Classical Sass

(328) What’s In a Phrase?

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I get a lot of beginner students. This means I set up their first posture, their first understanding of sound, and their understanding of what it means to practice. Any catastrophes in technique are probably my fault. Also, if they quit. That’s my fault, too. Also if they are belligerent. Also classical music is failing as a thing that actually pays money. Wait, different post. Hang on.

I started teaching Cally when she was maybe five years old. She was shy, methodical, smart, and alarmingly calm for a child dealing with a teacher convinced that everyone knew, deep down inside, that we all have music. She was a deliberate and thoughtful practicer, and I came to rely on her for her accountability and eagerness to meet challenges.

Cally liked to learn her pieces with control and consistency built in to the final result. Which…I mean, whatever, that’s a teacher’s wet dream. Aaaaaaand that’s the biggest bummer anyone’s ever had while reading a blog post hahahaha sucker. Anyways, she grew into solid technique and a fair amount of tentativeness; our lessons began to focus on pulling more from the music than pitch, rhythm, and the occasional dynamic change. It became frustrating. She could recognize the phrase, how it moved like a sentence or a question, when others played it. She readily nodded at it when I played it. And yet, she struggled to hear herself in her music. She kept reverting to a method or technique that she could use to ‘fix’ the phrase. Actively listening while she played became a plateau upon which we scantily grazed for several years.

And then, a few weeks into the Bruch second movement, I got her. I knew I had her. I played two bars somewhere in the middle, and said, “Do you hear the yearn?” And her eyes filled. She heard. All these phrases that she’d acknowledged but never truly heard, and this lilt in Bruch snared her in two bars. 
She tried. Couldn’t get it. 
Next week, I asked her to tell me what made it sound yearnful. I asked her to listen to her phrase and find where it lost the yearn. Find where the sound wasn’t reaching, the way yearn should. I asked her not to list a way of fixing it, but to hear it and just do it. As she played. I asked her to try and make the phrase happen like this was her only chance to do it.

She tried. It didn’t happen.

But she went home, and spent all week working on reacting to what she heard, when she heard it. She came to her next lesson and played the opening of that second movement.

And I heard phrases. 
I heard yearn.

My student made music. And she knew it, too.


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