The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned From Isaac Stern

One summer, I flew off to Israel with my piano trio to attend a 3-week chamber music bootcamp (no, it wasn’t really called that, but that’s what it was – in a good way). The faculty was a dream team of musical legends and performers (Isaac Stern, David Finckel, Leon Fleisher, Natalia Gutman, Joseph Kalichstein, Henry Meyer, Steven Tenenbom, and others) who coached us every day.

It was the most memorable and impactful few weeks of my musical life – but easily the most stressful, intense, and eye-opening few weeks as well.

I still find myself thinking about what I learned there on a weekly (if not daily) basis, but there is one thing that stands out as the most enduring lesson I learned from Isaac Stern that summer…

What are you trying to say?

I used to “proof-read” papers for a friend of mine back in college (she used to “proof-read” my theory assignments, so ethics aside, it was a pretty good arrangement). Anyhow, her papers were always truly mystifying, because even though the words were spelled correctly, and the grammar was fine, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what she was trying to say.

It was like reading this paragraph (courtesy of the awesome Corporate Gibberish Generator):

Bulletproof Musician has permanently altered the idea of power shifts. Think open-source. What does the jargon-based industry jargon “revolutionary” really mean? If you scale mega-iteravely, you may have to harness transparently. Do you have a cross-media strategy for coping with emerging e-tailers? We will extend our capability to leverage without diminishing our power to syndicate. If you synthesize strategically, you may have to incentivize nano-macro-extensibly. If you architect interactively, you may have to actualize globally. The TQM factor can be summed up in one word: clicks-and-mortar.

So while we do need some degree of command over language and grammar in order to make a convincing point, my friend’s papers were proof that it is also possible to construct a perfectly written sentence that says nothing.

What does this have to do with music, and Isaac Stern?

Worrying about the wrong things

In the weeks leading up to the workshop, my colleagues and I spent most of our time focused on ensemble, intonation, beautiful tone, and making everything sound as polished as possible. As you can imagine, we wanted to impress these great artists with our awesomeness.

Turns out we needn’t have worried. Not once did we talk about ensemble. Not once were we criticized for intonation, sound, or wrong notes.

Instead, Mr. Stern abruptly walked out on us, grumbling “I don’t have time for this” loudly enough for us to hear.


We didn’t have anything to say.

Mr. Stern and his colleagues bombarded us with question after question about the music, the score, and our intentions. What character are we trying to portray? Why are there dashes in the score instead of dots? What does it mean that there is a crescendo written in one place, but not in another similar place? Why did we choose the tempo we did? Is that really the best bowing/fingering to bring out the character, or just the most convenient?

We responded with uncomfortable silence and the vaguest of responses. It was obvious we hadn’t thought deeply enough about any of this.

It was mortifying, and in those moments where I fought valiantly to hold back tears, I learned what it means to be an artist.

Art and fear

Specifically, that if we want to be taken seriously as an artist, we must look at the score with our own eyes and our own ears and take a stand. Rather than copying others’ ideas or waiting for others to endorse or support our ideas, we must make our own conclusions about what we see in the music and bring our ideas to life boldly, courageously, and without question or apology.

That even if we don’t know what is “right” or “wrong”, we simply must make some decision and commit to it until we come up with a better idea. That abstaining from making a decision is not an option. Nor is delaying our inquiry into the bigger questions while we obsess about intonation and hide behind technique.

What do we think are the most important features of the phrase? Why is it written like it is, and not some other way? What do we think is cool or beautiful? What do we want people to feel, and how can we make that happen?

Will we always get it right? Nope. Will people always agree or like our take on the score? Of course not.

Is it scary? Heck, yeah.

But you know what’s worse? Putting out bland/cautious/tentative/safe ideas (or none at all), and feeling the derision, apathy, frustration, or disappointment of a genuine artist who took the time to form an opinion, and had the courage to put themselves out on a ledge they believed in.

Take action

I suspect some of this is a habit. Our early training is naturally so focused on the mechanics of playing our instrument that the big picture and self-expression often get pushed to the back burner. But I think many would argue that this needn’t become so ingrained a habit.

How can we change things so that young musicians don’t have to wait until their 20’s to learn this lesson?

Sport psychology doesn’t really have the best answers to this question, but I really like Dr. Robert Duke‘s approach to this. Check out his Habits of Musicianship and his Center for Music Learning, and see what you think.

The one-sentence summary

“An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.” ~James Whistler

photo credit: Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M via photopin cc

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19 Responses

  1. The most valuable lesson I learned from Isaac Stern was that if you’re Isaac Stern, you get to bow as crooked as you want. 🙂

    I don’t know HOW to teach kids this stuff. Just by reminding them of it, and letting them know that even though teachers are drilling technique into them for most of their early training, eventually they will be expected to have achieved fluency and will be judged on WHAT they say and not how cleanly they pronounced the consonants and vowels.

    1. Being oneself and stand up to it…what a difficult thing to reach, not speaking about how to teach it!

      I try with my pupils by asking them questions about what they think, feel, … a lot of “why”s about their music…and I forbid them to answer “I don’t know”. I always want them to find an answer, to make up one if they don’t have one ready…the point is having them THINK about things. Then we discuss their answers and make decisions together.

      I think they do are also judged about cleanly they “pronounce vowels”, because you have to understand their speach too; but after having reached that level…there has to be something more, to move people who are listening. If music were only about being perfect…well, my pc can reproduce music just fine…but it’s not the perfect reproduction of notes we look for. We want feelings, we want expression, we want something alive!


  2. I don’t know how, either. But one of my favourite classes at music college was the practical portion of the ‘Introduction to Music Therapy’ module – we just spent an hour each week doing various group improvisation exercises where there was absolutely no right or wrong and no requirement to do anything impressive. Half the time we weren’t even playing our own instruments – we’d sing or play small percussion. The only thing we were supposed to be doing was expressing ourselves and responding to each other. In the context of music college, where the need to be correct can get stifling, it felt like a much-needed reminder of what music’s all about.

  3. I do teach very basic musical concepts to even 4 and 5-year olds (Does this song make you happy or sad? Do long or short bows sound happier?), but at least a certain amount of control of the instrument is necessary to be expressive.
    I agree with you that music is more important than getting the notes, but the rest of the world does not always understand, including many professional musicians in positions of power. We live in an age when music competitions are very common, and very often the judges can only agree on who hits the most notes correctly, and not on who has the most to say musically. The only solution is to perfect both technique and musicianship!

  4. I think it’s also harder to be truly welcoming of error in a classroom, or for a teacher sometimes to recognize that there really, really, really may be no right answer. I’ve had experiences in my own academic history of having teachers — who seriously thought they were being sincere — saying, “Just tell me what you think, there are no wrong answers here!” and when I did, the first thing out of their mouths was, “No, that’s wrong.”

    When you say, “There are no wrong answers,” you have to mean it otherwise what you’ve taught the kids is that the teacher says one thing but doesn’t really mean it and just wants you to parrot what they say. (That’s how I learned to say, “Chopin,” when asked as a piano student kid who my favorite piano composer was, even though my real right answer was either Scott Joplin or Billy Joel.) Not only have you not weakened their instinct to parrot for approval, but you’ve reinforced it. Then, when they run into an Isaac Stern, he really takes them out at the knees.

    The teachers are also swimming upstream, though. Let’s face it, people who work at a place like Juilliard knows well that one mistake will destroy an audition, for all their vaunted talk of the sanctity of music etc. etc. etc. So you do have to be insanely vigilant about that, and unwelcoming of errors.

    I’m not sure that atmosphere can really support creativity. And the old response of, “Well, the truly great could do it yadda yadda,” doesn’t stand. More than a few of my favorite musicians either left the “one mistake and you’re out” classical competition world because their talents had no room there, they were terrified of it and consciously decided to never go back, were emotionally agonized by back-and-forth for years, or were forcibly ejected from it. Seriously, if Mark Wood, Zoe Keating, Billy Joel, and Gabriela Montero were all chewed up and spit out by that world, it’s looking like there may not be a way to teach kids to be creative there at the same time as you teach them to fear error as if it were cancer. I don’t think those two things can happen at the same time.

  5. I think you have to do both: have something to say and be able to say it. Although if you have a clear idea of what you are trying to convey or express, the ability part comes easier — it’s not just an abstract effort toward technical perfection.

    I also think a teacher who grumbles “I don’t have time for this” and walks out isn’t much of a teacher. You work with what’s there.

    1. I also think a teacher who grumbles “I don’t have time for this” and walks out isn’t much of a teacher. You work with what’s there.

      AGREED. Stern was unrealistic if he expected a bunch of youngsters being trained for section positions to have the outlook on music of a middle-aged soloist. If he agreed to do the gig, he should have known what to expect. He was way out of line.

  6. Classical guitar scores tend to have very little – if any – expressive indications. Maybe a few dynamics here & there (though in guitar there’s not much room for nuance between mP & mF). Virtually NEVER phrase slurs (maybe because “slurs” are a technical device, maybe because the scores can get very crowded with voices, fingerings, and other marks – I don’t really know why). So I encourage students to “make up a story” – not necessarily a narrative, but something corresponding to a conversation, emotional flavor, contrasts. Also, the stage just beyond learning mechanics is ripe for coaching (as in drama coach), rather than clinical directions. – All, of course, while encouraging the student’s own interpretation. Sometimes they just need some examples to get started.
    – Another resource can be the era of the piece. What other instruments or genres were dominant at the time? What musical concepts and/or functions were contemporary, and “in the composer’s ear” so to speak. Example: A seminal era for the development of the modern classical guitar was the early 19th century, Paris, Italy especially. Voila! The composers had LOTS of opera “in their ear.”

  7. As always, Noa points us to more great information! Thanks!

    The “Habits of Musicianship” materials are really interesting. There are some great ideas about what we really want to teach beginning musicians (as opposed to instrument operators) and why. The video interviews of a teacher who uses the method illustrate how it can work in practice.

    Also on the Butler School’s Center for Music Learning website is a fascinating study about the methods of artist-teachers. There are videos of lessons with high school and college age students and analysis of the teaching elements shared by three famous teachers and why they work. It’s called “The Nature of Expertise”.

  8. Personally, I think a better question than, “why are you choosing that tempo, what’s your intention, etc.,” is, why do you want to be a musician? How does it serve you? What is your motivation for performing?

    1. Mmmmm, questions like that are often only well understood in hindsight. They’re worth thinking about at the time, but the answers are almost beside the point.

      1. Hi Janis,
        I agree, “questions like that are often only well understood in hindsight.” I am curious though why you said that the answers are almost beside the point. You don’t think it’s interesting to know why we do what we do, or how that may influence our actual “doing?”

        1. I think that just because someone actually gives an answer to that question, doesn’t mean it’s the right one. Mulling the question is worthwhile, but if I ask someone, “Why are you doing X with your life?” there is an almost zero chance that the answer they give will actually be correct in any sense. More often, it will be a rationalization, and we don’t really get why we did something until it’s already been done for a decade or so.

  9. This is an important article. It brought home to me the significance of intention, and how we overlook this very essential part of the musical performing/listening experience. As musicians, we must perform with intention and listen with intention. It is also essential for the audience to listen with intention. I think this element is overlooked and should be brought squarely into the musical experience.

  10. Janis, I hear ya. I guess all I have to add is, in my experience, asking those questions has helped a lot and when I personally am looking for “truth”, there is no correct/right answer. I’m simply inquiring into my experience.

  11. Fantastic article, articulates exactly what is wrong with so many performances, and what makes the memorable ones so great. Thanks for posting!!


  12. On the topic of section players vs. soloists, I have been to multiple presentations by different musicians from Top 5 orchestras giving audition advice for aspiring orchestral players. According to them, you do need to know why that crescendo is there, why there are dashes over the note instead of dots, and what else is going on in the music. It affects aspects of the music that cannot be written: How do you choose your vibrato envelope for that note? Your articulation envelope? The character of the passage drives everything that cannot be written down.

  13. Completely untrue … With all due respect to the
    professor. Stern, asked a bunch of questions at the time were not
    at all suited … I would have a very simple answer to all these
    questions … Music, music and just music … The most important
    thing is to feel the music and let its magic to manage your entire
    being. Everything else will take care of itself, with years of
    experience working with … Enjoy the music and let philosophizing
    philosophers, and never allow yourself to be swayed … Just head
    up and forward, turning neither in the room nor the other

  14. Leave behind the notion that music is essentially mathematical in nature. It has that element, but those who feel and understand place precision behind correctness. Did I hit the right note is secondary to did I make you cry; did you feel it in the pit of your stomach…I know a very good pianist who has the emotional make up of a coaster. I heard a young girl playing in a flea market the other day. I would sooner listen to her than an assortment of “professionals” based entirely on her ability to touch her audience. Did she hold a note a little too long? Yes. And she was absolutely right to do so. Anyone who listens to be critical misses the point. Listen to be enthralled. Listen to be captivated. Listen to be moved. If you believed that love should only be bestowed upon the perfect mate you would never know love. Inhale, close your eyes…and if you have the good fortune to be able to play, play foremost with your heart.

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