Not a proper job

Being a professional musician is regarded by many as a highly self-indulgent activity: doing something you love and enjoy, and being lucky enough to get paid for it. The long training, which often begins early in childhood (I started taking piano lessons aged five or six), and can go on for many years post-college, conservatoire or university, is reduced to the preparation for a hobby, for clearly music is not “real” work.

Talk to any professional musicians, or music teachers, or indeed anyone involved in classical music, and you will find highly professional and committed people who believe making music is an important cultural gift to be shared with others. But many of us also wish our art and craft was properly valued by the community which we aim to serve. Music teachers are famously underpaid (a recent survey revealed that the average rate for an hour-long private music lesson is around £25), and only the very top flight musicians can secure top flight fees for their performances. A handful are lucky enough to gain handsome recording deals.

I am often told I am “very lucky” to have turned my “hobby” into a business. Never mind the hours of work I put in every week, for which I am not paid, to ensure my studio runs efficiently and my lessons are successful, meeting the needs of each individual student (and they are all different!) every week. Apparently, I am also very “lucky” to be so “talented”. Many people forget that talent has to be nurtured: there are only a very few people out there who are so naturally talented that they do not need to put the hours in. The rest of us work hard, for hours and hours, days and months and years to feed the talent. A serious, committed professional pianist practises for five or six, or more, hours a day to ensure, in performance, that one never plays a wrong note, mindful always that one is only as good as one’s last performance or review. Aside from that, there is all the painstaking work to be done away from the keyboard: reading, analysing and annotating scores, marking up fingering schemes which, once learnt, remain embedded in the memory and the fingers forever. Note-bashing is simply no substitute for the hard graft of learning new work in depth: working, with pencil and score, cutting through the music to the heart of what it is about. Living with a piece to find out what makes it special, studying style, the contextual background which provides invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted. The endless striving to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time. There is new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revised, overhauled, finessed, or just simply kept going, a vast repertoire “in the fingers” which can be made “concert-ready” for some kind of performance within a matter of days, depending on one’s schedule.

Then there is the travelling: the Sisyphean accumulation of airmiles, nights spent in faceless hotels, sometimes a different hotel every night, fine, historic cities viewed through the fatigue of travel, for a pianist, playing an unfamiliar instrument in a foreign concert hall of uncertain acoustic. Having to produce a faultless performance on the concert platform every time. Never having permission to be less than perfect; always feeding the artistic temperament. To begin every practice session with the question “What can I do that’s different to the others?”, the pressure to achieve matched only by the pressure to sustain.

And one is not paid, retrospectively, for all the practise and preparation time. Concert fees are not huge, and sheet music and clothing and travel have to be paid for. And the instrument upon which one works, day in day out, must be maintained with regular visits by the piano tuner. Superstar soloists, like Chinese poster-boy-pianist Lang Lang, have an entourage of staff to support and cosset, but most international performers take responsibility for themselves, turning up on the appropriate day, with very little time beforehand to get to know the instrument. In the old days, one selected one’s instrument at Steinway Hall or the Yamaha showroom, it was prepared to one’s particular specification (there is a lovely scene in Bruno Monsangeion’s film about Sviatoslav Richter, showing him choosing a Yamaha in the showroom in Japan), and it travelled with one to engagements. These days, the soloist arrives at the venue and hopes for the best, knowing that most concert Steinways or Yamahas are largely the same.

During term time, when I work eight to ten hours a week teaching, I am “on duty” much of the time, my head full of information about my students, where they are in their learning, what needs to be done with them at forthcoming lessons and beyond, assessing which students will be ready for exams and when, and then remembering to do the online entries. At the most basic level, when I’m teaching back-to-back for three afternoons a week, there is rarely even time to dash to the loo or make a drink. I need a butler to answer the door and a maid to keep my teacup replenished! Sometimes, my mother comes up to stay and helps me by greeting students, chatting up parents, and making me tea. But I often don’t even have time to drink it, and at the end of the afternoon, the table in my piano room is littered with half-drunk cups of cold Lapsang Souchong. After three or four hours of explaining and demonstrating, listening and critiquing, I am so tired I literally cannot speak and often want to simply lie on the sofa in complete silence for an hour or more, preferably with a chilled glass of something in my hand. But I also have a family to look after: there’s homework to be supervised, and taxi-ing to Scouts or other after school clubs, and dinner to be cooked.

That is not to say that I don’t enjoy my work as a piano teacher, because I do. I enjoy it immensely: it is rewarding (seeing students improve and achieve), entertaining, challenging, emotional – but don’t let anyone kid you it’s easy!

Aside from the teaching, I also need to do my own practising. I am fortunate, as an amateur, albeit a very serious amateur, that I am not enthralled to the fickleness of audiences and reviewers; instead, I am my own fiercest critic and I set myself extremely high standards. Putting the hours in at the keyboard every day, if possible, is crucial to my continuing improvement and my ongoing ability to tackle the bigger and more complex works of the standard repertoire. Many people seem to think I just sit at the keyboard and the music flows magically out of my fingers. If only! For example, I have worked, virtually every day for several hours a day, for six weeks on Chopin’s First Ballade, and I am now up to page 9 (where the iconic second theme makes its grandiose reappearance), and the real pyrotechnic passages still await me. Alongside the Chopin, I have three other reasonably complex works, which may or may not form part of my diploma programme, to be learnt, finessed and kept going. I enjoy the work hugely: it is stimulating, both mentally and physically, but it is also very tiring.

When I go to a concert, I am more than aware of the hours of work and study the soloist will have put in to produce a performance lasting just under two hours. Learning some of the workhorses of the piano repertoire has given me a much greater appreciation of the amount of work that is required to be concert-ready: I worked for over eight months to learn one – just one! – of Chopin’s Etudes, and even after I’d performed it, at which point one might be able to consider the work “put to bed”, I still found things I wanted to do to it – and will go on doing so. I doubt the Chopin Ballade will be anything near to concert-ready before Christmas. Thus, when I go to a performance and witness a memory lapse or errors, I can only sympathise with the performer. Considering the amount of material one is required to hold in one’s head and fingers at any given time, is it any wonder that sometimes the mechanism stalls?

So the next time you’re at a concert, or listening to a performance on the radio, spare a thought for the hours of effort and commitment the performers have put in, for relatively little recompense, to produce that sublime sound, and be thankful that we are able to share in that effort and that unique cultural gift.