Keyboard circus tricks “ain’t got nothing to do with music-making”

The quote in the title is from celebrated pianist Leon Fleisher, who died in August 2020 at the age of 92.

Leon Fleisher New York Times

In the many tributes to him, his wisdom and good sense, as a musician and a human being, and his rich legacy will live on in the memories of his performances, his recordings, his pupils (who include Jonathan Biss and Yefim Bronfman), and teachers, who pass on his wisdom on to their own students.

Back in 2008, in an interview with The Times newspaper, Leon Fleisher said of pianists: We are athletes, but we’re athletes with small muscles. There is a limit. Now you get kids who can do things with such extraordinary brilliance on the keyboard that they belong in the circus. But it ain’t got nothing to do with music-making.”

Fleisher was primarily referring to practising and the habit of pianists to work themselves too hard, to the point where practising becomes harmful rather than helpful. But I find his comment about the circus and keyboard athletics, and the artistry of musicians interesting too.

How many of us have marvelled at the fleet fingers of young pianists, some as young as 10 or 11 (and the internet is awash with videos of these mini ‘virtuosi’)? The ability to play very fast, very accurately is, for many, both inside and outside the profession, a mark of the pianist’s facility and executive function. For those less versed in the true exigencies of the profession, it is a sign of brilliance – and the younger, and faster, the player, the more we exclaim “genius!”.

And in addition to all those videos of fleet-fingered would-be Ashkenazys and Argerichs, there are any number of tutorials offering advice on how to achieve such velocity: finger drills and exercises to train muscles and reflexes, while simultaneously numbing the mind.

Fleisher is right: keyboard circus tricks have nothing to do with music-making. Pianists are not performing dogs – because the craft of the musician, and the art of music-making, goes far, far beyond mere piano pyrotechnics. It doesn’t matter how fast you can play, if you cannot communicate the deeper message of the music, its emotion and its truth, then you are nothing more than a circus showman, a mere typist albeit with executive function, and what you present in the music is merely surface artifice. The pianist’s repertoire contains plenty of music written to test the player’s facilities and display astonishing keyboard athletics, but pure virtuosity should never take precedence over artistic vision, tone quality, and a proper appreciation of the narrative structure and architecture of the music. Add to this one’s musical knowledge, accrued through training and experience, and a broader discernment of what music-making is truly about, and at this point the music is truly brought to life, with integrity, honesty and communication.

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