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Enrico Elisi: Reflections on the Amalfi Piano Program

Now that the Amalfi Piano Program has come to a close, how would you reflect on the value of the festival with regard to the students and faculty who participated, yourself included, and what do you believe future students would gain from participating in the festival? Let me indulge in an exercise of comparison between a summer program such as that of the Amalfi Coast Festival, and a more typical program that is generally offered by any North American institution during the academic year. My observations are not intended as a criticism of one type of program over another.

I would simply like to describe how a summer program is different and explain the ways it can complement and enrich the regular course of academic studies.

First of all, the most obvious starting point is that there is too big a gap between the end of the school year and the beginning of the next one. Schools generally end in April or early May and start up again either in late August or early September. Meanwhile students often find that so much time off in the summer (unstructured time) is often not well used. In this context, the festival represents a goal and a learning opportunity that can provide students with a structure. This is especially helpful to a young person lacking (or in search of a stronger) intrinsic motivation but also benefits anyone else. Throughout the rest of the year students follow rigorous courses in ear training, choir, theory, etc., where they learn to play, sing, and understand intervallic relationships, harmonic relations, analysis, etc. With all the positive outcomes that such training can offer, at the same time students may inevitably develop a sense of compartmentalization about the learning process and, indeed, one can see why. An array of teachers (other than their piano instructors) teaches the different subjects separately (most likely for practical reasons since it would be too costly and, in some cases, confusing, to have two teachers teaching the same subject with a different method). The result is that students have little exposure to other vantage points or opinions on a given subject. They are limited to the perspective of the one teacher who presents that subject or who works with the student on their skills and interpretation. At the Amalfi Coast Festival students do precisely the opposite: they can even decide to play a given piece for two or more teachers if they feel the need for a comparison and the added benefit of contrasting feedback. For this reason, the opportunity is of great value. I think the courage to confront one’s idea with someone else’s carries a profound meaning and offers unexpected ramifications for one’s own development.

What else can I say about this?

Students often assimilate the learning sequence as a “requirement” as any music program certainly has its set of requirements. So, Student X, Jeff, is running from one requirement to another and he is trying to remember many things for a test, a performance, or an exam. Sometimes cramming takes place and there is too little time to properly focus on just a few subjects or even one of them. The summer can help make up for that predicament – by offering more time to focus and deepen one or a few subjects, for instance. So, our student, Jeff, comes here to the Amalfi Coast Festival and visits the Blue Grotto in Capri, for example. Suddenly, he discovers that any Neapolitan boatman can sing “O Sole Mio” or an aria from a well-known opera with a really stunning voice using portamenti and techniques of singing that are often not perfected but are true to the heart and delivered intensely and passionately. Jeff is no longer under the spell of the type of “treadmill-like” winter education mode (no cramming in the summer!), so he can let this experience settle in and he starts to make the connection with how a given musical phrase in his, say, piano repertoire could sound freer and more natural, just like the unstructured plain song he heard from the boatman. Jeff is actually internalizing some connections between what he heard, what he felt when he heard it, and what he knew or studied back at school. Wait a moment: isn’t learning also about making connections? Ha-ha!! While my example may seem naïve and I do not presume to have the ability to describe all the nuances of how learning occurs or how different influences play a role in one’s development, I still think it is possible to draw some connections and illustrate truths with the story I related.

Also, here in Maiori, on the Amalfi Coast, we have a wonderful opportunity to spend time in (and travel to) locations that offer so many different colors and cultural experiences – landscapes that look completely different from the landscapes where North American universities are located. More than a century ago Busoni wrote: “Anyone who will master the language of art must have nurtured his life through the soul.” The concept that growth happens in many different ways, including assimilating experiences that are diverse (even and particularly non-musical ones) is something that everyone understands. I guess I am biased because I am Italian even though I have been an American citizen since 2012. I still maintain that there are profound differences between Italy and other parts of the world (and anyone living in Canada, the U.S., or Korea or China would agree that their countries and their cultures are different from others) so, of course, students have the chance to experience, to feel, and, later, reflect upon the meaning of these differences. By the way, we should not forget that, still, the core repertoire and a great deal of the music pianists study is Euro-centric and the art of cantabile in piano playing comes from singing –which is at the basis of Italian culture (you remember the boatman?).

Another matter to touch upon is the type of “treadmill learning” that I mentioned earlier. Because teaching and learning at any school is generally highly structured, students run from one activity to another and from class to class, often lacking time for observation and self-reflection. Here at the Amalfi Coast Festival there is less structure or rather a more flexible one that allows the learning experience to be properly absorbed, So, yes, in a sense there is far more flexibility and that is when the personality of each individual is given adequate time to let new experiencing sink in. My feeling is that if students try and overly structure this freedom, then they risk missing a key part of the point, which is to experience another culture, at least the summer culture fostered here at the festival.

The festival also offers a very healthy daily schedule: this summer I taught no more than 21 hours in 12 days, allowing my students and me to experience so many other dimensions of the life in Maiori. That made us happier and we felt differently about what we were doing. We could perform in a very different way because of this entire experience; not just because of the classes and concerts we participated in, but also because of the sights, and the chance to hear people singing freely (better than trained students sometimes). It’s the sun, it’s the sea, and if you live in places such as upstate New York as I have, you experience music in a very different way than you do here. It is a cultural experience. When you feel and personally experience the vitality of the area, I think you can gather something more about the types of music written by European composers and you will certainly feel differently too about Italian music (which has influenced a lot of foreign composers, including Mozart, for instance). When you see certain sights and hear the chatter of music in another language, you absorb a part of the culture. You are playing Italian music, or music that was somehow influenced by Italian culture, in Italy. To put this in the right proportions, if I had to sing traditional Chinese opera and I learned it in Italy, it just wouldn’t be the same. I would need to experience its country of origin, I would need to see how the people interact, talk to people, get to know them. Instinctively you absorb something through travel and comparison.

I think the whole experience that we have here is one of great sensitivity. Fundamentally, it is an experience in intuition. If I had to summarize, I would say that you play differently when you are inspired, and for me, after a while, it is less inspiring if all of my work takes place within the confines of a single building, perhaps the one where I teach, practice, and study. Music is more than just “another day at the office.” It is so important for students to have a fresh perspective, to have a chance to breathe different air, and feel the excitement of being many miles away from where they usually study. Both students and teachers are suddenly transported to a different location, and you know…. when you plant seeds, you need to have a rotation. I am convinced that when a teacher teaches in a new place, and students learn in that same new place, there is shared inspiration; they are inspired by the people, the location, and something happens, a spark occurs. Above all, that’s why we enjoy attending this summer festival.

Plus, despite the heat, it is always a treat to go practice after an authentic Neapolitan espresso or stroll along the Italian cobblestone streets on your way to the practice room. There are so many people in the streets and you see so many colorful views as you walk–with the open sea in one direction and the mountains in the other– all while you’re going to practice. You absorb the rhythms around you and you feel like you’re going to practice because you love it. And when you do it gladly, and with a flexible schedule, you can get a lot of benefits out of your practice time that you might not get at home. Instead, you feel like you’re doing what you want to do when you want to do it. Everything is so simple! You wear flip flops and you’re practicing in a beautiful building with frescoed ceilings and in the background is the sound of noisy children and bouncing balls reverberating in the courtyard below and you are now… a character in an Italian opera! It’s about gathering and absorbing something that you can take with you.

So then what do you think the students and faculty take with them when they do leave the festival and go home?

First of all, in a festival like this I think it is wonderful that you can have gala recitals comprised of multiple performance opportunities. In one evening you can hear six or seven styles of playing. That is one beautiful way of absorbing different interpretations. Students also have the ability to both listen to and play in master classes, and they can attend any private lessons that they want, and so sometimes I will have two people participating or listening in a private lesson. Students have the opportunity to think “what is the best for me?” and that is a beautiful thing.

I always recommend that students go to as many events as possible and that they not only study with their regular teacher, should that teacher also be at the festival. Studying with multiple teachers is a good idea, especially in the summer. That is what I encourage my students to do, at least. I also encourage them to ask the same question to different people. If you settle for one (or the very first) answer you haven’t let yourself be exposed to the range of possibilities. It opens your mind. I think it is wonderful when there are so many different kinds of people in one place, because then students are really able to compare for the purpose of gaining more perspectives and knowledge. They may learn more from one person than another because it resonates more with them, but they could reflect upon an opposite idea as well. Students can absorb as much as they can, try out different things, and then choose what is best for them at that particular time. We are not here to pass judgment; we are here to indicate various paths to think about or file for later, which is one of the most beautiful things about the festival.

You know, there is something called boredom, where you only practice and have lessons, and after a while it doesn’t go anywhere and so you ask the teacher “can I have more lessons, because I need to grow.” The point is that if you visit an amazing site instead or go to a special museum or hear a fantastic concert and then go back home to practicing the same piece you were practicing a week before, you sound different already. Your mind is freed. Pianist Joseph Hoffman said that you should practice very hard for 50 minutes and then go for a walk and see beautiful things for an hour and forget what you just did, and then come back to it. There is a way to adjust what you are learning in your mind when you’re away from your instrument. It is all about reflection, and that is also what this festival provides!

Thank you Professor Elisi for your continued contribution to the outstanding festival faculty!

For more information about Enrico Elisi, visit his website at

#Piano #Faculty #EnricoElisi

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