Bernard Rands: Creative Musical Pedagogy

In today's Boston Globe, contemporary composer Bernard Rands explained how musical instruction he received as a child shaped his entire life and career. As someone concerned with teaching and learning, I found this fascinating and inspiring. I'll quote directly from journalist David Weininger's article:
"Bernard Rands began playing piano at age 5. When he was 10, he started working with a new teacher who told his young student to carry a book of manuscript paper with him. At the end of a lesson, after Rands had played the pieces he’d learned and they’d worked on exercises, the teacher would write out a melody — it could have been a popular tune, or the melody of a Bach chorale. Rands’s job would be to harmonize that melody before his next lesson. Another week the teacher might write down a series of a dozen or so chords, the assignment being to turn them into a composition. To this point, Rands had had no instruction in music theory; his farsighted teacher simply wanted to unlock his mind to the experience of musical creation.

"'Can you imagine how many piano teachers on the planet would actually engage a young child that way?' Rands said by phone recently from his home in downtown Chicago. 'That man was unique, and why I’m talking to you today. Having spent 70 years of my life pursuing this is directly because of that man.'

"The 'this' that Rands has been pursuing is an aesthetic ideal that has made him one of the foremost composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Born in England, Rands, who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this month, has a lengthy list of accomplishments that includes the Pulitzer Prize for Music, numerous residencies, and 16 years on the faculty of Harvard University. Now retired from teaching, he lives in Chicago with his wife, the composer Augusta Read Thomas."
Curiously Rands doesn't mention the name of the teacher. Maybe he doesn't remember! Such is the lot of the educator, influencing young people for the better, often without recognition. At least Rands understood how he was shaped by this instance of creative teaching, not surprising since he himself taught. None of us will never know fully all the ways we have been shaped, influenced, or helped by the teachers and adults in our lives.

Nor will the teacher always know the extent of his or her impact. Sometimes it's the case that the teacher tosses pebbles of learning into the pond and is able to observe the ripples spreading out. Other times the teacher actually is the pebble or stone passing through the surface of the water with ripples spreading out behind in ways never to be known. Good teachers proceed on faith and relinquish control of outcomes. Well, to an extent. Rands' teacher nurtured the boy toward composition, but could not have had a clue what kind of composer he would become, or if in fact he would become one at all.

Prior to reading this article I wasn't familiar with Rands. Here's a performance of one of his "Impromptus." Very nice.


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