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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pianist Teaches Students to 'Un-Master' Music

NEW YORK -- Too often, the field of classical music, with its stiff attire, formal concert settings and tradition-bound programs, seems uptight through and through. And that uptightness is most alarming, and potentially harmful, when it seeps, as it often does, into the actual performance.


Many students of classical music, particularly instrumentalists, play as if driven by two overriding goals: to nail a piece technically and to hit all the interpretive shadings their teachers have laid out for them. In comparison with jazz and rock musicians and certainly with actors and dancers, classical instrumentalists often seem sadly, and dangerously, constrained by the weight of tradition and by the physical demands of executing technically daunting scores exactly as written. The prevalence of physical injuries that incapacitate classical performers is evidence of this.


William Westney, a pianist on the faculty of Texas Tech University, is a radical teacher who has been trying to help students loosen up and recapture an instinctive connection to music, something obvious to anyone who has ever watched a toddler bobbing and babbling to a tune on the radio.


That responsiveness is the goal of Westney's "Un-Master Class," a workshop he has been presenting since 1989 in conservatories and colleges from the Juilliard School in New York to the Seoul High School of Fine Arts in Korea.


"It's so easy to lose touch with what is natural in us musically," Westney said during a recent visit to New York to present his program at Queens College. "Why does an excellent performance sometimes leave us cold? We blame ourselves if we don't respond. But something is missing in that performance. There is a difference between what we as musicians intend to communicate and what we are actually communicating. Maybe this is one reason that classical music is thought to be in trouble."


A first-prize winner in the Geneva International Piano Competition, Westney has been a soloist with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and other major orchestras, has toured internationally and holds a doctorate in performance from Yale University. It is crucial, he believes, that participants know of his background, lest they dismiss him as some kind of flake. (Indeed, the day after a recent workshop at Queens College he gave a recital at the school: a demanding program including works by Faure, Liszt and Prokofiev.)


"This is not a traditional master class in which I am the repository of answers," he told the students at the workshop. "If there are artistic discoveries to be made, I'd like them to come from you."


Westney spoke at length about musical intuition and its connection to the physical. For the next 40 minutes, he asked everyone to join in the warm-ups to activate a sense of "music in our bodies, not just in our minds." The performance class would follow.


The exercises, similar to acting exercises, have been adapted by Westney for musicians. After 16 willing students formed a circle onstage, he asked them to make up chants or rhythmic patterns and mirror one another, rather like jazz players trading phrases. Then, as he played a tape of musical selections -- African drumming, the frothy overture to Nicolai's "Merry Wives of Windsor," some electronic music -- he had the students pass a small ball around, as in a game of musical tag: the student with the ball would move into the circle, make up a balletic response to the music that everyone else would imitate, then pass the ball on.


Eventually, the performance class began, but in a manner far removed from tradition. Yi Liang, a pianist from Beijing, started off with the gentle first movement of Schubert's Op. 120 Sonata. After her performance, Westney asked for comments: not suggestions and corrections, but reactions and feelings. That such reactions can be blunter than a traditional master's critique was evident from Westney's comments.


"You didn't make me ready to listen before you played," he said. "I couldn't tell when you were going to start. Your playing was very lovely, but it was easy for my mind to wander."


He asked her to stand up and try to feel, sing and, in a sense, enact the music physically. She did so with a comfort that seemed to surprise her. What emerged was a vivid, shapely nonpiano performance. He then asked several students to mimic her gestures. After this, she tried the piece again at the keyboard. This time, many of the qualities of her performance came through.


What Westney is doing is an outgrowth, in part, of methods developed by the Swiss composer Emile Jaques-Dalcroze for teaching music to children, training that Westney was exposed to starting at age 2. Dalcroze, as it is called, is now in the curriculum of several conservatories, including the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Westney presented his un-master class two years ago. The pianist Victor Rosenbaum, the director of Longy, believes in the value of Dalcroze.


"Performers are too often caught up with what happens from the knuckles down," Rosenbaum said recently. "Getting away from the instrument and experiencing music in the body is essential."