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On Character

The evening after my most recent orchestra concert (and in the middle of a snowstorm!) I unwound by watching a documentary on the great 20th century French music and composition teacher Nadia Boulanger: Nadia Boulanger – Mademoiselle.  Since studying for 2 years (in 1997-99) at the University of Michigan with Marianne Ploger, who was one of Mlle. Boulanger’s last students, I have been keenly interested in Boulanger, the substance of her teaching, and what she was all about.  Certainly some of what I received from Marianne came from Boulanger, through whom it in turn came from somewhere else.  Each of us who teach, and who practice, have our own particular take on things, our own point of view.  But part of what we all teach and have been taught is what could be called the universal teaching.  One of these universal teachings from this lineage which Marianne summarized for me is about as simple and fundamental as it gets: “You must be impeccable.”

In the world there are two kinds of people – those who are inspired by such a goal, and those who are not.  If we choose to, we will continue to pursue impeccability for our entire lives, continually fall short, and keep striving.  To whom does this calling speak?  The documentary on Boulanger was made in 1977 on the occasion of her 90th birthday, at which point the film reveals her to be still extremely active, dynamic, demanding, and inspiring in her teaching – a very bright spirit.  (Nonetheless this spirit is housed in a very old body, and in the film her physical vulnerability is evident and touching.)  At one point she is asked about how she selects her students.  Her answer: the most important quality is Character.  The ability and the discipline to concentrate, to focus.  A student who lacks those attributes may be a lovely person – but without basic discipline, the ability to concentrate, and the motivation to learn, nothing can be done.

Notice, incidentally, that she did not mention musical talent.  In fact, much of what we think of as musical talent is precisely these traits of character – discipline, focus, and motivation – which apply not only to learning, but to how a person functions in their life more generally.  I believe she would also consider a sense of ethics to be part of this question of character as well.  An ethical sense around why it is important to learn, why it is important to be impeccable, and around what we choose to do with our time and with our life, how we choose to interact with others and with the world we live in.  All of these things are central to being a good student and a good artist or musician (or anything else for that matter).

As I write it is nearly Spring Break, which brings another chance to reflect on the opportunities we have to work on our character – discipline, concentration, motivation and ethics – and to work toward the goal of being impeccable.

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