‘Piano Lineage’: Does it really matter?

Until quite recently it never occurred to me to consider who my teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was…

But then I realised (somewhat inadvertently while looking into the history of piano teaching) that my teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was none other than Franz Liszt, perhaps the greatest and most influential pianist of all time.

At which point I decided it was time to give the matter more serious thought…

Now let’s get this bit over with quickly, because (as we shall see) I’m really not about to claim my “lineage” endows me with any special status or ability. But here it is:

  • My final teacher at college (in the 1980s), Joseph Weingarten (1911-1996), was a student (at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest) of the great pianist and composer Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960).
  • Dohnányi had been a student of István Thomán (1862-1940) and Eugen d’Albert (1864-1932) – both of whom were students of Franz Liszt (1811-1886) himself.
  • Liszt, incidentally, was a student of Carl Czerny (1791-1857) – the chap who wrote all those mind-numbing piano exercises – who in turn was a student of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827).

T H U D !!
There’s the sound of some pretty heavy name-dropping …!

And if you are interested in tracing your own legacy, this information on Wikipedia is a helpful resource.

A little bit of mysticism goes a long way

Many of us are in the happy position of being able to remember a piano teacher with special affection, and to cite their teachings with deference and deep respect. Knowing who had taught them, and tracing a human path back through the different periods of music history, can certainly give us a sense of “connectedness” to a rich heritage that is at once both alive and deeply rooted.

Fewer players and teachers see the need to imbue that heritage with the semi-mystical glow of “lineage”. It’s a word which conveys pseudo-religious connotations and authority, rather in the same way that the students of Franz Liszt were often described as his “disciples”.

In its most simplistic use, “lineage” speaks to the ideas of succession and inheritance. The implication – intended or otherwise – is that the lineage holder has special pedigree, status or even exclusive authority.

Given the choice between learning with somebody who claims to be a student in the “Liszt lineage” or a teacher of unknown pedigree, some would undoubtedly choose the former. But beyond “marketing ” does it really make any difference?

A Daoist Perspective

Look up the phrase “teaching lineage” on Google and you’ll find plenty of references to this important concept within Buddhism, Daoism and martial arts, but very few if any references to piano teaching.

In his book ‘Daoism – A Guide for the Perplexed’, Louis Komjathy writes:

“Lineage has occupied a central place in the Daoist tradition from its earliest beginnings in the Warring States period. Here lineage refers to a particular line of spiritual ancestry, a line passed from teachers to students”.

Given that the concept of lineage runs so deep in Daoist thought, what insights can we learn about its meaning? To answer that question will involve grappling with three concepts: Transmission, Authenticity, and Ordination.

Transmission

Transmission includes passing on information, but there is more. It cannot be done simply through a book, video or webpage. There is a personal interaction which is at the heart of transmission. In Buddhism and Daoism this personal interaction can include a spiritual impartation; in martial arts and Qigong it can include the physical transmission of Qi from teacher to student.

I wonder how this relates to the following comment made by concert pianist Maria João Pires in an interview with International Pianist Magazine (Jan/Feb 2014):

“I think our mission is to transmit what has been transmitted to us. This competitive world, this marketing world, has destroyed a lot of that transmission.”

For those of us who affirm and the importance of teaching music “sound before symbol“, one implication is obvious. A teacher who is themselves a great performer, or committed to passing on an interpretation or approach passed down to them, will be better placed to do so than a teacher without that experience or exposure.

This is, however, obviously a somewhat diminished advantage in the age of such widespread recording and dissemination of music. And in any case we should question whether the preservation of a single interpretation of a musical work is the best approach.

Authenticity

This brings us directly to the more difficult issue of authenticity.

For the Daoist or Buddhist acolyte there is no doubting the importance of preserving a direct line to the source of spiritual wisdom, however frail the human vessels involved. Indeed, a similar logic applies to the Roman Catholic notion of Papal Succession – a Western equivalent that many readers will identify with.

But to what extent does Western Music require this sort of pickled preservation?

Ironically, my own “lineage” comprises a succession of musicians who were fundamentally rule-breakers, with disarmingly little interest in serving up their lineage set in aspic.

Indeed, some even criticised their forebears outright. Dohnányi, for example, was highly critical of the overuse of Czerny’s studies and sought to remove him from the curriculum at the Liszt Academy during his stay as Principal there. Such independence of thought seems at odds with the view of lineage some might have us cultivate.

I would argue that music, including the performance of works written by previous generations, is a living art form. As its proponents and performers we surely do well to be mindful of the traditions we build on. But at the same time we cannot allow matters of performance and interpretation to fossilise; it is within the gift of great art to speak to each generation afresh on its own terms.

Nor are teaching practices static. A modern understanding of educational psychology and methodology rather precludes any reliance on outdated approaches, and even in the years I have been teaching I’ve realised that repeating what worked last year can easily lead to entropy and decline.

Authenticity, it seems to me, is ultimately an inner quality rather than an outward conformity.

Ordination

Komjathy makes the point that “lineage”, however we finally define it, is “passed from teacher to student”, and within the Daoist traditions this is most literally true. To put it simply, a student does not automatically become a “lineage holder”. To convey this honour is in the gift of the teacher alone.

This is undoubtedly the point at which any real correlation between the vital role of lineage in traditional Eastern thought and the often rather more misty-eyed notion of lineage in the piano world fully breaks down.

Having mentioned my own heritage, it’s worth noting that every one of my own students – including children I taught electronic keyboard to in a primary school class for just a few weeks – could claim to be in the musical lineage of Beethoven and Liszt.

Such a claim would, of course, be absurd. But it highlights the huge difference that exists between “lineage” as understood in Daoism (consciously passed on with the teacher’s blessing) and “lineage” as the word is sometimes misapplied within the music world.

The End of the Line

A survey of this subject, however brief, would be incomplete without an acknowledgement that the histories of Daoism, Qigong and Buddhism are littered with tales and examples of lineages that came to an abrupt end, whether because of abuse of authority, neglect, opposition – or simply due to the failure of the lineage holders to transmit their skills and knowledge effectively. One’s lineage certainly neither guarantees success nor compensates for failure.

What matters in the end is not one’s inheritance, but how one spends it.

At the same time, many have arrived at greatness seemingly from nowhere, without any assistance from the leading figures of their day. To quote again from Louis Komjathy:

“Some Daoists have found their connection through things such as lineage and ordination, but other Daoists have discovered this through revelation and mystical experience.”

In other words, any benefits of lineage aren’t an exclusive route to success. In our present context, the gifted, attentive musician can with experience become the best of performers and teachers, regardless of training and background.

The Daoist perspective resists placing any limitation on the potential of the individual, as I believe should we.

My conclusions

A consideration of the concept of “lineage” as applied to piano teaching seems to me to hint at far more tantalising questions.

How is music taught? Is there in any sense a gift that we can impart? To what extent is the relationship between teacher and student pivotal? Through what human mechanism is the energy and enthusiasm of a teacher passed on to a student? And what role must the student play in order to be a receptive beneficiary?

These are questions that I have certainly puzzled over throughout my career, and textbook answers often fall short.

I must conclude that whatever terminology we settle upon, I think it would be unwise to discount the value of “lineage” altogether. Certainly we must acknowledge the important influence teachers can have on students in ways that go far beyond the mere passing on of information.

At the same time, any use here of the word “lineage” seems to me rather unfortunate, potentially disguising any real teaching and learning benefits beneath a layer of hubris and ill-defined mysticism. And it is really important to seek a proper understanding of any genuine benefits and mechanisms that might be at play.

I will leave you with this nicely balanced quote from my friend, and regular Pianodao contributor, Frances Wilson:

“For some people I think it matters a lot to be able to say “my teacher can trace a direct line back to Chopin and therefore I’m the great great great great grand-pupil of Chopin” etc etc.

For me personally, having studied with two teachers who studied with some renowned pianist-teachers, it’s the feeling that one is part of a wonderful continuous flow of teaching and learning. Good teachers are the ones who are prepared to share the wisdom from previous great teachers for the benefit of their students and students in the future.”

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

9 thoughts on “‘Piano Lineage’: Does it really matter?”

  1. Very interesting! I actually felt quite honoured when I found out my own connection with Liszt, which is a bit longer than yours… Even though I haven’t played all that much, through his music I feel much closer to Liszt (or to Beethoven) than to my Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather, of whom I barely know the name!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There must be something to this . I was told by my mothers relatives that Ludwig Van Beethoven
    is on our family’s genealogy chart . Although I had no choice in the matter , I am not only an
    accomplished pianist , but a composer of classical type piano arrangements …. why I chose to
    be a composer , I can not say …. it was just something that came natural .
    I do know for sure that my maternal side can be traced to Bonn Germany ( early 1800,s ) .

    Like

  3. Piano lineage is an interesting question. When I was actually a student back in the day, I never thought to ask my teachers their piano ‘lineage’. Now that I’m 63 it is something to explore. I knew my last and best teacher, Earle C. Voorhies, studied for several years at Juilliard as a graduate student. Not too long ago I learned he spent that time studying with Alexander Siloti. Siloti was a renowned student of Liszt and an accomplished pianist, conductor and composer/transcriptionist. It has caused me to track down a copy of a couple of books on/by Siloti, sheet music of his compositions/transcriptions, a piano roll recording with him on it, and a three volume biography of Liszt. Who knows what they will reveal? I think back now to when at 14 I won a piano competition and got to play with an orchestra as my reward. The piece I played? Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra. Coincidence or Connection?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I studied the piano for 9 years ( 1955-1964 ) under a teacher who was quite accomplished .
    His name was Paul Hannakrat in Canton , Ohio …. He must have taught me well !
    In 1997 , I composed a piece called ” Vimar Concerto ” , which I performed for the Executive
    Director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum ( playing time : 13 minutes ) …. I know of other
    students who had become composers and accomplished performers .
    I play regularly at the Massillon Women’s Club for Weddings and Dinner Engaugements , on a
    9 foot , 1940 Steinway Concert Grand ( signed by Henry Steinway ) …. you can check this out ,
    if you wish .
    What I am getting at here is : I firmly believe that piano lineage has been extremely important
    in my own life and that good teachers are ” where you happen to find them ” .

    Daniel T Dunn ( Accomplished Pianist )

    Like

  5. P,S. I want to say how much I enjoyed the article : Andrew Eales an interview by Frances Wilson .
    Every serious piano student should read this ,and more importantly , every piano teacher should
    consider its implicit message .

    Liked by 1 person

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