Thursday, December 3, 2015

Mademoiselle: Conversations with Nadia Boulanger, Bruno Monsaingeon

A couple months ago I was feeling a little discouraged. I was homesick for Colorado and felt that I wasn't as good of a teacher (I teach private flute and piano lessons) as I ought to be. I did not win an audition I wanted badly. I was one of the last 2 cut. I was really feeling down.

On a whim, I searched my library system to see if they had any books on Nadia Boulanger. I learned about her from my college flute professor and in more detail in my 20th century music lit class. She was the master teacher of music in the 20th century. Piano, organ, composition. She taught many of the great composers of the 20th century, including Stravinsky and Copland. She has and continues to be an inspiration to musicians worldwide. So I thought where better to look for inspiration? And my library turned up this book.

Some may find fault with the format of the book. Monsaingeon admits that this book was not one long sit down interview (or even a series of interviews strung together) or an actual "conversation" with Nadia, but I found it to be a very smart literary choice as a format. It seemed intimate and helped the flow, otherwise, I fear it would just be a bunch of organized quotations (which I would have gladly devoured). This format made it more readable and personable, which I think is fitting given the descriptions of Nadia and who she was as a person. I remember my final exam for 20th century lit and my professor gave us our essay topic ahead of time so we could really think about it. She asked us to write a short essay on who we thought was the most influential composer of the 20th century and why. She assured us that there were no right or wrong answers, only poorly supported or well supported answers. I chose to write about Nadia. She was not a composer. She herself said many times she tried her hand at it and loved it, but that her music didn't mean anything and was worthless so she gave it up to devote her life to teaching. I argued that even though she herself didn't compose The Rite of Spring, Afternoon of a Faun, or Appalacian Spring-she was a part of all of it because of the influence she had as a teacher. Because of her, the great composers were given tools to become who they became and to write what they wrote. Those works would not exist in the same way had she not had influence over them. I'm pretty sure I got full credit. I know I received an A or A- in the class.

I love how she didn't really discriminate among pupils. If someone wanted her to teach them, she woudl teach them. I copied SO many quotes that to put even half of them on here would be violating copywrite restrictions! But here's one that sums up something I think is wonderful: "I have a student who has made fantastic progress....in 25 years. 25 years is a long time! But today she's able to teach in a little American town, teaching piano very decently to people who want to play the piano a bit. She earns her living, she does what she does quite properly. She has a place in her society. Why should I say to her: you must be a Rostropovich or a Richter? I don't see why you must be Richter to teach in a little town, he wouldn't know what on earth to do there. So you mustn't  construct universal classifications. Each individual poses a particular problem. You must dare to choose, but on what basis? Talent is not necessarily linked to the quality of a man; you can be a great musician and at the same time a dreadful, vice ridden person- vices pay for human weaknesses-what is unacceptable is mediocrity." Pages 55-56  and on page 57 she continues "Should I have discouraged those who are not first class? I don't think so. I believe it's necessary to fulfill certain essential conditions, and afterwards each as a place for a specific function. You must take your actionas to the limit of your aspirations." Why should we all be some amazing musician when we can all be the best to our own abilities according to our desires? We all have a place and even though I'm not able to play semi-professionally right now like I did in CO, I can still be a respectable and GOOD teacher!

I also like her outlook on life in general and overcoming the human tendency to laziness: "I regret not knowing and not speaking Russian, or Latin either, which inevitably cuts me off from my roots [her mother was Russian but refused to let her daughters learn it because when she married her husband, she completely adopted and assimilated herself with her new motherland of France]; and I'm ashamed to have to admit that if I'd had the courage and resolved to learn one word a week for ten years-that's not a lot, one word a week-I could have read all of Russian literature. Now, have I read it? No. I have to search for the letters to read my own name in Russian. It's the result of my negligence, of my indifference. I only had to learn it. No one prevented me and nothing stopped me from learning one word a week. If my desire is such that mynatural laziness prevents me realizing it, then the desire isn't very strong." Pages 39-40. Oh how true that is for just about EVERYTHING!

There is SO much wisdom in these pages. There is a section where people who knew her or studied with her wrote a little something and it was beautiful to read. Well, Pierre Schaeffer's tribute was quite a bit over the top. I'm sure Nadia would brush off all of these nice comments, but I think Pierre's she would have scolded him for using such flowery comparisons while paying homage.

There are some things that you might get lost on if you're not a classical musician, but there are so many things that are just practical about Nadia and her mannerism and outlook on life, that I think anyone could read this book and find wisdom for themselves. And I'm sure I enjoyed this book far more because of my previous knowledge of Nadia and it has far greater meaning and significance behind it because I feel that she has influenced me indirectly through the teachers I've had who have also tried to emulate her example. I almost tried to name my daughter Nadia! However my husband wasn't as fond of the name and it didn't hold the same significance to him. So we got Natalie. It's still Frech ;-)

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