The Haven

If Bach Could Have Zoomed

Ever since Bartolomeo Cristofori replaced those plucking quills inside the harpsichord with felt-covered hammers, keyboardists never looked back. The fortepiano took center stage, crushing the lowly clavichord and its unfortunate relatives. Until the late nineteenth century, if you wanted to hear music you had to provide it yourself. And so began the family tussle of where to put the piano. If you were lucky enough to be born into a royal family, (bonus points if you were female) playing the piano was synonymous with learning another language and embroidering doilies. Famous composers — Bach, Beethoven, Chopin — gave piano lessons and established family trees of students who touted their musical lineage. Teachers often bragged that their teacher studied with Artur Schnabel, who studied with Leschetitzky, who studied with Czerny, who studied with Beethoven. Whoa, Beethoven? Double that lesson fee.

Fortunately, the idea that music is an inherent element of education has continued into the current century. Hordes of little children dream of pounding out the latest Disney movie theme. But to play well, students need a foundation based on resonant tone, fluid technique, rhythmic accuracy and fluent reading. This means — Classical Music Training. If you disagree, ask Billy Joel or Elton John.

A good teacher loves her profession and her students enough to endure jarring wrong notes, botched chords and splayed rhythms. But by the fourth week of the same mistakes, many teachers find themselves grinding their teeth, holding their breath like an aquatic champion until the end of the piece rescues them from asphyxiation, or crossing their legs into pretzels that would put a yogi to shame. Watching a student head for a wrong key is like being a passenger in an out-of-control vehicle that’s about to veer off a cliff. Every teacher’s carpet has a bald spot from flooring an imaginary brake pedal. We don’t know if Bach dug his buckled Pilgrim-fashion shoes into the floor on such occasions of terror, but we know he developed a stellar reputation as a teacher. He must have used earplugs under his wig.

Today’s modern piano is a far cry from Bach’s four-octave keyboard with a soundboard the size of a cookie sheet. His students did not have to control thirty tons of pressure, generated by seven octaves of steel strings stretched over a four-hundred-pound cast iron plate. Technique is everything. If a student plays with a rigid arm the sound is like whacking a cement wall with a two-by-four. The piano has a damper pedal which if floored creates enough sound waves to produce a sonic boom. Some students thump the pedal, causing a pummeling arrhythmia, hopefully not in the teacher’s aortic valve.

According to audiologists, the threshold of prolonged listening at 92 Decibels of sound (the average sound level of a piano) is two hours. But a piano teacher usually has five or six-hour days, five days (or more) a week. No wonder pianists have such a high rate of hearing loss. They should wear earplugs like most symphony musicians.

The pandemic introduced a modus operandi of relief for teachers — remote teaching. Online teaching has disadvantages. Dynamic contrasts fade to non-existent levels. Screens freeze, usually during an important section but never when you want them to.

But there are untold advantages. Teachers can eat all the garlic they want and not worry about bad breath. They can sneak a candy bar between lessons without students asking what that crinkly noise in the other room was. The hygiene level skyrockets. The piano keys gleam from cleanliness, not had-a-snack-in-the-car-greasy fingers. Sneezes, coughs and — what teacher has not experienced this — silent passing of deadly gas — no longer pollute the air. The biggest advantage? The mute button. Sadly, the return to in-person teaching will eliminate this option.

Bach taught twenty-one of his own children, plus a slew of royal and not so royal students — all in person. I bet he would have loved zooming his lessons. And I bet you anything he would have used the mute button.