Randall Ruback  Musician, Educator, Composer, Writer
From Artisan to Artist
Randall Ruback
“A good teacher does not force their insights upon the student, but rather, brings out the depths of understanding they already possess.”
While performing in Israel with the Haifa Symphony Orchestra in the mid-nineteen eighties, providence led me to work with a consummate musician and teacher: Dafna Raphael. Dafna was to accompany me on the piano in producing an audition tape for a teaching position for which I had applied. At our initial rehearsal, upon completing the first movement of the Albrechtsberger Concerto, I turned to Dafna, anticipating her nod of assent, only to receive a straight-faced stare and no nonsense reply of: “That said nothing at all.”   Stunned, but humbled by the sincere honesty of her remark, I listened on... That moment, the soloist became the student.

What had started as a week of intensive rehearsals, followed by a recording session, soon transpired into weekly rehearsals in Petach Tikvah. I stole away from my job with the symphony to catch every possible moment with her larger-than-life personality and towering artistry. As time passed, the initial goal of making the tape was surpassed by the process of learning. I intuitively recognized that I was at a critical juncture in my work, and that the process itself was essential to my life and being as an artist.

In one early morning rehearsal, only a few measures into my solo line, Dafna stopped her accompaniment abruptly and said: “That is not the way we agreed to play this.” Eyeing the music, I looked for missing details, a longer note here, a shortened note there, a crescendo... “OK, let’s begin again,” I said, only to be stopped soon after for a second time, and in the same direct manner. Confused, I stared all the more intensely at the notes and expression marks on the page, concentrating with all my might, so as not to miss any details - only to be stopped again. Sensing my frustration, Dafna proceeded to redirect my attention in the following way:

She asked me to see if I could picture a scene or story in the notes. I was silent. Then she looked up the composer’s name, “Wagenseil”, in a German dictionary. “Wagenseil means wagon wheel,” she mused. She then proceeded to play the introduction and asked if it reminded me of anything. I thought it  sounded like a procession. Soon evolved a story, The  Procession of King Wagon Wheel, a man with a wagon wheel in place of a peg for a leg! Finally, she directed me to march in place with the introduction, moving my body, inhaling and exhaling in time. Then, taking a rhythmic breath, I soared into the spirit of the music!
From within the sounds, I sensed the relative weights, tensions, and inner relationships between the notes, as one idea evolved easily into another and another. What were outward expression marks, accents, slurs, crescendi, and other graphic symbols, many handwritten into the part, were now experienced ‘a priori’ as part of an unbroken continuity. Each sign, while distinct on paper, became an outgrowth of an overall organic development. From within the spirit of the music, it seemed I had tapped directly into the mind and reality of the composer; the notation, like hieroglyphs, the outward guides to unlocking a living entity. The phrasing grew, recalling, retelling, and anticipating melodic forms, from one moment to the next, like when an author is writing a book, the characters come alive, take on a life of their own, and being themselves, the story unfolds. I felt possessed by the music; I lived the notes in mind and body, as the notes propelled me onward by some magic of their own. Who or what was directing the activity seemed a mystery. It was as if there was an oscillation between two sides of me, the ingrained skill of the artisan, and the natural spontaneous reactions to the impulses that I felt taking form. Dafna facilitated my experiencing the music with my whole body, a concept very new to me; a concept which I feel should be incorporated into more teaching. And so we proceeded, polishing the work to perfection, making the music my own; through the tools of imagination, motivation, and enlivening the senses.

Upon my return to the United States, I was confronted with a paradox. While I already had a considerable repertoire under my belt, having performed as a professional musician, both nationally and internationally, and studied at prestigious schools, this one piece of music had something special about it, in the way it was realized and understood so deeply. Yet, I could not verbalize what it was that had made such a difference to my musicianship, and was convinced that a greater understanding of the dynamics of my process could only further my growth and development. So with simple songs, memorized, and performed in the darkness of unlit practice rooms, I now crafted organic melodies, note by note.  Beginning with the opening motive, I carried forth and unified pieces under the auspices of simple ideas, each work a world unto itself.

The gifts of my mentor were the catalyst that helped me to realize the depths of understanding that I already possessed.
Instinctively, with inspired feeling, movement, and motion, I learned to teach myself. Slowly, piece by piece, I refined my musical instincts, while yielding to the music within.

What baffled me the most about my discoveries was how truly inspired music-making had eluded me for so many years. Had the educational system failed me, or had I failed the system?  So much of my education suddenly appeared fragmented, without link or common ground of thought. Everything I had learned seemed so compartmentalized, divorced from performance, and without relationship to real music-making. The ‘old way’ had died in me, and I wanted to make the system of education better, relevant, and more efficient. I sought principles of learning consistent with the highest ideals of our profession, derived directly from artistic experiences.

I also wondered: were these experiences mine alone, or were they shared by others? Were there any models from outside our profession which might yield valuable insight into the process of artistry? Do artists have a different way of “seeing”? Why is it that even great artists rarely speak of arousing the dynamic state of mind from which their inspired conceptions are born?

So I committed myself to developing a philosophical framework, a thinking for the way artists work; concepts, names and categories, to assist in facilitating artistic knowing and musical feeling. Of one thing I was certain, for me the traditional approach, its methodologies, and separatist attitudes, seemed to disengage me from the music. Likewise, for all of its practical purposeful uses, a predominantly external approach seemed to disassociate the individual from an inward sense of the notes, and the moment by moment instincts and motivations that lead to the music.

I never forgot the stark contrast of that first day of my artistic awakening, between the mechanical attitude I had taken toward the written page, versus the inward process I then experienced, where artist and work are one. So began a fascinating journey, with many surprising results, which I share with students, and continue to learn from others.

© 1998 Randall Scott Ruback

This installment is the introduction to the author's forthcoming book of the same name.

Randall Scott Ruback
ITA Journal Volume 27, Issue 1 (Winter/January 1999)