Neuhaus, Gat, and Self-Awareness

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Heinrich NeuhausHeinrich NeuhausI was thinking after a recent bout of piano practice about the way Heinrich Neuhaus apparently framed his teaching. There are three areas of knowledge you need, he contended: you need to know the music, you need to know the instrument, and you need to know yourself. I don't know the flavour of this usage of 'to know' in Russian, but it seems, when rendered into English, to imply both savoir and connaitre in French. Which is interesting in itself, but not what I was intending to write about.

What I find interesting about this concept of learning pianism is how different it is from the technique-focused approach typified by Jozsef Gat. Gat goes into endless detail about the mechanics of fingers and arms, joints and levers, whereas Neuhaus just leaves these as an empty gap in the middle, between that which is played and that which plays. It feels akin to the school of thought in conducting that says (I paraphrase), 'Bugger stick technique, you need to study the work and study the orchestra'.

My next thought was to wonder where Gat's technical work would lie in Neuhaus's formulation. Is understanding the most efficient angle for your arm to lie in relation to the keyboard and its implications for seat height a matter of knowing yourself, or of knowing your instrument? Would Neuhaus see the 'self' as an integrated psycho-physical entity (in which case, anatomy becomes a branch of self-knowledge), or did he think of it as a more abstract or spiritual entity, the consciousness that provides the direction and intent for the physical body (in which case, anatomy becomes part of the instrument you learn how to operate)?

(If I had thought of these questions at the seminar in which I was introduced to Neuhaus's teaching, I would have asked. But, typically, it has taken me nearly four years to think of them. Ah well.)

Either way, I think it's clear that in suggesting a need for self-knowledge, Neuhaus is suggesting that a successful musician needs a degree of wisdom, awareness, the capacity to stand outside of themselves, and to regulate themselves.

Now, self-awareness is a funny thing. One of my students once asked, 'If I don't have self-awareness, how would I know?' which rather neatly sums up its conundrums. If you don't have any, you have nothing to steer by, you'd operate blindly, randomly. You wouldn't know when you are doing fine and when you making a complete pig's ear of things. You'd blame your tools for your bad workmanship.

But how do you go about getting it? It's not just a matter of sitting around thinking about yourself a lot - that isn't self-awareness, that's self-obsession.

It seems to me that in order to learn about your own character and ways of being in the world, you need to attend to the responses you get from those you interact with. You need the feedback from others to gauge how you're doing. And 'others' here encompasses both the animate and the inanimate. When you've stayed in a house, are there more things broken or more things mended by the time you leave? When you finish conducting a rehearsal, are there more or fewer people smiling than there were at the start?

So, Neuhaus's triangle suggests two things. The first is that musicianship is not separable from the rest of life, and has a moral dimension. The second is that one of the ways you gain the insights to develop that moral dimension is by paying close attention to how well you are meeting the needs of the music and the instrument.

I agree when you say that we "need to attend to the responses you get from those you interact with. " Additionally, I think as leaders or teachers it is incumbent upon us to ask those salient questions that help people to explore their self awareness. Becoming aware of who and what we are is a tough job and the more help we get, the better.
We could ask things such as "What are you thinking as you play/perform/practise this?" "How does the music make you feel?" "Why do you think you play this so well?" "What is it about the music that speaks to you?" etc. I am certain you would come up with questions as you go that would be helpful.
In order for people to become more self aware, those with whom they interact can ask questions to help that process along.

Indeed, Kitty. Also, encouraging people to keep a journal to reflect on their practice sessions and performances is useful. (Guess where quite a lot of my blog thoughts originate!)

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