An Independent Streak in Piano Study

by | Oct 24, 2011

Mark Cannon plays Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, the “Black Mass.” Mark submitted this video as an entry in the 2009 Cliburn YouTube amateur piano contest.

Mark Cannon, a psychiatrist by profession, has an affinity for Scriabin, including the “Black Mass” sonata shown in this article’s accompanying video. Yet Mark’s classical piano music study is also intriguing for his independent approach.

Tell us about the early days in your lifelong study of classical piano music.

I started at age six, but during those early years I didn’t practice seriously. Eventually (when I was 13) my teacher said there was no point in continuing and so we stopped. But after a few months I realized I missed it and started practicing on my own. I then occasionally went back for lessons but mostly worked independently. The lack of structure seemed to suit me.

And that independent approach to piano lessons set a pattern for how you continued to study.

Yes indeed. I went to college not intending to take lessons, but many of my friends were studying music formally. It began as part of bonding with friends but immediately became something that I loved, in large part because of the teacher, Malcolm Bilson, who was early in his career, before he became noted for his championing of “period instruments.” For our weekly lessons, I resisted playing any given piece for him until I was pretty far along and felt I had a good sense of it. He joked that my idea of a lesson was to have the teacher just say, “Great, that’s perfect!” I’m glad to say we remain friends, despite his not necessarily always having been pleased with my “independence”!

After completing my medical training and starting my practice, I had the good fortune to study with Seymour Bernstein, a distinguished teacher and prominent composer and writer, for 18 years. The lessons weren’t on a regular basis but according to what my time allowed and where I was with my work on pieces. He helped me with physical aspects of playing, particularly “unlearning” bad habits that had cropped up through working on my own. He showed me how to pay closer attention to expressive indications in the music. Perhaps above all he helped me to “hear” more sensitively, to be more in touch with what I was really playing.

I then studied with Elizabeth Wolff, a performer and teacher who had been a fellow student of Seymour’s. She had the same mixed feelings as my prior teachers about the “independent streak” but was happy to work with me that way, sort of tolerantly and with a smile. She seems to adapt her approach very flexibly for each person. Her teaching is full of inspiration, often with spontaneous images and metaphors to help one feel the music more vividly.

What do you think are the pros and cons of taking an independent approach to adult piano lessons?

Flexible scheduling and doing much of the work on our own may be necessary because of life demands, and also there may also be musical reasons to commend it; independent work perhaps best enables us to find what we ourselves can make of the music. But this has its liabilities. We can go down wrong paths, wasting a lot of time and, worse yet, developing and reinforcing bad habits.

But working independently is my preference, and I’ve been lucky to have teachers who have accepted this while at the same time giving me a good dose of formal teaching. I’ve been very happy with this path, and I hope it will remain lifelong.


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