“Don’t think of it in terms of being judged. Think of it in terms of giving or sharing something.”
This is a bit of advice that Sandra Carlock regularly passes along to her students regarding performance, especially as a way of addressing nervousness. The instinct to share, though, goes beyond offering music from the stage.
At a special performance in honor of her 70th birthday last fall, Carlock took the opportunity to share something unique: both her playing, with violinist Guillaume Combet, on works by Mozart, Schumann, and Edward MacDowell, and her photography, exhibiting 33 images captured during her travels around the world as well as close to her home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Both have been subjects of lifelong study, and Carlock calls them “the passions that have contributed to the quality of my life as a human being.”
In addition to the landmark birthday celebration at the Willow Grove Branch, the 2014-15 season marks 45 years of Carlock teaching at Settlement, and the impact of her instruction was evident throughout the November concert. Tributes from former students, both in person and sent via email from the across the United States, were read aloud, and all of her roughly 20 current students were in attendance as well.
Though Carlock now performs a bit less frequently than she did earlier in her career, she has found that her teaching and performing go hand in hand and that, in fact, her playing has been enhanced by her teaching over the years.
“When you teach, you have to be extremely clear about what you do that ‘works,’” she says. “I found that the more precisely I communicated musical and technical objectives to my students, the more I clarified my own thinking about ‘how’ I do what I do at the piano, and ‘why’ it does work!”
Over the years, Carlock has taught many students who have had the capacity to be receptive to this advice; indeed, her students have been some of Settlement’s most musically serious, ones who are bound for conservatory training and others who love to play music “as something that would hopefully become a meaningful part of their lives.”
Whatever her students’ goals, Carlock instills the same foundation in technique – minimizing tension and maximizing efficiency – as well as habits of mindfulness and self-reflection: To hear each note in their heads before they play, to be aware of how their hands look and feel as they play, and to develop their musical imagination. For this final component, the question Carlock poses is “how do you want this to sound?”
One experience which has shaped Carlock’s musical thinking, and that of many of her students, is visiting the Finchcocks Musical Museum in Kent, England. A number of the tributes took note of this one-of-a-kind treasure trove of historical musical instruments. Carlock first started visiting in 1989, and has taken many groups of students there to play and study in the following years. The museum’s holdings include many kinds of pianos that some of the most famous composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and others – played themselves. They didn’t compose with the modern grand piano in mind; it was a very different sound they heard in their minds.
“Once you hear what Mozart heard,” she says, “then your job is not to imitate, but to play in such a way that honors the clarity and the sounds illustrated by these early instruments.”
While Carlock admits that she is fanatical about technique and the way it must reflect the musical phrase, she aims to give her students more than musical and technical training. “I feel that my career has been about the missionary zeal for preserving our art,” she says.
A bit of that passion informs a weekly assignment that she gives each of her students: listening to a piece of music – “I tell them it has to be classical music, but that’s it” – and writing a short paragraph describing what they’ve heard.
Students frequently go beyond just a few sentences in expressing the depth of feeling music brings out in them, and it becomes clear they’re gaining an appreciation for music and the combination of technology, creativity and personality that have shaped it throughout history. It’s a gift that, like a career dedicated to teaching and to self-expression, is always worth celebrating.