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Classical Silesia: Interview

I was interviewed in December 2016 by Adam Grabowski of the Silesia Times, in connection with an upcoming concert at the Silesian Filharmonie in Katowice. Here is the transcript of the interview:

AG: Jarred, let’s start from the beginning, what made you want to make the piano your career? JD: It started when I heard the music of Beethoven and Chopin. I loved the way performing felt because it enriched others’ lives. Really I had no idea about what was required for in piano career: there is so much much work and sacrifice as a base requirement to be barely noticeable in the field. The main aspect was that I wanted to do something gratifying, and while the work was challenging, the work elucidated how deeply I wanted it.

AG: How did you first start learning the piano? JD: There’s a picture of me in 1990 (a year after I was born), playing on my mother’s piano and smiling brightly. My mother gave me my first lessons, and after a short time I asked her to find me a “real piano teacher” (a regrettable comment). I still recall a student of hers’ who came every week who with the same simple Czerny study and make the same mistake at the same place. Eventually I was fed up: I went to the piano while the student waited for her parents, and started playing the piece I had heard her mangle so many times. I thought she might appreciate hearing it played correctly, but from what I recall she never came back afterward. I had no idea what I was doing was remarkable, having only had a few lessons with my mother by that time.

AG: That is remarkable — a child without specific teaching being able to play by ear. JD: That particular ability in me never struck me as a remarkable quality. However, I remember playing Beethoven Sonata Op. 27 nr. 2 for the first time, and that experience was remarkable. My mother found me in tears at the piano, and asked what was wrong. I pointed to the music, and I asked her, “Can you see this? It’s so beautiful.” I sensed the depth behind the music. Discovering the music for the first time, knowing I understood the essence of it: that is remarkable for a child, and captures the reason I wanted to become a musician. I was fascinated.

AG: So this is what was driving you in playing, teaching, and writing music? JD: It evolved, and I started to compose when I was very young, but quickly learned I wasn’t good at it: I played some of my own pieces in recitals years ago, but it never felt natural for me. The drive became teaching, and also writing about composers who wrote this amazing music, the unusual personalities they were and the way the saw the world. I noticed that all of them seemed to teach for a living at some stage or another. I started teaching perhaps too early, around the age of fifteen, but I thought everybody did that.

AG: You are Canadian and travel to Canada often: tell us about the projects you do there. JD: I play recitals, concertos, and teach. I spend the majority of my time giving master classes and lessons when I’m in there. The last few years have given rise to judging in competitions. I judge in competitions because I think it’s among the most valuable experiences for a young professional to have. Even though I find competitions inherently unfair, it is inspiring to give competitors an adjudication of their playing which makes them want to learn. It also strikes me as worthy to reward pianists who have worked insightfully and with dedication.

AG: That’s great. What is your opinion about the teaching and learning of today’s music universities? JD: It would be a lot better if all professors worked on their teaching as much as their students worked on their playing. There were, in my experience, a small group of teachers who really cared about what they taught, and resultantly accomplished two things: 1) they created musical leaders and sensitive human beings, and 2) they helped the student perform without hurting themselves while playing. Liszt said that “Tradition is laziness,” and I think that while classical music survives within a rich tradition, it is obvious that the great composers were trying to progress the field and make unprecedented art. I feel that creativity lacks in music schools and the teaching is less creative than the composers whom we admire. Somehow a specific frame for every composer exists now and a set of expectations for how their works “ought” to be performed. There are always exceptions to that, but there shouldn’t be exceptions: creativity and inspiration should be normal, not traditional systemic formats.

AG: And about piano teaching specifically? JD: The piano teaching profession thrives on students how many problems they have (sometimes inventing false ones), and if it wasn’t for those problems most of the people in this field wouldn’t have work. At the same time, when Liszt was teaching actively in his later years, if a student was truly unremarkable, he refused to teach them and told them to go to a conservatory. Going to a conservatory represented the lowest level of achievement. Now, it represents a prestige label. I hope that at the higher ranks, the teaching is very near or moving to a place where students are encouraged to and rewarded for being creative, and get out of traditions in every way possible. I’m not saying that personality and creativity make up for having careless playing, but I think that focusing on bullet-proof technical perfection only results in the student’s main goals (and often best interests) being lost.

AG: Yet you want to become a professor? JD: Yes, at a main conservatory. It’s ironic, but for some reason competitions and performing for a career never appealed to me as much as I loved playing. I saw many issues in the way music schools operated — mechanized systems, mainly — and in the future I would like to see more spontaneity and intelligence in artists that conservatories train. I never believed that becoming a machine-like pianist would really secure me, either practically or artistically. Yes, I wanted to win something for the sake of my resume, but when I realized that wouldn’t make me an artist, I no longer cared.

AG: We need to stop making performers, and start making artists. Is that it? JD: I agree completely.

AG: Your influences include some famous teachers. Why do you seek out famous names? JD: It started with the fact that I grew up in a small town with minimal musical culture and maximal musical ignorance. I admired people whose reputations were self-explanatory. When I had my first lesson with Veda Kaplinsky (at Juilliard), I was excited because I knew her achievements and wanted to do the same things, which I told her at our first lesson. Dorothy Taubman also had a profound effect on my playing, to such an extent that I continue to study with her main exponent, Edna Golandsky. David Dubal, who was a professor I immediately felt very comfortable with, helped me develop my artistic sense and even invited me to work on his own books with him. I owe to David the ability to think. The great “names” I studied with taught adroitly and knew how to mentor in a way that allowed me to understand musical and professional things. I wanted to learn how to be successful and how to teach this way. Now in Katowice, I work with another masterful teacher, Anna Górecka, who won’t like that I’m saying this so publicly, but her teaching is of inestimable value to me and she’s among the best teachers I’ve come across in my travels and study.

AG: Why did you choose to come to Poland to keep studying teaching and playing? JD: Because I always knew in my heart I wanted to be in Poland. I played in a master class of Anna Górecka in Warsaw a few years ago, and I was impressed with her teaching and open-mindedness. We just had a good match pedagogically, and she introduced me to some other great musicians on our faculty. Veda Kaplinsky recommended that I go, and moving here became the best decision I made.

AG: What are the differences you’ve noticed between North America and Europe in music? JD: Broadly speaking, there’s greater value for it in Europe. I don’t want to disparage where I’m from, but it’s a sad truth. The interest of the public, as I see it in Canada, is largely in free concerts, or concerts which are “pay-at-the-door”, both are trends which I find increasingly appalling. The expense of educating yourself is so enormous there, and the most likely result is teaching in a school which cannot pay what well-trained musicians deserve. It’s still difficult in Europe, but for me there has been more collaboration and opportunity to play concerts in Poland than there is in Canada. In Poland particularly I find an option: sink or swim. But in North America, conservatory graduates usually have one option: sink.

AG: Yes, that’s true, it must be difficult there more than it is in Katowice? JD: Katowice is called “The City of Music” —it’s a very appealing place to study, with much for musicians here in the way of connections and learning. It’s very focused here.

AG: It’s the music city of UNESCO: I think it’s a good place for young musicians to study. JD: It is a great place. Martha Argerich received a doctorate from our academy last year and played; the first day I was in Katowice, Kryztian Zimerman played at the grand opening of the new NOSPR hall. Katowice has tremendous things to offer musicians.

AG: How did you first discover teaching was important to you? JD: Teaching caused me to feel that the things I learned had significance; my ideas became useful to my students. The first thing I discovered was the importance of understanding who the student is, and tailoring my approach to each individual sitting on the piano bench. To play music for a teacher is such a vulnerable self-expression that to help someone realize what their potentials pianistically is the most satisfying thing I could do.

I think in combination of having had bad teaching early on and then re-training with Taubman and using her approach showed me what teaching is. I always had an instinct for working with pianists, and once I had the tools to do it, it was really a natural progression from having studied to be a performer to embracing a teaching career. The goal is for them to feel euphoric when they play, and I love watching this happen.

My teaching evolved from passing on what I was taught — mostly prehensile tricks which resulted in injuries — to the ability to show how to transform sound and technique instantly. This allows my students to learn repertoire they never believed they could play, and that is the most rewarding thing I could do. Having said that, I do not have a specific method I apply to everyone; it all depends on the student.

AG: Making the basics for beautiful music and basic techniques the way you’ve described — is this the “a la Dunn” way of playing? Do all of your students play a certain way? JD: I find the concept of a teacher having their students play uniformly to be pejorative, yet often true. I want my students to play with certain tendencies which I know will pay off in pivotal moments when they are playing for judges or examiners, but I recognize the inherent naiveté of demanding that they play my way, or any other way, which is not held by their own convictions. I knew when I was young that if I perform the way my teacher says I must, it’s going to be similar to putting on elegant clothes that are too big, and then going down the runway in a fashion show. You could have a wonderful style, but it may not fit. Oscar Wilde was correct in saying “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” I didn’t want to be that, and I never want my students to become mimicries.

AG: So, basically, be who you are and cultivate your inner artist. Is this what you teach? JD: Yes. There is no other way that I can conceive of that would succeed. Warranted, it’s not enough for a teacher to instruct, “You can be whoever you want and you can play however you want.” When I calculated a teacher’s responsibilities I discovered that what I needed to do was combine is adept research, introspection, practice, and performing experience, and apply these to my students in the most sensitive ways the individual needed. These aspects were all to be cultivated in order to inform my students of generally (and historically) accepted ideas, coordinate techniques, and style qualities which make each composer individual. I must give them something to work with practically, and persuade their artistic logic to be the core of their interpretations, and at the core of that logic is the combination of the suspects I have mentioned. The teacher’s role is not to overpower the student, but to empower them.

AG: What kind of students do you teach? Do you teach children? JD: Another calculation I made early on was that I didn’t like being a child, because the teacher assumed themselves upon 90% of my practicing. I didn’t approve of this. In the teenage years, the teacher is approximately 60%, and then with serious students in academies the teacher is about 30% involved and deals with the highest concepts. I enjoy the last category the most, thus teaching children wasn’t for me. Explaining the names of pitchesand learning simple repertoire isn’t something I have the patience to do. It would be unfair to take a young pupil who wants to enjoy music and ruin their enjoyment of it. Children are not always inspired when told to discipline themselves. I don’t believe a very young person, except in extraordinary cases, ought to be taken to a professor. A child needs freedom to fantasize and imagine before they undertake a serious and single-minded practice routines with the goal of career achievement. My capabilities are for the students who have already made that choice.

AG: So you don’t work with any children? JD: I choose them very carefully and observe them before putting in the time it takes to develop them. I have had bad experiences with unrealistic parents having expectations for their so-called prodigy children, who turn out to be average and have difficulty committing to regular practice. It is heart-breaking to see a parent push a child by expressing their hope that they have “another Mozart”. Such students (and their parents) don’t stay with me for long. I avoid the problem altogether by explaining to parents that my speciality is helping students who want to excel and are aware of their goals independently. I don’t want them having any false expectations and regretting their involvement with my teaching or, more importantly, the piano.

AG: Do you have any regrets from your early years of training? JD: I listened too seriously to what the people said my abilities were. I mistook teachers for their resumes, and believed that if a person had taught at a university for many years it equated them to brilliant insight, whereas it often meant routine laziness. Moreover I over-practiced without questioning those who taught me in ways which caused tension and pain in my hands. By the time I was completely ruined, it was too late to think of a professional performing career and I had to re-train before I could revisit that goal. This made me the teacher I am. Sadly, in academe today, the student is often the one blamed, with the explanation being that either they weren’t very talented in the first place, or else didn’t follow instruction and if they had the results would be there. In so many cases, the student is simply worse off because of bad teaching. I was one such case, and while I was too gullible, I turned around when I realized it, and began to incorporate new information with my students and embraced their individuality. Were I to do it all over again, I would have acted on the phrase “Listen to yourself and don’t bother with them” much more often.

AG: You found out as a young student that things mostly didn’t work out, so you took new knowledge and transformed yourself. You can take a bad situation with negative teaching and turn it into something useful to your students. JD: Yes, but I imagine many of my professors intended for my career to go well. When you confront someone with the fact that their way of teaching is insufficient for your goals, it must be very difficult for them to hear. When I have been confronted in such ways by my students, however, they’ve never abandoned studies with me: they stuck around to see what I came up with. I wish more professors were aware that if they don’t know everything, but are willing to find it out, that shows erudition.

AG: What about the value of learning how not to teach? JD: What a horrid idea, which I always disagreed with. I teach based on what I should not do?— Hysterical! I learned some terrible ideas which are downright laughable, so the proper response is to forget them and use ones that work. It’s the same with everything in life: if you know not to do something because it harms you, it’s not enough to sustain your life: you have to know how to do something which benefits you. In that sense, some teachers stole years of my life by telling me to do things which crippled my hands and gave me illusion upon illusion, because they really didn’t have the answers I needed. The only consolation I found is that if I can discern quickly enough when I’m being fooled, I can make my own way. Chopin was largely self-taught as a professional pianist, the only formal piano lessons he had were from the age of 6 to 12, with Wojciech Żywny in Warsaw. Mr. Chopin would probably marvel at the system of today’s piano teaching: it appears he needed nothing of the sort and it worked out rather well for his creative powers.

AG: What do you tell a student when they tell you they want to go to full-time piano school? JD: I’m honest about the system, about the costs of attending a major conservatory where their professor usually won’t have time for more than a weekly lesson. The remainder of the work is on the student; some can handle it, some cannot. As far as I’m concerned, the idea is to make them independent and self-reliant, so they don’t need a professor’s influence and feel confident in themselves regardless of what school they attend. I tell most of them that it will be an intense process, I want them to be real, and I want them to know themselves. I cannot teach a student who has false impressions of what they can do, and refuses to change. This won’t work long-term: it is a harmful fantasy. The practice is really the responsibility of the student and no training is a magic wand that can be waved and their playing will be perfect. I can give them the tools to empower them to achieve their fantasy, if that fantasy is inspirational or holistic. Some study with me until they get into music programs, but I want my students to know they have me as a resource for life. It’s a very fulfilling career for me.

AG: Speaking of fulfillment, how would you describe your artistic life and involvement with music? When you play recitals, how does Chopin always find a way into your programs? JD: Chopin has always been, musically speaking, the love of my life. If he was available and I could speak with him I would not be able to leave him alone. Playing his music is profound; the music is deeply personal while being completely clear, a unique psychological achievement. He had an extraordinary capability to capture anguish and subtlety, building contradiction upon contradiction such that his music feels like life. From this point of view I can explain that my main contribution at this point in my musical life is playing and teaching, but I focus on teaching that shows the kind of reality Chopin made experiential in music. I enjoy teaching master classes for teachers, who bring questions about how to enhance their teaching, so I am able to contribute to their development.

AG: Let’s talk about the things you want to build in your career. Does classical music have a chance of maintaining interest in the coming generation? JD: I feel it is incumbent upon the next generation of teachers to motivate their students to be increasingly creative and masterful in their playing, yet with the idea that tradition is a springboard, not a shrine. Too many people are leaving the field before they can ever try creating their own musical careers because they do not want to be confined for years of study, only to find out the benefit is a risky career at best. My highest concern is the development of the artistic personality. One day, when I’ve been dead for hundreds of years, I’d like people to be saying, “I wish I could have studied with him, it sounds like he was an amazing teacher.” The world can do without my playing: it was turning for a long time before I touched the piano. But teaching would be something that can outlive me, by creating the chance for my students to love what they do and to fulfill their goals. At the end of it all, I love music and I love teaching: it is for my fulfillment that I do this, and it serves the purpose of helping others: what more could a person want?

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