A gift arrives from America: a pianist colleague has kindly sent me Barbara Alex’s handsome new book about Hungarian piano professor Gyorgy Sebok, who died in 1999. Like all Sebok’s former students, I love to be reminded of how he spoke. He had a gift for aphorism which I’ve never heard equalled, but that doesn’t do him justice; what I mean is that he had a genius for insight and was able to express it with memorable pungency.
Barbara Alex’s book is really a collection of Sebok’s wise sayings, elegantly displayed on the pages with the help of some imaginative typography. It’s rather like reading a collection of Zen proverbs, and indeed there are things in common between the two. ‘Play the contents and not the container’, Sebok said. ‘Teaching freedom is a self-defeating thing, because one has to become free. That cannot be taught. It is the learner’s job.’ ‘Don’t concentrate, but rather be concentrated by the music.’ ‘To play louder, you must hear more.’ ‘You cannot play now and think later.’ ‘Music is understanding in action.’
Such remarks were great when they arose naturally in the course of a lesson, and were often said with a twinkle in the eye. When I read the isolated comments in the book, I can’t help wondering how they will strike people coming to them ‘cold’. Will Sebok’s remarks, pinned to the page like rare butterflies, seem enlightening or tantalisingly enigmatic?