On The Influence Of One’s Musical Teachers

In his New Yorker piece “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, pianist Jeremy Denk reflects on taking piano lessons from the time he first took up the instrument at the age five through his college years. Denk’s teachers helped him learn to better practice, interpret and think musically. “Learning to play the piano” says Denk, “is learning to reason with your muscles.” Denk’s most influential teacher was the great Hungarian pianist György Sebők (1922-1999) who spent many years teaching at Indiana University. Sebők was a master who made “the concepts behind the notes” come alive. Sebők could conjure worlds from the piano that felt “like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.”

Sebők’s playing a dual role of “spirit guide and physics teacher” in Denk’s life is something that any of us who have closely worked with a music teacher will recognize. Sebők aimed to “bridge the gap between boring technical detail and the mysteries of the universe.” Denk expands on the subtleties of Sebők’s approach as it relates to the complexities of the piano:

“He would make you focus on the myriad hinges of the arm and wrist, sometimes looking for the arm to resemble a sewing machine, with up-and-down linear simplicity, other times looking or curves, circles, spirals. The mechanism of bone and muscle brought to bear on the piano is very complex; the hidden responding mechanism inside the piano is also very complex; and the interaction of the two is a lifetime’s study.”

Particularly interesting for me is Sebők’s belief “that matching one’s motions to the gestures within the music was essential to unlocking the emotions of the piece.” Sebők considered it perverse “to play a phrase with body language that was opposed to the musical idea itself.” Denk’s essay also conjures the deep value of masterclass sessions with Sebők, describing them as “beautiful acts of attention, in which the revelatory detail is cherished for its own sake, freed from the narrative necessities of performance.” Reading this I recalled some of my own practicing during college, but also realized that there are everywhere opportunities for beautiful acts of attention. The  key, I suppose, is learning how to really notice things.

After Denk had finished his studies with Sebők and moved to New York, he did some teaching himself and got some sense of what Sebők may have experienced with his pupils. “When you give ideas to students, they tend either to ignore them or to exaggerate them. The first is distilled futility, but the second is grotesque.” Which leads Denk to reflect on the nature of one’s identity–musical or otherwise: “what if this really is you, and that only through the imitation of the struggling student do you see what you’re really about.” Whatever the case, Sebők’s teachings have remained with Denk. Having dinner with another one of his former teachers at, of all places, an Applebee’s in Florida and reminiscing about Sebők, Denk is surprised that twenty years after his lessons with the Hungarian master he still carries with him memories of how Sebők played Bach and made it feel like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.

Here is a video of Sebők discussing the relationship between feeling and music followed by a riveting performance of Bach:

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