Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dinnerstein and Downes on finding your project

One thing I’ve said before, and it deserves repeating again, is that academic theology is not interested in discussing the how to of the trade. There is, of course, a practical reason for this. There are no jobs, and so only the most brilliant or lucky should survive. Therefore, the absence of deep pedagogy is a mercy killing; and who can argue with that coming out of this Great Recession.

Nevertheless, it is a truth to my mind that theology requires the pouring out of deep pedagogy. (I hesitate to use the word mentoring since the forces of management have largely taken that over.) Theology contemplates the pouring out God, and should make pouring out people. As one who has zero experience in the classroom, perhaps that relationship suffices. But I can tell you from the student side that it does not. It is like watching virtuosos playing the piano, but never getting a lesson. The student interested by nature in theological progress is left to their own devices.

I have found that listening to artists in other artistic disciplines is a great help in filling in the pieces. Artists aren’t reticent, but eager to talk about how they do the work. Time and again, the way that a sculptor or painter approaches the canvas or clay, or the way an author breaks down a plot, carries great lessons for the would-be theologian. Take the following exchange between pianists Lara Downes and Simone Dinnerstein.[1] The topic is Dinnerstein’s best-selling 2007 recording of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Dinnerstein was pregnant with her first child while preparing for recording. In this section of their discussion, they touch on finding and being confident in your own voice, on respecting great voices without being dominated by them, and on being taught and (briefly) teaching.

Lara: You’ve referred to the notion of "playing for yourself" having acquired new dimension when you were pregnant, and I really related to that. When I was pregnant, I felt both more connected to myself, and more independent, than at any other time before, and I remember feeling very strong in my musical choices at that time.

Simone: You feel like you are a little world of your own.

Lara: Yes, really. Can you articulate some of the truths about the Goldbergs, in particular, that emerged in that little world, for you?

Simone: I don't know how much of my musical decisions were directly related to being pregnant. But I did feel that I needed to really listen to what the music was telling me and not think about any received wisdom about how I should interpret the music. I had of course listened to many recordings of the Goldbergs over the years, but I was trying to approach the score with a clear head. In particular, I started to think a lot about what constituted pulse and rhythmic expression, about the shapes of the phrases and how they would be sung, or breathed.

Lara: I think that's what I meant about the freedom of choice I experienced during my pregnancy. It was something about letting go of preconceptions, both others’ and my own, and exploring freely. Before that time, what had been your strongest influence with the Goldbergs? What was your relationship to the Gould recordings?

Simone: I really loved the 1981 recording and that had been my first introduction to the Goldbergs. Hearing him play the aria was one of those moments like an epiphany that you always remember. I listened to it obsessively over the years, as well as all of his other recordings. I made me feel quite intimidated, like everything that needed to be said had been said. But then in my late twenties I started to listen to other pianists, and I had another epiphany when I hear Jacques Loussier's recording of the Goldbergs. It opened up a completely different world to me.

Lara: Well, I would absolutely have bet that you came first to the 1981 recording! Even though your own interpretation is completely different/unique, somehow if I had to guess... My first was the 1955 version, and it makes a tremendous difference which you hear first, doesn't it? It's like an imprinting.

Simone: Yes - it's funny how that happens.

Lara: Let's talk about all the ancestors. When we're very young, we're so apt to copy, and so warned not to, and then I think we go through this long process of establishing independence. But then I feel like all the ghosts kind of come back into the room, and we can allow them to speak to us and share their contributions. After all they've made us: the generations of musicians who have come before.

Simone: That's beautifully put. My first teacher, Solomon Mikowsky, used to play many recordings for me of the works I was studying. We'd listen together and talk about the different musical choices that were made. he did this from when I was around ten. Then my second teacher, Maria Curcio, was quite different. She had an extremely specific way she wanted me to play and the way I learned from her was by becoming her. For a while I lost myself in her, but I learned so much. After that I studied with Peter Serkin, who was a very searching musician and wouldn't give me any answers, just looked and explored the music with me. So after all of that, it took awhile for me to get the sounds of my teachers out of my head and feel strong enough to make my own decisions without any guilt.

Lara: Yes. And whenever I work with young pianists, I'm aware of how difficult it is as a teacher to do anything but "show the way". It's a tremendous challenge to resist that easy communication!

Simone: Personally I think that is the best way to teach.

Here are two other examples of listening to the liberal arts. In the first, Peter Sellars talks about democracy and performance. In the second, Samuel Nigro gets under the skin of how modernity feels.

[1] Lara Downes, March 22, 2012 “Looking at the Goldbergs Part II -- Simone Dinnerstein” On the Bench: Conversations with Other Pianists, Feb. 12, 2012,