The adventures, thoughts, and general scrawlings of a classical pianist

Adventures in Fear and Discovery: Learning Music Outside the Canon, Part 2

Before we get into it, I’m going to be totally honest with you guys: I was floored by the reaction to my last post. The subject was so niche and I thought the issues were so dense and complex that I figured maybe three people would skim it, and I would have been thrilled—thrilled!—if one person eventually said something nice to me about it.

I did not expect the link to get liked and tweeted hundreds of times, both by professionals in the field who I deeply admire, and by total strangers who sent me messages saying they had experienced the exact same things. (I got enough of these messages and comments that I realized my assumption that there’s no demand for published non-standard historical works was totally wrong. There is a demand, and it’s high time publishers did something about it.) I did not expect people in music to write to me telling me that I’d changed their perspective on their work, or people outside of music to tell me that they’d learned a lot about classical music from my post. I did not expect to get messages of advice and support from librarians, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside because, man, I love librarians so much.

It all made me painfully cognizant of one thing: I was a dolt who had referred to an esteemed composer as “my homegirl” and said things like “my dudes, it was real bad” in an Intellectual Piece of Writing that actual smart people read, you guys.

However, because it would be poor form to suddenly change writing styles on you, you’re going to get more Glib Millennial Writing in List Form Complete With GIFs©, because I must preserve the integrity of the Art.

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So, let’s pick back up where we left off. We’ve been over some of the weird, specific hurdles that stand in the way of playing music by non-canonic composers (which in my experience is women composers, but this also applies to POC and LGBTQ+ composers.)

It would be disingenuous to claim that it’s all downside. I’ve only just embarked on this journey—and I’m in awe of all of you out there who have been doing this work longer than I have—but I’ve already discovered so many beautiful, wonderful benefits to wandering off the beaten path.

The Upsides (So Far)

1. Exploring the works of lesser-known composers is a great way to relieve “canon fatigue.”

Do you like that term? I just made it up, but let’s make it a thing. “Canon fatigue” is what I call that specific brand of burnout or discouragement you get from working on or studying the same pieces everyone else is also studying, over and over again.

Let’s take Chopin’s First Ballade in G minor. It is, objectively, a gorgeous masterpiece, full of pathos, desperation, and transcendent beauty. It’s also freaking everywhere. I loved it when I first heard it. Then I heard fellow pre-college students playing it at recitals, I went to multiple music schools and heard fifty million other fellow conservatory students playing it every semester, sat through people playing it at so many master classes and festivals I could probably teach a master class on it myself in my sleep, and heard a couple of famous people playing it well in concert. By the time I finally got around to learning it myself, I was already so sick of it that I could barely take practicing it seriously.

I’d heard Chopin’s First Ballade so many times that every moment in it had become hackneyed and there wasn’t any magic in it anymore. I’d heard every possible permutation of interpreting every phrase, and it seemed completely pointless to craft my own interpretation when everything I did was either derivative because it had been done before, or wrong because there was no way to do something new without it sounding bad. It was hard for me to commit to giving convincing performances of the Ballade because it started to feel pointless. Not to get all dark, but working too much on music in this kind of mental space made me start to question what the point of it all was, and you know you’re not doing too well when you’re questioning the meaning of your life’s work.

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The act of making discoveries, and then finding that your discoveries are old news on a well-trodden path, contributing nothing to the art form, can be incredibly discouraging. There’s a certain madness in dissecting infinitely infinitesimal differences between multiple recordings and interpretations of the same pieces, and then attempting to jostle your way into an already crowded space with an interpretation that isn’t much better or worse than what everyone else is already offering. (This doesn’t apply, of course, if you are that luminous once-in-a-generation talent who can play standard rep in such an refreshingly brilliant way that it redefines all future approaches of said rep. Please enjoy your much-deserved success.)

It is such a relief to work on music that doesn’t come with an overbooked flight’s worth of baggage. Chances are, at some point, a teacher somewhere told you to listen to something with “fresh ears” when you played it, and then you had to pretend that you could still be surprised by Beethoven’s Appassionata. When you’re learning a piece from a composer you have never studied before, you are hearing it with actual, non-pretend fresh ears! You don’t have to stave off the excruciating, slow burnout that comes with jumping through the exact same hoops you know that literally thousands of people have already gone through. You feel like you’re actually doing something: making art. Isn’t that what we all got into this to do?

2. Making discoveries and decisions that are truly your own is incredibly thrilling.

In my previous post, I talked about the unpleasant truth that you’re going to have less training and fewer resources when you study non-canonic music. Some of those problems will continue to be major problems until someone does something about it (no amount of positive thinking is going to change the fact that I have found probable errors in the only available editions of certain pieces and don’t know what to do about them) but as I continued to work on some of this music I found that there’s a weird sense of freedom in the not knowing.

When I was little, some of the kids in my playgroup would have their birthday parties at a kids’ play place that had, to me, the world’s coolest sandbox—there was a mold of a dinosaur skeleton buried beneath the sand, so we’d get handed little shovels and brushes and go to town making our “discovery.” We knew full well what was underneath, but it was still super fun to sweep the sand away and act like we’d discovered something amazing.

I think of that sandbox a lot when I’m learning standard rep. The process of toiling away and of making little discoveries in the music and about yourself is incredibly fun even when you know full well exactly what the end result is going to be. It’s comforting to brush the metaphorical sand away and to get exactly what you expected.

But when I started working on non-canonic music, I felt like I’d suddenly thrown myself into a real archaeological dig—one where I genuinely didn’t actually know what was underneath the surface, and every tiny pebble and indentation was a clue. Each little discovery—figuring out tempo relations, uncovering hidden melodies—felt like an honest-to-goodness, bolt-from-the-blue real revelation, and even better, those revelations were mine. Each decision, arrived at after painstaking back-and-forth, was mine. If I didn’t have a recording or a teacher or a stack of alternative editions to tell me how much lift to give a staccato passage, well, that meant I got to make the decision. And I found that I was way more confident about musical decisions I’d independently made, because it wasn’t a matter of guessing what was “correct,” it was a matter of evaluating the options as the most qualified person in the room (I mean that metaphorically; when you’re a pianist practicing, you’re always the only person in the room, and therefore the most qualified, at least until your teacher walks in).

The sheer thrill of making decisions and discoveries that shaped something that wasn’t just a copy made from a well-worn mold was honestly electrifying. It was like waking up from a long dream. It was like diving into water and finding a new hidden world underneath. It was like finally cleaning the smudges off a pair of glasses. It was like a thousand bad metaphors written by someone who really has no business writing.

There are a lot of reasons why I’ve become more confident in my own playing and abilities lately, and unfortunately I can’t duplicate myself and carefully control the many subjective variables that affect personal growth and performance. But I have a theory, and it’s that being more on my own in the music I’m studying, relying on my own knowledge and judgment, has made me trust in my own competence. I’m discovering who I am as a musician, and I like who she is.

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3. Your efforts have an actual effect on expanding the canon.

Although I’ve seen some appallingly close-minded behavior in classical music, I’ve found that the vast majority of audiences are open to new works. (Oh, but people at symphony concerts who clear out when the program gets to a piece by anyone less famous than Beethoven:  what is actually wrong with you??) Relatively few people are actively malicious when it comes to hearing and programming non-canonic music.

That being said, the idea of tackling the behemoth of centuries of firmly established tradition as a small singular person can be incredibly, horribly daunting. But although we refer to our beloved body of tradition and repertoire as an institution, I think it helps to remember that our traditions—of pedagogy, of performance, of nearly-exclusively learning music by privileged European men—aren’t handed down from some omniscient Classical Music God from on high. They rest on the back of one-to-one relationships between teachers and their students, faithfully passing down what they themselves know.

Because modern classical music teaching is directly derived from 17th/18th/19th century practices, any biases from those times end up being passed down and unconsciously compounded. You likely never studied music by women because your teacher never did; your teacher’s teacher likely never did either, all the way back to your great-great-great-great-grand-teacher who was studying at a time when people didn’t bother to perform music written by anyone who wasn’t a relatively well-off white European man. It’s very likely the reason your teacher isn’t familiar with music written by women or people of color isn’t that they’re actively sexist or racist, but because they were taught certain biases that they never questioned. (If your teacher is actively sexist or racist, I strongly recommend that you get a new teacher, although I’m also fully aware that sometimes power structures in this flawed system and extremely small world of ours prevent one from making career-affecting decisions on a matter of principle; I’m truly sorry that life is complicated and full of hard choices.)

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Generally, I’ve found that teachers and students are open to fresh repertoire. Every teacher I’ve had has made a good-faith effort to help me with repertoire I chose that they’d otherwise never teach. And the truth is that classical musicians are all shameless copycats; I’ve noticed for years that all it takes for a weirdly obscure piece to “trend” across festivals and academic institutions is for one person to play it at a recital or master class. Everyone gets tired of hearing and playing the same rep over and over again, and I’ve had teachers assign little-known pieces in their studios after they heard it once at a festival. And going off of personal experience and the response to Part 1, a lot of people are interested in performing and programming non-canonic music, but are afraid that others won’t be receptive—just knowing that someone else is interested can encourage others to take the leap.

Here’s a real world example of how several individual efforts resulted in a big thing, namely, Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 getting performed in 2019 by the Minnesota Orchestra. Emily Hogstad, who runs Song of the Lark, wrote a Twitter thread summarizing how this came to be. (Spoiler: it wasn’t one singular effort by one visionary, but the culmination of many people—writers and artists—who by each doing something within their power helped to create tangible change.)

4. Your work adds extra depth to a rich art form, both for yourself and your audiences.

The most bizarre, knee-jerk reaction I’ve seen to the push for more hearing inclusive repertoire (witnessed online, and blessedly not in person) is along the lines of “Don’t Bach/Beethoven/Brahms/et. al deserve to be heard!? Why are we silencing these great composers?!?”

It reminds me of something my music history advisor said once: “Historically, when one group gains rights, another group feels like theirs are being taken away.”

So I think it bears saying here: representation is not a zero-sum game. Telling one person about the existence of Cecile Chaminade does not mean one less person learns about Frederic Chopin. Being exposed to an art song by Barbara Strozzi does not mean Schubert’s Winterreise gets wiped from your brain. Asking for more play for historically underrepresented composers does not mean that we’re going to start burning the manuscripts and recordings of your favorite popular works. There’s room in the canon because the canon doesn’t have a maximum limit.

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When I give solo recitals featuring more obscure music, I like to take a few minutes to talk a little about what makes the music interesting and what I think it expresses. No matter the piece, I’ve gotten across-the-board positive reactions from my audiences—in my experience, people are delighted when someone shows them “new” music worth listening to. They like hearing the connections, similarities, and differences between the music they know and the music they don’t. They like finding out that they can still be surprised by what music has to offer them. And look, if they don’t like something new, that’s fine—Bach & Co. aren’t being dragged from radio stations or concert halls anytime soon. 

Hearing and celebrating more composers just means our collective understanding of this art form we love becomes that much richer. The music written and preserved through the ages, all of it—the popular and the unknown, the great and the good and the bad and the terrible—it’s all part of this grand human experience, or at least humankind’s paltry attempts to express what it feels like to be human.

I’ve gone into detail about what you get out of studying and playing non-canonic music, but we can’t forget that it’s good for audiences too—at all levels. Some of the major symphony orchestras are starting to program more works by women, POC, and living composers, but we also need to hear that representation at the individual level—in student recitals, free community concerts, and playlists—if we’re going to move beyond tokenism and commit to incorporating inclusivity into the fabric of classical music.

5. Expanding representation in the canon makes classical music more welcoming to everyone.

Different things draw people in—I used to be a snob about what music people “should” be exposed to, until I realized that, surprise, everyone has different likes and dislikes! (And I have since learned that I’m not the only one to recant my snobbery.) In all the insufferable chatter about what makes classical music appealing, I think we sometimes forget that all of us have a need to identify ourselves in the stories we see.

I once had a young piano student who moved very quickly and enthusiastically through the initial how-to-play stage and was ready to tackle some proper repertoire, so I gave her a copy of the same first volume of Bastien Piano Literature my first teacher had once gotten me (see “teachers teach what their teachers taught them” in Point #3, above). She flipped excitedly through the book, looking at all the composers’ names, and was most excited about playing Bartók’s music.

Turns out, she saw Bartók’s first name, Béla, and assumed that he was female. After learning about Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, she was excited to play “music by a girl.”

I gently explained that Béla Bartók was actually a male composer and she shouted indignantly, “You mean none of the music in this book is by a girl?!?!” 

Here’s the ridiculous thing: I had the exact same confusion re: Béla Bartók when I was young and my teacher had assigned me that exact same book. I sight-read the book from the front cover to the back and felt a special connection with Béla. It was disappointing when I eventually learned that Béla Bartók was yet another man, and that there were no women represented in any of the music I was studying. And here I was as an adult, perpetuating the same disappointment.*

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*In my defense, when I taught piano I incorporated compositional activities early on with all students who showed imagination, and I’m happy to report that with me a lot of little girls filled up their staff paper notebooks with their own compositions.

I should have seen it coming, and I knew better. I used to improvise on the piano a lot as a kid, without knowing what improvisation was, and I imagined writing down my musical ideas, creating my own pieces for myself and others to play—in a nutshell, I wanted to compose. But I had never heard of a female composer. Learning that all the composers I thought were female (Béla Bartók, Camille Saint-Saëns, freaking Meredith Willson) were actually male only reinforced the myth that women composers didn’t exist. So I internalized the idea that composition wasn’t an option for me. (Pianist Samantha Ege has an excellent blog post that goes deeper into a similar experience.)

That’s not to say that I would have made a brilliant composer, or that I regret pursuing performance. But I know firsthand what it means to not see yourself represented in a field or story or art form, and how easy it is to assume early on that certain things are not for us. It might be hard for some people to appreciate what it feels like to feel excluded on the basis of identity. If you’ve always seen yourself in the stories told, in the public sphere, in roles of influence and power, it’s easy to deny that the problem exists. But it’s not a mystery why there’s a class and racial disparity in classical music. Seeing a more diverse array of names on concert programs isn’t going to solve all of the root problems regarding class privilege and specialized education, but you know what? It is going to make a difference. Because visibly demonstrating that the art welcomes everyone—not just a small elite group—to enjoy and participate is going to make or break whether people even give it a shot at all. 

6. You gain a lot of appreciation and humility for the people who have come before you, or who are doing similar work.

I don’t want to make this sound like an acceptance speech (“I’d like to thank the Academy…”) or make it all about me, but I’ve learned that the process of discovering and studying non-canonic repertoire would simply not be possible without other people.

When you study standard repertoire, it’s so easy to take for granted how few barriers stand between you and the work. There’s no question that Beethoven’s sonatas exist and that someone—many someones—edited those sonatas to be correct, easy to read, and easy to understand. There are so many thousands of recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas that you could be totally lazy and crib all your ideas from other people’s interpretations. And because Beethoven’s teachings are part of the institutional bedrock of piano playing, generations of teachers have religiously passed on interpretive instructions handed down by Ole Ludwig himself. So many people have made the work doable that you don’t even think about the fact that the doability is a gift.

In the process of finding and learning non-standard rep, I’ve been astonished at the debts I owe to a very small group of people. In fact, along every step of the way, I can name exactly who made the work doable. The work is still hard for many reasons, but it’s less hard for me because someone else laid the foundation.

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Here’s one example:

  • Clara Schumann’s G minor sonata was never published in her lifetime, so there’s an alternate universe where that sonata’s lost to the ages and no one in the 21st century knows what it sounds like. But here, in this timeline, in 1991 Gerd Neuhaus edited and published the Sonata with Breitkopf & Härtel, ensuring that Student Me could easily order it off the internet several decades later.
  • But Student Me wouldn’t have cared about Clara Schumann if she hadn’t read Nancy B. Reich’s groundbreaking biography that redefined Clara Schumann’s image as an artist in her own right. (Dr. Reich recently passed away; we all owe her a debt of gratitude, may she rest in peace.)
  • But wait! Even after I’d learned about Clara Schumann, I still subscribed to the idea that I’d studied the music I’d studied because it was “good,” and any composers that weren’t typically played, Clara Schumann included, were simply “not good.” I didn’t really question the structural prejudice in classical music until I ran across two things: Linda Shaver-Gleason’s work debunking myths and long-held ideas in music history, and Anna Beer’s excellent book Sounds and Sweet Airs, which not only shines a light on several female composers but also answers the hard questions of why they’re so underserved in music and music history.
  • When the seed of an idea for studying more music by women entered my head, I dismissed it because I didn’t know if my efforts were worth it (I had yet to begin the journey that led to the discoveries chronicled above). Then I discovered Samantha Ege, who at the time had a manifesto on her website about her work playing and promoting music by women, which made me realize that the work was worth doing, and that there were other people already leading the way.
  • When I finally got around to studying the sonata, I was a little lost looking at the music on the page and all the ways the directions could be interpreted; in 2007 Susanne Grützmann made a recording (of not only the sonata, but almost all of Clara Schumann’s solo piano works) that has been invaluable for me as I work to make my own interpretation.

If any one of those people hadn’t put their work out there, that chain of events that led to me just playing a sonata would never have happened. Every time I sit down to do the unglamorous work of learning and playing this music, I can’t help but marvel at what it took for this work to exist. I have never had that grateful realization—“this almost didn’t happen”—while learning a Beethoven sonata, because from the moment I started poking the keys as a toddler, my learning Beethoven sonatas was simply an inevitability. 

It’s ridiculously, stupidly humbling to think about how much work others have done to pave the way for me. I didn’t have to research and write a book. I didn’t have to edit a manuscript and work with publishers. I’m not the first person to study or record music composed by women. All I did was read stuff other people wrote, and order sheet music from the internet, and play it. I have it so easy because a few dedicated people made the work doable.

It’s really easy to forget how much love and dedication it takes to make music. Through this process, I’ve found myself feeling a real human connection to the scholars and musicians who don’t know who I am, but who made my work possible. I’m so much more grateful for all of it—the existence of this beautiful music, the lives that real people led in this art we all love so much, the fact that I get to participate at all. It’s made it easier to get out of the mechanics of playing and to just focus on the music.

I don’t know where the work is going to take me—it could be somewhere, and it could also be nowhere. But I know it’s helping me. I hope it helps you too.

If you liked this post and would like to see more writing like this, please consider supporting me on Patreon. By doing so, you’ll enable more blog posts, as well as future projects like recording the music I’m writing about!

2 responses to “Adventures in Fear and Discovery: Learning Music Outside the Canon, Part 2”

  1. […] But there are so many upsides to doing this work! I’ll get into all the happy, shiny things I’ve learned so far in Part 2. […]

  2. […] are twelve months in a year. I ended up publishing…two posts. The first one was mostly written back in December 2018 so I don’t know if it even […]

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