Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province in China, home of what used to be called “Szechuan Cuisine” or, as my nephew calls it, “Chinese food that will blow the top of your head off”. Luckily, since I have been there several times, I like spicy food.
Chengdu is also the home of the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, by many accounts the largest school of music in the world. 18,000 music majors, I was told (the website says over 14,000), 800 piano majors and over 30 piano teachers. When I visit I teach on the eighth floor of a fairly sizeable skyscraper, one of many such buildings on the Conservatory Campus, and stay at the Philharmonic Hotel, also owned by the school.
I heard many talented students during my visit this year and I found the playing very sophisticated. In some ways, more so than some playing I hear in the U.S. What struck me most of all was students’ sophisticated use of the damper pedal: full pedal, half pedal, with and without gradual release, finger pedal and no pedal, which of course is a color all its own.
I’m going to work more on this with my own students.
Who knew I had to come to China to hear pieces by an almost forgotten French woman composer? It happened. After three days of teaching at the Dalian branch of the Shenyang Conservatory, I have a new liking for the works of Cécile Chaminade.
The name rang a distant bell when I first took a look at the repertoire list. I vaguely remember Chaminade’s Scarf Dance from a faded anthology dating to my Mom’s girlhood that she kept on our upright piano when I was a boy. Time to learn more!
Chaminade, like so many 19th-century women musicians, had to struggle to be taken seriously. He father at first refused to allow her to pursue serious music study. Once launched, her success was immediate, both as a composer and pianist. Isidor Phillip, the head of the piano department at the Paris Conservatory, championed her work. Legendary French singers Blanche Marchesi and Pol Plançon sang in her premieres.
Her arrival in the U.S. in 1908 created a sensation. “Chaminade Clubs” formed in major cities to support her work and she became one of the most published of all women composers. She received awards from Queen Victoria, the Sultan of Turkey and in 1913 was named a member of the prestigious Légion d’honneur, the first woman composer so honored.
All of this faded after World War I, her work increasingly viewed as a dated relic from a bygone era. She died in obscurity in 1944.
What are her pieces like? Jonathan Summers, in the Naxos database, describes them as “beautifully crafted, aiming to please and charm their audience” and her playing as characterized by a “fluid technique and nonchalant style of chic and charm”. The works I heard are all of that. Furthermore, they not quite as hard as they sound and are well written for the hand. Take a look at Autrefois and Automne, which were in the repertoire of Leopold Godowsky and Shura Cherkassky. There is an appealing Chaminade Album on IMSLP that contains some lovely works.
It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it has been. I’ve been coming to Asia to teach for 25 years!
Early days were an adventure. The “spirited” (I choose this word judiciously) driving made getting around quite an undertaking. Traffic hasn’t changed much—it took about an hour to smooth my hair after a wild taxi ride to Pudong Airport! But the students here haven’t changed, either. Almost all of them are dedicated, hard working and eager to learn.
In the last few years, there seems to be something new in the air: an interest in piano pedagogy. Everywhere I go and at every institution I teach I get asked how we can do a better job training piano teachers. This is an issue in both the USA and many of the Asian countries: lots of talented and motivated music students simply don’t have access to top-level teaching.
What makes excellent teaching really “top level”? My answer may surprise you: focus on basics. What I often see instead is an emphasis on coaching repertoire, without enough focus on “how”: “how” to learn pieces; “how” to practice; “how” to build a technique; “how” to build an interpretation; and “how” to prepare a performance.
There has been a wealth of research on all these topics over the last 25 years. How sad that this information is not better known to piano teachers. I’m a man on a mission. Research. Basics. Teach them. The piano world will be a better place.