Why musicians should have opinions

As artists, should we always have opinions? Why do some people have opinions and some don’t? Should everyone have an opinion, or should we leave opinions to those who have enough knowledge and evidence to back up those opinions? Are those opinions ever right or wrong?

When I was a little kid, I was taught that some statements are facts and some are opinions. And the distinction given was that facts were statements that could either be true or false, but opinions were statements that were dependent only on someone’s feelings. For example, it is a fact that the sky is blue, but an opinion that blue is better than red. I’m sure this is something that was taught to you as well, so I need not elaborate on it.

I am often struck by the idea that opinions can be either right or wrong. After all, if they are dependent only on someone’s emotions, how can they be right or wrong? Either blue makes me happier than red, or it doesn’t. At least, if that’s how we define “better” in terms of colors.

The idea I would like to entertain is that opinions are not right or wrong, but they are also not unimportant. Opinions are fundamentally what we must have if we are to consider ourselves artists. That is what it means to be an artist, to be a performer: to have an opinion, and express it. If we are not expressing an opinion, what are we doing?

So many people seem to believe that the purpose of art is to make people happy, to make them sad, to convince them of something, to achieve technical perfection, etc. But I don’t think that’s it. A performer may hold those viewpoints, but I think that is missing the point. The point is that it is up to the artist to decide what the purpose of the art is, and to express that.

This article, for example, expresses my opinion. The only reason I’m writing it is because I have this opinion, and I would like to express it. Is it possible that I am wrong? Perhaps so. Perhaps the purpose of art is not to express opinions. Perhaps the world would be a better place if teachers told their students what to do, and the students followed that blindly.

But I don’t really believe it would be. I believe that what artists must always do is form opinions. Those opinions must be formed constantly and without fear, because that is what it means to be an artist in the moment, without concern about the past or about the future. This is basically what we do.

Some of those opinions might be well thought-out, and some of them may not be. Some may be foolish, some may be the product of years of experience. This concern cannot stop us from expressing those opinions, however. It is an ongoing process of discovery, a constant exploration of what it means to be human.

So that’s what it comes down to. As artists, we figure out what it means to be human, and we try to express it. My humanity cannot be right or wrong. It is dependent entirely on my experience in this very moment, the way I react to things as they happen. My emotions and reactions are not planned out in advance, censored to see if they make sense or not. They are real and they happen as they happen. As an artist, it is my job to figure out what those are and express them.

Students are often completely resistant to this idea. They assume that they do not know enough to do it correctly, and it is the teacher’s job to tell them what to do, how to express, etc. I don’t believe that it is ever too early for the student to begin to get in touch with that inner source that is responsible for true expression.

Teachers are often guilty of encouraging this attitude. Yes, a teacher may be more mature than the student, may have more experience, may understand to a greater degree what the composer may have intended. But those are minor details. At no point should the student be relying on the teacher’s wisdom as a substitute for his/her own ability to express. The student must discover what the music means to him/her, even if it is “wrong.” The expression of music becomes meaningless if it is meaningless to the artist.

Of course, this is all my opinion, and you may disagree with it. But this is my opinion at the moment I am writing this article, and there is nothing I can do about that. My opinion may change tomorrow, or next week, or in 20 years. So it is with music, or any form of art. If I were to write anything that is other than what my actual opinion is, I would be dishonest, and there really wouldn’t be a point.

So, what happens if I really don’t understand the music I am playing? Should I not play it? I’m not exactly sure that question makes sense. The music means something, it has to. Upon listening to it, upon playing it, I have a reaction to it. That reaction, whatever it is, is my honest reaction, and it is what I need to tap into in order to interpret the piece. As I get to know a piece, my reaction may change. I may learn more about the piece, I may learn more about the composer, or about the style, but always my reaction is my reaction, and my understanding is my understanding.

Thus, to all musicians, I urge you to discover for yourselves how you understand music, and always have an answer to that question of what it is you want to express. Anything less than that is not being truthful to your audience.

Why you should have a lesson even if you didn’t practice

It is not an uncommon occurance for a student to wish to cancel their lesson because they didn’t practice that week. Apparently, this seems to be a reasonable attitude. After all, if the student hasn’t practiced, what is there to do in the lesson, beyond just repeat whatever was done last week? The teacher will just chastise the student for not practicing, and nothing will really get done, because the student and the teacher will just end up going over what the student should have done that week. Some teachers even advocate this attitude, seemingly intentionally guilt-tripping their students by saying “since you didn’t practice this week, you and I are now going to practice together.”

Actually, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for the student and the teacher to practice together. Much can be illuminated by watching the student practice, and the teacher may not have been aware of problems the student was facing. As far as why the student didn’t practice that week, there could be many explanations. Perhaps the student didn’t know what to practice, or didn’t know how to practice it. Perhaps they tried practicing, and there were too many problems to continue. Perhaps they got frustrated.

Much light can be shed on these issues if the teacher engages in an honest inquiry of what problems the student is having. There is really no place for blame here. The fact is that the student didn’t practice, and if the student wishes to make progress, the teacher must help the student figure out where the problems are and how to solve them. Not practicing is no more a character flaw than is being bad at rhythm or not being able to play scales fast.

I do additionally question the extent to which students are required to practice. Especially with beginning students, why is there an expectation that they practice at all? Obviously, if the student is spending time working on piano apart from the teacher, they will probably make faster progress, but there are several issues to consider here.

First of all, who is to say that the student is practicing correctly? I don’t know why many teachers take it as a given that if they tell the student to “practice this piece” then productive work will be done on it. The student needs to be taught how to practice.

Second, even if the student is “taught” how to practice, who is to say that the student is practicing correctly? The instructions may have been misunderstood, or perhaps the student does not wish, for whatever reason, to practice the way the teacher instructed. Perhaps the teacher’s expectations are too high, or simply not appropriate for that student.

Third, whose expectation is it that the student make fast progress? If it is the teacher’s expectation, or the parent’s, but not the student’s, there could be problems. In the case of an adult student, it could be both the expectation of the teacher and the student, but it might be quite unreasonable on the part of the student to expect so much of themselves.

Fourth, there are many things that simply can’t be practiced. The main reason I believe it is good to take piano lessons, and not say simply learn on own’s own through YouTube videos, is because it is essential to have an experienced pianist watch what you are doing, and steer you in the right direction. This is not necessarily actual formal instruction, but rather a transmission of skill that can only happen in real time, face to face. It is an experience, one which through much repetition, eventually should rub off onto the student. I want to practice with my students. This is not a punishment; it is a fundamental reason why I am useful as a teacher.

I believe we need to adopt an attitude of curiosity here, rather than blame, and not focus so much on whether or not students are practicing, but rather on forming clear goals and always engaging in a process of motivated action. I don’t believe that it helps anyone to blindly set expectations without reviewing the goals and desires of those involved.

So this brings us back to the initial question: “why should I have a lesson when I didn’t practice?” The answer should now be clear. There are many reasons to have a lesson besides testing how your practicing went. As a teacher, I am interested in talking with my students about their experiences and frustrations while playing. It does not matter whether or not they practiced. With beginning students, it is necessary for me to review regularly how they are playing, and actually less important for them to practice. The more frequent the lessons, the better.

I am not advocating that students do not practice, or that teachers do not ask their students to practice. But this all has to be put into the proper perspective. There is much that can be done in piano lessons beyond reviewing practice. Students who are paying for a teacher should expect that the teacher is providing an experience that they could not get on their own.

July 10 Recital with Allison Holst-Grubbe

Hearts All Whole


Exploring themes of love as found in nature through German and American art songs of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This will be an exciting program featuring songs by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and William Bolcom, as well as piano works by Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy.

Photograph by Katherine Griswold