In the world of music conservatories, in the classical music community, exceptional musical talent is usually considered to be the ability to quickly recognize pitches by ear, the possession of reliable musical memory, and the athleticism and dexterity to navigate complex patterns on an instrument. We have not considered imagination, or artistic idea-making. Perhaps these are difficult to recognize? Perhaps it’s assumed that with fine skills will come insight and artistic comprehension?
Conservatories have focused on “how” an instrument is played. Not much attention is given to what this may represent, or to why a person does it at all. Perhaps conservatory training is for practitioners — but not really for artists?
In some institutions, making music and thinking about music are completely separated. Arriving at a distinguished music research institution in Belgium, my requests for a practice room were met with puzzlement. “There are no pianos or keyboards here…,” I was told.
Then, there was the coy remark of Leonard Bernstein, regarding the music department at Harvard (perhaps not applicable to a very different group of faculty and students at Harvard University today): “Harvard, the place where music is seen, but never heard.”
Without conceptual or cultural education, a musician may drift.
There are extraordinarily “gifted” musicians who use their abilities intuitively. The results can be wonderful; and yet, these musicians may have difficulty finding a path for development. The language we use is perplexing. After a recital at Alice Tully Hall, a distinguished colleague complimented the 29-year-old me: “You are so gifted.” I thought it was strange praise for a hard-working adult…
Today, I’m troubled listening to some recordings by the piano legend Arthur Rubinstein. By accounts, Rubinstein had the excellent ear and remarkable musical memory that defined a “gifted” musician. There can be a fantastic ebullience in his playing.
Listen to the recording of Albeniz’ Triana made in 1931, or Rubinstein’s fanciful, flawed (?), levitational playing of Chopin’s Barcarolle in 1928. But Rubinstein’s own remarks echo in my mind. In recounting his search for a teacher in Berlin, decades later Rubinstein wrote: “To my misfortune, the great Busoni was away on a concert tour, a fact I still deeply regret.” And writing of Ferruccio Busoni in his published memoirs, Rubinstein said: “He was the one person who might have oriented my talent in a better direction — a man with a broad view, both artistically and culturally, a genuinely great human being.”
And what might Busoni have done? Would he have encouraged a student in critical thinking? Would he have guided a student away from the standard repertoire of the time? Would Busoni have helped Rubinstein to understand his own talent? Would Rubinstein have become a composer?
Of course, there are other views. Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra tried to tap the music that’s inside the musically untrained, even the “untalented.” The conventional acquisition of virtuosity on an instrument can’t be dissociated from privilege. And let’s admit that evaluations of musical talent can be culturally biased, or exclusionary.
As music-making entered higher education, various attempts have been made to combine musical doing and thinking. Doctor of Musical Arts degree programs in American conservatories and universities admit accomplished performers and aim to strengthen their analytical, critical, and artistic apparatus. It can work.
Strangely the teaching of one-on-one music lessons in elite institutions of higher learning continues to rely on approximation: bromides, platitudes, recipes. For how much longer? Can’t we do more to help the “gifted”?