“I hope my pupils will commit themselves to searching! Because they will know that one searches for the sake of searching. That finding, which is indeed the goal, can easily put an end to striving.”

Arnold Schoenberg, preface to Harmonie lehre, 1911.

Elisi's students, 2015
Elisi’s students, 2015

Teaching is just as important as learning in my daily activities as a musician. Yet I have always been skeptical about certain outcomes of the teaching profession: sometimes the majority of students belonging to a teacher’s studio end up sounding all too similar. Once I was sitting in the audience enjoying some performances at a competition. I realized that I could recognize a particular teacher’s strong influence or some of his/her performing traits simply by listening to the student’s playing. While this is not necessarily a negative feature, it is not a particularly interesting attribute either. I have always been fond of the very different interpretations by the great pianists of the past since they sounded all so remarkably different from each other! Today this is not often the case although we do have some notable exceptions, luckily for our ears.

During the past several years I have strived to cultivate a very peculiar aspect in my teaching–that of recognizing the individual differences of my students and celebrate them. In fact, all students have strengths, and my goal, I feel, is to assist them in identifying and building upon these. Yet I need to challenge their weakness without ignoring their inner potential by superimposing my ideas. This implies a somewhat slower pace in teaching as well as the potential for some errors too. To be sure I do not try to be infallible; on the contrary, I have said things that I later had to correct. Perhaps the fact that I acknowledged these mistakes set a student to thinking. Ultimately my aim is to help them develop a voice of their own.

Former student Saetbyeol Kim plays Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 2, Op. 36

The most meaningful learning, obviously, takes place when students are motivated and interested. One way to achieve this goal is by giving students a voice in the learning process, and by encouraging them to find connections between the musical meaning of a given work and its relationships to some aspects of their own emotional lives, perhaps, or aspects of other works they are studying. As a result, students feel empowered and build their self-esteem and musical problem-solving skills in unique and unpredictable ways. When that happens, I feel happy and rewarded, and I get a boost of mental energy too because this reinforces what teaching ought to be: liberating the student from the very need that keeps her seeking help elsewhere but deep inside herself.

Former student Sangwoo Park performs Ravel’s La Valse

A good part of the learning process happens initially through some sort of musical imitation–a transfer from teacher to student. However, imitation of someone’s idea does not touch the student in a deep way; the pupil only captures the surface of that idea, and in doing so only shows his ability to reproduce certain phonological effects. Unless one explains the reasons the student will not be able to retain certain ideas. Ultimately these ideas must be deeply rooted in the student’s inner imagination or they will not bring about the desired results. Fortunately, I realized that there are two ways to work around this. First, as time goes by, students remember their teacher’s suggestions only in unique ways and not so precisely. That happens through natural processes occurring in their subconscious minds. Only in due time will these special connections that emerge from subconscious activities take place. Secondly, questioning the students and bringing their attention to explore more attentively what they are trying to achieve while activating their enthusiasm and curiosity brings about the potential for quantum changes–the long-lasting ones. I wish to empower students to become the teachers of themselves–a concept I learned from Mr. Fleisher, as a student, but also one that is clearly derived from the Reinassance Bottega (click here for more information) where, in due time, the Maestro taught the pupil to become his own master.