Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gouldberg Variations

I wrote this for a magazine a while back, but as of right now, it still hasn't been published. I was reminded of it again by a recent conversation I had about recordings: are they gateways to musical enlightenment, joy and ecstasy, or destructive pieces of garbage that ruin music for everyone? These are, of course, the only two choices. The essay is about Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations, and me, but gets at the question of recordings too....naturally, my answer is: it depends! Recordings can be great, but their influence, proliferation, and the way we listen to them, makes them terrible too...

The lights dim, the audience grows quiet, and the film begins. It starts so simply, so innocently: two tones, two octaves apart, ringing purely, seemingly alone in a dark room. The camera turns and the scene reveals their source, as the music unfolds slowly, methodically. At first from a distance, we see a man, aged beyond his years, crouched behind a piano, head scarcely visible rising above it. As we approach, we see him seated about a foot above the floor, arms bent unnaturally, his gargantuan glasses nearly touching the keys as he sways back and forth, appearing to speak each note as he articulates it with his long, spindly fingers. The scene is somewhat unsettling; the music, divine.

Thus began my visual introduction to Glenn Gould, at a “concert” screening of his 1981 Goldberg Variations film at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Nothing brings out the inner blogger in me like Atul Gawande. I just finished his latest New Yorker piece on expertise and coaching, and as usual, it was illuminating and extremely relevant! Its lesson is one that is all-too-easily ignored: even true experts in a field are easily blinded to their own shortcomings. Even after eight years as a surgeon, Gawande needed a "coach" to point out his weaknesses and help him improve, even if he could spot the very same weaknesses in other people. People are so invested and so involved that when it comes to our own weaknesses, we lose perspective, and the ability of unbiased judgment along with it.

The article talked a lot about schoolteachers and musicians, of which I am now both. Both examples are interesting for me in very different ways. No one will admit more quickly than I will to the value of having a coach for schoolteaching, and yet, teacher coaches are relatively rare.

My feeling about musical coaching is more nuanced.