top of page

Never too old to learn

How much can an adult amateur expect to develop as a musician in a short space of time? Quite a lot, it turns out, given the right attention and circumstances, as I found out last summer at Burton Kaplan's Magic Mountain

This time last year I was cloistered away in the remote and beautiful surroundings of Magic Mountain, upstate New York. Under the tutelage of Burton Kaplan, and alongside students and professional violinists, I was learning how to practise the violin and how to think about music. It was a life-changing experience, and to celebrate the anniversary, here is the article I wrote about my experience for The Strad. Have I kept up the regime? Don't ask. Life is what happens while you're busy making plans, as John Lennon said. But I'm still a better player than I was this time last year and still think about the things I learnt. This is the article:

They say that youth is wasted on the young. I’d go further: studying is wasted on students. It certainly was in my case, at least, when I took the post-graduate violin course at the Royal Academy 20 years ago. Back then, I had all the time in the world, attention from teachers and no mortgage – but no real idea how to learn. These days I understand more and long for the luxury of having no purpose other than to focus on that complex piece of wood and the language it speaks.

And so the Magic Mountain Music Farm Practice Marathon Retreat seemed like the ideal place for me. It’s one of the courses offered by Manhattan School professor Burton Kaplan, who started running workshops nearly 30 years ago, in an old house in the middle of nowhere, upstate New York. Over those years, the house has grown and evolved into a haven for up to 13 instrumentalists (mainly strings) to come and reset themselves musically under Kaplan’s watchful eye. To my knowledge it’s the only place in the world that offers such an opportunity. Events have different focuses and cater to all-comers – a worried email to Kaplan warning that I hadn’t practised for a while was met with a reassuring response: ‘Each of us can only start from where we are at any moment.’

I started from New York City’s Penn station: a mesmerising five and a half hour coach ride through the verdant Catskills, feeling excitement but a tinge of apprehension. There needn’t have been any of that though. Kaplan manages to create an atmosphere of trust, understanding and positivity so that everyone feels included, whatever their experience. And there was a wide variety of that among the twelve of us – amateur, teaching, orchestral, freelance, and student – each of us with our own specific goals, needs, drivers and reasons for being there.

Every day at the farm follows a similar structure, starting with helping oneself to breakfast. The kitchen and basement store enough food to live through Armageddon and everyone participates in cooking and cleaning, except when a chef comes in on a few nights – recipes are timeworn favourites of courses gone by. A giant file in the kitchen lists duties and recipes, as well as individual lesson times – everyone has three a week. Practice can start at 8am and must finish by 11pm and there are group classes at 11am and 8.30pm. Apart from that, one’s time is one’s own, and one is free to practise or loiter in the well-stocked pedagogical library, or even leave the building (which I did twice).

The structure offers many parallel learning mechanisms. The classes are fascinating – nominally they are either about practice techniques (Kaplan uses his own Practising for Artistic Success book as a basis) and musical language. In reality, they veer all over the place in response to individual needs or questions, and Kaplan’s own freestyle auto-didactic journey with specific subjects. His sense of curiosity about the world, whether about technology, science, literature, poetry, art or gestalt psychology, often acts as a route into some important musical concept or practice technique. Sentences usually start with ‘A study has just shown that…’

We take turns playing in class, which intensifies the learning: being guinea pig in an exercise certainly focuses the mind, and is all captured on video for us to review. Watching colleagues explore the exercises is just as valuable, trying to tune into the subtle changes in phrasing or sound as they respond to Kaplan’s input. In this way it’s also a lesson in pedagogy – Kaplan’s style is to encourage students to find their own path and solution, rather than telling them something is wrong. As he laments, ‘A teacher will say, “Did you hear how the tone in bar three didn’t match the music?” You say “uh-huh”, but you don’t even think. You didn’t hear it. They’re trying to impart a value system, but it doesn’t work. That’s why it takes so long for people to learn things. It’s your perception that matters, not the teacher’s.’

Then there’s the work one does in the privacy of one’s room. I was worried about still being able to focus in the ways required – technology-addiction has destroyed my attention span. But Kaplan’s techniques turn practice into a musical experience and somehow this unlocked a relish that I don’t remember as a student. It also helps to know that everyone else is working hard (and that Kaplan is probably wandering around the house listening to our labours).

Lessons happen in Kaplan’s study, which is crowded with books on musical and scientific theories (he brings out his copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach to explain the endless phrasal structure of my Bach Gigue), scores, random pieces of hardware, and some of his own inventions (he’s created his own shoulder rest and once invented a device that rings a bell when a student’s wrist collapses out). Here the teaching becomes much more focused – pieces are studied forensically bar by bar, technique corrected, feedback and encouragement given, Galamian fingerings disseminated.

Another more indirect learning mechanism is through the conversations that take place throughout the day – whether talking with other participants about their musical lives and aspirations, or hearing Kaplan talking about some philosophical concept or cultural insight from his place at the head of the dinner table.

So the learning curve is continuous and steep throughout the two weeks, but for me it also contained sharp spikes with specific revelations. The first of these was as Kaplan took us through one of his practice methods in class – the ‘Technique of Observation’. I had brought a recently-started Wieniawski Etude-Caprice and played the first page quite badly in class, I felt. I was focusing on the problems I knew were coming up that I hadn’t practised enough, and the bad intonation.

This is where Kaplan’s ‘Pie Strategy’ comes in. There are four qualities to observe – intonation, rhythm, tone and expression. Rather than being critical about specific bars or phrases, the idea is to play a whole passage observing for the strongest and the weakest of these ‘pieces of the pie’. To make sure one is prepared for this observation, before playing one says out loud, ‘I’m going to play from bar x to bar y observing for the strongest and the weakest slices of the pie.’ Afterwards one immediately states the strongest and then the weakest element.

It took me a few goes to get used to the process, and it felt deeply uncomfortable having to talk out loud, but it turned some switch in my brain. Rather than focusing in a negative way on what was bad or what might go wrong, one is forced to step back and observe the whole. And miraculously, things start to go right. This is the fascinating alchemy Kaplan shows us – focus on the right hand and a left-hand problem sorts itself out; think about rhythm and a shift becomes easy. Improving one’s playing becomes more about psychology and paradox than sheer force of will.

There’s something subversive-feeling about this. My memories of lessons with many different teachers are of focusing on intonation and accuracy, so that it’s hard to draw back and let things be. Throughout the pie exercise, many of us instinctively say that intonation is the weakest, a fault of our training, as Kaplan says: ‘This is a fusspot art. It’s sad that they take this fussy quality and impose it on intonation. You should listen for, “Do I want to hear the rest of the story?”’ He sometimes steps in to point out the problem is rhythm, at which a refocus improves the whole. It’s also telling that most of us automatically state the weakest slice of the pie first, so hardwired are we to find problems rather than our positive impressions, another reason this is such a useful exercise.

If the process sounds a little esoteric, the body of Kaplan’s practice techniques is anything but. In classes we cover time-management strategies that you might find in a business management manual, with plans, structures and milestones. At the other end of the scale in one of my lessons he takes me through the ‘Super Learning’ strategy for pounding through difficult passages. At the beginning of the lesson I confessed that with fast pieces like the Wieniawski I expect myself to fail, but with unerring patience, Kaplan showed me how to work on tidying it up, using rhythms and a metronome. Not particularly original in itself, but the specifics were more complex and systematic than I’ve done in the past, and the emphasis was on maintaining the musical content and sound, and a constant bow, even under tempo. After just a couple of days of doing this on my own subsequently my fingers were zinging away on the fingerboard, and with Kaplan’s encouragement I’ve banished my self-perception that I can’t play fast.

As time went by Kaplan dwelled on more sophisticated musical concepts in class, such as the metric skeleton – how the beats of a 4/4 bar have a certain hierarchy that creates a flow through the bar and a sense of direction in music. We watch how when one student becomes conscious of this skeleton in a phrase, a shift that has been problematic suddenly comes right. We discuss closure – how to set up the end of a piece – and Kaplan takes us through the grammar of music, and how to understand phrases, sub-phrases, and musical words. I take all this to the practice room to work on the Sarabande and Gigue of the Bach D minor, excited by the endless possibilities it offers and the joy of picking apart the logic of Bach’s musical language.

It wasn’t all work, though. I’d hardly expected to watch a documentary on my childhood heroes the skaters Torvill and Dean, over whom I used to obsess, but Kaplan showed it to us as an example of true chamber music playing, which gave me a nostalgic thrill. Another evening we watched a documentary on Carlos Kleiber, whose work I’d barely registered before, to understand the way he created images for the players (Kaplan’s ‘Strategy of the Narrative’, whereby you decide what would be going on if this were music for a movie), and how he set up the musical structure. We also watched the infamous Heifetz video where he imitates a bad auditionee, and listened to Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XXI playing follies, precipitating a conversation about authenticity and the evolution of performance skill.

All these inputs were leading to the final Sunday, when we were each to perform for ten minutes. Beforehand we had to set up our goals for our performance: ‘conscious expectations that are possible and reasonable, to give us the greatest possibility of doing our best’. Kaplan encouraged us away from technical goals, though, citing research: ‘They’ve measured consequences of goals of different types and if you’re a musician and you decide to play technically better you’ll play worse. So a goal must lead to fulfillment of art.’

At class the night before I had been tense playing the Bach Gigue and I had been struggling with the first chord of the Sarabande. For the latter Kaplan’s advice that ‘a down bow starts with an up bow’ helped, as well as his tip that rather than starting at the beginning of the piece, in the seconds before I play, I go mentally from a point within the piece to get me in the right frame of mind. So my goals are to be relaxed for 90 per cent of the time and to make a beautiful sound 80 per cent of the time; to enjoy playing and hearing Bach’s language; and to listen for the beauty of the first bar of the Sarabande.

The final concert is exciting, and also moving. As a group we’ve spent the last two weeks intensely in each other’s lives, cooking and washing up together, learning about each other and our playing, rooting for each other, and this is the final strait of the journey. It’s lovely to hear everyone play, to the best of their capacities, by and large fulfilling all the goals they have set. As for me, I’m happy with how I play – and feel like I have reached the goals I set for the performance. The concert is followed up by a ‘re-entry’ session, where we talk about what we have learnt and how we’re going to take it forward. We drink sherry together before dinner and packing up. The next day we all disburse back to our daily lives to see if we can live up to the expectations we’ve shared in the re-entry session.

If I’d spent two weeks in a house full of interesting people, eating good food and practising the violin five hours a day, it would have been enough. If I’d been shown profoundly effective practice techniques; or been offered deep musical insights; or been challenged to think in new ways; or given faith in my violin playing; or even just introduced to Carlos Kleiber, it would have been enough. That I experienced all these things at once makes my experience at Magic Mountain probably one of the most valuable two weeks of violin playing in my life. And offers proof that one is never too old to learn.

Burton Kaplan quotes

‘Music isn’t about right pitches. Pitch is more like impressionist painting marks – you can’t look too close up, you have to look from a distance. The trick is to play patterns of notes so that the notes that matter are in tune enough.’

‘Music is the art of illusion. We manipulate the ear of the listener.’

‘Live in the moment with a sense of what you’re capable of, but accept reality.’

‘If you can’t define the problem you can’t fix it.’

‘Most of us have spent so much time learning to play, but we haven’t learnt to trust that what we feel we hear is the truth. We have to cause our bodies to make a sound that when we hear it makes us want to listen to it. That should be the main preoccupation.’

‘To make great music you need to be able to feel and think at the same time. To guide yourself well you need to know about yourself.’

‘People playing music tend to get trapped by smaller pieces that have meaning but don’t add up to a bigger picture. We have to train ourselves by how we speak. We don’t think about breath or how we move our mouth. The connection from what you want to hear has to govern all your actions so you don’t think about the actions: hearing it makes it happen.’

‘The classical player who repeats what they played yesterday is a dead player.’

‘Any intention is better than no intention.’

‘Each decision you make at the start of the phrase will cause all the things it will cause. Don’t keep making it mean something: it’s all there.’

‘Most people see pitch and hook on to it, with the rhythm in the background, which makes no musical sense. When we’re taught rhythm, we’re taught around the barline – we’re not taught to perceive patterns.’

‘If you want to explore you have to be willing to go past the boundary otherwise you’ll never know where the boundary is.’

‘As you get closer to the truth of music, words get more impossible.’

‘This is not music theory: this is performance reality – your heart, your body and a sense of wholeness. When it comes together it feels wonderful and if it doesn’t feel wonderful it’s not good enough.’

‘Without a decision you don’t have intention and without intention you don’t get money. Don’t think that the audience doesn’t know.’

‘Dynamics is a great term as long as you don’t think it means loud and soft. It means every variation in sound you make to create meaning. Loud and soft is the most trivial element, just part of the picture.’

Read my blog about the Magic Mountain experience, and advocating more high-level courses for amateurs

bottom of page