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July, 2001
Editorial Musings
Professional Interchange in the Developing Artist

by Rose Eide-Altman , editor

One of the purposes of this site is to examine common themes in the lives of women pianists, themes that may be unexplored or may be different from their male counterparts. One theme that I ran across this month in a biography on Fanny Mendelssohn was the role artistic interaction plays once an artist has left the scholastic/competition world of their youth.

In "Fanny: Life and Music" Dr. Jill Halstead presents a concise and insightful biography of this early 19th century artist (1805-1847). She describes Fannyís earliest reputation as a child prodigy ("at the age of thirteen she played from memory all twenty-four of the first book of Bachís Well-tempered Clavier "), her education, social restrictions, marriage and artistic frustrations. As they grew up it seems that she and her brother, Felix, developed together as artists to such a degree that they were artistic "soul mates" drawing necessary inspiration and affirmation from each otherís composing and performing. As Felixís career spread throughout Europe Fanny was artistically isolated and often became depressed. Dr. Halstead writes:

"Fannyís lack of confidence in her own abilities is clear and she very much missed having suitably qualified musicians to judge her work. In 1836 she confided to her friend Klingemann:

'When one never encounters either objective criticism or goodwill, one eventually loses the critical sense needed to judge oneís work, while at the same time losing the wish to create it. Felix, who could easily take the place of an audience for me, can only reassure me sparingly for we are seldom together. I am thus more or less alone with my music.'"

Is this a sentiment shared by some women today, and is it unique to women? All artists, men and women, undergo changing environments as they progress from the encouraging and affirming early years of study, through the challenging, competitive and stimulating years of high school, college and graduate studies. As long as there is artistic interaction they can find stimulation to grow and mature as artists. I think it is when they leave the scholastic environment that many women flounder as Fanny describes above, where the lack of criticism is more debilitating than the overabundance of it. Often, it seems, at the same time most men are focused on "playing the game" and are not as dependent upon artistic stimulation and motivation from other individuals.

Granted, there are still the social and traditional differences between the genders. Most women performers, when asked why there are not more women performing internationally, state that it is probably because of the family responsibilities that accompany having children. This is a very important issue and reality, but I think there are several other factors at play here and one I have not heard much about is the dependence women have on feedback about themselves as individuals as well as artists. Much has been written in the business world about how women would rather get along and be accepted and men are out to play the game (e.g. "Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman" by Gail Evans, Broadway Books, 2000). As much as one may hate stereotypes this probably has some validity and probably can be applied to the world of the concert artist as well. It certainly seemed to resound in Fannyís statement above. Even though women of today have more liberties there may still be the same emotional restrictions that need to be recognized and addressed, if by no one other than the artist. Once informed they can purposely seek out avenues of peer and professional interaction.

It is notable that most of the concert pianists interviewed by Cheryl Branham (see Branham page) were employed at universities. Here they have the necessary interaction and affirmation needed to thrive as artists. Most of them even state that that is necessary in order to give of themselves to the audience in their performing. But many of the men concert pianists featured in interview books restrict themselves solely to performing, stating that they do not have the time to teach and it would be an injustice to their students. I think that at the root of the issue is the fact that they donít need to have that professional interaction to thrive as artists, at least not as much as women.

Back to Fanny, it is interesting to note that within two years of her statement quoted above she submitted a composition for publication and gave her only public performance as pianist. I was impressed that she realized and could articulate what she needed, and then looked for suitable opportunities to meet those needs. Her year in Italy in 1839-1840 filled her with a new and much needed artistic affirmation, one of the results of which was an increase in composing, and eventually publication. Dr. Halstead states:

"The publication of her work meant it was reviewed, praised and criticised, only from such critical attention can a composer truly mature."

The need for greater professional interchange and educated affirmation by women is not a strength or weakness but an important difference that college students need to learn about and professional pianists need to realize in order to develop their full potential and continue to perform into their thirties and beyond. We have many young, talented women pianists, but not so many mature artists who can express the deeper insights of accumulated life experiences, expressions necessary for the truly great masterpieces of classical piano music.

How do professional women pianists today maintain their motivation if they are not employed by institutes of higher learning, or is that an anachronism?

Your comments and insights on this subject are welcome and, unless specified otherwise, will be posted on Augustís "Letters to the Editor" page.
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published July 1, 2001
copyright 2001 PianoWomen.com

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