I had dinner yesterday with a friend who follows A Year of Guys, and she was surprised to read my confessional two days ago about mistakes. I should have said, “Ha! You should talk. You were raised Catholic!” But I didn’t. Instead, I told her that dwelling on mistakes comes to me after most every big concert, and is primarily a symptom of a general depletion of mental and physical resources. With a couple of night’s sleep I’m usually as right as rain.
But there is another, more pathological explanation for an obsession with mistakes, and I’d like to offer a defense of that pathology. It’s the pathology of deep love. However one comes to be gripped by music as a young person, at some point you become aware of how much control and detail goes into the making of beautiful music, and you innocently start down the road of acquiring the skills to be able to possess the music that so gripped your heart. Traveling that road you become tremendously vulnerable to the influence of a teacher.
Teachers, of course, come in all flavors, but the actual influence that a teacher has on a student comes in somewhat fewer flavors: modest-to-none, negative, or positive. (J.K. Rowling fueled much of the Harry Potter series with tales of the student-teacher relationship.)
In my case I encountered two influential teachers, one the proverbial good angel, the other a kind of dark lord of discipline. (Fortunately for me I encountered them in that order: good before dark. Reverse that exposure and I’d probably be selling insurance today.) Both my teachers loved music very deeply, and that (to quote Robert Frost) has made all the difference.
The dark lord of discipline was Spencer Huffman, the “Spencer” of “Talking with Silas, John, J.S., Spencer, Manny, and the Fed,” with whom I studied in the early 1970s and 80s. Spencer Huffman was a failed, bitter man, but knew more about the mechanics of music than anyone I’ve encountered since. I wrote about him back in January.
Suffice it to say that I can remember having a lesson with Spencer when I was 17 or so and we were playing a little fugue for organ by Bach. I was playing the pedal part on the piano. I was then, and still am, a wretched pianist, and must have been playing the pedal part with woeful imprecision. Spencer said, apropos of my rhythmic imprecision, that music demanded that I play it correctly “100 times out of 100 times.” (I can still hear his snarly voice in my head.)
But did you catch the subtlety of his choice of words? It wasn’t he that demanded that I play it correctly 100 times out of 100 times, it was the music. The music was God, and God never looks away. That has stayed with me ever since.
One of my favorite violinists is the Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova, who has been quite vocal about the oppressive influence of the no-mistakes-allowed classical training she received at the Central Music School of Moscow and Moscow Conservatory. She is now known, according to the Wikipedia article about her, “for her performances and recordings of a number of violin concerti, compositions by J.S. Bach, and her innovative interpretations of popular and jazz compositions by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, the Beatles, and others.” She speaks about the two halves of her life in her cleverly-titled memoir “From Russia To Love” (which I haven’t read), and in a 5-minute interview here.
The point Mullova makes in the early part of the interview is that playing in fear of making a mistake is oppressive, which I agree with. What she doesn’t get a chance to say in the interview, but what I hear in her playing, is that attention to detail is an act of love. Try to resist her here (in a overly-worshipful promo for her recent “Peasant Girl” recording) and here. I can’t.
And she can talk to you about mistakes made in the name of love.