A personal confession (though not quite like St. Augustine or Rousseau)
August 30, 2021
Is there a “Joe’s System” to playing the piano?
I am perpetually looking to crystallize the main points about piano practicing and performing that are strewn among my many years as a musician and teacher. I would like to be able to put them all “in one place” so I can state them all at one and the same time.
Sometimes I feel like I’m getting closer this goal, but then a few days later I seem to go back into a holding pattern, as over an airport, and continually circle around. I visit one principle or insight for while, thinking it has lasting, basic value. But then, in as little as a few days, I am attracted to something else of as much importance. I’m seventy-four, so I would like to be able to corral them and get them all in the same place. Like the game where you try to get all the balls into holes, without dislodging any ball that is already in a hole by the motions you take to put the next one in its hole.
I’m not sure what I want to ‘corral‘ them into: a “system?”; a briefest possible “list?”. Do I know yet where each part of my insights fits into the whole of them? I don’t want to be a perpetual wanderer in search of truth,, without every saying: ah, good, I’m at the without final destination. It is the process though that keeps me alive, that keeps my creative fires alight (“…consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” – Emerson).
Over weeks, months and years I realize that what arose as separate categories of teaching principles, often joined with other such principles, into a more basic category. I am pleased to be getting to a more fundamental expression of my practicing and playing ideas. But in the background I have a chronic, nagging fear that all that I am capable of saying, and which I have said over the decades, deflates into a single trite statement when revealed in its ‘final’, distilled form. Like what happens to a shining pebble at the beach, which when taken home now shows itself to be dry, plain, like all other pebbles without the gleam of water on their surface.
So I am envious, especially of the great philosophers whose total work forms a synthetic whole. And of great teachers in general who have put things into a coherent system and written books and have many followers. I don’t know if I can do this. Yet I do exhibit my own valuable personal habits and ways of going about things (which I have been stuck with all my life).
Permit me a one paragraph summary of my life:
While growing up and into my twenties, I was told that everything I felt or articulated was “wrong” in some way or another. If I was lucky it was only wrong by a little, but often it was alleged to be by a lot. The common thread to all the criticism was that what I was thinking was not the norm among thinkers. I had not done enough research into the field, not thoroughly compared my thoughts with those my contemporaries, and should have not uttered a word until I had studied the great minds of the past and what they had said about the same matter. At the time this struck me as very valid criticism. Then something interesting happened. People started seeking me out to work with, and they were specifically seeking my “wrong” theories and my “wrong” teaching techniques, and my “wrong” ways of doing and expressing things- all things which over the years had mysteriously turned into the “right” ways.
My closest friends tell me I’m uniquely creative and should always remain as I am. That I come very close to the truth, something which often gets lost and snowed under in a more traditional approach. That I find what is unique in my piano students and give help give them the voice to express it (musically and otherwise). I don’t know if all of that is true. It is a big question in my life. Sometimes I still wish it would enough just to be different.
In spite of doubts, I soldier on, and continue to make notes about my
lessons and my practicing, and feel driven to publish them in my