Pedal Point Music Blog

THE CRITICAL EAR VS. THE DISCERNING MIND

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 by William Suit | Uncategorized

The college experience for a musician tends to be a time of thoroughly honing one's skills and gleaning an abundance of knowledge.  Stop right there!  Well, at least that's what most musicians seem to do: "stop right there."  I know, from my experience anyway, that there was an urgency among many of my peers to become the best and know it all.

So what?  College tends to weed out the uninterested and incapable.  It's a refinement process to produce the best in any given subject.  My psychology professor was in his first year of teaching and arrogantly stood before my class to inform us, "Most of you won't make it past the second year of your studies here.  Some of you won't make it past this first year. I'm here to assist you with that."  I chuckle when I think of the fear it put in my mind to hear that.  I remember staying up all night to memorize the material for his final, because I couldn't understand most of it.  I passed it, but there were others who didn't fair so well.

Eventually I ended up in my major classes and began studying music.  Recitals were required attendance events for music majors.  We would pack out the little chapel with excellent acoustics to hear the culminating moments of someone who had made it to her senior year and was now ready to demonstrate competence in the music field. At times it was all I could do to sit through some of the torturous repertoire that professors would choose for their students.  There's a reason some music becomes obscure, but I digress.

One of the first things that became very clear to us as music majors, is that we were expected to develop a critical ear.  Mental notes were to be made about the recitals and we often found ourselves in informal discussions about the performances.  The college I attended was religious.  So, chapel and church services were required of everyone.  It might as well have been a military school, because you could very quickly find yourself in the Dean's office for skipping a service.

It was at these services that our professors taught us to have a critical ear.  Every person who approached the podium to sing or play was under the immediate scrutiny of the entire music department.  It didn't matter who it was or why they were there, they were now being measured and critiqued.  Was the voice free?  Did they have tremolo or vibrato? Were they forcing the pitch?  Did you hear how they altered the composer's intent?  Did that guy just end his piano arrangement on a major 7 chord?  Was  her posture affecting her tone?

This critical ear was honed in the recital hall.  I remember sitting with the program in my hand and making notes on each piece.  Meticulously I would jot down my impressions.  Everything from posture to breathing to execution was scrutinized.  Vowels had to be aligned and free.  The language being sung had to be clearly understood.  With the pianists, sometimes people would sit with the score and follow along, notating every flaw and misstep.

To the outsider this was all invisible.  All you could see was an attentive, supportive room full of peers applauding the crowning moment of someone's academic career.  In reality, we were a vicious pit of venomous vipers, silently striking with our pens at every movement.  I remember a guy coming up to me after my recital with a smirk, "Well, that was a dialect of German I've never heard before tonight."  He walked away chomping on the cake I had provided for my reception.  I laughed nervously as the next person came through the line.  This was my crowning moment?  (Personally, I would never want to relive it.  I saw a VHS recording of it once and swore I would never watch it again.  It wasn't as good as I thought at the time. Ha!)

Despite this critical, damaging attitude that was nurtured in most of us, there were some great professors that nurtured the musician in all of us.  One of them balanced this for me unintentionally at a faculty recital.  He was the best music theory professor ever!  His instrument was piano.  At this recital he was playing Brahms.  I was familiar with the piece at the time and was excited to hear it.  He began and made his way through the first passage, but then something very odd happened.  He played a passage about a third of the way through the piece that I had never heard before.  Was this some lost version of the composition of which he was aware?  Mind you, he was playing totally from memory. I couldn't figure it out.

In a conversation with a group of students later someone asked him why he had changed Brahms.  He was a quiet-spoken person and never raised his voice.  In his usual manner, he sat and stared for a moment, contemplating his answer.  "I drew a blank and couldn't remember the next part.  So, I made it up."  Everyone gasped and some laughed.  I leaned in and listened.  "When you're on that stage playing,  it's more than just mindlessly playing the notes from the page.  It's most about capturing the composer's intent; the spirit of the piece. I understand Brahms.  I grasp what his intent was with that composition.  At that point my improvisational skills took over and I made my way back to a familiar place to finish the piece."

Perhaps I didn't quote him exactly, but this is the impression that moment made on me. That became a critical point in my musical education.  Did you hear all that was going on in his musicianship?  Everything was at play in that moment.  There are so many critical lessons that can be taken from his moment on that stage and the way he handled the crisis.  To the critical ear, he messed up and tried to cover it up by rewriting Brahms.  To the discerning musical mind, he was deeply invested in leading the audience to a deeper appreciation of Brahms and to the heart of this composition.  To those who were unfamiliar, this was clearly accomplished, because they had no idea that he made up a third of the piece.  They simply enjoyed the thrill of the spirit of the piece as intended.

At the end of the day, maybe advanced studies with all of their refining power and bestowing of knowledge lead us to a new plateau of understanding and growth.  How we handle that determines our real ability to lead others to an appreciation and love of our craft.  Can I use my critical ear to delve into the mind of my student while discerning with my heart her grasp of the material before her?  Am I able to lead my student to deeper expression of the text, full of emotion and clarity, rather than making him a robotic duplicator of notes?  It's all a very delicate balance!

In the end, we as instructors, who've been given an abundance of knowledge are also bestowed with a great responsibility to tap into our power of discernment.  In doing so, we have a better chance of leading students toward a goal of excellence full of expression and understanding.  Audiences will sit enthralled and engaged by the music of the ages as the soul of that music engulfs their minds and hears.