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School of Music

Juilliard Professor Talks Teaching Style, Memorization and High Expectations in a Q&A Led by BYU Music Students

Robert McDonald Reveals the Keys to Teaching and Playing from the Heart in a Performance and Q&A for the BYU School of Music

The Encore Music Lecture Series* gives students a chance to interact with world-class musicians, and Robert McDonald certainly qualifies. He shared his compassionate approach to teaching and his in-depth knowledge of what it means to be a performer with students after a stirring performance at BYU.

Over the course of his life, McDonald has played with top orchestras and string quartets. He has performed as a soloist and chamber musician in North and South America, Asia and Europe, and he has achieved many accolades. In addition to his illustrious performing career, he is a gifted educator who has taught at Juilliard for 24 years and at the Curtis Institute of Music for 16 years.

On February 4th, BYU invited the celebrated performer and professor to a lecture to perform for the School of Music. Students were able to follow up Professor McDonald’s visit with a live Q&A post-performance.

Robert McDonald on the big screen, answering student questions.

Students asked how McDonald developed his personal approach to teaching. He shared his philosophy that each student is unique and instructors need to prioritize “teaching who's in front of you— not just teaching formulas.” He said that the key was being humble, and “trying to see as clearly as possible [the person] you are teaching in the time that one is working together.”

This idea of tuning into the needs of students as an educator and honoring differences came up several times throughout the course of the Q&A. McDonald addressed each student that asked a question by name, and was personal with his answers, showing that he truly believes in connecting with ‘the one’.

When asked about the tradition of memorizing pieces for performance, McDonald described the difference between “playing from the heart” and “playing by heart.” For him, a performer must truly understand a piece of music if they want to perform it, but sometimes the stress of memorizing can be an unnecessary pressure and can take away from the pleasure of playing.

He isn’t opposed to performers bringing their music on stage, but he said: “if you don't know the music and you're on stage with it, then that's a problem.” Sheet music should never be used as a substitute for actually knowing the piece. The choice to put aside the tradition of memorization is personal, but McDonald said to “make sure that it's not a way out from your devotion to the score.”

Students also asked about McDonald’s expectations for his students. He described his experience as a first-year student at the Curtis Institute when his professor at the time wasn’t happy with his preparation over the summer. He told McDonald he was probably too old to pursue this career, and that he had better shape up or he couldn’t continue at the school.

This experience impacted how he treats his own students — he is careful with his feedback and acknowledges everyone has a different capacity. He said, “We do try not to throw people in where they're going to drown, but there is a sense that you have responsibilities.” Students need to be committed.

This point struck Joyanne Bills, a piano performance major who attended. She said, “If that's what you're going to do, it's a commitment of time and it's a lot of pressure, but if you really want that, then you have to make the sacrifices.” Professor McDonald finished his lecture by expressing appreciation for BYU’s atmosphere and the focus of the students.

Robert McDonald’s call to compassionately deal with students as individuals brings to mind the Savior’s commitment to each one of us. Truly getting to know individual players and pieces of music is crucial to playing piano well.

*previously known as the Oscarson Lecture Series

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