Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I haven’t been posting as often as usual. That’s because this summer I’m concentrating on another writing project: a children’s biography of pianist Clara Schumann.
She was one of the most important pianists of the Romantic era, certainly the most important female pianist of the era. Yet there’s very little written about her, especially for young readers.
Clara Schumann’s father started teaching her to play the piano when she was 5. He was an impatient and demanding teacher, but there is no denying he turned Clara into a virtuoso.
As a young pianist, Clara worried about making mistakes. Her father was more interested in how expressively she played. He believed that interpreting music in a way that created an emotional connection with the audience mattered more than showy technical feats. He taught Clara how to produce a rich, round tone and a singing legato.
Technique vs musicality is an ongoing debate in music competitions. What’s more important–playing flawlessly or taking chances and playing from the heart? Some judges want technical perfection. Others can overlook a minor mistake or two in favor of beautiful phrasing, tone, and interpretation.
From an early age, students are usually trained to reproduce classical music exactly as it’s written: the notes, the variations in tempo and volume, every marking. As pianist Robert Levin says, “They are actors who have all of their lines. When you put all your emphasis on reproducing something rhythmically and accurately, risk avoidance is paramount. You’re going to go to an international competition and you play three wrong notes and someone else plays only two, your fear is that that person will win the first prize and you won’t. So you don’t take any risks … The problem with that is—it’s not interesting … What we need is people taking more risks, to personalize how they perform.”
Generally, I am not a risk taker—in music or in life. But I understand Levin’s point. I’d much rather listen to a pianist who inhabits the beauty of the music, who makes it her own, who isn’t a slave to the written music, who doesn’t worry too much about a wrong note here and there. In short, a performer who is all in.
When my husband was in his early teens, he did yard work for “old Mrs. King,” as he remembers her. (He assures me she really was quite elderly, not in her mid-60s as he and I now are.). Mrs. King had hired him to cut down weeds in an unmown area of her property. The sickle he was using for the job broke and he went to her door to own up to what had happened.
Mrs. King took the news in stride, saying, “He who never made a mistake never made anything.” Then she sent him off to the corner hardware store to put another sickle on her tab.
There are many variations of this adage:
He who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
He who never made a mistake never made a discovery.
A man who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing.
Old Mrs. King’s sentiment made a lasting impression, though looking back my husband realizes he didn’t really make a mistake that day. The sickle was old, the weeds were tough, and the tool simply broke. I suspect he was approaching the work in his usual way: Giving it his all.
Interesting pianists do the same.
Paulette Bochnig Sharkey