The quote in the title is from celebrated pianist Leon Fleisher, who died in August 2020 at the age of 92.
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.
This quote by English conductor Mark Wigglesworth, from a recent British newspaper article, has resonances with the philosophical statement “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Of course what Wigglesworth is referring to specifically is the lack of audiences for music this year, due to concert halls being closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In his article, he accepts that there has been plenty of excellent online music-making and performances, not to mention broadcasts of archive performances (for example, from the BBC Proms archive), but he makes the very important point that audiences contribute to the special atmosphere of concerts (something I have covered in a previous article), and provide “an intensity of concentration for both performer and listener”.
But does music really not “exist” if no one is listening to it being played? Of course not – and in fact, musicians are very used to playing without an audience: most of the time this is what they do when they are practicing.
Music is an act of communication whether playing to a live audience, recording equipment in the studio, or to oneself in the practice room or the comfort of one’s home. Wherever we play music – to a full house at Carnegie Hall or at home alone – we bring to life the dots and squiggles on the page, communicating the composer’s ideas.
Never underestimate the power of just playing music alone, of being able to explore a score by oneself. For virtually every musician, professional or amateur, this kind of playing is how we get to know the music intimately and through which we make the most interesting and intriguing musical discoveries. When we play alone, we play for and to ourselves, but this is still an act of communication. The player is also a listener – and if one is undertaking serious work on a piece of music, the act of communicating to oneself and feeding back on what one has heard is a crucial part of the process of practicing and refining.
There is, of course, another important aspect to playing alone and that is the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes from playing without practicing – playing for the sheer pleasure of it, nothing more. At times like this, we revel in the sounds, the feel of the notes under the fingers, the physical and emotional responses the music provokes. Many of us have favourite pieces which we turn to for this kind of playing. This kind of playing is relaxing and therapeutic – a way to unwind after a busy day, or to de-stress; it is also precious, deeply intimate and personal. And for professional musicians, whose diaries are, sadly, still mostly empty, a curious benefit of the coronavirus lockdown is that many are rediscovering the joy of this kind of music-making, free from the pressures of the profession.
There is nothing more wonderful than hunkering down with a piano in splendid isolation, especially at night! – Howard, amateur pianist
Music exists the moment it emerges from the instrument, and never ceases to exist thereafter – and someone is always communicating and listening, even if it is just the person who is playing…..
If you, like me, had piano lessons as a child, I expect there were rather too many times when you sat at the piano and wondered what this thing called “music” was all about? The daily grind of practising, tedious technical exercises, seemingly endless scales and arpeggios, dull pieces which you played without imagination in a way which would please your teacher and earn you rewards and praise. And then each summer the excruciating and artificial experience of displaying your pianistic abilities to an examiner who had probably already heard 20 versions of the same pieces you were playing. When the exam results were published, you would start on the next grade’s repertoire, and so the process would repeat itself. There never seemed to be much fun, or joy, in the activity of playing music.
When people discover I’m a piano teacher, they often confide in me about their childhood piano lessons, their memories of their piano teachers and how the experience obscure the pleasure and joy of music making. Some shudder at these memories, and such anecdotes often reveal how much baggage from our childhood we carry into our adult lives, and how these experiences inform and influence the way we approach our music making as adults. I’ve come across adult pianists who seem stifled by fear that their childhood teacher could rear up beside them at any moment, and heap criticism and disapproval upon them. I have encountered adult pianists in masterclasses who, when asked why they approach a certain passage in a certain way, reply “My teacher told me to do that”. Their body language and their piano sound hints at great inner tension, resulting from fear of criticism, fear of making mistakes; and the recollection of those difficult, joyless childhood piano lessons.
Some of the young people I teach, and have taught in the past, seem to be accumulating similar tensions (though not, I hope, from their lessons with me). One student told me of her previous teacher who regularly made her cry, another whose lessons were dull and boring (and even dull and boring lessons can have a profound effect upon our attitude to music and music making). Some of my students still find it hard to appreciate that music and music making is meant to be pleasurable, stimulating, exciting, entertaining and satisfying.
I blame this partly on the U.K. state education system with its obsession with “results” and league tables. Kids are tested so much these days it’s as if the creative spirit has been sucked out of them. They aren’t encouraged to think or behave creatively at school and so being asked to be creative at the piano is almost anathema to them. They have also been peddled the idea that classical music is universally “serious”: it took nearly a year of coaxing to demonstrate to one student the wit and humour in a Rondo by Diabelli. The day that student made me laugh out loud in his rendering of this piece was a significant step forward for him (and me).
Parents too can be unintentionally complicit in this stifling of creativity, insisting that only the repertoire set by teacher should be practised, and using exams (yes, more testing!) as the only benchmark of progress and success. It piles pressure on the child – I see it every week in the student who is overly anxious and apologises to me for “playing badly” (she doesn’t) or who says “you must think I’m a terrible pianist” (I don’t – and she’s not!). She loves music, loves the piano and violin and playing in the local youth orchestra, but she places far too much emphasis on right notes and forgets that music is enjoyable, and that people get a great deal of pleasure out of her hearing perform. As for what needs to be practised, if a student comes to a lesson having learnt something without any input from me, which is not assigned “homework”, I’m not going to tick them off. Instead, I’ll praise them for their initiative and independent learning. Although most of my childhood piano lessons were quite boring, I was lucky because I was actively encouraged to seek out new repertoire, whether it was assigned by my teacher or not. I would take my discoveries to my teacher and she would help me find a way through the more challenging sections – and she never once said “You shouldn’t be learning that”. Yet as an adult pianist, I have encountered an attitude amongst some teachers and professional pianists that certain repertoire is “off limits” to amateur pianists. Such attitudes can only discourage adult pianists in their quest, and I take issue with anyone who says some repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the professional.
Some professional musicians lose sight of what the music and music making is about too. The pianist who described his working day to me as “strictly 9 to 5”, reducing his wonderful craft to nothing more than a “day at the office”; or the international concert pianist who complained in an interview with me that the rigours of keeping the repertoire going combined with the demands of the career – concerts, traveling, recording, making a living – could obscure one’s love for the music to the point where one begins to resent it. Another professional pianist told me she “envies” amateurs because they can play for pleasure whenever they like.
Here is the cellist Steven Isserlis responding to one of Schumann’s statements from his ‘Advice to Young Musicians’:
Nothing great can be achieved in art without enthusiasm
Yes – what’s the point in even trying to be a musician if you don’t love, love, LOVE music with all your heart? Great music is the best possible friend one could have: it will be with you in times of happiness and of sadness; and it will never let you down or abandon you
Last weekend I attended an event at St John’s Smith Square, that beautiful baroque church in central London which is home to many fine concerts and other musical events throughout the year. I performed there as part of Music Marathon, 24 hours of music making to coincide with the annual Open House London weekend. The week before had been rather difficult for me: I’d just found out I’d failed an important (for me) professional performance qualification and the comments from the adjudicators still stung when I recalled them, despite the reassurances of friends and trusted colleagues that I was a dedicated and skilled musician. In short, it was a major knock to my confidence. Playing at St John’s, and hearing others play, was the most potent reminder of why we do it, why we make music. It’s about sharing – sharing our love for the music with others, sharing great works, such as Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas or Bach’s WTC, sharing the experience of music as performer and/or listener (I am fortunate to do both regularly). Music is about emotions and emotional release, escapism and storytelling, excitement, pleasure, contemplation, humour, philosophy…….and so much more than that. It’s personal and highly subjective, and it can provoke profound emotional responses in both performers and listeners. It’s not about dry exercises and “getting it right”; or about playing a certain piece in a certain way to “please teacher”. At the SJSS event, I met several other pianists whom I had either interviewed or corresponded with online. All three of them (one of whom is a young concert pianist) revealed their passion for the music – in their performances and the conversations we had afterwards. Regardless of our level of ability, our enthusiasm and commitment to the music shone through. For me, having come through several difficult days of reflection and re-evaluation about my own musical life, to be amongst like-minded people doing the thing we love in a place as beautiful as St John’s Smith Square was the perfect tonic.
I’ll leave you with some further thoughts from Robert Schumann, and Steven Isserlis:
If music comes from your heart and soul, and if you feel it inside yourself, it will affect others in the same way
Yes: if your music comes from deep inside you, it will speak to a place deep in others
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