“Choose pieces that show off what you can do, not what you can’t do.”

Yehudi Menuhin on the cover of Time Magazine - 22 February 1932

Yehudi Menuhin on the cover of Time Magazine – 22 February 1932

This was the most valuable piece of advice that I ever got from my piano teacher. I attended a concert on Sunday afternoon where young soloists were given a chance to perform with an orchestra, and if I could have said anything to these talented musicians, that would have been it. Every teacher should instill this concept into the minds of their students, yet many are so carried away with having a little prodigy in their care that they become preoccupied with showing them off to the world. They show little regard for the child’s musical development and polishing of their technique and force them to play pieces much too advanced for them. This gets the child a lot of attention and keeps parents and teachers proud, while doing a great disservice in the long term. One day the child will grow up with this inadequate, hurried training to be an ordinary adult musician, while all the other children who have progressed slowly and steadily would have caught up, but with a more solid technical grounding. I have been observing this my whole life, and I wish that teachers would not let their egos get the better of them.

On Sunday I watched a selection of extremely talented young musicians between the ages of 9 and 16 play concertos. The most brilliant of the performers didn’t necessarily play the most difficult pieces. They played pieces that showed off their strong points. A 10-year-old girl played a most brilliant Concertino for Violin in Hungarian Style by Oskar Rieding, which was one of the most impressive performances for me. It showed an emotional maturity of an adult. Her playing was incredibly expressive and had the most beautiful tone quality. Her technique was flawless. Another excellent performance was given by a 16-year-old clarinettist, who played a slow movement of a Mozart concerto.

On the other hand, a 9-year old boy chose to play the first movement (an Allegro) of a Mozart violin concerto. Most people were very impressed by this display, however, to a musician it was clear that his little fingers could not handle that particular piece, especially at the speed at which he chose to play it. There were quite a few untidy passages, some wrong notes, and his timing sometimes went off as it was difficult to concentrate on playing the right notes at high speed while trying to keep in sync with the orchestra. There is no doubt that this little boy is highly gifted for his age, but wouldn’t it have been better to let him play something easier with absolute perfection rather than force a Mozart concerto upon him to be performed with mistakes?  Surely actual musical enjoyment is more important than the pure entertainment value of watching a little kid play a difficult concerto?

There were two other musicians who were no doubt brilliant and very advanced for their respective ages, but played pieces that they didn’t have the technical skill for. One was a 12-year-old playing the third movement of Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D, and the other, a 14-year-old with Liszt’s Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Melodies. Again, as with the Mozart, it was all very cute but not good to listen to a child’s fingers struggling to play difficult passages. The Liszt was played with much style and flair, but also with some messy arpeggios and chordal passages. The girl’s dainty hands also lacked the strength that some of the heavy chords demanded. The more delicate parts of the concerto were played extremely beautifully. Here as well,  the teacher should be advising the student to choose suitable pieces that show of their skill, and to spend time perfecting their weak points before performing a piece. They should be encouraging musical excellence and discipline. In some cases, parents of unusually talented children may push them too hard to excel, however it is the teacher’s job to guide the student. Every single student at this concert had the capability of performing to perfection.

I made my concerto debut at the age of 18, which is later in life than all of these kids. I played Poulenc’s double piano concerto with my then 16-year-old sister. We knew our strengths and weaknesses, and chose to play something that we had complete control over. I am thankful that my teacher taught us to understand our musical abilities and made sure we were more than ready to play with a professional orchestra before we auditioned. We received superb reviews all round and it was well worth the wait. Music is made for enjoyment and performers of all levels should feel free to express themselves. The bringing to life of great classical works however, particularly on the orchestral stage, requires great care, a high level of  musical understanding, interpretation and attention to detail. This cannot be achieved in a hurry and by cutting corners in one’s musical education.


~ Sorry for sounding all old-fartsy; I’d been dying to say this for half my life and just had to let it out. ~