Saturday, August 21, 2010

Einstein, Truth, and Beauty

I have recently committed myself to a rather voluminous project of study; in fact, this could easily keep me busy for a few lifetimes. My hope, though, is to make it a finite endeavor to begin with—hopefully completed within a year or so—and after that to expand on it throughout my life. I know that sounds kinda ambitious—but anyway, there I am.

The topic of this project are some 120 great humanitarians. I cannot possibly hope to study their lives and work in detail, but my plan is to at least get an idea of who these people were, of their thoughts and their contributions to mankind. What exactly I'll do to study these people will depend on the nature of each individual humanitarian. The order in which I'll study them is my very own, determined for me—I hope—through spiritual guidance. (You can also call it fate if you like, but I like the other term better.) I intend to write at least a few paragraphs about every humanitarian I'll be studying, I imagine in relation to my own life and work to the extent possible.

The first person on my list is Albert Einstein. Now I am a musician and I like languages and I especially like teaching both music and languages; I know next to nothing about physics and as so many people, I was traumatized by a mathematics teacher in high school. So you might think it's a bit weird for me to start off this project with Einstein.

My first thought was that Einstein played the violin—as a hobby, of course. In fact there's a famous anecdote I heard years ago (and I haven't checked it yet, but even if it isn't true, it's still a good story). Einstein apparently played string quartet with some really famous professional musicians. One day, as they're winding their way through Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven, Einstein messes up—he comes in to early or too late, or he plays too fast or too slow, I don't know. His fellow musicians—the pros—are kind of annoyed by this amateurish business, and one of them has the chutzpah to quip at Einstein: "Hey—can't you count?" Einstein, drily: "Of course not!"

Unfortunately, I have every bit of understanding for the pro—look: I am a professional musician, alright? But how can anybody not totally love Einstein's reply? In fact, this remark alone makes Einstein a great humanitarian to me!

So anyway: I got a copy of The Einstein Reader from my wonderful local independent bookstore and started right away. I'm not even on page 10 and already, there is something so strong, so beautiful, so true that I wanted to write about it immediately. As you read this first quote, bear in mind that I recently retired from a 35 years as professional church musician and that I have been teaching in universities for some ten years.

"Both churches and universities—insofar as they live up to their true function—serve the ennoblement of the individual."

That to me is the best definition of what churches and universities should be about, and I think that's why I wanted to make music in churches—and, I suppose, why I want to teach in university. But of course, the catch is the clause in the middle of Einstein's sentence... As for churches—I've worked in at least a dozen of them for a shorter or longer period, so perhaps my opinion is worth something: I honestly don't think any of those places lived up to its "true function" as defined by Einstein. That sounds a bit disappointing, and believe me, it is! But let me put it this way: I'll keep looking and if I find one, I'll let you know, OK? (I'll hold off on my opinion about universities until I've taught at twelve of them or for 35 years, whichever comes first.)

Even though, Einstein goes on to say, "the essential unity of ecclesiastical and secular cultural institutions was lost during the 19th century, ... no one would have been taken seriously who failed to acknowledge the quest for objective truth and knowledge as man's highest and eternal aim."

Wow! Objective truth and knowledge! I'm not sure how politically correct these values are in today's society, but I suppose I'm old-fashioned enough to subscribe to this. You may think that objective truth is a rather absurd ideal for a musician. Does not every pianist play Beethoven his or her way? In fact, is that not exactly what makes it interesting?

Perhaps. But in my own little way, as a musician and music teacher, I think I am aiming for some kind of objective truth. That is why knowledge of music history and music theory are so important to me as a performer and teacher. But look at it in a slightly different way: Is true Beauty not the highest form of objective truth anyway? Is not the gift of a great humanitarian artist to reveal, through the Beauty of his art, some glimpse of eternal and utterly objective truth?

I would certainly like to think so.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Email from a Student

I have written at least once before about a Very Good Student, and my faithful readers will perhaps remember to imagine the tongue in my cheek when I talk about "good" students (they're all "good," of course, and I like working a lot with all of them!). On the other hand, sometimes students do something that's so nice it's worth blogging (and, I suppose, bragging) about. Here's another of those Great Students I feel really honored to work with.

This young man studies harpsichord with me. Now, from the first moment I heard (and saw) him play the harpsichord, I knew he had a very special gift for the instrument and its repertoire. That is quite remarkable, because from his background, you would not at all expect a special interest in Baroque music (he loves Bach!) and even less a special "feel" for the specific way the harpsichord works. When you see this man play the harpsichord, you realize it's actually a very subtile and sensitive instrument—which of course it is, but only if you're willing to think that way!

So I've been working with this student for a little over a year, and on the whole, he's been great to work with. That's not to say there are no problems, but he's taken on a lot of what I've told him. What's perhaps even more important, he's matured a lot as a music student, taking his work so much more seriously now—which I think is really fantastic.

A while ago, my student was working on a very tricky variation from Bach's "Goldberg" Variations. We disagreed about the interpretation of some of the ornaments, and I suggested he'd look at the facsimile of the first edition. Lo and behold, the next time I saw him he said he'd actually looked for the facsimile in the library, but they didn't have a copy of it. Well, I said, you should have emailed me last night and I would have brought my copy in for you today. Ah, he said, you're right, that would have been good. Even better, we both agreed that, of course, it was his responsibility to ask me.

So the other day, he emails me out of the blue. He's now working on a different Bach piece. He has this great way of emailing me: "Professor?" —as if he's calling me in the corridor in school. Then, in just a few words, he tells me he has trouble with one particular measure in the piece. Can I help him out by suggesting a fingering for this tricky passage?

I so loved getting this question from him that I put off making my fruit salad (we had a birthday in the family) and looked up the piece in question. Within a few minutes, I wrote him back with a fingering for those two measures (you always want to look at a particular measure in its context), but the question inspired me so much that I spent an hour or two looking at that passage in more detail, trying to understand why I actually used that particular fingering by looking a little bit "under the surface" of the notes.

OK, so keyboard fingerings are a huge area of interest to me—as a player, and even more as a teacher, and I'll write a lot more about it some day. But the great thing is that this student asked me for help. So simple, so clear, so straightforward. Wonderful. I love it.

Counting Syllables

When I teach Latin or Greek, I get my students to read aloud whatever we're reading in those languages. Depending on the situation, we may then translate the text into English, but reading the original text aloud is, to me, a very central and incredibly important part of the work.

A while ago, I was reading Latin proverbs with a bunch of fifth-graders. Many of them had difficulty reading longer words. One such word was sollicitudinis. For some reason, after some trial and error, I got the idea of asking the student to count the syllables: sol-li-ci-tu-di-nis. Five. No six! Yep, that's right: six syllables. Sol-li-ci-tu-di-nis. Now say the whole word again. Sollicitudinis. Fine. No problem. Problem gone.

I have since done this with language students at all levels and I find it works incredibly well. Ex-o-mo-lo-gou-me-noi (7). In-dis-so-lu-bi-lem (6). Plus, it's so much fun to ask in class: So how many syllables does that word have? I'm not sure what exactly makes this work. I think in essence it makes readers look a little bit more carefully, read bit-by-bit, step-for-step—rather than trying to spit the whole word out at once and realizing it's simply too much to grasp when you're halfway.

OK, so if you teach a language, I suppose you can try this for yourself. But here's what I really like about this syllable counting business. I also teach music, including in graduate school. And here I was this morning working with an exceptionally fine graduate student on a Beethoven piano sonata (in C major, op. 2 no. 3). The beginning of the first movement has these parallel thirds that are not so easy to play at the tempo this piece is usually played at. (I actually think there's something wrong with the tempo assumption here, but that doesn't matter for now.)

So my student plays these parallel thirds in measure one. They're kinda OK, but a little garbled, a bit unclear. They were actually much better the second time around (in m. 3), but I decided to bring the issue up nonetheless. I told my student about my experience counting syllables with language students. I'm not sure how to do this in music, I said, but let's see: how many notes are you actually playing there? Four, he said. Really? I asked. Well, five, he said, counting the eighth note following the four sixteenths.

OK, four or five, I said. But is that really true? Ah, he said, no, because they're thirds. So it's really four or five times two. Right, I said. Now why don't you play it again.

So much better that time! And actually, not even that much slower. Somehow, he was now playing those tricky thirds one at the time. Still very quickly, of course. But one at the time, not all at once.

I think one thing the language students and the music student (I haven't tried this with other music students yet) have in common is that they're all in a hurry all the time. The music student thinks he has to play the Beethoven movement really fast, or people will say he can't really play the piano. The kids in fifth grade have been pushed to read faster and faster in school—not to read more carefully. And my adult language students think they sound silly when they read a bit slower. (I do think they believe me if I tell them the opposite is true—they're really good and very nice students; but it's so hard to really, really believe it and even harder to put it into practice!)

The whole thing (the Beethoven experience in particular) reminds me of these modern actors who think they sound really clever if they can race through Shakespeare (G&S, or Pinter, I suppose; you can also hear this a lot in the recitatives in Mozart opera). Never mind nobody understands them when they speak so quickly—they sound clever anyway.