The great Russian pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus (who taught such legendary classical pianists as Radu Lupu, Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels) wrote:
“I consider that one of the main tasks of a teacher is to ensure as quickly and as thoroughly as possible that he is no longer necessary to the pupil; to eliminate himself, to leave the stage in time, in other words to inculcate in the pupil that independent thinking, that method of work, that knowledge of self and ability to reach his goal which we term ‘maturity’, the threshold beyond which begins mastery.”
The Art of Piano Playing, (trans. K.A. Leibovitch, London 1973)
When I started teaching the piano back in 1993, a good friend and very experienced teacher shared a quotation with me to the effect that if we teach well, our pupils might believe they have essentially taught themselves, such will be their confidence and focus on what they have learnt.
At the time I had no idea that he was quoting from the great Daoist sage Lao-Tzu. Possibly he didn’t either. But these profound words have stuck with me over the years as I have tried to explain to parents and students that my goal is to help students develop as independent learners, and as musicians who will not be forever dependent on their teacher.
If the art of piano pedagogy is ultimately about working our way out of a job, then there are surely many ways to go about this, and much that needs to be done before a student reaches the level of maturity that Neuhaus envisions, arriving at that “threshold beyond which begins mastery”.
To achieve this, we surely need a plan. Foundations need to be carefully laid.
Most of us would hopefully start by stressing the need to help students develop their musical essence (that is, their aural and creative potential), their playing technique, and their musical understanding.
These are the essential Three Treasures of Musical Learning.
Many aspects of attainment can be measured in terms of “progress” made, but measurements of progress mustn’t ever become the sole raison d’être of piano lessons.
We must remember that “independence” is not the same thing as “progress”. Nor is independence so easy to measure as we might initially assume. Its emergence and development can really only be gauged over time, and within the context of a healthy two-way relationship between teacher and student.
It seems to me that independence has as much to do with character as it does to do with ability, and requires particular care and attention in order to be fostered. As teachers it is vital that we are alert to this.
Parents and Teachers
In the case of younger students, I believe that parents need to be involved in the process as early as possible.
This does not necessarily or simply mean overseeing the child’s practice at home, but also taking a broader interest in his or her musical development, providing plenty of opportunity to listen to and discuss music in the home, and where possible attending concerts.
Some of the parents I have met, though dedicated to what is best for their child, are more interested in “progress” and measurable achievements than in their child’s developing “independence”. The teacher has a role in explaining the difference, and the long-term importance of steadily fostering musical maturity.
At the same time, it seems that some teachers are happy for their students to remain dependent. They gain their own sense of importance and value from the ongoing relationship, taking personal and professional credit for their pupils’ successes. This not only stymies students’ independence but is surely exploitative.
These are issues that I believe we all need to think about diligently. How we view the importance of independence and maturity will certainly impact on how we teach.
The more we guide students towards independence, the more lasting and worthwhile our impact will be.
Another Perspective …
From the Daoist perspective, Heinrich Neuhaus’s words perhaps apply just as much to parenthood, leadership and government as they do to teaching. Indeed, this concept of developing maturity and independence affects all of life.
As the great sage Lao-Tzu wrote in the ‘Tao Te Ching’ :
“The master doesn’t talk; he acts.
When his work is done,
The people say, “Amazing:
We did it, all by ourselves!”
‘Tao Te Ching: The Book of the Way’ 17
(translated by Stephen Mitchell, London 1989)
Lao-Tzu’s comment that the master “acts”, rather than talking, points to perhaps the most important key of all.
As we consider how his insights might be applied to the art of piano pedagogy, we are confronted again by the crucial centrality of musical demonstration and aural transmission in teaching.
Those who will only bow to concrete logic will, as always, struggle at this point. “Shouldn’t explanations always be sufficient”, they might argue?
Others might quite wrongly confuse an aural approach with rote learning, and assume it will therefore militate against independence. But an aural approach that communicates and fosters the internalisation of musical expression is quite different from visual copying.
The lessons of music history (outlined in this article) seem to underline the potency of this truth: that it is through aural transmission that the true language of music is taught and passed on most effectively. Educational research, too, verifies the importance of teaching “sound before symbol”.
We did it all by ourselves!
This verse from the ‘Tao Te Ching’ is, as you’ve no doubt realised by now, the very quote I heard all those years ago.
It is the basic wisdom which has informed my whole approach to the art of piano pedagogy, long before I heard anything more of Daoism.
And it is an old wisdom which I find harmonises so perfectly with the profound insight of Heinrich Neuhaus.