Searching for the Perfect Music Education
In my house, the week before Thanksgiving was always exam week. 2005 was no exception: I had been lined up to take four different grade 8 examinations for the Associated Boards for the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) in organ, harp, voice, and piano. Following my fourth and last encounter with the examiner, he stepped out of the room to shake my hand, telling me, “You didn’t have to do them all at once.” Perhaps it’s true; most kids in the UK would probably spread these exams apart, taking one at their local school, and maybe heading up the road a few months later to another school to take the others. But I didn’t grow up in the UK, and I didn’t go to school. I was homeschooled in Burns, Tennessee (population: 1,457). ABRSM examiners were sent to the U.S. so infrequently (only twice a year) that if I wanted to do them, I would have to do them all at once.
My Southern, anglophile parents had a thing for these English music examinations with their regal, crème-colored certificates. Yet my homeschooling exhibited their loss of faith in structured education models. When I was eight, my mother went in for a meeting with the vice-principal of my elementary school (which sucked). He advised her that maybe homeschooling, the alternative he had chosen for his own children, might be the best option for my needs. That’s when my artsy, liberal, pro-public education mom yanked me out of school. It would be an understatement to say my education thereafter was unorthodox: my family joked that I was “car-schooled.” Initially, I spent a lot of the time in my mom’s Volvo. She had a private harp teaching practice spanning 11 southern and midwestern states, keeping her on the road while my dad worked from home doing freelance orchestration and arranging work for studios in Nashville. But by the time I turned 13, my own schedule had picked up, and I was more often in dad’s pickup truck than mom’s Volvo. He had assumed the role of my chauffeur for the daily 35-mile commute to my weekly piano, harpsichord and voice lessons, French and German tutorials, Kumon, choir rehearsals, and youth orchestra.
Eventually homeschooling sucked too. Between the commuting, the lesson juggling, and my isolation from other kids my age, the attempt to “do it all at once” was putting a strain on everyone in the family. There were never enough hours in the day, there was never enough gas in the car, and there were never enough achievements for me to rack up to prove that studying several instruments concurrently was viable and healthy.
My piano teacher could tell it was a lot. After finishing up a Barber Nocturne and some Bartók I’d played for my exam, he set me a challenge: Mozart’s Variations on “Ah, vous dirais-je, Maman”—otherwise known as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I came to find out that it wasn’t just a technical exercise. It was to see if I could pick a way of playing each variation and commit to it. Each week I’d come in with a different tempo or mood than I’d had in mind before, frustrated at the inability to compromise simplicity with charm and points of virtuosity. After a few weeks, he closed the piano and stood over me, saying, “You’re going to have to make up your mind about what Mozart is. You can change it of course, later on, but for the moment you’ve got to pick one and stick with it.”
When I arrived at the King’s School, Ely, it was decided that I would live in the oldest of the boarding houses, one of the crumbling monastic edifices that encloses the Cathedral campus. While there was no sorting hat, the 14th-century dormitory in which I was to live had the “Harry Potter” cachet: low ceilings, stone walls, ancient wood beams in the ceiling. The school itself predates the Norman Conquest, and many students spoke with crisp upper-class accents; the school Scholars wore red academic gowns on Mondays and Fridays, blue for prefects on Wednesdays. But like all boarding schools, the communal living left much to be desired. I soon found out that medieval buildings certainly look pretty on the outside, but are poorly insulated, have thin walls, uneven floors, and plumbing that could scarcely cope with the cumulative bowel movements of 45 teenage boys.
Students’ time was accounted for 15 hours a day, six days a week. While daunting at first, the number of school activities and routines eventually allowed me to slip below the radar. Nobody bothered to look for me, maybe because they knew I was practicing, playing evensong at the cathedral, heading to London or Cambridge for a lesson, practicing the piano in the school hall or the harp in the cello closet. I learned to use this to my advantage. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Ely would be dotted with light blue as students were dispersed across the town to row, play cricket, or toss a rugby ball around. Fortunately, the golf instructor—also my history teacher—turned a blind eye to my reliable absence.
One day in my senior year, I got caught. I was supposed to be at the driving range, but instead was in the school hall working on the second movement of Mozart’s Sonata in F Major. “You missed an E-flat there,” someone said. It was the headmistress of the school, a pianist, trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I froze. She walked over to the piano, picked up the score, and smiled. “One of the great things about the second movement is the fact it was published twice,” she told me. It’s true: the first publication of the Sonata is rather barren and dry, with none of the scales, ornaments and filigree that are in the second edition, published in Paris some years later. “It’s as if Mozart changed his mind,” she went on, “that he somehow decided to say ‘sod it’ and show everyone how he wanted it to be done.”
I nodded in agreement, but I was too preoccupied to focus on the history of a sonata movement. Days before, I’d received my acceptance to Cambridge University, with an organ scholarship to King’s College. Once again, I was preparing myself to change educational environments, headlong into one of the world’s great musical and academic pressure-cookers. I didn’t know if I’d be able to keep all my instruments up at once, and maintain the self-isolation I’d cultivated in Ely. I was terrified.
“Things can always be done again, rewritten, you know,” she continued. “We can change our minds, and take our time to figure out what it is we want. We don’t have to do it all now. It’s not just the beauty of music, but of being human.”
I usually had my morning walk timed down to the second. If I left my room at precisely 7:52 a.m., that would give me seven minutes to get across the back lawn, over the backs, up West Road and into King’s College School. 8:00 a.m. chorister practice at King’s was the typical start to my mornings, teaching the youngest of the boys how to sight sing, read Anglican chant notation, and maintain concentration for a full hour’s rehearsal. Like the sight of rowers on the river Cam, the sounds of boys’ voices working on Byrd, Tallis or Stanford are part of a morning routine particular to Cambridge University.
As my freshman year wore on, I was increasingly more pressed for time, having to account for the additional toting of library books with me to rehearsals. After changing majors midyear, I was playing catchup on reading while trying to cope with the history faculty’s one-day lending policy on books. Rehearsal finished at 9:15, and the history library across West Road required books back by 10:00. My supervisor in Easter term was particularly big on long reading lists: for each 3,000 word essay I handed him every seven days, I was usually checking out four or five books a day. Often these books would contain virtually all the same information, differing only in the extent to which they split hairs on matters such as culpability in the Holocaust, or the actual numbers of people dead as a result of Stalinism.
While I was busy, my time was largely unstructured. Besides my morning and afternoon rehearsals with the Choir of King’s College, I had no mandatory lectures, classes or seminars. There were no requirements for me to play the harp—I wasn’t a music major, after all. All that exists at Cambridge is the terrifying expectation that one makes the most of their time there: on matriculation day the Provost at King’s ended his opening speech by angrily shouting “It’s your education; use it or lose it!” before storming out of the chapel in theatrical fashion. But my colleagues and I fit the typical Cambridge mold (type-A, neurotic, over-achieving) and the educational model of self-direction we were handed lay somewhere between capitalism and a chapter from Lord of the Flies. It didn’t take long to realize that while the freedom I had at Cambridge was intellectually liberating, it constrained any impulse to think about anything beyond graduation day. In studying and practicing away, I had no time to consider what I’d do tomorrow.
I eventually got into a numbing but efficient swing. In between canticles and psalms in daily evensong, I’d read and read, interchanging auto-pilot modes between Anglican organ robot and historical fact-crunching machine. I learned just how much to prepare a choral accompaniment to keep it fresh in my mind for 24 hours and promptly forget it thereafter. I skimmed books for juicy interpretive points to use for punchy argumentation. I also realized that if I left my room eight minutes earlier, at 7:44 a.m., I’d have time to grab two espressos from Café Nero to get me through the daily task of teaching small children 16 minutes later.
In May of my freshman year, the choir was preparing for a recording of Mozart’s Requiem. A significant amount of preparation went into the recording, including getting the choristers to intentionally sing flat, as the pitch was to be set at A = 430 Hz. We also spent time working on alternative completions of the work. I had overslept one morning and walked in a few minutes late. As I slipped in, the boys were working on an alternative version of the Lacrimosa, a movement particularly purple in its harmonic and ornamental embellishments. After the first read-through, a chorister raised his hand. “Is this Mozart? It’s not the same as last time.” Before the piano sat Stephen Cleobury, eminent conductor and organist, and Director of Music at King’s College. He turned to the boy and quietly explained why we were doing different versions. “But which one would Mozart have wanted?” the chorister asked. Stephen paused a moment. “I wouldn’t know. But neither would Mozart.” “But how do we choose?” the chorister asked impatiently. Stephen smiled. “Well that’s half the fun—we don’t have to.”
On our first day in Siena, our Italian teacher told us that while ice cream and gelato taste the same, we should not confuse the two. In fact, learning to order a gelato on my first day in class was the most Italian I learned during my entire exchange at the University of Siena, as within a week, I had ditched the classes and gone AWOL. On evenings with no Palio festivities or street parties, the other students and I would sometimes head to concerts at the Accademia Chigiana. The concerts showcased the work students had done perfecting their arias in the practice rooms of the old Tuscan palace. A fellow language student and pianist from Slovakia dragged me and my friend Dave to the Teatro dei Rozzi, for an immersion into Italian opera culture. While the students really rocked the house, the orchestra didn’t quite keep up. As the mezzo walked on to sing “Voi che sapete” from “Le Nozze di Figaro,” it was clear from her face that the tempo was too slow, and that the conductor was going to outdo even himself with the level of self-indulgence he would take with the phrases. The crowd went bananas. At the end of the concert, she was brought on stage to sing it again (this time, even slower) before assuming a role as clapping leader for Strauss’s “Radetzky March.”
As we stood in line for gelato, I was still bent out of shape about the Mozart. The whole Cherubino “thing” seemed to have been lost. There as no youthfulness, charm or impetuosity—it felt like just another love aria. Dave, himself a tenor at King’s, told me to relax and said I was being a perfectionist. I defensively asked him why I shouldn’t be. “Mozart isn’t about perfection,” he went on. “Splitting hairs about authenticity is like splitting hairs about gelato or ice cream, when the flavor and texture are essentially identical. Mozart’s good enough to be expressed any way you like it. That’s what makes it Mozart.”
On arriving for my first semester of graduate school in the cornfields of Ohio, I didn’t so much dread rural isolation, a change of pace, or a homesickness for the UK. I simply resented having to take a research methods and academic writing class at an American liberal arts college. After reading my first essay for the class, I was confronted by a fellow student for using a gendered possessive pronoun for a nation. I tried to explain that in speaking about Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution, the feminine possessive pronoun was considered historically accurate. I was informed that if I continued to throw around pronouns and mis-gender countries, I’d “be in trouble around here.” My professor looked on in silence, maintaining an attitude of respect, but also bemusement. I asked the professor if interactions such as these were normal. His smile at me said, “Welcome to Oberlin.”
It took me a while to shake the conviction that Oberlin was just Bob Jones University for wealthy left-wingers, where a different strain of illiberal moralism had taken hold. Instead of Jesus, students had quinoa, as food and identity politics seemed to take the same primacy in classes and worldview as pro-life activism and religious freedoms did among the other homeschoolers I knew in Tennessee, many of whom ended up at small Baptist colleges around the South. But more irritating was the fact that my Oxbridgey, skeptical worldview (call it snobbery, for convenience), which I had so carefully crafted, turned out to be irrelevant outside of my first alma mater. In talking with other students, intense focus on detail was to a certain degree frowned upon, seen as some form of institutional conservatism that ought to be shed.
In the end I learned to nitpick in the practice room. The conservatory’s facilities were limitless and the practice rooms innumerable. In addition, I was pursuing a degree in historical performance, a field suited to people with a flair for pedantry. I pulled apart my technique, worked on my touch and my articulation. I practiced Sweelinck on an organ with a 15-note octave, played Bach on a Saxon-style harpsichord, coached Purcell sung in period diction, and gave presentations on tempi, interpretation, and the convenient ways music can be boiled down to a matrix of historically informed performative decisions.
I tried out some these ideas outside of the historical performance department, particularly in a college seminar on Mozart’s operas. But in Dr. Charles McGuire’s sessions, we spent just as much time talking about how people had messed up the operas since Mozart died as we did discussing the operas themselves. We spent hours looking at English language adaptations of the opera in 19th-century England, watching Peter Sellars productions, reading Bernard Shaw essays, discussing contemporary depictions of rape and ultimately deciding whether “Don Giovanni” merited a trigger warning in Oberlin’s course catalogue. The integrated approach to Mozart interwove musicology, social politics, and philosophy of reception. But I didn’t really feel like I was studying Mozart. After spending three years of my undergraduate life writing about how things were, I wasn’t in the mood to write about how people felt. It was too American, too perspectivist, too liberal artsy. I tried raising the point with my professor in class, essentially dismissing the material as not really being about Mozart at all. “Well, that’s kind of the point,” he said. “There’s really no such thing as ‘Mozart.’ ”
The Juilliard School, New York
The harp studio at the Juilliard School is a large windowless box. 12 harps live in the room, though only seven of them get any regular use. A few dead harps sit in the corner with broken strings laying askew off the soundboards, like the elephant graveyard in “The Lion King.”
Towards the start of my second year at Juilliard, I walked into the studio for yet another lesson on Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. Now a universal étude for harpists to exhibit their “sound,” it’s become a staple on all audition lists around the world. “Be sure to support with your left hand.” “Don’t phrase there. Just make them all sound the same.” “The melody doesn’t need to be brought out. It should sound the same as the accompaniment.” While I knew that playing Mozart in such a way would tick all the boxes for an orchestral audition, I wasn’t sure what else I was getting out of the lesson. I kept quiet (unusual for me), and followed Nancy Allen’s meticulous instructions. “Great. Now it sounds normal,” she told me. I inquired why the goal of playing a work of Mozart, or of any work for that matter, was to be normal. “Because it’s just Mozart.”
After my lesson, I headed to my next appointment, a meeting with Juilliard’s President, Joseph Polisi. In our meeting, we had an extended conversation about what purpose an institution like Juilliard should serve. I let loose, describing the ideal education as being at once open for students to explore new projects, yet rigorous enough to meet a high standard. I talked about how humanities and music shouldn’t be separated, just as politics and artistic responsibility can’t be separated.
Polisi wasn’t unsympathetic. He’s a polymath after all: he has degrees in political science, international relations, and music. Among his many achievements at the Juilliard School has been to expand the academic curriculum for students to include more humanities requirements. And yet he stood by the assertion that no school can give a student everything all at once. “We’re not a liberal arts college. Our job is to train creative artists to go out into the world, and hopefully change it through the most rigorous training we can give them.”
JOE Coffee, West Village, New York
After spending the morning working on Mozart’s Fantasia in F Minor for organ, I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop checking flight prices. I’m hoping for an intervention by the airline gods to reduce the cost of plane tickets from LaGuardia to Cleveland, Ohio. In the fall, I’ll be doing a nearly weekly commute from New York back to Oberlin so I can pursue an Artist Diploma in organ performance. In a sense, not much has changed. I could almost be back in Tennessee; I’m going from church to church to practice the organ, and negotiating a commute for my studies.
But I’d be lying if I said that my experiences were all the same. In the last 10 years, I learned different, but fundamentally important lessons. Cambridge taught me to think, Oberlin let me reflect, and Juilliard made me relax. It’s no secret that any school has its own way of teaching; its house style; its mission for its students. Sometimes that can seem restricting: no school can give every student every possible educational opportunity all at once. In that sense, school sucks.
Then again, if schools all gave everything at one time to all students, they wouldn’t have those distinctive characteristics which shape their alumni and enrich the world with a variety of viewpoints and approaches. Everyone would play Mozart exactly the same way. ¶