One summer I was privileged to attend a music teachers’ workshop in McMinnville, Oregon. Teachers, advanced students, and performing professionals from all over the country were able to benefit from Gyorgy Sebok’s years of experience and expertise at this summer music workshop just before his passing in November, 1999.
For those who are unfamiliar with Sebok, he was an established figure in the international musical world, equally respected as both a concert pianist and as a master teacher. Sebok made over forty recordings representing every genre of piano literature, and enjoyed a highly successful performing career for almost six decades. He was internationally recognized by both the academic and professional worlds of music.
Born in Hungary, Sebok gave his first solo recital at age 11. He always remembered his performance experience at age 14 that shaped his teaching philosophy. “During the third movement I made some mistakes,” he recalled, “but I didn’t feel guilty about it because I felt I had done my best. We had a neighbor, a music lover, who said to my grandfather about my performance, ‘Oh, that was wonderful, but in the third movement something went wrong.’ My grandfather became very angry with him and said, ‘I don’t care, because the sun has spots, too.’ That was a beautiful thing for my grandfather to say, I think, and sometimes I remember that: Even the sun has spots.” Similarly, Sebök always helped his students overcome that fear of mistakes so they could give their best performances.
One has to accept that to be human is to be fallible, and then do the best one can and be captured by the music.
Aim for ease
Most notably, Sebok was one of the finest music communicators (click for video performance!) and touched many with his insights and perceptions on piano playing. So much of Sebok’s philosophy went back to the idea of ease in playing — that we play organically, the way the body works. We should not have extraneous movement; all motion should serve the production of sound.
Sebok says,” I’ve learned that playing the piano should be — but often doesn’t feel like — a natural action, as natural as … walking.” “Most musicians aim to play something difficult. They do not aim for ease. They should aim for ease. Not ease as an attitude, but ease as an absence of difficulty.”
“To give up effort is terribly difficult. I don’t want to sound funny, but one has to make a tremendous effort to give up effort. All the unnecessary efforts are superstition of the functioning. They give the illusion of security.”
“I don’t think that the whole body should move perceptibly, constantly. But it should naturally participate. There is weight on the floor, on the chair, in the key; and it fluctuates all the time, like the fluctuation in the function of the muscles, which mutually compensate for one another, creating a harmony. Not a harmony giving a musical solution, but a harmony which follows a musical inspiration.”
It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult. –Seneca
A rational process
Beyond the physical aspects of piano playing, Sebok continues,” playing the piano is essentially not so mysterious; it’s something rational. What is the normal way to play the piano? But to reach that goal, that is mysterious, because it comprises the whole human being. It is much more than muscles and joint. In order to realize this goal, for example, one has to free him from fear. And that is not physical.”
“Someone could say, for instance, ‘I’m going to climb up to the top of the highest diving board and then jump from an altitude of 15 meters into the water. This is how I do that.’ Now, I can watch him, see how he uses his muscles—in short, see everything he does. But it is not a given at all that I, too, can go up there and then jump. Because I need that loss of fear. I must have the confidence that I will land safely.”
As a teacher, Sebok says, “I’m a little bit like a gardener. A gardener cannot grow flowers; he can only help them to grow. He can plant them in the right place, and he can water them…but nothing more. Nobody can do more. Everything is done by ourselves. A doctor, for example, cannot heal a wound. He can cut one, but it is the life force that we possess that heals it. One can only help another to develop what that person already has.”
For the things we have to learn before we can do them … we learn by doing them. –Aristotle
“I try to enhance, to refine, to sublimate, to enrich. But to give it? No. There is no gardener in the world who can make a flower out of a seed. Only the seed itself can grow into a flower.”
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