02 May 2017

Interview: David Jacobson - Can Musical "Talent" Be Taught?

Can musical "talent" be taught?

Dissatisfied with contemporary teaching methods and the generally held belief that musical genius is inexplicable and mostly unattainable, author David Jacobson went in search of a more reproducible model for the mastery of all instruments and voice, that is applicable to any genre of music.

Jacobson, a violinist, graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, and founder/director of the San Francisco Institute of Music, has spent over 20 years analyzing the approach of master musicians such as Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Enrico Caruso and many others, and uncovering their "secrets".

He shares these “secrets”, step-by-step, in his book, Lost Secrets of Master Musicians:  A Window into Genius.  Jacobson concludes that the techniques used by these maestros are essentially identical to each other’s, yet fundamentally different from and often opposite to what is being taught today.

Interview - David Jacobson

Q:  Tell me about your education at the Curtis Institute of Music. What was it like?

I think that first we need to understand what is meant by education. In classical music, education means the transfer of essential knowledge and traditions that allow one to participate creatively and effectively in the art form. 

Q:  What is essential knowledge in this case?

Whatever is the basis of skillful participation.  The argument the book makes is that this core knowledge has been lost or become hopelessly confused because of a variety of factors, and that what currently constitutes education in classical music is destructive to the art form and its participants.

Q:  Can you give us an example?

Sure. The movie Whiplash, although it is about the training of a jazz drummer, is not that different from the approach to learning used in elite music schools. Even though the behavior of the teacher is over the top, the underlying approach to teaching is similar to current methods.

Q:  In what way?

Whiplash is not only about the destructive relationship between the teacher and the student.  It is also about the fact that the teacher cannot explain clearly and rationally what the student lacks and how the student can go about acquiring what he needs to know.

If we examine this situation, we can see that the teacher actually lacks fundamental knowledge about what constitutes a so-called virtuoso performance. He may know something intuitively, but he does not understand it clearly enough to explain and teach it, so, he acts out his frustration and self-protective fear of being exposed for these deficiencies, by being emotionally abusive to the student. 

Additionally, there is no way for the student to actually know that what the teacher seeks is valid. Therefore, the student is asked to trust completely and obey without thinking or questioning. This approach is pervasive in classical music training.

Q:  Why? 

Because essentially, the music industry accepts the belief that talent and skill cannot be explained or understood.  If schools and teachers assume that great ability is not understandable, what is it that they teach?

They teach what they guess to be true.

So in the book I examine if talent can, in fact, be understood. 

Q:  Can it?

Yes, to a great extent.  I asked myself if there are ways of playing and understanding music that are common to great players, but unknown to everyone else.  It turns out that there are, and that this fundamental knowledge is the opposite in nearly every way to the way students are taught to learn and understand music today.

Q:  Give us an example..

In his book, Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller writes:
...in jazz so-called weak beats (or weak parts of rhythmic units) are not under-played as in “classical” music. Instead, they are brought up to the level of strong beats, and very often emphasized beyond the strong beat.

Everyone in classical music is taught to underplay weak beats. Classical music, supposedly, has no swing.

Yet, an examination of great master classical musicians of the past -- the unarguably great such as Heifetz, Horowitz, Glenn Gould, Caruso and Jussi Björling, to name just a few -- shows conclusively that they do, in fact, emphasize the weak beats in the manner Schuller describes as the rhythmic paradigm for jazz.

This is an easily understandable principle that changes musical expression, technique, "talent" potential -- in fact, this one difference alone could change the entire structure of the field

Q:  In what way?

Because it is the simple fundamental settings of a few basic physical forms and mental mindsets that determine performance and potential outcome.

The great cellist Emanuael Feuermann wrote:

"It is surprising how few rules and principles there are and still more surprising how completely they change the entire style of playing. Believe it or not...the really outstanding string players, whether Kreisler, Casals, or Heifetz, are similar to each other in the way they use their muscular systems.”

Now the problem is that these underlying principles of great players are not known. Feuermann never finished his treatise. What my book does is attempt to explain the rules and principles used by the great masters so that music students of all ages, playing any instrument (including voice) in any genre can attain musical mastery, virtuosity and, perhaps, even genius. This system, if adopted, will change the entire field of classical and other forms of music.

Q:  Tell us about your school.

I started the school in 2002. My purpose was to discover if my ideas about teaching were practical and could be moved from theory to practice.

Teaching beginners allows a somewhat clean slate, at least in terms of prior musical experience. My book grew out of this experience of teaching with a new paradigm--modeling and studying the greatest players

So far we are happy with SFIM’s progress because we have developed a working model for a much larger operation.

We are now ready to address the larger problems:
Can students be taught the methods of the greatest players?

Will this approach greatly reduce the practice time and years of work necessary to acquire expertise, allowing them to have a thorough general education?

Will this model allow students’ creative potential to flourish and release them from the uncertainty--coupled with emotional abuse, guruship and institutionalized obedience--that our current educational paradigm fosters?

David Jacobson’s book, Lost Secrets of Master Musicians:  A Window into Genius, is available on Amazon in paperback as well as for the Kindle.

Image Source: Pixabay

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