Should certain repertoire be “off limits” to amateur pianists?

 

Occasionally I and indeed other musician friends and colleagues have come across the suggestion from other professional musicians and even some teachers that certain repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the professionals and should be left well alone by “amateurs”. This includes the final piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, the Goldberg Variations, Chopin’s Piano Sonatas, Balakirev’s ‘Islamey’, Ravel’s ‘Gaspard’ and all of the big well-known piano concertos. The suggestion is that no amateur could possibly ever be “good enough” to master any of these great works and that the professional “know” how to play them best. Conversely, I recently I came across a blog post describing a suite of miniature variations as music for the “amateur pianist”, the implication being that no pro would touch it (in fact, the variations in question were premiered by pianist Melvyn Tan and have subsequently been performed by him to much acclaim: more on the blurring of the boundaries between professional and amateur later in this post….)

I posed the question “Should certain repertoire be off limits to amateur pianists?” in a piano group I belong to on Facebook and it was met with a stream of lively and vociferous comments. Most people agreed that no repertoire should be off limits to anyone, with the proviso that we should all be aware of our own limitations and select repertoire which we are capable of mastering. There were interesting comments about bad performances of great music by so-called amateur musicians and how this appropriation of the great composer’s great works shows a lack of respect towards the music, but the general consensus was that amateurs should have the freedom to play whatever they like. Indeed any musician should have the freedom to play whatever they like: music was written to be played and fundamentally it matters not a jot whether one plays badly in the privacy of one’s living room or beautifully to a paying audience. It is about exploring and loving this wonderful repertoire.

I have occasionally taught adult amateur pianists and I find their ambitions to master Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto sometimes have to be tempered by their limitations. A good teacher will guide and advise, suggesting repertoire that is achievable so that the student gains experience, develops technique and musicality and above all enjoys playing the music, rather than growing frustrated by it because it is too challenging. However, I also believe that we shouldn’t always play within our comfort zone, and I think it’s important to have one or two pieces in one’s repertoire that are challenging and “difficult” (for me currently this is Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata). Learning and playing outside our comfort zone pushes us, forces us to problem-solve, tests technique and musicianship, and equips us with useful learning tools which can be applied to easier repertoire. Alongside this, it is also important to have repertoire that is doable, and even some that is “easy”. In fact, it is hard to play easy music well (often because there is nowhere to “hide” in easy music): the simplest pieces played beautifully can be the most exquisite. This brings me back to the suite of variations which have been labelled “for amateur pianists” by another blogger, thus suggesting that this is not the kind of music a “professional” would touch. How ridiculous! Anyone can play this repertoire, and anyone can gain enjoyment and pleasure from it.

In 2013, I co-founded a London-based group for adult amateur pianists which meets regularly for informal performance opportunities and to socialise. Pianists of all ages and abilities are members and everyone clearly adores the piano and its repertoire. Occasionally people have come to performance platforms and stumbled through a favourite piece or attempted something that is clearly beyond their capabilities, or not ready for a public performance. Here it is a case of “knowing one’s limits” rather than feeling that repertoire is “off limits” – and I always advise people to select music they know well and feel comfortable with for such performance events. At the other end of the scale, some members of my piano group are fine pianists and seasoned performers. Many have attended music college or achieved external performance diplomas (such as DipABRSM, ATCL, LRSM, LTCL and FRSM) but have chosen to pursue another career path (we have an actuary, several doctors and scientists, a lawyer and video games designer amongst our members). These “amateur” pianists play to what most people would consider a “professional standard” and if one were to do a blind performance of these people and some professional pianists, I doubt anyone could tell the difference. At this point the boundaries between amateur and professional become extremely blurred and the only difference is the career choice and the pay cheque.

The joy of being an amateur pianist is that one can play whatever one wants to because one is not in the thrall of concert trends, agents, promoters and the mortgage/rent. Many professional pianists envy this freedom because it puts one in touch with the real reason why music was written – to be played and enjoyed. As a professional, it is important to retain that joy and excitement in the music to avoid concert giving and performing turning into a chore (and the best performers, professional or amateur, will transmit that joy and excitement in their playing).

So go ahead, play what you like. Love your piano and its glorious and hugely varied repertoire. And if you are looking for something a little different to try from contemporary piano repertoire may I suggest the following:

Variations for Judith – a set of variations based on the Chorale ‘Bist du bei mir’ (Stolzel arr. J S Bach) with contributions by Richard Rodney Bennett, Tarik O’Regan, Thalia Myers and Judith Bingham.

A Little Book of Hours – Peter Sculthorpe. Don’t be put off by the description “elementary”. These seemingly simple pieces take care and thought to shape their spare melodies and unusual harmonies.

The Complete Piano Etudes – Philip Glass. I’ve just discovered these works by the master of American minimalism. Technically and musically challenging and very satisfying to play

Unicorn in Rainbows – Alison Wrenn. A beautiful short work infused with jazz harmonies, lingering chords redolent of Bill Evans, and subtle rhythms.

Please feel free to join this discussion by adding your comments below. Suggestions for repertoire are also very welcome.

3 thoughts on “Should certain repertoire be “off limits” to amateur pianists?”

  1. As mentioned above, no repertoire should be off limits to anybody.
    Any good pianist would know what his or her strengths are.
    I have quite short hands, so I know Rachmaninoff and certain Brahms are just off limits for me.
    I also know that the Schubert Sonata in A is also a very difficult one for me, due to the technical difficulty in the later movements. However it doesn’t deter me from attempting at least the 1st and 2nd movements. Would I play this in an exam? Perhaps not. But it’s not “off limits” to me.
    Those who say so are just trying to be elitist.
    Piano is for all to enjoy, and it’s for everyone to interpret how they see fit (within the norms of the composer’s style of course )

  2. I really do not like the use of “professional” to mean what I would call “concert-pianist”, implying, of course, a pianist who is so good that he can give concerts.There are many “professionals” out there who might make a living out of playing the piano and yet be inferior to many an amateur. There are also many amateurs who just do not happen to have persued a career, and so are, though amateurs, concert-pianists.

    I would fit into the bill of an amateur who is not a concert-pianist.

    Many of the pieces you mention as being possibly off limits I would never attempt, but not because I am no good, but because I do not really like them. I do, however, go through some Chopin Etudes. Would I attempt to perform them? I do not think so, as I use them as… Etudes! Why that? Because they are interesting and working on them never gets boring.

    I do not know if you are familiar with the piano music of Serge Bortkiewicz. I have lately been working on his Etude op 15/8 which is very hard, principally to read, but oh! the results! I might even be able to perform it by the end of the year. It certainly has made other pieces, that before seemed impossible, easier. I rather suspect it would be off-limits.

    As for easy pieces… I agree and find some of them very hard to do properly, as the slightest error jumps out and calls for attention.

Comments are closed.