Friday, June 12, 2015

Suffer the little children

Photo: David Guttenfelder for the New York Times
A performance at the Kyongsang Kindergarten in Pyongyang

A few months ago I was hired as an accompanist for an international competition for young pianists, the youngest division ranging in age from about 9-13 years old. Even at this tender age, the contestants were required to present from memory the equivalent of a full-length solo recital program and a complete concerto from a list of "easier" but nonetheless typically virtuosic showpieces. Those that were selected to go on to semi-final/final rounds faced multiple days of public performance, all before an audience of expectant teachers, wigged-out parents and distinguished judges. The final three contestants completed the grueling week with a public performance of their concerto with orchestra. And what were YOU doing when you were 11?

Like most pianists, this wasn't my first go-round at youth competitions, having endured them many times both as anxious contestant and later as accompanist or adjudicator. I understand their value for young artists, even though I don't often agree with their modi operandi. What has changed quite dramatically over the decades, though, is the level of repertoire being inflicted upon these unquestionably ultra-talented children. When once a Bach invention, a Haydn sonata, a Mendelssohn or Schumann character piece and a Kabalevsky sonatina were considered suitable student offerings, we are now hearing works once reserved for the mature virtuoso- Liszt's Don Juan fantasy, Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, Prokofiev's fiendish Toccata, and on and on. Competition guidelines often don't attempt to place limits on repertoire choices anymore, unfortunately encouraging this kind of audience-pandering selection. It is unthinkable to me what these poor children must endure from teacher and parent in order to prepare such daunting and age-inappropriate material; there is no other word for it than abuse.

Behind the scenes, one overhears judges and competition staff tsking and clucking over this regretful emphasis on pure technical display, but they nonetheless more often than not promulgate this behavior by dismissing those with less developed (i.e. normal) technique, overlooking inspired and honest musicality amidst all the noise. What message are they sending? That only those with preternatural technical gifts and a penchant for forced labor will be strong enough to survive in today's cutthroat world of solo pianism.

Is this true? Perhaps, sadly. Is it right? All I know is you can't skip directly from Haydn to Rachmaninoff without missing some crucial development along the way. The simple clarity of a Clementi sonatina, the vivid characterizations in Schumann's Album for the Young, the tonal palette of a Chopin nocturne or Debussy prelude; all of these and a thousand more musical experiences must meld together over time to form an accomplished and yes, even virtuoso pianist.

Teachers, can we let kids be kids? Even Mozart had a day off now and then.

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