judi

A Short Essay on the Life of a Pianist

After a recent post, I received a request in the form of a comment from a reader, suggesting I might expand on my last paragraph. The last paragraph was as follows:

I wonder how many people embark on serious piano studies because they want to be performers or because they are passionate about music, about the piano and about playing the piano? Public performance is quite a different thing, it’s not for the thin-skinned or the faint-hearted.

The act of performance is an art in itself, distinct from one’s abilities as a musician or as a pianist. It is like any sort of performance art, be it acting, dancing, or walking the tightrope. Actually, walking the tightrope is an analogy I often use for performing solo piano works from memory in public. The only safety nets are the ones we build in during our practising, and I reckon I spend a huge amount of time and energy in my own practice securing the memory. This is basically the equivalent of spending a fortune on insurance policies you hope you never need to use. In his later years, the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter gave up playing from memory and brought his scores, along with a trusted page turner on to the platform with him. He even eschewed the limelight, preferring a muted lamp by the side of the piano. In interviews, he said the time spent memorising or maintaining the memory was no longer worth it, and that he could learn a multitude of new pieces in the time it would have taken him to attend to his memory.

There are those, it seems, who were born to play the piano in public, and I don’t need to go into a list of the greats (past and present) who fulfilled their destinies in this regard. The people who are on the top rung of this particular ladder would need to find playing the instrument, learning and memorising new repertoire and maintaining old repertoire relatively effortless (but not necessarily without a considerable investment of time, like any job). They would also need to be adrenaline junkies to some extent, and to be able to handle travel and spending chunks of time alone. Are the great solo pianists born, and not made?

Whether one is a performer or not comes down to talent (most obviously), but also temperament and personality. The secret of performance is to be able to get out of one’s own way, and to free up the mind so it is not beset by doubts and insecurities (and therefore tensions) during the process of performing. The performer becomes one with the music, one with the instrument. We all know that a memory slip can cause panic. Errors lead to terrors and then to possible paralysis. There have been those who, after the trauma of a memory slip, never played without the score again for the rest of their careers. For others, a memory slip or momentary lapse in concentration can lead to such acute insecurity that another slip ensues, until it is virtually impossible to carry on. It’s all in the mind! Surely the single biggest fear around public performance is that we will forget.

It is perfectly possible to be an amazing pianist without being an amazing musician, and to be a great musician and yet have quite average skills at an instrument. I recall the apocryphal story of the debut of Adele Marcus, one of the most significant and brilliant teachers of piano of the second half of the last century. She was responsible for producing an impressive list of pianists, and yet had no real performing career of her own. It is said that at her debut with the Schumann concerto, so nervous was she that she vomited on the keyboard and left the stage, never to return. This did not mean she was not a PHENOMENAL pianist, able to play with ease the most fiendish pieces in the piano repertoire and to toss off scales in double notes at the drop of a hat. It meant that her vocation was as a teacher of the piano, not a performer. Think of one of the other great teachers of the era, Maria Curcio – not known as a performing pianist, at all. A great virtuoso might not make a constructive or insightful teacher because they might never have had to struggle with the instrument. Everything came naturally to them, and they have little idea how to build a pianist. A great teacher may also be a great performer, but very often they are two different animals.

When I look at the students who have gone through my hands over the years, I have had the gamut. Do I look at the small handful who are now making careers as concert pianists as being better than, or more successful than others who have thriving piano teaching studios or those who decided to pursue more general musical careers, or those who played for a time and then stopped? No, not at all! The elderly person who wants to keep up their piano playing because it brings them joy and keeps their mind active, the lawyer who can’t live without Beethoven sonatas even though he has very limited time to practise – these are just as valid (no more or less so) in the grand (no pun intended) scheme of things than the talented child who absorbs music like a sponge or the tertiary level students about to play their practical exams. Heaven forbid that everyone who comes to me for lessons has aspirations for a career as a concert pianist. Imagine a world overtaken by concert pianists! What a nightmare thought!

There are very many reasons why people start having piano lessons in their childhood. Those who are destined to be pianists will usually (although not always) take to it like a duck to water and race ahead. For those others, many find solace in the act of playing, a channel for self expression, an appreciation of the music, and the deep satisfaction of mastering an instrument. For myself, it was a burning passion to play the piano that, for various reasons, had to wait a bit. I think I was just as smitten with music itself as I was with the piano, and perhaps my yearning to play had its roots in the need (yes, need) to express music through my fingers. Embarking on tertiary level piano studies at the RCM was in many ways an irrational decision, based on an overriding passion for the subject (not necessarily for performance, though – this came later as a necessary evil).

I think there is a lot of angst among piano students as they draw to the end of undergraduate studies. Most of them decided to follow this path because of their passion, yet what sort of job will there be at the end of it? Should I be a performer or a teacher, or a bit of both? How will I support a family, or even pay the rent? This crisis of identity is common, and there are big decisions to be made. As for the “performer” dilemma, it doesn’t matter how much you may enjoy doing it and feel like this is the life for you, if you haven’t excelled in exams and college competitions by your final year, you need to see this as some sort of barometer for how you will stack up against the fierce competition in the professional world. Remember – nobody thinking of booking Vladimir Horowitz ever asked his agent if he had a doctorate…

Unless you love the idea of teaching piano, then the realities of this path may not always be glamorous. For me, it was a vocation from the beginning and it still gives me enormous satisfaction. Yet we don’t need to be so cut-and-dried about things – a portfolio career is absolutely the way of the future for conservatory graduates, and modern institutions are preparing their students for this (along with business management and other tools I wish I had learned back then). Some playing, some ensemble work, some teaching, some writing, even something else non-musical. Why not? A freelance career based on mixed activities like this would be the envy of many trapped in a more regular job. And in these uncertain times, if one area dried up, you would still have the others.

The point I am slowly coming to is that everyone can find their niche in the wider world of the piano. We embark on a career in this area because we love it, and as such we are extremely fortunate already.

judi

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