, and he gave me music to work on that would challenge me intellectually, even if it was too difficult for me.

The most ambitious thing Davis had me play was Beethoven’s Op. 90 sonata, to this day nearly my favorite Beethoven. The piece opens with the same chord played twice:


One day, five times in a row he yelled “Stop!” during that little eighth-note rest between the first and second chords and made me start over. He just did not like the way I played that first chord. We spent quite a bit of time on the first two measures without me really grasping what was wrong. At last he let me go ahead and run through the entire movement. After the final chord, no immediate comment seemed forthcoming. I looked over and saw that he was turned away from me, quietly weeping.

Actually, this spurs me to make a complaint about grad schools that I’ve nurtured for a long time. In grad school I took piano lessons with a professor who did not want to be teaching a non-major; I took conducting classes with a conductor who did not want a non-conducting-major in his class; and I took philosophy seminars with professors who resented having a music major sit in. By and large, these were some of the best things I did in grad school. The theory courses I was supposed to be in were mostly a linear continuation of what I’d studied at Oberlin, and I could have learned that material on my own. With the exception of Peter Gena’s fantastic late-Beethoven course, it was the courses outside my major that did the most for me – and it was a shame that I had to draw that benefit under the nagging discomfort of the professor’s visible and continuing disapproval. Because of that experience, I have always tried to be especially supportive of non-majors whenever I’ve taught graduate courses – and undergrad ones.


  1. says

    As an undergrad taking many courses outside my major, I have to agree — in fact those courses were stimulating enough that I decided to acquire another major on the way. I’m lucky never to have faced disapproval from professors — if anything they are supportive of someone from ‘outside’ being curious about their subject.

  2. says

    Many of my most engaging and rewarding composition students have been the non-majors. My Intro To Comp class is specifically for undergrad non-comp music majors. I get a lot of music tech people in there, and their homework is usually among the most creative and fun and conceptually rich. They also like that I accept studio pieces that aren’t notated in any way, and they can submit them as MP3s by e-mail.
    I’ve had a critical writing major do very well in my class. She did occasionally have to put notes on a page, but mostly she found ways of addressing the current subject – chance procedures, music as process, etc. – in word pieces that demonstrated she knew what I was talking about.
    Last year I had a film directing major in the class, and his comments and insights, especially regarding the films of John Cassavetes, really enriched the dicsussion of several of our topics in ways that are beyond what my own expertise can bring.
    “Bring on the non-majors”, say I.
    But then, I was a percussion major all through school, so all the composition I did was extra-curricular.

  3. Peter says

    If it’s any consolation, Kyle, let me relate a story about AI pioneer Herbert Simon, the only person to win both a Nobel Prize in Economics and a Turing Award (the equivalent of a Nobel in Computer Science). Despite his great fame, and despite the pressures on his time, apparently Simon would always agree to supervise MSc and PhD students whom his fellow faculty had rejected as being too weak. Lots of second-rank students owe their graduation to his unstinting time and devotion.

  4. David Cavlovic says

    Ah, Beethoven’s Op. 90. Seriously under-rated, and more modern than most people realize. Dissonant chords abound in the first movement, yet the second is sehr-romantic. Interesting that Davis would care perhaps a little too much for the 8-th note silence. However, the momentum of the first two (albeit same) chords sets the tone and pace of the the whole work (not unlike a similar moment in a minor-key Schubert Sonata that is also a tad unkown).

  5. daniel fiskin says

    wait, kyle!!!!
    did you ever think that he was moved by the beauty and tenderness of your playing?
    chin up,
    KG replies: Yeah, I tried out that theory.

  6. mclaren says

    Call me a mutant. It’s so megabitchin’ that this professor could actually cry in front of someone else — and all because of a piece of music. That’s the lesson I would’ve taken from that whole incident. Here was this world-class pianist/professor who wasn’t afraid to weep in front of another guy! Wow. What a great lesson: keep your heart open, ditch the macho crap, and never worry what other folks think. That is so insanely cool.