Demanding Voices

Artistic mentors let their pupils’ latent talent and sensibility shine

Melissa C. Wong

In 1725, the Austrian composer Johann Fux wrote the parable-based instructional manual “Gradus ad Parnassum” about the composition of a fugue. “I want to come to you, venerable master, in order to be introduced to the rules and principles of music,” says the student Josephus. Josephus is aware of the responsibility he is laying on his teacher: “You are indeed taking on yourself a heavy task,” he says. ”How much care and foresight must he who would enter upon this art employ before he dares to decide, for musicians and poets are born such.” For Fux, the prospective musician has his talents predetermined at birth.

This age-old parable was dusted off for modern use in a speech on art mentorship by Israeli composer and the Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music Chaya Czernowin. Czernowin teaches composition in the Music Department, but she hardly considers herself an instructor. “Oh no, you can never teach anybody how to be an artist,” she says. “You can only bring out that which is already within.” To mentors like Czernowin, pedagogy in the arts is less about technical instruction than it is about personal transformation. An artist’s work can be seen as a narrative about discovering a truth within himself, and each specific work as conveying a part of this transformation. Though the artist must decide on the arc of this transformation for himself, mentors are crucial guides along the path to conviction in one’s own work.

“TRUTH IS A FEELING”

The most fundamental task of an artistic mentor may be to aid their pupil in exploring his emotions in the greatest depth possible. The Creative Writing Program in the English Department institutionalizes mentorship in specific categories within creative writing. Students who apply to write a senior thesis in creative writing are assigned professors who write fiction, poetry, nonfiction, screenwriting, or playwriting in a professional capacity. In creative writing classes, students meet in small seminars. “I like to run the workshop so that the critiquing of each student’s original work is as productive as it can possibly be. I encourage the students to try to stay away from false praise, while at the same time being mindful of the delicacy of critiquing someone’s work,” says Briggs-Copeland Lecturer on English Darcy Frey, who teaches seminars on non-fiction writing. In Frey‘s ideal class, students would receive constructive feedback without having to worry about hurtful criticisms levied at their work. Frey believes that non-fiction pieces often reflect the feelings or beliefs of the author, and worries that seemingly impersonal criticism can have an emotional impact.

In fiction writing, a student’s emotional stake in his work is clearer. “I try to draw out my students not just intellectually, but emotionally,” says Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in fiction Amy Hempel. “I encourage the deepest level of emotion in their work. I want them to take a risk; there’s no room for being superficial.” Readers cannot connect with feigned emotion in fiction—the most successful pieces of literature often conjure up strong sentimental reactions in their audience. While there can be potential for a deep emotional connection when writing and editing these pieces, Hempel highlights that this is not always the case. “I don’t care if what my students are writing is true, but it has to have a truthfulness and feeling that is believable,” she says. For Hempel, truth is a feeling, not a fact. A writer’s ability to evoke something in a piece of writing is not necessarily connected with that writer’s having experienced that thing firsthand. Sincerity of emotion is at the forefront of what Hempel aims to impart to her students.

As such, Hempel can guide her students to discovering only the things already inside themselves. “This is not a collaboration by any means,” she says. “My job is simply to edit and guide the student as the work evolves.” The mentoring process cultivates the emotional perception of student-writers, but leads to no universal tools for good writing. Sensibility cannot be taught.

CUSTOM TAILORED

I’m chatting with both Music Department graduate student Stefan Prins and Czernowin. When I ask about the nature of Prins’s individual lessons, he glances affectionately at Czernowin. “My individual sessions with Chaya are a special combination of very serious and quite funny,” says Prins. “You know”, he says emphatically, “Chaya is the reason that I came to Harvard.” After completing a master’s class in composition analysis with Czernowin in Israel, Prins knew that he wanted to stay connected with her. “I got along with her so well and she had such interesting things to say about my music,” says Prins. “I decided that I had to take a chance and try for it.” On the topic of the individual lessons themselves, Prins describes his personal experience as a journey. “We listen to things that I’m making, and Chaya is the lens that helps me focus in on what I’m doing. By the end of a lesson, we end up in a place that we neither of us expected to be at,” he says. Czernowin smiles. “I’m a very dynamic composer. People come to me when they want to change their style.”  She pauses for a moment, and then continues. “The relationships that I have with my students are very different. Artists come in all kinds, and some artists need different things. Some artists need confidence, and some just need a wall to resist. It is in this resistance that they find out who they are,” she says. The difference between the mentor’s and student’s perspective is a constructive force in pedagogy. This very personal aspect of each lesson helps Czernowin extract emotion and creativity from her students. “Nothing is really harsh or irrelevant because we’ve set up a trusting situation in which everything can be considered,” says Timothy McCormack, another graduate student in the Music Department. Because each of the lessons is tailored to specific students, they feel more inclined to share parts of themselves that would not have shared otherwise.

Undergrads in the department have control over which music professor will be their mentor. Students in the composition program take lessons with every professor in the department for one year, and then are free to choose one of the professors to mentor them for the remainder of their time in the program. The frequency of these one on one lessons varies. “In the beginning, you have to meet every week,” says Czernowin. “You have to figure out the best way to work with a student, and everyone has to adjust. This takes time.” Initially, it may be unclear what a given student actually needs in terms of guidance.

These individual lessons are accompanied by small seminars in which students learn to analyze compositions. “The music department has been fostered very warmly by Chaya and Stephen,” says Prins. “It feels like I have a new family.” McCormack believes that this spirit of community is crucial to his learning. “I find that I really trust her, and trust is another hugely important factor in a successful mentorship,” he says. “This is because if I trust her, I’m very open to her input.” Honest interaction between the student and instructor is necessary in the search for truth in art conception.

WISER LENS

Hempel and Czernowin both have mentors who they recognize had a strong influence on their artistic style. “Gordon Lish was my mentor when I was at Columbia [University],” says Hempel. “He taught me everything that I know.” In 1985, Hempel published an article in Vanity Fair entitled “Captain Fiction” in which she details her experiences in Lish’s seminar. “He ended up publishing me, which was highly unusual,” Hempel reflects. It is not uncommon for students and their mentors to stay in touch post-graduation, but the relationship between them evolves over time. “After graduation, it becomes more of a friendship,” says Hempel. “I sometimes help their work get seen by agents and editors—it’s like matchmaking,” she says. This realm is perhaps where students need the most support.

Czernowin also holds her hold mentors in high esteem. “My oldest mentor in Israel was like family,” she says. “I’m still mostly in touch with all of my old mentors.” Mentors stay relevant in part because artists need guidance long after they complete their formal education. “Composers need support for many years because composing is a very difficult thing to do. It is especially hard to find a job as a composer these days,” Czernowin says. However, the mentor-student relationship also runs both ways. “I learn more from helping my students create than I end up teaching them,” she says. The mentorship process clarifies a teacher’s priorities for herself.

“Let me clarify,” says Czernowin. “There comes a point in time where the student must be independent. You have to learn to be your own mentor.” At first, this would seem to be a contradiction. After all, it is not uncommon for students to reach out to their former professors for support after graduation. “It is important to move on to make sure that the voice coming through the art is your own, not your mentor’s,” she says. “You need more than one perspective. It is not about the mentor, it’s about you,” she adds. In the ideal case, the mentor’s perspective on a piece does not mask or overpower the original artist’s own perspective. Rather, the mentor’s perspective provides a lens through with the student can study their work and, by contrast, determine how to proceed.

MINE THE DEPTHS

To Czernowin, teaching composition allows her to spread a mode of artistic and emotional release.  “I was 13 when I first started composing. I was going through puberty, and my music was the only way to express what I needed to say,” she says. Czernowin laughs quietly to herself, and then grows very serious. “I was playing piano at the time, and it wasn’t enough for me to play other people’s pieces. They didn’t say what I wanted them to say, what I needed them to say.” According to Czernowin, teaching art has to do with who the artist is, and how what they’re trying to say is unique. She says that mentoring is essentially about helping an artist find a voice to express those thoughts or feelings that cannot be easily communicated.

“‘Teaching’ is not a good word to use,” says Prins. “It should be something else.” Prins makes this distinction perhaps because the advice provided by Czernowin extends far beyond technical instruction. What Prins and Czernowin seek is intangible. Prins explains that he and Czernowin rarely talk about the technical aspects of a piece of music. “We work with scores and talk about passages, but that’s it. The things that we talk about are on another level—a philosophical level. It’s the search for your own language and what you want to say,” he says. To Prins, however, a good coach should not give too much advice. The coach should be nothing more than the lens through which a student can examine the personal narrative in his art. “It is like the instructor is handing you a set of keys, but you have to realize which key the lock is for,” he says.

Hempel agrees. “I’m not teaching them much, I’m merely just bringing out what they have access to in their minds and imagination,” she says. She goes on to explain that her main priority is to help her students locate themselves on a spectrum of creativity. “When they feel that they have hit a roadblock, it’s about dragging out in them what they don’t know is useful yet,” she says. The process of self-discovery is not always fluid. It is the duty of a mentor to assist the student in finding ways to express what is within them when it is not always clear how to do so.

—Staff writer Charlotte D. Smith can be reached at charlottesmith@college.harvard.edu.

Tags

Recommended Articles