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.