July 10, 2004
Susan Tomes on how Sándor Végh was nasty to a Japanese student: "… a powerful teacher can inhibit as well as inspire"

In the latest issue of Gramophone, there appears a review, by Gramophone editor James Jolly, of Beyond the Notes by the noted pianist Susan Tomes.

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Alongside his review, Jolly also includes a passage from the book, about the celebrated Hungarian musician Sándor Végh, and about his limitations as a teacher:

I particularly remember an occasion in Italy. There was a Japanese girl in the class who was greatly in awe of [Sandor] Vegh, and she told me she was inwardly trembling in all her lessons. He seemed to smell her fear and subjected her to a merciless spate of criticism, mocking her demeanour, her femininity, the way she wilted under criticism, and telling her that she didn't understand music at all. Naturally, her playing got worse and worse. One night towards the end of the course the students gathered in a square in the village and sat round in a big circle. Someone had a violin with them and played a folk tune on it. Someone else suggested that the violin be passed around the circle, and that other people might contribute folk songs from their own country. And so the violin eventually came to this Japanese girl. To everyone's great surprise, she played some sad Japanese folk songs in an entrancing style, sweet, poignant and natural with no trace of the physical stiffness we had all seen in her lessons. This was a very important scene for us all to witness, and I think everyone understood then that a powerful teacher can inhibit as well as inspire.

What a swine! I have lots of this man's CDs, but I'll think hard before getting any more.

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Perhaps if challenged about such cruelty, Vegh might say that the music profession is a tough one and if you can't take grief you should be chased out of it now. Sort of like army basic training. But if the profession is tough it will do that anyway. Why create pre-emptive grief? Why not just try to teach music and music making, and let the grief be postponed for as long as possible? And – who knows? – maybe, if encouraged, the Japanese girl will make it as a performer after all. It's not as if, like a badly trained soldier, a lack of early grief is liable to kill her. Anyway, music is not the same as warfare. (Although maybe I'm being naive about that, and actually it is.)

However, note that the chapter from which this snippet comes is called "Sándor Végh and György Sebök – a tribute to their teaching", so the old monster must have been doing something right.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:08 PM
Category: Bullying