Build a Foundation

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I'm very confused. I just turned 11. I have been playing since I was 3 and studied under the Suzuki method with one teacher until I was 8. I had finished up the fourth volume. Most of the pieces in Volume 3 & 4 are Sonatinas by Clementi, Kuhlau, Mozart, and Beethoven. My teacher moved so my dad hired another teacher. My dad spends most of my practice time with me. I began to learn Beethoven's Sonata Op2 No1. I love this piece but it took me eight months to lean the first three movements. He has me working on Hanon, scales, Czerny Op599, for technique. I am also playing the Inventions and Sinfonias along with some romantic pieces from Denes Agay's book. My current teacher wants me to put the Beethoven Sonata aside and start learning all the Clementi Sonatas because he believes that physically I am not ready for these pieces. He also wants me to avoid playing Chopin for now which I really love listening to. My dad spoke with the former teacher of mine and he said that if you want to seriously compete in the major competitions, which I do, I have to start learning the Sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin works like the Preludes and Etudes now. He disagrees with my current teacher because he believes that the teacher may not have the patience or knowledge of how to teach a younger student advanced pieces. My current teacher is very detailed and we spend vast amounts of time on Clementi alone and expects to spend two years on these pieces. I'll be 13 then. He believes that Clementi works are a precursor to Beethoven works. What concerns me is that when I see the bios on winners that win the major competitions most of them were playing concertos among other advanced pieces when they were 9. What are your thoughts about the direction I should proceed with?
 - Celina

Dear Celina,

I responded to a similar question on this "Ask Greg" page, and I'm going to answer yours in the same manner: listen to your teacher. Your teacher, especially in this case, seems to know what he is doing.

You've certainly hit upon one of my pet peeves: students trying to tackle pieces beyond their skill level. It is dangerous physically, pianistically, and musically. If you rush through advanced repertoire, it is very likely that you will miss opportunities to explore your musicality or your personal approach to the piano. It is also likely that you will develop some bad, bad habits in your technique - habits that will follow and plague you for the rest of your life.

I remember being just as confused as you; I heard about the teenage prodigies who brought a new concerto in for their lessons every week, and I thought I had to do the same thing. Instead, my teacher taught me patience. She was extremely detailed in her approach to the music, and that sense for detail opened my ears to a new world of precision and craftsmanship at a very early age. It was invaluable training, in my opinion.

There is no hurry! My parents wanted nothing more than for their three sons to be "well-rounded," happy children, and I believe it made all the difference. I certainly wouldn't be the pianist I am today without having spent all that time outside building tree forts, participating in the science clubs, and visiting the public library on a weekly basis. I know plenty of young pianists who spend eight hours a day practicing, but I think it is completely unnecessary. There are SO many child prodigies out there, and although eight hours of daily practice may give you early fame and a host of compliments, it will do very little to provide any sort of career later on.

Build a firm foundation as a pianist now, and later you will be able to pursue anything you want. Truly elegant, insightful, and beautiful playing is so rare in people your age. Not that it really means anything, but in high school, I won competition after competition playing Mozart and Bach, not Rachmaninoff and Liszt like my competitors. (That is not a slam to Rachmaninoff and Liszt - I love their music - I truly do. It just shows that Mozart and Bach played well can be more impressive than more technically difficult music.) And the Clementi sonatas! Some of them are masterpieces! You shouldn't be complaining! How lucky you are to be able to play them at such an early age.

And now that I've already said more than enough, I feel I must take a moment to state my passionate thoughts on the matter of competitions. Be wary. Please don't turn competitions into your driving force, into your reason to be. Competitions can be so dangerous.

Competitions train audiences and pianists to listen critically. I found that after spending too long in the competition circuit, I lost my ability to listen and enjoy. When I was eight, I listened to a Mozart concerto for the first time and I nearly squealed with delight. It was bliss. After attending competition after competition, I found that I couldn't listen to a Mozart concerto without picking the pianist apart; I listened for what was wrong rather than what was right and beautiful. And even worse, I found myself continually making comparisons; "this is better than that!," "I liked his interpretation better than hers," etc.. Comparison is healthy to a certain extent, but it becomes detrimental when we lose the ability to listen with an open mind or the ability to simply enjoy what each person has to offer. (Please see the Anderson & Roe music video for a satire on the subject of critical listening!) I'm confident that I'm not the only music listener who has been jaded by the prevalence of competitions in our culture.

Not only do competitions transform the way we listen, but they influence the repertoire chosen by pianists for performance. Even if the competition repertoire is "free choice," only a select portion of the piano repertoire is appropriate. Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze is a great work but rarely programmed in competitions - it's too long and it isn't flashy enough. The music of Satie is completely inappropriate on a competition program - it's too simple and esoteric, and it can be very polarizing with the judges. Grieg's lyric pieces aren't serious enough, Handel isn't as good as Bach, too many transcriptions are bad, too many unknown pieces intimidate the judges, and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies are deemed "cheap" music by some. And goodness, if your specialty is New Music and not music of the Classical era, too bad, because you won't satisfy the judges desire to select a well-rounded pianist. And goodness, if you like to compose yourself, don't try to program your own compositions in competition programs.

Then, there is the whole element of winners and losers. In most major competitions I've seen, amazing pianists (truly amazing) are cut in the first round. It seems that creative and personal performers do not do well. They may win over some of the jury members, but they are bound to offend others. Competitions are kind to the consistent and predictable - very kind - $50,000 kind - lots of engagements and press kind. But interestingly enough, very few who win secure sturdy concert careers. Audiences don't return to hear these winners again, and concert presenters don't reengage them. Who won the last Queen Elizabeth? the last Tchaikovsky? the last Leeds? I forgot.

I passionately believe that competitions have done significant damage to the world of classical music. It has transformed music from an art to a sport.

Instead of playing the piano to win competitions, I offer an alternative: play music to change the world, to discover yourself, to explore humanity, and to bring people together. Play music that is relevant to you and find ways to make it relevant to others.

Happy practicing!

- Greg