Monday, April 04, 2005

The gifted student

It is every violin teacher's dream and nightmare: what to do when we end up with with a truly gifted student? By this I just don't mean a youngster whose fast fingers fly across the fingerboard, but especially a player who seems to understand what music is all about, someone whose sound commands immediate attention.

More likely than not such a student is not your typical wunderkind because that type, although being able to play with great technical ease, is usually spoon fed every detail by his/her teacher, with barely no attention given to the art itself. Everything is done by imitation, not by recreating art on one's instrument. Child prodigies often burn out early, have their nervous breakdowns in their late teens or early adulthood, and are completely helpless without a teacher guiding them, even at an age when they themselves should be the ones teaching.

Playing the violin should not be a circus act, nor should a student be happy just copying down every fingering, bowing and special effect from the teacher's music. I have known enough cases where the individual already has a career of sorts as a soloist and yet they can barely read music.

My real worry is about the student who is living and breathing music and comes up with natural phrasing so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes. A Bach sonata or partita movement is so thoughtfully played than you listen to it in silence and amazement. Granted, a lot of hard work has been done until this point, years of sweating by both the student and the teacher. But then you both realize what has been created and, at least in my case, it produces a dilemma.

What right do we have to push a young talent towards a career in music when we very well know how slim the chances are he/she will be able to find joy and happiness in it later on? Since the odds of becoming a soloist in demand are similar to winning the lottery, and not everyone would even be interested in living out of a suitcase and probably with no family life, we have an obligation to tell the student about all the pros and cons, mainly the latter. Overall interest in classical music has been on the decline for decades. Orchestras are folding, there is less money for education, especially in the arts, and there simply isn't a demand for recitals except with some high profile cases. Even if the young musician is "lucky" to end up in an orchestra, is that satisfying in a long run for someone who would have a lot to say on his/her own but will not be able to ever exhibit these talents at the workplace? Of course there are some exceptions where a musician will find the extra time to work on chamber group and gets pleasure from occasionally showing off their skills to small audiences. Most instrumentalists that don't go to orchestras, however, end up becoming teachers, whether they have a talent for it or not, and the never ending story starts again.

What is wrong with this picture and how is it different from a time long ago? I often think of my father who played the violin very well, with a beautiful sound. Yet it had never crossed his mind that this would have become his profession. Music was greatly valued those days and everyone with an ear got trained to a point. Kreisler and Caruso were were the day's pop artists. But people wanted to be music lovers, amateurs, not musicians by profession. How the meaning on that French term has changed over the years! From being a lover of an art, now it describes someone not very capable in what he is doing. It were these very amateurs that filled the concert halls, and once in a while got together to read chamber music and perhaps play a game of cards.

There was no money to be made in music and that was accepted as a fact. Someone who did ended up as a full time musician, usually had it hard and had often failed in some other field. These people worked long days playing and teaching non-stop, just to make ends meet. Simply put, it was not a respected or coveted profession. Yet there was a tremendous amount of joy in music making in homes and even in non-professional orchestras, often formed by people from similar backgrounds, such as doctors. -- When I was in Vienna in -66 and -67, I was shocked to find out how little the members of the Philharmonic (or rather, the opera orchestra) were earning. The same was true in my home country, but of course in both these cases the musicians were civil servants and enjoyed certain perks and privileges that came with a steady job with the system, even if the pay was lousy.

Back to the original question. As today's demand is far smaller than the ever growing supply, is it fair to encourage a student to continue on this difficult route? Yes and no. The art of music, like any art, has to continue, but we have to be honest about the likely future waiting for even the most gifted. Personally I would insist that young people seriously study another subject in addition to music, so that they have something to fall back on if and when the dream bubble finally bursts. If that happens, they will still be able to enjoy making beautiful music, and I want to emphasize enjoy, which might not be the case if they were doing for their livelihood. Didn't the French warn us not to take something we loved to do the most as one's profession? They also said something about not marrying the person one loves the most, but that might be better advice for the the French than the rest of us.