As part of a recent concert with horn player and MSM buddy John-Morgan Bush, we did a Q&A on musician life with local high school kids. They asked thought-provoking questions about topics like finding the right teacher, practicing, dealing with disappointment, and generally preparing for a life in music. Some of them will soon have to decide, as many of us have - should I go to music school?
It’s a tough question. When I was their age, the choice was clear - “real school” gave you real benefits - practical skills, a marketable degree, a shot at a job. What did conservatory offer? As far as I could tell, they gave you access to a building and a teacher, and you sat and practiced as much as you could, after which you had no job prospects. Sounded pretty dumb to me.
Decades later, when I decided to leave my job and go to that “dumb” place, all I knew was that I wanted to play music, and play better, and that conservatory was supposed to help. I think that’s why most people go. But a million questions remained. How do I get better? Better at what? What do I need? To what end? Who will help me? I didn’t really have a clue.
The answers to all of these questions started to fall in place after I heard an anecdote about Josef Gingold, one of the most influential violin pedagogues of the last century. As the tale goes, he would ask a violinist to play Paganini, to see if they had fingers, a Bach fugue, to see if they had a brain, and a slow movement from a Mozart concerto, to see if they had a heart.
That story, apocryphal or not, has stuck with me because it is one of the most vivid yet succinct illustrations of what I need to develop to become a complete musician. It also explained lots of things: why someone with dazzling technique could still put audiences to sleep, how intense emotional experiences could make you a better musician, and why so many scientists and doctors are Bach-obsessed amateur musicians. It also explains why true musical prodigies are rare: to fit the bill, you have to have preternatural ability in all three arenas from a very young age, and most of us are born with lots of room to grow.
I’m pretty sure Gingold didn’t intend this, but his story also transforms all conservatories in my mind into some version of the Land of Oz, where young violinists wander the Yellow Brick Road between practice rooms, linked arm-in-arm and dressed in the creepy Technicolor costumes of the 1939 film. Some of us are the Scarecrow, hoping for a brain, others the Tin Man, looking for a heart, and some of us a weepy Lion, seeking courage (I’ll call this body control or technique - which gives the courage to play anything!). In some way, we are all Tin Lion-Crows - we could use help in all three areas. (It also makes me wonder which administrator at Juilliard is the man behind the curtain. Hmmm…)
Which character was I, and what was I seeking in the Land of Oz? I didn’t really know. I always figured my Scarecrow brain was decent - as a kid, I used to recreate pieces I’d heard on classical radio on the piano, and memorizing has always comes easily to me. A former teacher once asked me, a week after I started a Bach keyboard partita, whether I’d memorized it yet. “It seems you memorize something by just looking at the cover,” he said.
But I suspected that I needed help in all three arenas. For instance, certain repertoire felt beyond me - my arms would get too tight, or my sound would be choked, or I couldn’t play facilely enough, and I couldn’t figure out why. I could fool enough people, but I felt like my body was struggling. (This struggle would eventually lead to playing injuries, a painful experience I have painstakingly overcome - and a story for another time). Of course, my musical heart and brain also needed maturing. I had long been winging it on my own undeveloped intuition; my music history and theory was mostly unschooled. I remember once when someone asked me if a piece was contrapuntal and I didn’t know what she was talking about. I think I was 14.
Luckily, I ended up in the amazing Oz-ian land of Juilliard, an often surreal place with an unreal amount of talent. It was the only school I applied to because it was a good school - and two subway stops from my apartment. And I lucked out! My time in Oz was transformative for all three Gingold-ian spheres - brain, body, and heart. Here are just a few of the most influential courses and teachers I found there. All of them changed my life, sometimes in surprising ways.
Juliana Gets Courage
Private lessons are the centerpiece of musical training, conservatory setting or otherwise. I knew when I arrived that I had technical gaps, but I didn’t know that my chosen teacher, Jonathan Feldman, was a veritable piano technique guru. He taught us the principles of the Taubman approach, which is designed to minimize unnecessary tension and maximize the use of the body (particularly the upper body) to produce whatever result you wanted on the piano.
I had unwittingly stumbled on a technical approach taught and used by many of the piano virtuosi I had long admired. And it was available to me too! It was a revelation to realize that these people weren’t necessarily born with special wrists or fingers - they just really knew how to use them. Over my first few years at Juilliard, I had to break down my old technique and build new habits. At times I felt like a child beginner, but after the rebuilding was done, I had the tools to address anything in the piano repertoire (with work) and to diagnose and help others with technical issues as well. It is no understatement to say that I would probably not still be a pianist today without this technical training. I am no longer fearful of my physical concerns, and I can spend more of my time transcending them and dwelling on the artistic planes of music. Absolute game-changer for me and for many others. (Find out more about Dorothy Taubman and her legacy here, at the institute maintained by the wonderful Edna Golandsky).
Juliana Gets a Brain
(Orchestral Conducting; French Diction).
I think most of us enroll in conducting thinking it’ll all be about how to wield a baton like the greats, but it quickly becomes clear that to be a good conductor is to be a good musician. You can move your body in a myriad of ways, but unless the intent is deeply considered and clear, you might as well be this:
The course, in which we conducted different excerpts every week with an "orchestra" of duo pianos, helped me grow my Oz-ian brain through plenty of practice in score-study and musical analysis. Preparation for every class required me to marshal all of my skills, then multiply them by a panoply of instruments and their transpositions. You had to keep track of all relevant aspects - such as phrase lengths, harmonic changes, texture, and character - for all of the individual parts, and communicate them in a way that produced an effective net result. This class definitely gave my old brain a few more wrinkles (good for brain, bad for face). Sure, I also learned my way around a baton and improved my own personal conducting style, but more importantly, I realized that my sense of command was directly connected to how well I had studied the music and crafted my interpretation in advance.
Conjuring music without an instrument, somewhat counter-intuitively, also helped me develop physical command. I was freed from the strictures of the piano and could channel my interpretation more freely and creatively with my body, but every movement had to communicate effectively. Our patient and supportive instructor, Jeffrey Milarsky, showed us how small modulations in our movements could have vast consequences for the clarity of the rhythm, dynamic, or shape we were trying to show. Our motions had to be expressive and yet enunciate our intent - a helpful practice transferable to the playing of any instrument!
Another brain-builder, in a different way, was the French diction (pronunciation) class. This was a sleeper hit. I certainly wasn’t excited about this course, but it’s required for my degree program so that graduates can find gainful employment as vocal coaches and opera pianists. Having never spoken anything but native tongues, I knew French would be a struggle. But at least I now know why. Pronouncing a foreign language is not magic; it is training your tongue and lips and face to do unfamiliar things with ease. Despite how frustrating it can seem, it is doable with practice and a good teacher, and we had the best one of them all: Tom Grubb. Exacting, blunt, and analytical to a fault, he had us practice our French vowels in front of hand mirrors for an entire year. While I’m not sure I mastered the many gradations of the “e” vowel that he himself devised, I’ll never forget how to produce them. This course was another lesson in using my brain to harness my body in a very specific, analytic way. Like excellent piano technique, good diction was not someone else’s birthright, but could be mine too with a lot of dedication.
Thanks to these courses, and as part of my journey towards a growth mentality, I no longer subscribe to the myth of talent or genius. There are analytical approaches out there to help with any skill, whether it is signaling a new tempo with a flick of a wrist, playing rapid octaves without pain, or singing on nasal vowels. Those tools and their accompanying empowering mindset were some of the greatest gifts of my conservatory education.
Juliana Gets a Heart
Did I also get a heart? I think so. I can’t attribute this to any particular course, but I have to say that there is something healing about being immersed in the world’s greatest music all day (Mahler 2? Slow Mozart? All Bach?). My heart, cold and defensive from years of production rather than introspection, began to peek out and warm to the passion of these works. I think those of us drawn to music find a spiritual power in sound, as others find it in a natural vista or a great painting. As I played, listened to, and studied music, I could lose myself in it, be buoyed up in it, and meld myself with a more universal force. This immersion helped me reconnect to that aspect of music that I love, and to revive the ardor somewhat deadened by corporate servitude.
So, should you go to music school? Well, if you know what skills of brain, heart, and body you’d like to work on, and you can summon the resources to help you, I guess there’s no need. Many successful musicians went to Harvard, for instance, and came out the other end no worse for the wear. But those people often already had careers, which indicated a certain level of precocious accomplishment. If you, like me and most normal people, need more help, it it sure would be a tall order to gather everything you need into one place.
Ultimately, like in any adventure, it’s the people you meet who are the most influential to your growth. I’ve met so many phenomenal colleagues and mentors in music school, and for that I'm immensely grateful. Daily, we continue, with each other's company and help, on the journey towards being the most complete musicians we can be.