Recordings, structure, and learning

Most teachers discourage students from playing along with recordings when they’re learning repertoire. Why?

I expect the thinking is that students doing this will copy the dynamics, articulations, phrasings, bowings and so on of a favourite recording, and never become independent interpreters. Or perhaps they won’t learn to cue and respond flexibly to the cues of others? I could imagine that this might be bad if you were a conductor, but I’m actually not sure what the argument against it is for an instrumentalist.

I’ve often reflexively discouraged my own students from playing along with recordings, mostly because my teachers discouraged me. And yet, I admittedly learned ten or twelve piano trios this way myself in my adolescence, and I learned their scores far better than I would have by simply studying the printed page.

Teenage pianists and violinists who could keep up with my rapacious desire for chamber music weren’t that thick on the ground in Wellington, New Zealand, so I spent many happy Sunday afternoons in my bedroom blasting the Beaux Arts Trio’s recordings of Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann on the stereo while I sawed away at the cello parts. I’ve no doubt I sounded awful. And yet, the Beaux Arts taught me how the cello’s line fits in with the other lines, when the cello should sing out, when the cello should back off. I loved doing this and was shocked to find out when I went to university that it was considered “not the thing to do.”

Is it really?

I started thinking about other things children do when they’re learning. Take colouring books, for example. They get a pretty bad press for stifling children’s creativity, with no less a luminary than Sir Quentin Blake denouncing them for “limit[ing] the imagination.

But might they not simply provide a structured framework for teaching children how to control a crayon, and by extension eventually learn to draw more imaginatively with it?

Children respond well to structure. That’s why highly structured methods of music instruction like the Suzuki Method work so well. One of the central tenets of Suzuki is that children must listen repeatedly to the repertoire CDs so that they memorize the pieces long before they actually play them.

That’s not the only thing they internalize, however. They also learn how a great professional player sounds, counts, phrases, articulates, vibrates and so on.

At the end of each Suzuki CD, there are a bunch of tracks with just piano accompaniment so that students can play along. It’s a great way to practise playing duos when you don’t have the privileges of a piano in your house and a mother who plays the piano professionally, as I did when I was a child.

The Suzuki Method has its detractors, who think it causes “mechanical” or inexpressive playing. Personally, I think a method is only as good as its teachers, and I was lucky to have some good ones. As to the accusations of “mechanical” playing, well, of course some children play “mechanically.” That’s because musical expression is a learned skill like any other. It’s also because most of us are “bad” at things when we haven’t been learning them for very long. That’s why we have to practise until we’re musically independent.

Which brings me back to playing along with recordings. Maybe when you’re older and more experienced than I was during my stereo-blasting years, it’s a better idea to study full scores away from the instrument. After all, it’s generally expected that by the time you attain a certain level of advancement, you should be able–as Robert Schumann reminds us in his Advice for Young Musicians–to “hear music from the page.” But when you aren’t quite at that independent level of musicianship, playing along with a recording can still teach you to understand how music works.

We all seek our teachers wherever we can find them, and whether we admit it or not, we learn by copying others. It strikes me that playing along with a recording isn’t the worst self-teaching tool, if it encourages us to aspire to professional levels of sound, expression, and understanding.

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