Tonight, my kids had their annual Christmas recital. Rudolph played piano and Holly played both piano and violin in the recital.
The kids’ music teacher does these recitals roughly 3 times per year – he borrows the sanctuary at his church, rolls in a big grand piano and gives each of his students a chance to perform. The format is very simple – he starts with the newest students. These included a little girl (roughly 6 years old who wore a fluffy dress and a tiara (yes, a tiara) and plunked out a simple song on the piano. They also included the music teacher’s twin granddaughters who I’m guessing are 7 years old. They live in the city but schlepped out to the suburbs to perform in grandpa’s recital. I guess I should note that this wasn’t just nepotism – the music teacher comes into NYC once a week to give his granddaughters lessons. The young performers were adorable. It didn’t matter that the songs they performed were simple and rudimentary, or even if they hit a few clunky notes along the way. They each put on a pretty dress, got up in front of a church full of strangers, and did their thing. Everyone in the room was very supportive and encouraging.
In the middle, there was quite a range of performers. And this is where I noticed something. Some of these middle range performers were technically, quite good. They hit all of the notes, their tone was good, and they made it from start to finish without a hitch. What was troubling about some of these performances, however, was that in some cases, the performers seemed like audioanimatronic robots like something out of the Hall of Presidents at Disney World. They were so mechanical in their playing that I imagined that a similar performance could probably be given by a machine -- programmed to perfectly hit every note.
But that’s the rub – music is emotional. It can be happy, sad, passionate, frightening. It is music in movies that helps set the tone by the emotional weight it carries. Not to judge too harshly, but the performances by some of these kids, while technically perfect in some instances, were somewhat boring. In those cases, the kids were not performing music – they were playing notes. It was interesting to me how disparate these middle range performances were – simply by the passion infused in the performance of the instrumentalist.
Is it possible to teach this kind of passion? And if you can, how? I’m willing to bet some of these middle range kids practice an hour or so each day. Is it somewhere around 37 minutes into a practice that a kid suddenly smacks his/her forehead and exclaims, “Wait! This is a love song.” And from that point forward, they inject gobs of passion into their playing. Is that the way it works? It’s quite fascinating to me.
Thankfully, the last group of performers – the ones that have been studying with this teacher for years – for the most part “got it”. Their pieces seemed full of nuance – quiet passages followed by melodic explosions. Their “highs” were higher and their “lows” were lower. And when they played, they seemed to get lost in the music, feeling the passion of the piece. So if most of these advanced students “got it”, again I wonder what was the magic agreement that led to their Helen Keller moment of understanding?
Fans of music on the radio get the passion of it. Whether we’re talking pop, rock, classical or country, listeners understand these are often tales about love, loss, anger and lust. We can feel the emotional state of the songwriter shining through the air to our radios. I’m willing to even bet that most of those middle range students have favorite songs from the radio and if we asked them why those songs were their favorites, they would mention things about the emotional impact of many of these songs. Even so, when these kids play their instruments, they fail to produce music and only play notes.
In my mind, it is kind of like learning a new language. Someone could take high school French and nail all of the vocabulary, conjugations and pronunciations. Technically proficient but without any passion. For anyone out there with any teaching experience, I’d be very curious to hear how this kind of passion gets taught.