Selling students on classical music

Grieg's hairdo is a little passe but that 'stache could work today.Yesterday I read Chris Foley's post on "The Real Problem with Classical Music" in which he describes a student's reluctance to learn music by composers with "weird" names. In the comments, Chris says, "My issue in the article is how to get younger listeners to relate. They're having trouble identifying with the music and the composers. What can we do to help them?"

Before I share my thoughts on that excellent question, I want to address the idea of weird names. There is no such thing as a "normal" name, and I hope that Chris' use of that word was, as he suggested later, satire. Anglo names are not any more "normal" than Ugandan, Persian, Bosnian, Japanese, Indian, or Afghani names. Some names may be less familiar to you based on your background, but it would be decidedly ethnocentric to suggest that one name is more normal or less weird than another.

Okay, now that I have that out of the way: How can we help kids identify with classical music and classical composers?

Educate students on the current classical music scene. That's what Chris did by posting a Jennifer Higdon video. Giving students concrete proof that the word "composer" does not mean "dead European dude" is a great way to bridge the relevance gap.

You could also get into relatable performers who are breathing new life into the old stuff. There are hot shots like The 5 Browns, role models like the "From the Top" kids, and perhaps even some young and vibrant musicians in your local scene who can help you make the point that art music is still alive and relevant.

Exposing your students to the world of modern classical music is as easy as messaging YouTube links back and forth. YouTube can also be a great resource for study - you'll find different versions of a piece, filmed in concert halls and living rooms around the world for your perusal, appreciation, and analysis.

Find out what your students do like, and make the connection. Lots of kids actually have no idea what they like ("I just listen to whatever's on the radio") but sometimes you get lucky and they'll mention a favorite song that you can do a quick harmonic analysis on, which you can then link to something that the student is working on. It could be something as simple as "This piece in the key of Ab and so is 'Pumped Up Kicks' - notice how the Fm chord appears in both," or it might be a little more involved, such as comparing a "rock opera" like The Who's Tommy or Green Day's American Idiot to a song cycle of Schumann or a Verdi opera. If you expect your students to be open-minded when it comes to classical music, it behooves you to approach pop music with the same attitude.

Educate yourself on the current popular music scene. To take a step further, dig a little deeper into popular music. I don't necessarily mean the Top 40 charts - there's no way to know what will stand the test of time. However, if you dig a little deeper you will find career-oriented musicians who have something to say, who are making actual art. Paste Magazine is a great resource if you're starting from scratch, as well as the college radio charts and actual college students. Radiohead, Wilco, The Flaming Lips, Aimee Mann, and Ron Sexsmith are just a few of the artists who are considered to be "pop music" while enjoying critical success and multi-decade, influential careers. Keep moving toward the cutting edge and you'll find that the best young bands around continue the centuries-old process of learning from the masters of the past as they blaze new trails.

Nice mutton chops, Franz!Turn those dead European dudes back into real people. My favorite thing about playing eighteenth- and ninteenth-century music is how it brings to life people I could never have connected with otherwise - they died before I was born, spoke another language, and and aren't even on Twitter. But for a student who is intimidated by the appearance, name, or old-fashioned-ness of a composer, you'll have to do a little more work to humanize him. "Hey, 'Johann' is just a German version of John or Juan. And did you know that Johann got in trouble when he was a young church organist because he kept changing the music around and adding notes here and there? And for hanging out with a girl in the organ loft?" Sounds like a typical teenager to me.

Allow for personal taste. I'm in heaven playing Grieg, Bach, Scarlatti, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Scott Joplin. Telemann, Haydn, and Handel leave me cold. Like Chris Foley's young student, I'd have trouble picking out a sonatina because there are so many crappy, phoning-it-in sonatinas and a handful of delicious ones. Life is too short to play Czerny, that's my motto. Perform music for them from a variety of eras and let your students find composers they love.

In summary: Show your students that the classical music of the past is still relevant, and the current art music scene is happening. And if it's not happening in your neck of the woods, maybe you and your students can do something about it.

The right and wrong way show a child respect, as demonstrated by the New York Times

Of course, one way we show children respect is by dressing them in ridiculous and adorable costumes to amuse ourselves at their expense. (The Field Museum Library)If you'd like a child to learn something from you, you better stop being so amazed that they can learn anything at all.

From time to time, I hear a new teacher say something like, "Wow, that kid is only eight?" He's going to be an incredible guitarist!"

First of all, that's not how it works. Just because you started at fifteen and this kid started lessons at seven does not necessarily mean that, at age fifteen, he's going to play like you did at twenty-three.

But more importantly, there's no reason to burden this child with an external standard to compare himself to. He is doing a great job now, and he has his own road of progress ahead of him just like anybody else, one day at a time.

Trying to project a future for a child, however benign your intent, is not just comes off like that awful "Mommy, What Will I Look Like?" business that Lindsay started on Arrested Development.

By not comparing a child to other people, you avoid discouragement, false confidence, arrogance, hopelessness, and envy. Or at least, you might postpone it a little.

We respect children by appreciating where they are developmentally and giving them appropriate challenges, as well as appropriate praise for their efforts.

We disrespect children by giving them inappropriate praise, challenges that are too big or too small, and treating them as though they are small, quirky adults.

Earlier this year, Anthony Tommasini, the chief music critic for the New York Times, wrote a series of articles in an attempt to choose the top ten composers of all time. This thoughtful project encouraged responses from many readers, including the son of two professional viola players, a Manhattan eight-year-old named Lucas Amory. Tomassini featured the child's letter on his blog.

Note how Tommasini shows respect for Lucas' opinions ("Lucas has a passion for the Romantics so Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Schumann appear on both his lists") without being self-conscious or clever about it. He acknowledges that it's the child's budding critical thinking skills that set him apart at age eight, not simply the fact that he's writing to the Times or that he's into classical music. Tommasini writes, "He clearly understands the difference between all-time greats and personal favorites — quite impressive for an 8-year-old."

Since people generally do not point out the developmental milestones of adults, Tommasini demonstrates here that he understands his role in fostering Lucas' further growth as a human being. Understanding the difference between fact and opinion, especially with regard to art, is impressive for an eight-year-old. By praising this, he is encouraging conversation between Lucas and his parents on the subjects of critical thinking, art criticism, and beyond.

Lucas Amory's illustration.Lucas illustrated his list with a picture of Tchakovsky and Schumann competing for the top spot. The drawing is clever, funny, and cute. But Tommasini doesn't tell us (or Lucas!) it's cute - he just includes a print of the letter in its entirety and lets the audience enjoy the natural, un-self-conscious sweetness of a child instead of calling attention to it.

On the other hand, a video produced a few day after the letter was initially published is cringe-inducingly awful. From the simpering interviewer to the self-important editing to the soul-crushing length of it, it's a terrible production that disrespects the child by inflating his ego. They actually ask him to spell the word "precocious," and they actually included the footage of him spelling it, with the interviewer's embarrassingly surprised and delighted response. They also baited him by asking about Lady Gaga's music. His nasty response should not have been encouraged or included. It's certainly not Lucas' fault at age eight - the grownups should have known better.

There's more - for instance, they asked Lucas questions that were sent in by Twitter followers, which I personally was uncomfortable with (he's a celebrity expert at age eight?). "Why are you so awesome?" is not a good question to ask an eight-year-old, and following it up with, "A lot of people are impressed with your knowledge," is not helpful either. You can see that, to his credit, he really didn't know what to do with that and handles the ridiculous and immature interviewer as graciously as he can.

A bright spot was the chance to hear Lucas play Bach. He plays with an impressive and unforced artistry and technique. It is truly special to hear a child play so beautifully and be so deeply engrossed in the music. Of course, the producers unwisely cut off the end of the piece.

Lucas is special because of who he is, as we all are - there is no need to use him as any kind of example. In the video, Lucas was unfairly objectified - he was playing the role of "precocious child" the way a young woman might play the role of "video vixen" or "bikini babe." Shame on the Kaufman Center for allowing this to happen. I hope Lucas Amory continues to pursue his varied interests and develop his budding intellect away from the watchful eyes of the cameras.

Every child deserves respect. Glorification and indulgence - whether it's a silly video, too much ice cream, or too much power - is not good for kids. Let's set limits on what they can have, love them for who they are, praise them for who they are becoming, and give them an opportunity to show us what they can do - on their own terms.

Creating a virtuous cycle: My secret

I do well when I'm doing well. I thrive on momentum. I can spin anything into a positive, whether it's for the benefit of my students, employees, or me. There's always an angle that can shed light on an underappreciated virtue or accomplishment. "Well, just think of where you were last year at this time - you've made so much progress!" Whatever it takes to keep feeling good. Preserving a winning streak is easier than making a comeback.

Princess Mary of England at the piano, 1910 (Library of Congress)When I do feel down, I have many strategies to employ in order to press the reset button on my life and get back on track. Prayer and meditation. Exercise. Being outdoors. Water - the ocean is best but even gazing at a pool or fountain will do. Spending time with friends and family. Playing music, especially with others. And when all else fails, a little caffeine.

In addition to these wonderful things there is one activity that, throughout my life, has been an unusually powerful catalyst for change. Believe it or not, it's playing classical piano.

Although I have always made my living as a music teacher, playing classical piano is little more than a hobby as far as my professional life goes. I don't play weddings or concerts, and my degree is in voice. On good days I am a solid intermediate player but I have yet to learn much important repertoire.

In spite of all of this, classical piano has held great significance for me since I taught myself Schumann's "Melodie" (Op. 68, No. 1) at age eleven.

Playing classical music is both the cause and the consequence of a calm, even temper, self-acceptance, connection with my emotions, a well-ordered life, and an alignment of priorities.

My playing is inconsistent, which is ridiculous given the clear benefit that provides me. What can I say - I do not always have a well-ordered life and an alignment of priorities! However, because the piano is something I return to again and again, each time I can see anew the changes it sets into motion, and one conclusion I can draw is that perhaps I am not always ready for such dramatic upheaval.

In other words: I can head to the piano bench, have some quiet and apparently boring moments with a few measures of Mendelssohn, and three days later I must be prepared to question everything I have ever believed about my existence.

Okay, maybe that doesn't happen every time. But it's happened often enough that I'm wary when I start to find myself gravitating to the piano.

On the other hand, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. When I have enough free time and mental clarity to spend several hours a week working hard on classical music, I've clearly got my shit together. Then the additional clarity and peacefulness created by all that playing begin to infuse the rest of my life. It's a virtuous cycle.

Even if I don't want to shake things up I find great satisfaction in playing classical music. The fact that it is recreated from the page makes me feel the way I do when I'm engrossed in a novel, a willing prisoner of a rich inner world created by the collaboration between the writer and me.

There is a sense of communion I feel with the composer, as though I am literally bringing him to life as I play. This long-dead European becomes my friend and colleague as I decode the symbols he lovingly placed on the score centuries ago. An almost-forgotten cipher is his only way to intimate the physical and emotional road map of his work.

There are no words in this music - the presence only of sounds refreshes and entrances me. I am drawn into a deep concentration that lingers after I am finished. I remember an afternoon working on J.S. Bach's Inventio No. 13, hypnotized by the ticking of the grandfather clock I was using as a metronome. Several months later, I played the same piece, now mastered, on the morning of the PSAT exam that would yield a National Merit Scholarship. Better than amphetamines.

Unlike a drug, this high is long-lasting, cumulative, and bears no side effects other than a sometimes uncomfortable expansion of one's capacity as a human being.

I know that not all of my piano students will feel this way about playing. I only hope that they will find something in their lives, whether a hobby or a vocation, that will inspire them to learn and grow out of love rather than duty. I hope they will find something that will allow them to turn the volume down on the less pleasant things in their lives while amplifying their joy, satisfaction, and renewal.