Yesterday, I was speaking with a performer (a cellist, specifically) about the qualities we value in our teachers and the ways we work with them. As it turns out, there are some startling similarities (often obscured, I think, by terminology) and some unexpected differences. Who knew?
First, she threw me for a loop when she asked if I found my teachers “inspiring.” Having never thought about whether or not my teachers were an inspiration per se to me, I didn’t quite know what to say. This power to inspire seemed like a must-have for my performer friend, however. After giving the matter some thought, I realized that many of my teachers have been exemplary in some fashion or other, and although I never framed the evaluation of mentors in terms of inspiration, they’ve provided invaluable models for thinking about composition in particular and life in general. Why not call them inspiring, then?
Another interesting conclusion to arise from that conversation is that the variance—both from lesson to lesson and from teacher to teacher—in what constitutes a lesson itself seems much greater in composition than in performance. I’ve had a lesson that comprised a grueling hour and a half in front of the piano playing pitch class sets followed, two days later, by another that was more or less just a long conversation, tangentially about music but completely bereft of technical instruction—and these with the same teacher! I gather that this is rare among performance lessons, in part because of the seemingly constant pressure of auditions, recitals, etc.
For me, these comparisons substantiate the proposition that the job of “composer” in 2006 is one of ever-expanding breadth, whereas the job of “performer” is characterized by increasing specificity. This is a bigger thing than I can fully dive into at this point, but its ramifications vis-à-vis our education are major. As always, please contradict me (preferably with over-the-top, questionably tasteful salvos) if you disagree or, for that matter, if your experiences just haven’t led you to the same opinion, but I feel that the sitting-around-talking lessons have been just as valuable as the poring-over-a-score lessons or the making-the-most-of-inverse-combinatoriality lessons. Maybe the not-infrequent “mistranslations” that sometimes afflict composer-performer transactions at the graduate school level owe in part to the divergent nature of our instruction. Is it possible that graduate performers could benefit from more heuristic, non-nuts-and-bolts lessons—lessons that are, dare I say, more laid-back? I think so, especially if their teachers are so inspiring.