Thursday, July 21, 2005

Coaching Styles

I know from my childen's experience in competitive swimming that there are a variety of coaching styles. This has been reinforced here in the music program at Chautauqua. Our quintet has seen the benevolent, kind, encouraging coach in Arie Lipsky, an Israeli who is currently the conductor of the Ann Arbor Symphony. He worked with us for about 30 minutes yesterday and helped us learn to listen to each other. He emphasized the "song line" that floats from instrument to instrument. Today we had Evan Wilson, principal violist of the LA Symphony. Evan announced that he would be quite blunt with his criticism, which he lived up to as he doled it out WHILE we played. We were only supposed to stop when he said STOP. He told me to play with less pedal, almost in the style of Bach, with each chord being precisely placed and confident. At one point he told Deborah and me to do whatever the flute or violin was doing in terms of intensity. I questioned this, saying that we either had to agree on what that would be and write it in the music or react to their lead -- i.e., we didn't have ESP! I'm not sure he was used to anyone making those kinds of comments. But Evan for all his brusqueness was kind. At one point he came over and put his hand on my shoulder so he could encourage me when I played the way he wanted. And he did on several occasions tell us how good we were sounding.

Then there was Rebecca Pennys, who taught a masters' piano class yesterday. She was absolutely brutal to all 4 students who played. But first a little background on one of those students...

On Tuesday as I was practicing in Cabin E, I hit a roadblock with a section of movement 2 of our Telemann sonata that was repeated 3 times. I just couldn't make the fingering work. So I stuck my head out the door and hailed a nice-looking boy of about 20 who was walking by with "Do you play the piano?" to which he replied, "Not very well." But I asked him about my devilish fingering problem and he spent 10 minutes working it out in a rather ingenious way. His name is Michael Sheetz, as I was to later learn.

Michael was on the docket for the class and was quite nervous. He obviously had been there before and I'm sure his nerves got worse as he watched 3 students go ahead of him. The drill was for the student to play the 10-15-minute piece from memory -- big pieces from Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and the likes. The student played on one of two big Steinways, positioned next to each other. There were about 50 people in the audience, many of them fellow piano students and Rebecca. After the student finished, Rebecca came down and thoroughly dissected the piece, playing through sections with the student, almost like the dueling banjos of Deliverance. But what I disliked so much was her tendency to poke fun at the student -- she told the first boy not to play so hard with his hands that his hair shook. She told a shy oriental girl to go buy bangle bracelets at the Dollar Store to liven up her wrists. She asked very pointed questions of each student which went to the heart of their training and shook their foundation. Her ability to play each of these very hard pieces impeccably with just the right technique and feeling was unbelievable.

I ran into Michael later as he was finishing practicing and I was on my way to the student recital. It turns out that he is a music major at Vassar. His experience here has really shaken his confidence about going into music. Fortunately he has other options since Vassar is a liberal arts college. I told him that I thought he played the best of the 4 students because he played with real emotion that made his Chopin Ballade dance in several places. Why couldn't Rebecca have noticed that and commented on it? There are some people who maintain their lofty status by finding fault with everyone else. Maybe she is one of them. Anyway, Michael beamed at my comment. This was a kid really in need of some encouragement.

I just ran into him this afternoon and told him about my experience with Evan. He laughed and said that you get used to it. I hope when he is 56 he still loves music the way I do. I hope he can play for fun even if it is not his life work.

I wonder what kind of coach I would be if that were my job?

As a postscript, I went to another of Rebecca Pennys' masters' classes today and found her to be much more supportive of the piano students who played. Either yesterday was an off day, she thought they were tougher, or she was having a bad day. She had positive things to say, mixed in with constructive criticism, in 3 out of 3 cases.


Blogger Dsquared said...

sounds a bit intimidating! Glad you have the right attitude. I think i would find it stressful. Good day of learning stuff today. Once from a Brazilian guy. See you soon. I'm about ready to get home.

10:56 PM  

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