Playing For Joy


I wrote a post last Tuesday that was a manifesto against spending any more lesson time teaching students to perform from memory. (Mind you, I’m not totally against memorizing music – just against the idea that a memorized performance is the only legitimately good performance, and against inflicting what I believe is unnecessary stress on students who find memorization stressful.) I’m sure plenty of people totally disagree with me, but the only feedback I’ve received has been positive. In that post, I listed what I thought were the most important skills I needed to teach my students. After a week of ruminating and after taking several of them to play for Guild auditions just yesterday, I realize that my post didn’t focus enough on an important point. Why should we learn all of those skills? The answer is so simple, but we discredit it:

We learn to play music so that we can have the joy of playing beautiful music.

While I may say that this is true, my teaching priorities say something else.

On the weekend before our last lesson prior to Guild auditions, my student “John” played his hardest piece as the offertory at his church. He showed me the video his mom took with her smart phone. I was astounded to see what looked like a completely different child than the one I usually met in lessons. He was totally relaxed and played his sonatina with complete freedom. A minor stumble was no concern, and he quickly recovered with no ill effect on the performance. His dynamics and phrasing were both beautiful. In contrast, at lessons, John is very hard on himself, groans at mistakes, becomes tense, and often has a harsh, strident tone.  Who in the world was that kid at church?

“Were you nervous at all?” I asked.  “You sure don’t look it!”

“Oh, no. They weren’t listening to judge me. They’re all my friends.”


At Guild auditions, John played his music well, but not with the freedom and obvious joy at making music that he had at church. He stumbled significantly over one of his scales. Afterwards, he was in tears (over a scale!), even though the examiner had not penalized him for the stumble and had given him very encouraging comments.

I tell myself that I participate in Guild to help my students learn to do things like play well in church. Do you get the irony? I’m getting it. Loud and clear. John can already play well at church, maybe with a more mature attitude about it than I have myself, but the minute the listener becomes a judge or even a teacher rather than a friend enjoying the moment along with him, or worshiping along with him, then he is no longer playing with joy and freedom, and his performance suffers for it.  Forrest Kinney writes in “A Radical Shift in Pedagogy:”

If these students are to continue to make music beyond their lessons and throughout their lives, they will not be doing so to please a teacher, a parent, or “a listener.” Those who have a lifelong love affair with a musical instrument are making music to please their own soul. When that is not the primary motive, even the loudest applause and the greatest accomplishments feel rather empty in the end.

Occasionally when there are a few rare minutes at the end of a lesson, I’ll open up Book 1 of Forrest Kinney’s Pattern Play series, and we’ll play one of the improvisations. The kids love it. They get lost in it. They look at me with bright eyes the next week and say, “Can we do that improv stuff again?” I enjoy it too, but I have this awkward feeling when we finish one. I’m thinking to myself, “What do we do with that?” I’ll say something to the student like,  “Um…okay! That was fun! Now, remember to practice your pieces for Festival. They’ve got to be memorized by next time!”

I’m starting to recognize that I’ve been harboring the idea that the joy of making music is not enough on its own – that lesson time is not valuable if we’re not turning the page in the method book and achieving something. I’ve been operating all this time with the belief that music making needs to be for something else to be a legitimate activity. It helps you perform better at school, learn grace under pressure, set and achieve a goal, develop a good work ethic, etc. These are all true, but they’re fringe benefits – not the primary benefit. I believe in the pursuit of excellence, and I don’t want to suggest that music lessons are supposed to be nothing but mindless play time with no goals in mind. But, I also think that I need to be willing to state outright that one of our goals is sheer pleasure. I already tell students (and parents) that it’s hard to enjoy something when you know you’re playing poorly, so the best way to enjoy yourself is to do your practicing. I still need to do more to nurture playfulness and creativity. I’m in danger of reducing the study of music to an achievement program.

Where I live near Augusta, GA, we get excited about golf. There’s this small tournament called The Masters that happens here every year. I’m not really a golf fan, but you can’t live in this neck of the woods and not at least keep up with the big names. This year, a young guy named Justin Spieth won. He has a shocking perspective about the importance of golf. He says it’s for recreation. The audacity! He gets this attitude from his parents. His dad Shawn’s final advice before the tournament went like this:  “I wanted him to know what I thought was important.  I told him, ‘You know, you’re going to face some adversity out here … and this is the Masters … but it’s still just a game.’”

What is contained in that parental advice? The permission to lose, because in the scheme of things, it’s just a game. The permission to win because winning doesn’t carry the burden of having to maintain your king-of-the-hill status since it’s just a game. The permission to take a risky shot because if you miss it, it’s just a game. The parental assurance that your worth is not tied up in this. This is not your life; this is not your identity; this isn’t about your teachers’ or parents’ worth or status – it’s a game. What’s contained in that parental advice? The freedom to try for your biggest dream and actually enjoy the journey to reach it.

So what happens when a kid plays for the love of the game, remembering that at the end of the day his parents (and presumably coaches) think of it as just a game? He works his tail off toward his own self-directed goal, feels he has nothing to lose by trying his hardest, and wins The Masters, easily, at age 21.

My student John worked hard on his music, then stood up in front of over 100 people and played a soaring, free, natural performance because in that moment, it was just for mutual joy and worship with his friends. A week later, he played the same piece for only one person and played an anxious, stiff performance because I told him that this one performance really mattered. I legitimized the second performance by giving him a certificate and a pin. I called the first performance “a dress rehearsal.”  Yet, which one was the real thing?

We’re missing the point.

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