Saturday, December 4, 2010

Music pedagogy and institutional oppression

When I recently picked up my violin for the first time in 11 years, I didn't expect it would trigger memories of being lost and isolated in high school orchestra. I was a composer, I didn't care what others might think of sounds of my exploration, and my college musical training had given me the ears I needed to find pitches and tune strings. But today I was struck by how persistent I must have been and how deeply music moved me at a time when I had so little support, indeed, so much silencing in artistic development.

Like most middle- and upper-class children of Chinese immigrants, I was sent to weekly piano lessons from an early age. My parents were on the lower end of middle back then, so I was ten before I had my first lesson. My mother chose Chinese teachers, as is the custom among other families she knew. Mine were strict, emotionally withdrawn, and sometimes a parent would sit and watch the lesson to offer criticism afterward. I'm staying away from the topic of misguidance among Chinese parents in starting their kids (1) at the piano (2) with traumatized members of the post-Cultural Revolution deposed bourgeoisie. While I learned to push buttons and roughly read music in two clefs, I retained almost nothing of theory and never witnessed improvisation or composition/arrangement.

At the same time, I took bare bones violin lessons in grade school with rented instruments that allowed me to perform with the orchestras in middle and high schools. I took practicing seriously, though it seemed clear there were talented, well-trained young musicians in the orchestra and I was not one of them. Often the parts were beyond my training and I even took to asking for the second violin part, which I could at least reach. Beyond that pathetic accommodation the conductor paid me no heed.

I should have learned then that the norm for classical or art music leaders is a cold, impersonal authority figure who doesn't care to nurture or figure out what a child has to offer the art; rather, he judges how she might fit into the institution. That's how musicians get emotionally and physically injured: we love the art so far beyond support in our training that we put our real lives and bodies at stake. To protect myself, I should have quit music altogether, but I didn't know a self worth protecting; by instinct, it was my only outlet during a tough time.

In spring of my senior year in high school, I was crippled with pain in my hands and arms so I curled up and wept on days that I practiced. I had quit the orchestra and banished myself, in teen angst, to the solitude of the piano. Medical specialists diagnosed me with overuse tendonitis and put me in PT. They made me stop playing for four months, then with time limits and brutally painful icing before and after. Still, I could barely turn a key in a lock. The field of medicine also produces authorities who impose their will without attempting to understand reality.

The revelation that music can be a healing art came when I started college and an attentive and informed pianist sent me to Susan Nowicki. After my first lesson with her, I never had pain again. Of course I studied with her through college. Not only did she help me unlearn and relearn technique so I worked with human physiology instead of fantasy, she demonstrated a caring and judicious approach to teaching that opened to me a world of health and musical expression. (I have to stop when it hurts? I can change how I move so it never hurts again? I can access the sounds I want by controlling touch?) I have little doubt that without this training I would not have studied music and ultimately come to compose. Indeed, practice in facilitating a healthy relationship between my body and what I do helped me to survive gender transition in an essentialist society.

I don't think I can assault the norm of authoritarian music teacher much more in one post, but to add one more twist to the handle: I detest race and gender lines in music teaching. That a teacher who nurtures, encourages, and coaxes students doesn't get far among Chinese parents because she's seen as lazy or incapable; that men have to assert authority in their subject and mustn't waver in their professional demeanor to be helpful to a struggling student; that although many master artists in every discipline were openly gay, teachers rarely appropriately discuss it with today's generation of queer and questioning young artists -- these are counterproductive agents in our art culture that perpetuate oppression in America.

We all harbor these prejudices as graduates and participants of this culture. We need to identify the problem openly so we can change our unhealthy practices. What do we need to start sharing and learning from these experiences?

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