A Teenage Cautionary Tale

In her marvellous memoir Piano Lessons, Anna Goldsworthy recounts a turning point in her relationship with her piano teacher. Anna had won an extraordinary string of awards, academic and musical, in her final year at high school, and she was being interviewed for a story in the paper. Anna describes the whole experience as being quite surreal, finding the questions put to her by the reporter as being weirdly disconnected from anything she might have wanted to say.

When the story appeared in the paper then next day Anna was bemused to herself quoted as saying that she owed her success to her kindergarten teacher, and that she planned to move to Sydney to further her career. It’s not that she was misquoted exactly, but that the whole story skewed very far from Anna’s reality.

Next thing Anna received a phone call from her piano teacher, very cold, asking her about her plans to relocate to Sydney. Long story short, Anna had failed to credit her piano teacher with any influence at all in her extraordinary piano performance success. The memoir goes on to detail how Anna and her teacher worked through this: the senses of betrayal and teenage confusion that mingled to create this interpersonal flashpoint.

I read this part of the memoir with looming dread as the story unfolded, and with deep empathy for the teenage Anna. Goodness knows the number of times I got things wrong with my music teachers through no deliberate fault of my own; I just wish someone had been able to steer me clear of false steps in my adolescent musical career. I knew exactly how ashamed Anna felt when she realised the impact the newspaper story must have had on her teacher, and how helpless and foolish she felt when it was all too late.

The worst of my musical crimes was perpetrated at the end of my high schooling, when I was asked to perform at the school’s Prize Giving Night. I had only one piece suitable for public performance at the time: a Bartok Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos VI. It’s a flashy work, short, rhythmic, loud; but it’s Bartok, and the consensus from the staff was that they’d much prefer me to play some Beethoven (maybe they even asked for Chopin, but that was never going to be on the cards).

If I could time travel back to 1983 and whisper in my just-turned-16-year-old ear I would yell “It’s the Bartok, or it’s nothing!”. Then I’d advise the high school staff to contact my piano teacher to talk about alternatives, rather than hassling a teenager to do something against her better judgment. I’d explain to myself that performing a work that is not ready to be performed does absolutely no one any favours: not the audience, not the school and certainly not yourself.

But since I didn’t time travel back to 1983 I found myself trying to keep my school teachers happy by agreeing to perform the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. I needed to master it in any case for a piano exam I was sitting in 7 weeks time, so I didn’t sense the degree to which I was letting everyone down when I allowed the staff to influence my performance choices.

The night arrived. My piano teacher wasn’t going to be there, but that hadn’t even been on my mind at all. It hadn’t even occurred to me to let her know about this issue at the school regarding my Prize Giving Performance. I sat down to play, and as those first ponderous bars of the Pathetique began to resound about the school hall so a cicada began its summery task of chirping through the dusk. Once I reached the Allegro the cicada upped the ante, chirping at double speed; I couldn’t reciprocate – Andante was the best I could do.

It took over 10 minutes to play the movement, and I was accompanied throughout by an insect. When I finally played the concluding chords the audience broke into rapturous applause (thank God that’s over, was what I imagined they were thinking), and once the clapping had died away we all realised the cicada had stopped too. And then every human being in that school hall laughed.

The next day a teacher stopped me in the schoolyard to praise my performance. I had this little moment where I considered explaining how truly awful my performance had been, but I could see he was genuine, completely meaning every word he said, and I didn’t have the heart to let him down twice, so I just said “Thank you”.

But at about the same time on this same next day the musicology professor from the university was on the phone to his good friend, my piano teacher, asking her if she had had any idea what I had been up to the previous night. It’s at this point that I realise that deep in my heart I did know I was doing the wrong thing – if I had thought for an instant that any of the university staff were going to be at my school’s Prize Giving I know I would have insisted on playing the Bartok.

But I didn’t (know the musicology professor was attending), and I didn’t (insist on playing Bartok), and my piano teacher didn’t (know about my woeful performance).

The next piano lesson was just one long blush.

I felt terrible about it, and I do to this day. Anyone who was there will remember that cicada.

But more than feeling terrible about giving a terrible performance, I feel terrible about the social betrayals in this story: my high school teachers let me down, encouraging me to give a performance so far from my best; I let my piano teacher down by implying this was also her idea of a good performance; I also let my piano teacher down by not even telling her that I was going to be performing. I really thought I was doing the right thing….

Teenage piano students: your lot is not an easy one. You spend hours each week on your own perfecting your performance skills, and then the world wonders when you’re not up to speed on interpersonal protocol.

Here’s the deal:
1. Never perform in a formal public setting without both the knowledge and the approval of your piano teacher. This saves you making a fool of yourself.
2. Never perform a piece that deep in your heart you know is not ready. This saves you making a fool of the music.
3. Never allow your high school teachers (who may be absolutely brilliant teachers and people) to dissuade you from following rules 1 and 2. This saves you making a fool of them.

And should you happen to be interviewed for a newspaper about your performances and prizes, be sure to give your kindergarten teacher just a little less credit than that you give to your piano teacher!

6 thoughts on “A Teenage Cautionary Tale

  1. But then, perhaps you should give a thought to the audience. They (apart from the musicology professor) knew nothing except that a nice tune was played that they thought they knew and rather liked. They probably would not have got anything out of the Bartok. Even at prize giving, you were an entertainer, not a music student playing an exam piece. Your teacher and the musicologist wouldn’t understand this. They are professional teachers and certainly not entertainers. But then, I bet they tell their students never to let off steam to the audience after a faulty performance. It is bad form and anyway most of the audience will not have noticed. If teachers do not accept the frailty of youth, whether under pressure or not, then they are not truly well rounded teachers.

  2. I’ve had similar experiences as a teen-ager – probably many of us had – but here’s one more thought.
    Some years back I was accompanying a choir at a major international festival. Groups of choir students from around the world would spontaneously break into song on the streets, the lunch tent, wherever – this was the spirit of the whole festival. However, our choir director would not allow the choristers to ever sing without her guidance or knowledge. It stifled a lot of enthusiasm and created resentment – particularly among the parent chaperones. There is certainly a point at which we professionals take it all a little too seriously.

  3. @johnofoz. Nothing wrong with educating your audience. I think most people would have enjoyed the Bartok. As Elissa says ‘flashy and loud’. I teach in a large Cathedral school and with all the wonderful music we have to offer, all the parents want to hear is pop. If the only expectation of a child’s performance is to be entertaining then all we would continue to hear is pop. That said, I would never have asked a child to perform a piece he/she wasn’t comfortable with because a bad performance can be the ‘dealbreaker’ for many children. As adults would we perform a piece that wasn’t ready because we felt pressured into it? Not a chance!

  4. Poor Bartok! Was he a bit too 20th century to be taken seriously? Or did he just write to much pedagogical music? Or was his real crime to reproduce? Real composers, it would seem, die without issue leaving them free to concentrate on “real” music and not little pieces for little people!

  5. Many years ago my friend and I performed a little concert at a home for the elderly and I chose the pieces I particularly liked, without consulting my teacher. One piece was by Prokofiev. After my performance of that piece, the woman who must have been the organiser informed the audience that this was ‘modern music’ and then added, with a snigger, that it may be better if she didn’t say what her own opinion of modern music was. I felt devastated that she had disliked the piece I loved but, even more, I was insulted by her assumption that I would not, as a child, understand the little ‘joke’ she was making to the audience.
    Maybe you made the right choice Elissa!

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