What I Learned from Mozart: The Reign of Love by Jan Swafford
I recently finished reading Mozart: The Reign of Love by Jan Swafford. The book is a thorough history of the famous prodigy spanning over 800 pages. Swafford did an incredible job of capturing the life and complexity of Mozart, and I highly recommend that you read it yourself. The internet does not need another biographical summary of the most famous composer of all time; so I will jump right in to what I was able to take away from his story as a musician myself, and as a teacher.
The Importance of Early Exposure and Training: Mozart’s exposure to music from a very young age, under the tutelage of his father Leopold, was crucial in shaping his genius. Granted, potential like Mozart's only occurs a handful of times in a generation, but imagine if the keen observation and structured encouragement of his knowledgeable and proactive father hadn't been there for him! Leopold didn't just praise his talent. He nurtured it, and expected Mozart to honor his gift by working at it and developing it.
The Value of Traveling and Experiencing Different Cultures: Mozart’s extensive travels exposed him to a diverse range of musical styles, techniques, and traditions. Art and music are uniquely human expressions which are reflected differently across cultures and regions. Enrichment beyond one's own cul-de-sac is essential for developing a broader view of how to express oneself, and how to empathize and collaborate with people from other cultures and walks of life. Leopold knew this, and went to great lengths to ensure that Mozart experienced art and music from all over the European continent.
Innovation Begins with Tradition: While he was deeply rooted in the Viennese Classical tradition, Mozart was not afraid to break the mold. His explorations in harmony and structural forms were groundbreaking. However, Mozart did not challenge tradition purely for the sake of doing so. His innovations were rooted in an understanding of and respect for the history and tradition that he stood on. I've long firmly believed that unconventional art is best done inside of, or as a deconstruction of the tradition that it is bucking. Forms must be studied before they can be elegantly broken.
Teach to the Child: Much is said of the genius of Mozart, but less of the genius of Leopold (except maybe by Leopold). Leopold grasped Mozart loosely; guiding him, instructing him, and keeping him accountable all while making allowance for his son's personal tastes and inclinations. I once heard a teacher express their teaching philosophy as "The child may choose what we do, but not what he learns." Leopold seems to have had a similar approach, and it is something I will continue to keep in mind as I teach my students!
Never Stop Learning: Despite his unparalleled genius, Mozart was a lifelong learner. He constantly studied other composers’ works, not as a mere spectator but as an active learner. If Mozart never felt he had learned enough, then how dare any of us? I have continued to take lessons myself, and I do not think I will ever stop. I devote a sizeable portion of my days to my own study of music, and will commit to doing so as long as I am physically able. I hope to pass this attitude on to my students as well.
A Holistic Approach to Teaching: Leopold taught Mozart not only the technical aspects of music but also the emotional, cultural, and historical contexts. He saw to it that from an early age Mozart experienced a near constant regime of hearing live performances. Teaching music goes far, far beyond what a traditional method has to offer. I am increasingly more committed to including listening, history, and mindfulness in my lessons.
Professional Relationships: Mozart had a tumultuous relationship with his employers, especially the Archbishop of Salzburg, which led him to move to Vienna to pursue an independent career. He allowed his ego to offend a multitude of colleagues, and he and Leopold botched a number of opportunities he may have had given a bit more tact. Music is a networking sport, so keep the network strong!
Don't be so Serious: Mozart was known for his playful and sometimes mischievous sense of humor. His letters and personal correspondences often displayed his wit. However, he was also known to be sensitive and could be deeply affected by criticism. He was jovial, loved deeply, and wore his heart on his sleeve. You don't need to be troubled to be great. He seems to have known from an early age that to give of one's self to others is the greatest possible redemption of the human condition.
To Create Great Art, You Must Have Empathy: Mozart had an uncanny ability to understand human emotions, which he beautifully encapsulated in his music. From the complexities of love in his operas to the depths of sorrow in his requiems, he resonated with listeners on an emotional level. Art is created for people, and it must connect to be appreciated.
Mozart's life, while short, was intensely vibrant, and filled with musical achievements that have left an indelible mark on the world for generations. His interactions with those around him—whether family, friends, or professional acquaintances—were marked by passion, sensitivity, and a deep understanding of human nature, which was reflected in his music. If we are to approach anything resembling greatness, I think Mozart would suggest that we must love not only what we do, but those we are doing it for.