The Well-Rounded Pianist
In a recent article, violinist Nigel Kennedy bemoans the “narrow” approach of the conservatoire system and its focus on technique over individuality. He also cites Yehudi Menuhin (who paid Kennedy’s fees at the Purcell School) as a major influence in encouraging him to explore other genres of music, including jazz.
I do not believe music should be studied in a vacuum, separate from other arts or life-experience, but in our desire to seek perfection in what we do, to practise so that we never play a wrong note, I think there is a danger of losing sight of where the music we play comes from. It is not just thickets of notes on a page, but the expression of emotions, hopes and desires, of another sentient human being – the composer.
And so in order to transmit the composer’s intentions to our audience, I believe we should take a well-rounded approach to our music making. Cutting oneself off from normal life by spending hours and hours in the practise room is not healthy. Aside from the law of diminishing returns (after about 3 hours you stop taking in information and are simply “typing” the music), it is important to remember that the composers whose music we love and revere were normal people too – they too had love affairs, went out drinking with mates, and enjoyed a good meal with friends and colleagues – and we can connect better to them and their music if we go out and live life, just as they did. Having a social life, meeting friends, going out together, eating and drinking, going to the theatre, the cinema, art exhibitions, reading trashy novels, falling in love, falling out of love: all this feeds into our cultural and creative landscape to nourish, inspire and inform our music-making.
Of course, being a well-rounded pianist or musician is much more than this. It is about technique, for sure, but it is also about getting to the heart of the music to understand the context of its creation, why it is special. In order to do this, we need to study social and historical context, “listen around” the music to better appreciate that composer’s unique soundworld, compose, analyse and understand the philosophy of music. We should explore literature, art, poetry, go to concerts, play in ensembles, listen to music from other genres, and always – always – remain open-minded and curious. We also need to accept that there is no “right way”, to trust our musical instincts, have the courage of our convictions and not constantly compare ourselves to nor compete with others. When all these things combine, I believe we can truly be well-rounded musicians.