One of the benefits of studying at a foreign institution is working with foreign instructors! Our students study Italian with native speakers, and our Furman music students have private lessons and coaching with European teachers as well. Read on to hear from Ben, Courtney, Gracie and Meredith about their experience so far braving the language barrier in the classroom!
Ben Hartman: Music, Furman University SC
Italian musicians seem to approach music from a different perspective than what I’m accustomed to—a more musically involved perspective, really. Our collaborative pianist and vocal coach, Marta, is a great example. While her piano part contains no text, she generally does a significantly better job of conveying the emotion of the poetry than I, even if it’s in German which she doesn’t speak. While I spend a significant amount of time going through and understanding my text and the historical context surrounding my music, Marta seems to just start playing with an intense understanding of all of these things, making even a first-reading incredibly musical. For me, this is usually the last step. I learn my notes and do my best to sing them, learn and memorize my text, and then try to assemble something that delivers a message or tells a story. Working with instructors who are able to deliver a musical message so naturally definitely benefits me as a singer and performer, and shows me the importance of improving that aspect of my performance. Plus, it’s great to have someone who speaks Italian to correct my Italian diction—this is something I need far more than I was previously aware.
Courtney Gale: Music, Furman University SC
My experience with my Italian violin teacher has been both beneficial and challenging. She is from Arezzo and barely speaks any English, but we find ways to communicate throughout the lessons through demonstrations and a lot of Google Translate. Music is often called the universal language, and although I did believe this to be true before coming to Italy, it’s hard to appreciate it until you experience it. You don’t really need to know how to speak the same language to have a conversation through music and that is something really unique. Music, unfortunately, can’t solve the language barrier entirely, and sometimes it is necessary to use Google Translate. However, after taking Italian for several weeks now, translating is becoming more manageable, and I’ve learned how to pick out key words when she is speaking quickly. It has definitely been a learning curve, but I’m really enjoying my lessons so far!
Gracie Honohan: Music, Furman University SC
The combination of learning Italian and studying music with teachers who are Italian has been an interesting and rewarding experience so far. The voice teacher here is originally from California so most of our lesson time is in English, but our coach is Italian. Our teacher and coach will slip into Italian conversations debating different translations of phrases found in the Italian pieces I’m working on, and I’ve found that during each lesson I seem to follow their side conversations more easily than I would have a month ago. My coachings often include little discussion, since music is coached more successfully through demonstration than explanation. I have found that music has almost no language barrier here, maybe because part of it is already in Italian, but also because music is loved across all languages and so explanation is not necessary. It is often easier to understand musical instruction through facial expressions, humming, or sometimes arm movements instead of words.
Meredith Dixon: Music, Furman University SC
My Italian piano experience has been wonderful, but it certainly has not been without challenges. The European teaching methods are fairly different from those of my American instructors, and the language barrier plays a significant role. My American instructor (who is actually German) focuses a great deal on theory. We spend half of the lesson discussing how a certain section plays a role in the harmonic motion of the piece, and how understanding that influences how I ought to play it. A typical teaching moment with my American instructor may go something like this: “This sequence marks the transition from the tonic key to the dominant key. You should crescendo in the third measure so that the peak of the phrase is the pivot chord. Then, take a little time to exaggerate the first chord indicating that we are now in the dominant key.” We never talk like this in my Italian lessons. I am not suggesting that Italian teachers don’t know these kinds of things or don’t think about these things when they play music. The language barrier may play a role in this. This kind of teaching would require not only fluent English, but also English theory vocabulary. My Italian lessons focus on moods of sections or trying to evoke emotions. My Italian teacher uses a lot of images and analogies to describe how he wants me to play. “Play like the waves in the ocean,” he’ll say. Or “Play like a jellyfish,” or “play like you’re putting a baby to sleep.” We also talk more about the mood of the piece than the harmonic motion of the piece. We talk about changing the mood in each section. Ultimately, the goal of both my American (German) instructor and my Italian instructor is the same. They just communicate very differently. I think it has been a valuable experience to get out of my head a little bit and hear the music in a different way.