I recently watched the film Talent Has Hunger, directed by Josh Aronson. It follows cello virtuoso Paul Katz of the Cleveland Quartet and the New England Conservatory of Music as he teaches and inspires young students at the Conservatory. He instructs them in technique, inspiring them to achieve and improve. The film shows lots of one-on-one instruction, with Katz coaching students on bow technique, fingering, and also on just trying to make beautiful sounds. Some pupils advance further than others under his tutelage, but they all love their teacher. One thing I really liked about this film is that it shows the young musicians over a 7-year period, chronicling their growth and feelings about music. Sort of like the Michael Apted series 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up, and so on all the way up to 56 Up.
I enjoyed Talent Has Hunger but wish there had also been a jazz element. The film concentrates only on classical music, not improvisation. A prominent jazz bassist once said that classical musicians are like athletes, and that struck me as true. The great classical musicians, however, have something more than just assiduous practice and technique, something Katz tries to show his pupils. It’s been said that mastery is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration; I would change that number to 60% perspiration and 40% inspiration. Add to that, sacrifice and dedication.
I also think that improvisation, the hallmark of jazz, involves ear training, and a lot of intuition and right-brain activity. I’ve been listening to jazz since I was in high school and it helps me with my flute lessons now. When I was in music school, there was a classical pianist, a student in an improv class. The teacher told him to improvise on D-dorian on the piano: all white keys. The guy couldn’t muster a note; he had to have sheet music telling him what to play. This is very different from jazz improvisation, where you play the head, bridge, A and B parts, etc. then improvise for so many choruses based on chord changes and various chord substitutions. It is really hard work. Classical music was once like that — there would be open bars where the performer could improvise. That all changed in the 19th century.
On a similar note, I was delighted to read the other day about the Herb Alpert Foundation giving $10m to LA City College to fund music education. When I was in grade and middle school, kids got instruments to play in the school band. Interviewing many great jazz musicians on KCRW, I found a common thread: that their lives were changed when somebody handed them an instrument in school. Music education does change lives. As Alpert states in the LA Times article, “I was super-shy and the trumpet was speaking for me,” he said. “It made the noise I couldn’t get out of my mouth. It’s a way for kids to experience their own uniqueness and appreciate the uniqueness of others.” Kudos to the Herb Alpert Foundation.
Finally, the other day I saw a jaw-dropping video of a three-year-old playing a Muzio Clementi Sonatina (I think it’s #3 in C major, Op. 36, “Spiritoso.”) It seems impossible, but I’ve watched her carefully and it all seems legit to me. Some readers think it’s faked. Any piano teachers out there? Sounds like she’s headed soon for Juilliard, Curtis, or Coburn!
Here is the trailer to Talent Has Hunger: