Musicians, especially young musicians, are bombarded with advice over the course of their career, especially in those early, fledgling years. Most advice will come from teachers, but also from peers, colleagues, friends, promoters, agents and critics. Knowing how to take and react to advice is an important part of the musician’s skillset, and the ability to sift through advice and take it on board or reject it is an art in itself. The way such advice is given also has an impact on how one values it.
Young and amateur musicians in particular may find it hard to strike a balance between taking advice which will be useful to them and rejecting that which is not. In part, this is due to confidence: if your teacher suggests playing a passage in a certain way, or taking a particular interpretative stance on a piece of music, you may feel obliged to bow to what you perceive to be their greater wisdom, and blindly accept what they are telling you. This is especially the case if the teacher is renowned or revered. At a piano course some years ago, I chatted to a student who had participated in masterclasses with a number of internationally-renowned pianist-teachers. “I’ve got five different ways to play the end of this Schubert sonata”, he said to me over tea, “and now I don’t know which version is the right one!”. Such confusion suggests, to me at least, a student who is either not very confident about their own interpretative choices or who believes that because such-and-such Famous Pianist told him to play the passage in a particular way, it must be the ‘right way’.
As we grow more confident as musicians – whether amateur, student or professional – we learn how to filter and question advice to suit our needs, and also appreciate the importance of reflecting on that advice because its usefulness may not be immediately apparent. It is not necessary to blindly accept everything that a teacher, or teachers, tell us. Instead, we need to be selective about the advice we are given and ensure that it is the right advice for us. A good teacher or mentor will understand this too and make suggestions, rather than didactically “telling” the student how to play the music. One of the most useful aspects of attending masterclasses and courses, where one will meet and play for other teachers, is that one is exposed to a broader range of expertise and viewpoints, which can fuel one’s ideas on how to approach the music, from a technical and artistic point of view.
The way advice is given also has an impact on how it is received. I have been lucky in my experiences with both my regular teachers and those I have encountered on courses and in masterclasses that their advice has always been given in a positive and supportive way. This makes one far more receptive to the advice, and suggests a degree of respect between teacher and student.
“Best are those times when, as you listen to suggestions, you feel as if you’ve always known them to be true, somehow – but now you’re hearing them from another voice. There will always be degrees, shades; one can accept certain ideas from one musician, reject others. The only rule, perhaps, is that one should constantly remain alert, constantly ask oneself: ‘Is that true for me? For the music as I feel it inside?’”
– Steven Isserlis, cellist
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Robert Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, WoO 2: Intermezzo (arr. S. Isserlis fro cello and piano) (Steven Isserlis, cello; Thomas Adès, piano)