The piano is a good friend. It doesn’t talk back. You can’t lose a piano. It’s a constant companion. It can give you everything you need. – Hugh Laurie, actor & pianist
“It’s all in black and white” – and every colour in between…
A post for World Piano Day 2022 on why we LOVE the piano – a compilation of comments received via Twitter and Facebook.
Thank you to everyone who contributed
It’s complete. Since I was a child it’s been the place I go to relax. I’m not a pianist but I can play and it makes me extremely happy. During the first lockdown singing made me sad for all we were missing (especially my co-musicians). I found solace at the piano. (CS, singer)
The colours produced by harmonies in even the simplest pieces. I was teaching a piece from a tutor book to young beginners this week and as soon as they added the LH to produce 3 and 4 note chords something magical happened. (MJ)
The touch of the keys, the sound, the huge variation in textures, the colour of the wood, the space where it sits…..and the fact the whole family have access to it! (RN)
The ability to thunder away one minute then tug at your heart the next with soft, quiet subtlety (T)
The possibilities I have to play like a whole orchestra, but also very simplistic and moving melodies. The dynamics and the tone forming. Being a one (wo)man player or a chamber musician, working with a singer or giant orchestra… so many things to love about my piano. (FK)
you can see what you’re doing… (TC, composer)
The combination of intuition and control. (EMcK)
You never have to bring it with you. Wherever you go, it’s there. If it isn’t there, you’re in the wrong place. (RN)
Not having to get it out of a box (HW, composer & pianist)
Duration and decay (Kirkdale Bookshop)
A musical instrument and dinner table! (A)
I like the fact it’s (often) a place as well as an instrument. The room gathers memories, which enrich the music making. I like how you can see all the notes physically even when silent. But most of all I love the sound. Just playing a big C major arpeggio is, to me, a joy. (JD)
It’s mindfulness, it’s meditation, it’s calm. And when headphones are involved it provides a much needed solitude, as I escape into its world. As I mainly improvise, it’s a crafting table, that gives life to new music. I love the tactile connection. The piano is home. (JW)
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways: the sound of a singing treble with the sostenuto pedal, the richness of full chords and the power one feels as they sound, the immense satisfaction of feeling & hearing the clangourous sounds… and so much more! My beloved instrument. (BC)
The amount of opportunity it has to offer, the range and the versatility (ID)
I love the feel of the keys! They are my friends! (BO’R)
…as a medium, the piano is its own self sufficient universe. I don’t think any other solo artistic activity can boast the same level of storytelling or emotional exploration as well as refined pianism does (ES)
The variety of tone colours at your disposal, ability with sustain pedal to play so many notes at once, you almost have the whole orchestra in front of you. As a child I was mesmerised by being able to ‘see’ all the notes at once and wonder about their possibilities, I loved exploring and finding the scales by ear by noting the order of keys and shapes and patterns your hand made, the similarities and differences. (RR)
Underneath a grand piano there are all sorts of secret hiding places for valuables (watches, jewellery, money, etc). No other instrument offers this possibility. Imagine trying to stuff a Rolex inside a piccolo or viola? That’s what I love about the piano. I also love the fact that the notes are all there- all you need to do is play them in the right order (takes a bit of skill grant you). A more serious answer – the piano is a glorious instrument of ‘make believe’. It forces the imagination into overdrive – we ‘think’ we’re hearing something which is not happening. Its defects are, paradoxically its virtues. (JH)
The ability to use so many of one’s senses. I like the fairness factor of piano: you put in a hard work, you get the results. You don’t, it shows too. In life it is not always as fair as that. (JM)
The SOUND. I just bloody love the sound of the thing. Why would anybody want to play another instrument?! (MV)
All of the little tiny parts of the action like a bird skeleton, with their daft names (DG)
The immediate visual appeal it has without even being played; the fact that a mechanical machine that needs no electricity is capable of (in competent hands) making music that elicits emotions in such a profound way. There is nothing as deliciously decadent as a dusty, old upright sitting in a forgotten corner, waiting to be played. And the majestic presence of a grand that is always begging to give all its rich harmonies. The piano can be the best friend and the worst enemy because it seduces you but enslaves you as you try to get more and more depth and richness from it. The piano reveals one’s inner struggles like no other instrument does (MAdB)
The sense of freedom from the world when playing it (JK)
Every time you play at a concert you will meet a new instrument. I love the whole experience of getting to know the instrument and trying to get the best out of it. They are all so unique and it can be so rewarding (WH)
Someone recently asked me “what do you like to play”? Usually people just ask “what do you play.” It was a reminder for me to never forget the “like” and “love” origins of my work, especially during difficult practice days or performances that don’t quite go to plan. (SE)
a deep connection with musicians of the past and the now makes the piano and piano music so life-affirming (AH)
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.
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.
On knowing when to let go #2
Part 2 – The problem with perfectionism, and releasing expectations
In my first article, I discussed how musicians can judge when it’s time to ‘let go’ of a piece of music and decide it is ready for performance or should be put aside for awhile.
In this second article on ‘letting go’ as a musician, I will explore how criticism and negative feelings can hold us back as musicians, and how ‘letting go’ allows us to cultivate a greater sense of acceptance, self-reliance and confidence.
Musicians are by nature highly self-critical, a habit which is often inculcated at a fairly early point in one’s musical study, by teachers, peers and one’s self. Self-criticism is important: the ability to self-critique is a significant aspect of productive, intelligent practising. It also encourages musicians to become independent learners who are able to make informed judgements about their progress, technical facility, artistry in performance, and career development.
Alongside this, there is also the need to seek feedback and endorsement from others – teachers, mentors, peers and critics – which also help support one’s musical development.
Music is a world where there is much judgement and criticism (both positive and negative); it is also highly competitive, and such competitiveness can lead to questions such as “am I good enough?” and toxic feelings of inadequacy and failure, which can impede one’s musical progress and even seep into one’s daily life, affecting self-esteem and confidence.
Letting go of such feelings, the need to seek approval or endorsement from others, stepping away from competitiveness, is not always easy, but the ability to recognise, confront and manage them can make us better musicians – more confident, resilient, centred and motivated.
Letting go of perfectionism
The notion that one must play every single note perfectly is, in my opinion, one of the most significant contributors to feelings of failure and inadequacy as a musician. Unfortunately, the musician’s training still places an undue emphasis on perfectionism, which can lead to anxiety, stress and injury, and encourages unhealthy working habits. Perfectionism can destroy our love of music and rob us of joy, spontaneity, expression, communication and freedom in our music-making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook.
Instead, it is far more healthy and productive to let go out perfection and strive instead for excellence in everything one does. Excellence is realistic, quantifiable and attainable. Excellence develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.
Letting go of the fear of failure
Hand-in-hand with perfectionism goes the fear of failure – failure to play the music “correctly”, failure to achieve that grade, diploma, competition result, failure to secure that job. We fear that we will appear foolish, weak or inadequate, or that we will be embarrassed, or an embarrassment to others, if we fail.
Fear of failure may also lead one to take a “what if…?” attitude to one’s music-making. “What if I make a mistake in a performance?”. Will my teacher/peers/colleagues think I’m a lesser musician because of it?
Let go of the fear of failure by recognising that “to err is human”, and that mistakes and failure are a crucial aspect of learning. A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing, and all errors and setbacks should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and, importantly, progress.
In a performance situation, letting go of the fear of failure allows us to play our music “in the moment”, creating a concert experience that is spontaneous, communicative and enjoyable – for performer and audience.
Fear of failure is also related to ego, and letting go of ego makes us better musicians, and human beings.
Letting go of external validation
Throughout one’s musical study, as a child, teenager and adult, one seeks and receives approval, endorsements and validation. While such feedback can be extremely helpful – and outward signifiers of achievement such as good exam results or positive critique from, for example, a respected musician, teacher or critic can encourage greater motivation – it can be all too easy to place too much emphasis on negative feedback or to “read between the lines” of critical commentary.
We may also measure our progress against that of others, but comparing oneself to others is negative and counter-productive. Just because so-and-so can play Gaspard de la Nuit, it does not necessarily make them a ‘better’ musician. Stop trying to compete or compare: accept that we are all different as musicians, and instead focus on our own strengths and talents. Alongside this, release the notion that there is certain repertoire that we should play (for too long I felt trapped by this pressure, but when I let go of it, I found far greater fulfilment and enjoyment in my music making).
We develop and flourish as musicians if, instead of looking for approval from teachers, colleagues, reviewers or the audience, we self-critique and recognise the value of what we have to say. We should measure our personal success against the challenges set by the music, not by extrinsic aspects – the endorsements of others (except perhaps a few respected or trusted mentors and colleagues). As Schumann said, “As you grow older, converse more with scores than with virtuosi.”
Remember why we make music
Above all, it is important to remember why we make music – because we love it and want to share our passion with others. Music is also a shared cultural gift, and one which gives pleasure to many, many people. This knowledge should infuse our playing and sustain us over the long term.
Challenging technical perfection
“my jump is not high enough, my twists are not perfect, I can’t place my leg behind my ear…..Sometimes there is such an obsession with the technique that this can kill your best impulses. Remember that communicating with a form of art means being vulnerable, being imperfect. And most of the time is much more interesting. Believe me.”
Mikhail Baryshnikov – ballet dancer
Music, like ballet, is a creative, artistic activity, but that creativity must be underpinned by secure technique – a range of mechanical skills, such as how we move our limbs, manage breathing and airflow, or control our embouchure, which enable us to execute musical ideas. These skills are developed and honed over time, and a large proportion of the musician’s training and practice is devoted to fine-tuning and maintaining their technical facility.
Musicians use a variety of means to practice technique, including scales and arpeggios, exercises, etudes and excerpts from the music currently being worked on. Technical skills require consistent nurturing, which is why regular practicing is so important. Mindless note-bashing achieves little; focused, deliberate, deep practice, on the other hand, fosters technical assuredness and artistic mastery.
Through a process of constant reflection and refining during practice, physical and creative obstacles are overcome and one has in place the firm foundations and confidence from which to develop greater artistry. Assured technique also gives us the tools to explore more complex repertoire.
As the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov says in the quote at the head of this article, “an obsession with technique can kill your best impulses”. The obsessive need to find perfection in one’s technique, coupled with the anxiety of achieving perfect arpeggio runs or intonation, can deaden musical and artistic expression, leading to performances which may be note-perfect and faithful to the score, but lacking in emotional depth and communication. In addition, this quest for technical perfection may lead to over-practicing and even injury. It can also rob us of curiosity and joy in our practicing and music-making.
“The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.”
David Mamet, playwright & director
Technique must always serve the music – the two are inseparable – but if one becomes too obsessed with technique alone, one risks overlooking the expressive, communicative and emotional aspects in the music. A willingness to look beyond technique, to accept that perfection is unattainable (because we are all human), leads to greater artistry and imagination in our music-making, and allows us to play “in the moment”, creating performances which are spontaneous, exciting and memorable.
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The self-isolating pianist
The coronavirus is forcing us to practice social distancing and self-isolation. As I joked on Twitter the other day, musicians, and especially pianists, have been self-isolating for years!
The pianist’s life is, by necessity, lonely. One of the main reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that we must practise more than other musicians because we have many more notes and symbols to decode, learn and upkeep. This prolonged solitary process may eventually result in a public performance, at which we exchange the loneliness of the practise room for the solitude of the concert platform.
However, despite the need for frequent sequestration to get the work done, regular interaction with colleagues and students alleviates the loneliness and reminds us of the life beyond the keyboard and the importance of forging musical partnerships, professionally and socially. And in concert-giving, there is also the important connection and interaction with audiences.
With coronavirus sweeping the world, the concert halls and conservatoires are closed and we are being told to exercise social distancing and self-isolation to protect ourselves and our families and friends from this virus. Around my social networks in the days since the UK government ordered that we “stay at home”, many of my musician friends and colleagues have been posting details of how they intended to cope with this new way of making and sharing music. Some are excited about the prospect of weeks, maybe months, of enforced isolation as an opportunity to learn new repertoire, ready for when the concert halls and venues reopen and the music can be shared with live audiences once more. Others are exploring ways to give concerts online via platforms like YouTube. Unfortunately, neither of these activities make money and the sad truth of the musician’s working life is that it is very fragile. Most musicians are self-employed and many live almost hand-to-mouth, meagre concert fees (only the most internally-renowned musicians can command large fees) often supplemented by teaching which offers regular income.
Without concert bookings, many musicians feel marooned as the main focus of their daily lives is removed in one fell swoop. It’s all very well saying you’re going to learn the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto or the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes, but without concert bookings it’s very hard to feel motivated.
“You’ve got more time to practice now!” people outside the profession might declare, and while this may be true, it’s not very helpful as musicians face the prospect of months without work, no fees, and the attendant anxiety which this brings.
For the amateur musician, by contrast, this is a time for extra, guilt-free practising; but for the professional musician it is rather more problematic. “I’ve really only dabbled at the keyboard” wrote one of my clients, a concert pianist, in an email a couple of days ago. The week before all this kicked off, he and I were discussing the next round of promotion for his concerts, which will, in all probability, be cancelled. And without concerts, the professional musician loses a significant motivation to keep working.
I think it’s important to exercise some self-care and not feel guilty about not working (by which I mean practising) as much during these strange, surreal and uncertain days, and especially not to compare oneself to others who may be busy with livesteam concerts, videocasting and daily broadcasts of Bach…. This time may serve to remind musicians how their lives are often lived at full tilt, and so perhaps this is an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect?
In the meantime, stay safe and well.