The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 13

Artistic Performance Within the
Gates of the Secondary City

Now I must return again, as I have done so many times in the last four years, to give my attentiveness to an object of art, the adagio cantabile. Within the first year of practicing the adagio cantabile, I could play most of it. It was pleasing to move through the piece and I could even convince myself that I sounded pretty good. My lifelong, but unfulfilled, interest in learning to play the piano was now being satisfied. Although I had used the piano as a research tool for creating new methods for teaching music theory, and had learned three short (10-30 seconds) clips of music that I could play in a bumbling sort of way, I had never bothered to learn to play a full piece before (never minding that the full piece here is the whole sonata and not just the adagio cantabile).

I very much enjoyed putting real attention into learning an extraordinarily beautiful piece and felt like I was making amazing progress. That is until I would listen to any real pianist play the piece. Compared to them, my playing of the piece sounded like a stumbling and brashly ill-tempered mutilation of the beauty of the cantabile theme. Whether, it was Freddy Kempf or the Muppet Show's Rowlf, compared to them I still had significant work to do. As fun as it was to play at my introductory level, it was more enjoyable and useful to keep looking up and continue to develop.

As I continued to practice, it seemed to me that giving voice to the cantabile theme made different demands on my playing at various tempos. I came to an impasse when trying to play at the slower speeds I have heard in other performances. The "song" flavor of the cantabile theme seemed to my ear to die if it went too slow. I realized that I had an attachment to hearing it a certain way. I needed to break that attachment in order to become capable of giving my full attentiveness to this piece of music when trying to play it at slower speeds.

My preconceptions, my framework of interpretation, my preferences for experiencing this music were taking too much of the center stage during my performance of the piece at slower speeds. In my first-hand experience of this beautiful object of musical art, I found that dynamics similar to the intrusion of the secondary, so loathed by Steiner with regard to academic writing, were distorting my own primary artistic experience of this work of art. I discovered that even when there is no talk, that same cognitive structures that service academic writing so well still had the power to wrest my full and direct attentiveness away from this piece of music. My ability to interpret this piece at slower speeds with a fresh and primary encounter was limited by my own adopted frameworks of expectations and preexisting interpretive preferences. When trying to give my direct attentiveness to the adagio cantabile at slower speeds, I became more focused on the silent, internal interpretive discourse of my mind than on a direct and open encounter with the music itself.

The cognitive modes that service my primary experiences of literature, music and art, and the cognitive modes that service my mind's capacity to hold onto frameworks of interpretive and critical discourse were competing for space in my head even though I was not saying, or writing, a single word. Its seems that even in the primacy of artistic performance, issues with the quality and style of the attention we pay to the arts can still exist.