Composer Alice Parker tells this story about the years when she was working under the late Robert Shaw. When she was a young composition student at Juilliard, she was singled out to help Shaw create arrangements of hymns and folksongs – pieces that are now considered to be standards of the choral repertoire. One of her jobs was to find texts for Shaw to set to music, and so Alice spent hours poring over poetry and hymns at the New York Public Library. She would then come back to Shaw with a pile of texts that she had found, eager to show him these treasures. Shaw would frequently interrupt her while she eagerly read to him various texts, “No,” he’d say, dismissing her find. “But the second verse is beautiful,” she’d argue. “The second verse is too late,” Shaw would respond.

I have heard this story a dozen times and every time it strikes a chord. Shaw was asserting that if the text didn’t grab you immediately, it wasn’t worth holding out till the second or third verse for something better. This reminds me of a fun dinner party game to play with musicians that goes like this: you are in a sinking boat with all your loved ones. In order to save your lives, you have to throw over the side of the boat the complete works of some composer that will forever be lost to humankind. There’s a lot to consider here, for in losing one composer you dislike, you might also then affect later composers. And certain composers (Berg comes to mind) don’t have enough volume of output to really help your sinking boat much. The first time Matt played this game, he was with a group of choral conductors who were throwing over Chopin right and left. Personally, I’d toss Handel, thinking that if I didn’t lose another Christmas to a Messiah performance I’d be a much happier woman. But honestly, that is as cheap a choice as the choral conductors pick of Chopin. To really play fair, you have to pick from a composer that has some bearing on your world. In that case, Liszt goes. I don’t even have to think twice.

But it seems no one in our profession is throwing anything over the boat. I can’t keep up. I am drowning in repertoire, technique, and expectations, workshops, webcasts, and reading material. Ten lifetimes would not be enough to play through all the music on my shelves. Every time I turn around I hear about another opportunity for my students. They are all good ones, I am sure, but between soccer games and homework and piano lessons I am not sure where another music festival fits in. I wonder seriously about the shallowness of our work and the frenetic tempo of our practices, and whether or not somewhere, between cramming down dinner and another sonatina, we have lost sight of land completely.

It reminds me of a line from a Stevie Smith poem: I was much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning. How often, I wonder, do we misread the messages all around us, mistaking what looks like friendly—but rather frantic— waving for drowning?

I am thinking of all this a great deal at the moment. Staring us in the face are the annual spring festivals and studio recitals needing attention. It is time to stop teaching in “cruise control” and actually begin steering this boat. Every day I play through dozens of pieces, picking out recital music for my younger students (“Too late,” I think to myself, when after 16 measures the piece hasn’t worked its magic.). Older students are memorizing and polishing, learning final sections of big works, reviewing old repertoire. For the next six weeks, we will have no choice but to throw some things over the boat: ear tunes, original compositions, new techniques and skills. These things will drift alongside for a while, until the load lightens up again and we can fish them out of the water. Thank goodness for life rafts.

Turns out, my students have plenty of opinions about what is important and what could be tossed. “Any ideas about what you might want to play on the recital?” I ask them. “Have you heard a piece you might be interested in learning? Or is there a composer or style you want to try?” These questions are dangerous, I realize, but they are really code for: I am buying myself some time here because I haven’t figure it out. Maybe you can give me a place to start or at least rule out some things for me.

I should have been asking the kids this question all along. One serious sixth grader replied, “You know, Amy, I am really into classical music these days. I think I’d like to play one of those two-page operas by Beethoven.” I tried not to laugh, after all, I understood what he was really saying to me: Come on, Amy, time for me to play one of the big boys. While original two-page operas for the piano by Beethoven are a bit in short supply, finding a great two-page piece by one of the major figures in our musical world I can handle.

Several other kids also quickly requested a recital piece by a “famous dead composer.” I am both surprised and somewhat pleased by this. Clearly, our work studying composers and major works in performance classes is sinking in, but the message to me is also coming through loud and clear: Let’s stop fooling around here. 

Which doesn’t mean we have thrown our favorite pedagogical composers over the boat. In fact, one of the same children who requested a “famous dead composer” in the next breath told me that she loved ALL the pieces in her Dennis Alexander collection so much that each one deserved its own recital.

So we are keeping Dennis, and all those two-page operas by Beethoven. Liszt, however, is still out of here.