Preserving the joy

From time to time, I give classes for teenagers, and occasionally even pre-teens. I always enjoy these – the enthusiasm, the honesty, the idealism of these young people is frequently so touching and inspiring.

One thing sometimes bothers me, however: despite their obvious love of music, I often get the feeling that the students aren’t really having a good time playing their instruments. Of course, it’s a nerve-wracking thing to have to get up (or sit down) in front of one’s peers, as well as a teacher, and to try to give of one’s best; it’s not always going to go as well as we would hope. That’s just part of being a musician. But I do think that some of the nervousness, the tension, comes from an attitude that is basically wrong. Students seem terrified of missing a note; they often hunch over their instruments, eyes glued to the fingerboard as if it might run off if they were ever to look away.

So one misses a note – or even a few notes; is that such a disaster? We’re there to tell a story, not to pronounce every syllable flawlessly. Of course one has to be well-prepared, so that one is more likely to play accurately; and one has to work endlessly on basic intonation (I still have to do that every day). But a body hunched in an attitude of tension and worry won’t help at all; it inhibits the sound, as well as the regular breathing which is such an important part of relaxation. All bad tension comes between the player and the music – and that’s a pity for the listener as well as the player. We sit there feeling miserable and concerned as we watch the player poised rigidly, gasping, struggling with the notes. We should be doing is being taken on a journey with the performer – a beautiful musical journey.

I believe that this tension usually comes from being pointed in the wrong direction from an early age, almost as soon as it becomes evident that a young player has talent. It is quite right that parents and teachers should encourage a child to develop his or her gifts as far as possible; and that may – probably will – require firmness when it comes to practice-time. Alas, though, that encouragement all too often spills over into pushy competitiveness. I have still never forgotten the time, many years ago, when a friend of mine and I wandered into a concert given by the pupils of a New Jersey piano teacher. One little boy walked onstage and sat at the piano. ‘Now, Johnny’ (or whatever the unfortunate young man’s name was) asked the teacher brightly, ‘is it true that you’ve just won a prize for sport?’ Johnny agreed that he had. ‘So – are you going to win at piano too?’

The teacher had missed the point – and, more importantly, was leading her students away from the point. We know that competitions are a necessary – well, perhaps – evil in music (though neither I not many of my favourite colleagues – Andras Schiff, Joshua Bell, Jeremy Denk, to name just a few – ever won a major international competition); but they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Music is NOT a competitive sport!

And when I see a child looking tense and worried, rather than glorying in the wonderful music they are playing, alarm bells go off. Sometimes it is purely a matter of shyness and nerves – not everyone enjoys performing, by any means; but sometimes, I’m sure, there’s a voice within these young people, inculcated by whomever, telling them: ‘If I miss a note, I’ve failed.’ That voice shouldn’t be there! If a child cannot revel in the joy of music, how is the inner musical flame going to survive the inevitable pressures of professional life, with its responsibilities, its repetitions, its inescapable frustrations? Children and teenagers should be allowed, inspired, to have the time of their lives playing musical instruments, without thoughts of success or failure; that is the best way to ensure for them a healthy and productive relationship with music – for life.