Friday, June 24, 2011

To Mozart or not to Mozart - that is the question.

For as long as I can remember I was under the impression that Mozart himself began his piano career as a child by playing a Mozart sonata.  The truth is, is that is not so off as Mozart did began writing his first sonata at the age of three as the legend goes.  But it still remains a mystery to me why the first "real" music children are taught is Mozart.  On the one hand, it is easy to understand what attracts piano teachers to Mozart and why it has become such standard repertoire for beginner pianists.  For one, it is rather "basic" music and does not require any fancy techniques that many other composers require like Chopin or Schumann, and it also serves as a good way to fool children into practicing their scales.  I'd say an average Mozart sonata has more basic scales in it than in almost any other composer.  The melodies are fun and simple and the harmonies are not too strenuous or tedious - but, when played right, can greatly increase the pianists's skills.  Like all Mozart - simple but genius.
So, at first glance, it would seem as though the practice to begin teaching with Mozart is the best way to go. 
Now here is my problem.  While Mozart cunningly appears as the easiest music to play, in reality it is probably one of the hardest to master.  I had a piano teacher once whose father used to be a concert pianist (the real stuff), and my teacher told me that his father always refused to play Mozart in concert.  Why?  Well if he hit a wrong note in a Schubert impromptu or in a Debussy piece most likely it would go by unnoticed by the large majority of the audience.  But if you play a wrong note in Mozart even the most unmusical person would be able to notice.  Now, that's not the reason why Mozart is more difficult and should not be starters' music, but it definitely adds to the complexity of the pieces.  Vladmir Horowitz once said "you need to play Chopin like Mozart and Mozart like Chopin", and any pianist out there knows exactly what he is talking about.  Mozart may come off as simple and easy but that's only if it's played poorly.  The way Horowitz played Mozart doesn't come anywhere near how a beginner plays it.  Yes, it increases your skills, and yes, it has easier notes than other composers, but it completely sucks out the music of the piece.  You can't fake a Chopin nocturne as "soulless" or "dull" but if you don't play Mozart correctly then it is very easy to mistake it for a bunch of scales.  
That's just one point.  Another reason I do not think Mozart should be starting music is precisely because the exactness of how it is supposed to be played.  Don't get me wrong - I certainly do not think children should not be taught exactness and should be allowed to get away with small mistakes in the piece.  But in Mozart it is so difficult to get everything perfect and perfection is the key in Mozart.  Like I said, if you mess up one note in Mozart it completely destroys the piece.  I feel that it is often too tedious for little kids to get an entire Mozart sonata perfect, so why start with something that they will not be able to play entirely well?  And even worse than a wrong note (and this goes with any composer) is a bad interpretation which is almost inevitable for a child who just began playing.  
What should we start our little ones on then?  It's a good question and it needs much thought.  Perhaps easy Chopin, Bach, it is definitely not an easy answer, but I think the time has come for a change in piano teachers syllabus'.  

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