Three Anecdotes on Method

17 07 2008


Above: Maria Tallchief and Royes Fernandez dance in Les Sylphides

1. The great ballerina Maria Tallchief recalls a story of her dancing for the great choreographer and her sometime husband George Balanchine. In this story, the dancer in her early twenties, a star ballerina who had already danced in Europe with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, was slightly critiqued by the Russian genius. He said that she would be a great dancer, if only she could do her tendu right. The only problem is, the tendu is one of the most basic moves that a dancer does at the bar. In other words, it was as if he were telling a poet that he would be a great bard, if only he knew how to construct a proper sentence.

Lesson: You can get to what you think are the heights of acheivement in your particular field, only to find out that you have the basics all wrong. You can do quite well, and even feign genius, but in the end, you still have a lot to learn, and what you still have to learn can seem suprisingly simple, but it is the essence of the whole art.

2. My father was taking some form of martial arts about ten years back, and had to start from scratch. My father, though a few inches shorter than me  (and I am somewhat on the short side) is a Vietnam vet, a former participant in many street fights, and overall one of the toughest looking people I know. (An ex-cholo and “OG”, for those who know the lingo.) He was quite impressed with the brown and blackbelts in his class. They were elegant in their moves and looked fierce when they fought. My father was always defeated when he sparred with them “by the book”. Nevertheless, his instructor thought that it would be a good idea if the novice would spar with one of the blackbelts using less orthodox moves. When the two went at it, my father dropped the fierce blackbelt like a bad habit in about five seconds flat.

Lesson: Many people are impressed by their own mastery of academic jargon, who they have read, and the importance of what they know. In the end, since the truth is simple, and ultimately intuitive, when the rubber hits the road, all the style in the world won’t win the fight. That is where reality kicks in, and reality is different from style.

 3. The young composer Philip Glass, after finishing his schooling at Julliard in the late 1960’s, decided to go study in Paris under the great musical pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Under her, he hoped to hone his knowledge of composition and music theory. She was notorious for terrorizing her students with drills where she sat them in front of the rest of the class at the piano and asked them to complete or harmonize a certain line of music, citing all of the rules of harmony, tempo, and other intricacies of composition.

One day, it was Glass’ turn at the piano, and he was given half a line of music and told to complete and harmonize it using the rules that they all knew. He did so, and when he played it for Madmoiselle Boulanger, she said that it was wrong. Glass protested by citing counterpoint and other rules of harmony, saying that the way he had completed the piece was correct. The pedagogue insisted that it was wrong, told Glass to step aside, and played it the way that she was looking for. “See,” she said, “that is how Mozart wrote it.” In other words, Glass’ answer was correct when it came to the rules, but he should have known that it wasn’t the way a genius would have completed it.

Lesson: Truth is not assembled in a procedure in which one merely follows a set of rules, but rather is often born out of inspiration from something higher. While knowing the rules is important, it is not enough to make a work of genius. That comes from something else, and we should be humble before that fact.