What does it mean to be “a pianist”?

Pianists do not devote their lives to their instrument simply because they like music….there has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard….inexplicable and almost fetishistic….

– Charles Rosen

The members of my piano Meetup group, my students, the people who play street pianos – they are all “pianists” to me.

Yet in the research for this article, I discovered that many people believe the title “pianist” assumes a certain level of capability and should only be conferred upon a select few – professional concert pianists or those who have achieved an extremely high level of musical attainment.

“Oh I’m not a proper pianist!” is a common refrain from the amateur pianists I meet regularly, some of whom are very advanced players. But what is a “proper” pianist? Is it someone who can perform complex repertoire from memory, with confidence, poise and flair, who has undergone a rigorous professional training, who has 50-plus concertos “in the fingers”….? Or is it simply a person who self-identifies with playing the piano?

Google isn’t much help either. Type in “Being a pianist” and the search throws up any number of “How to be a better pianist” sites,  “top 10 worst things about being a pianist” or “15 steps to become an amazing piano player” (if only it were that easy!).

hand-of-a-pianist-rodin
Hand of a Pianist by Auguste Rodin

A confession: although I have played the piano for nearly two-thirds of my life, it wasn’t until I had secured my first professional qualification (a performance diploma, taken in my late 40s), that I felt I could justifiably describe myself as “a pianist”, rather than someone who “plays the piano”. When I started to give public concerts, sometimes for real money, I stopped feeling like I was playing at being a pianist, a fraudulent concert pianist.

Being a pianist implies an intensity of connection, commitment, passion and focus. For those who play professionally, it can be all-embracing, sometimes overwhelmingly so, for one must live and breathe the instrument and its literature. Work shapes every hour of the day, the cadence by which one sets one’s life, always feeding the artistic temperament, the pressure to achieve matched only by the pressure to sustain, and always the uncomfortable knowledge that one is only as good as one’s last performance. In addition, the competitive nature of the profession coupled with its job insecurity leads many professional pianists to pursue, by necessity, what is fashionably called a “portfolio career” which may include teaching and lecturing, running summer schools, arts administration or even roles outside the music industry. “Being a pianist” can feel distinctly unglamorous, restrictive, sometimes lonely, often badly paid….

“I play the piano” suggests a more casual relationship with the instrument, something one does occasionally, at weekends, on Sundays….Yet many of the amateur pianists I  encounter display a passionate commitment to the instrument which borders on obsession, regardless of the level at which they play. These people are not dreaming of the stage at Wigmore or Carnegie Hall; no, they play and practise for a personal challenge and fulfillment, a sense of one’s own accomplishment, to be better than one was yesterday while working towards tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…..It’s addictive, constant and consistent, sometimes therapeutic, often frustrating, but always, always compelling….It’s founded on love, of the instrument and its literature, and it is this love which drives these people to practise, to take lessons, and to strive to improve their playing, cherishing precious moments in their busy lives to find time to spend at the piano.

It’s a state of madness. Unless you’re any good. Even then, you drive yourself half mad and waste precious time proving yourself to idiots who haven’t a clue – David, professional pianist

There’s a frustration with which many of us who play at an advanced level are familiar – that people don’t really understand or appreciate what we do, or how hard it is (“does it get easier as you get better?” a friend of mine asked me recently. “No“, I replied. “You just get more efficient at working out how to do it!“).  I remember the parent of one of my students commenting admiringly that it was “amazing” how the music just “came out” of my fingers. “How do you do it?” she asked. I felt like asking her whether she had ever considered why her daughter, my student, was required to practise regularly…. Yet for audiences and onlookers the magic, the mystique, of the pianist is very potent, and to reveal too much about our craft and art would dispel that.

Frustration, physical pain and constant setbacks. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be a mantle I can take off though – it’s just what I am

– Dave

It’s my passion, frustrating, challenging and rewarding every day

– Teresa

It is the most important thing in my life, it makes me profoundly happy to play and teach this beautiful instrument and its wonderful repertoire. I never take it for granted. When I play, I am transported somewhere else beyond my music studio…

– Caroline

It means I can be pro-active with the world of music, and not just a bystander

– Terry

It means feeling alive, it’s who I am. My life would be useless without music

– Tricia, professional pianist

Being a pianist puts us in touch with a vast repertoire, a rich seam of creativity, and some of the finest music ever written, and still being written. By engaging with it, we bring these works to life, like a conservator or gardener, every time we play. It puts us in touch with emotions and sentiments which are common to us all; it reminds us of our humanity, yet also transcends the pedestrian, the every day. In this way, for many of us being a pianist is an escape: as a child, I regarded the piano as a playmate, a place where I could go to weave stories and set my imagination free. Why should that be any different when one reaches adulthood?

For all of us who play the piano – amateur or professional – being a pianist offers limitless possibilities in what we can create and experience.

The real question is – what would you be without the piano?


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Julian Davis, a retired professor of endocrinology, shares his passion for the piano…..

How long have you been playing the piano?

I started playing when I was about 6 years old, so quite a few decades now!

What attracted you to the piano?

My father was a self-taught pianist and enjoyed playing Chopin Mazurkas, so I heard piano music from a young age. He bought an upright piano, and I think I was just fascinated with trying to make a nice sound with all those tempting black and white keys.

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to?

My favourite composer since my teenage years was Bartók, and ever since then I have enjoyed exploring 20th century repertoire – initially I enjoyed Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Messiaen, and then discovered some of the music written since the 1950s, by composers such as Stockhausen, Boulez and Ligeti. But as I have got older, I have discovered the huge riches of all the great classical composers, and favourites now have to include Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Over the past few months my big challenge pieces have been the Brahms Handel variations, Prokofiev’s 7th sonata, Schubert’s D784 sonata, and Bartók’s 1926 sonata. I really enjoy music for two pianos, and with some indulgent pianist friends I’ve had the pleasure of ranging widely over the 2-piano repertoire, from Mozart to John Adams. (Although no-one has been tempted to look at ‘Mantra’ yet!)

Apart from piano music, I have had some of the greatest pleasure playing chamber music. I think my favourite chamber music is that of Brahms, but I’ve been lucky to play a huge range of works, mainly 19th and 20th century music.

How do you make the time to practise? Do you enjoy practising?

Somehow practising – at least as an adult – has always been a pleasure in itself, and I have had real enjoyment from carefully working on something that’s quite hard but eventually starts to become possible. When I was working full time it was hard to do as much as I wanted, but somehow I always found a way to get to a piano. I did the LRAM performance diploma while working as a junior doctor. It was the hardest thing I’ve done: I managed to get 2 hours’ practice from 6am until starting work, and then had more time during the evenings when I wasn’t on call in the hospital. I’m surprised that the neighbours tolerated it!

If you are taking piano lessons what do you find a) most enjoyable and b) most challenging about your lessons?

I have had lessons on and off all my life, and still gain a huge amount from occasional lessons. I find a lesson quite a goal in itself, and always find that I’m just as nervous playing in front of a single critic, however friendly, as I am playing in front of an audience. Having a lesson coming up makes me focus properly on practice, and review my goals. The most enjoyable aspect I think is the chance to focus for a couple of hours on music that I love, and that I’ve worked hard to master, combining advice on technical challenges with ideas about how to convey it more effectively, often in ways that I hadn’t thought of. The challenge: well, that is trying to master the technical aspects as well as possible beforehand in order to allow the lesson to move on beyond that – and the real challenge of course is always that I never play as well as I think I should!

Have you attended any piano courses? What have you gained from the experience?

I haven’t really had the time to attend courses until recently, when I have started to go to the Dartington International Summer School. I first went to Dartington in 1983, and returned 30 years later. The escape from work to a week of intensive music-making in the summer school has felt somehow magical every time I’ve been, and I haven’t been able to resist returning for the past few years. A week at Dartington has all sorts of opportunities for music, but for me the piano master-classes and workshops have proved particularly inspiring.

Do you play with other musicians? If so, what are the particular pleasures and challenges of ensemble work?

I love playing solo music, and the feeling of self-sufficiency and responsibility makes it important for me. However ensemble playing has always been one of life’s biggest pleasures. Each ensemble feels very different, and working together as a duo, or as a trio or a larger group provides something very special in terms of musical and inter-personal dynamic. At its best, the sense of musical give and take, intense listening, and working together to create something wonderful that you can’t do alone, can be one of the most magical experiences that I have had in music.

Do you perform? What do you enjoy/dislike about performing?

I don’t think I’m naturally very extrovert, but I do enjoy performing. It’s a pleasure when I feel well prepared, and when I feel I can convey something about music I love to an audience. I find concerts where the performers talk about the music much more rewarding, and I like to talk about the music I’m playing, not at length, but enough to tell people about the context of when and why the music was written, how its structure works, and why I like it.

Recently I’ve found that house-concerts have been really satisfying. We can only fit 10-12 people into the room with the pianos, with a few sitting on the floor, but others can overspill into the hallway or in another room. The informality of a short programme, with tea and cake and friends and children milling around, seems to work well, and our very loyal friends and neighbours seem happy to come back for more.

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up or returning to the piano?

Do it! I think that learning the piano is a peculiarly rich activity: there is the fulfilment of gradually achieving a technical challenge, and the tactile pleasure of interacting with the instrument, together with the magic of making a piece of great music come alive in front of you.

If you could play one piece, what would it be?

This sounds like the challenge put to me by my teacher, William Howard: ‘What work have you always wanted to play, but thought you couldn’t?’ The answer of course, is that there’s a long list of such pieces! But limiting myself to one work sounds rather tough… but for something unattainable, how about Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.


 

6338027_84787dca81_bInspiration 

I’d love to say I was one of those people who could sit down and practise for hours on end. Sometimes simply getting behind the piano can seem like a lot of effort. Life has an amazing way of getting in the way!

So how do you keep inspired to keep practising and keep your bum on the piano stool? Here are a few tips to help you keep the music flowing.

  1. Go live! Nothing beats live music to give you the drive to practise more. A good performance is electrifying. You don’t have to spend a fortune travelling to the large concert halls all the time – why not check out what’s happening in your local area? Remember that a perfect performance is very rare, but it’s the essence of joy that you get from a live performance that you want to recreate when you play.
  2. Listen. If you’re working on the same piece for a long time (perhaps for an exam) try to find different recordings of it and see if you can spot the difference between performances. Altering the tempo, phrasing or interpretation by the smallest amount can turn a piece from a trudge into a joy.
  3. Try something new. I do have a slight music buying problem, but when I’m lacking the drive to focus on one piece I can guarantee a look through a new book will keep me glued to the piano.  Again, it doesn’t need to cost the earth, why not check your local charity shops? This is also a great sight-reading exercise that doesn’t feel like work.
  4. Play what you love. There’s no point tearing your hair out with pieces that you absolutely hate. I do give students pieces that I would describe as being ‘good for them’, and it is always great to challenge yourself, but if you can’t find something interesting or rewarding about the piece, or if you find you’re avoiding the piano completely because you hate it, then stop.
  5. Get a great teacher. No matter what level of playing you’re at, we could all do with a guiding hand from time to time. A good teacher is worth their weight in gold and a great teacher can make the world of difference. Tutors get you thinking about pieces in a different way and often offer suggestions for difficult pieces that you might not have thought about.
  6. Turn off your phone. Will something interesting happen in the next 30 minutes? Probably not. Will someone post a picture of their lunch? Probably.
  7. Go outside. A breath of fresh air is perfect for refreshing the mind and a change of scenery can be great to let your thoughts flow around any difficult music problems
  8. Put the music away. For me, inspiration to play often comes through noodling and trying out new things on the piano. Let your hands go for it and see what happens.

Rachael Forsyth

Born and raised in York, Rachael now works as a full time composer, music teacher and performer based in Hertford. Over the years she has written a broad range of pieces in a broad range of styles for ensembles of all shapes and sizes. As a tutor she loves to write works that are educational and challenging yet build up on the foundations of musical knowledge that most possess. Her works always encapsulate emotive figures and many piece contain visual elements during the performance as well.

The highlight of her career so far has been premièring a new work for solo saxophone on a tour around Italy and discussing her work as a female composer. Rachael’s style could be described as a fusion of musical genres. She brings together her musical passions for classical, jazz, ska and folk to create new music that is widely accessible as well as hauntingly beautiful.

Website: www.rachaelforsyth.co.uk

Twitter: @rachaelcomposes

 

A guest post by James Holden

I am not practising but playing the piano.

It has not always been like this. I was younger once and like all pupils would be given my notes on how to play the notes. I would each week be handed a few handwritten, barely legible lines marking out my teacher’s expectations for the coming week: a list of scales to perfect, contrary motion; the names of the pieces to work up.

I am older now. I no longer have to decipher any comments or reach any point by a particular time. I no longer have to worry that my lack of practice will show. I’m not working towards any exams. I’m not studying for a GCSE or A Level. I’m certainly not building up to my Grade 6, Grade 7 or Grade 8. I’ve not had to pick any pieces from List A; I’ve not even looked at List B. And I’m definitely not looking forward to any concert performance.

I am older now and I no longer practise the piano. It’s not practice because I’m not practising the piano for anything. I’m not practising a work in readiness for some point in the future when I’ll finally be asked to play it, when I’ll be asked to perform it, when I’ll be marked, given a merit or a distinction or not. I’m not setting aside time at the keyboard now against some prospective moment. I’m not preparing for anything. No, I’m not practising but just playing the piano.

The difference is one of quality. It is a difference that I can feel in every note, even the wrong ones. I’m not practising the piano, I’m just playing it and that playing belongs entirely to this present moment, this instant as I press down each key. This is it; it’s happening now and not in some future time of a potential recital. It belongs entirely to me, even and especially when I play not the right notes but the wrong ones.

It is an experience that as well as being more immediate in time is also now closer in space. It is nearer to me. The playing begins and ends with me at the piano. There is no inevitable audience. I’m not playing to the upper circle or to any icy examiner but for myself.

The difference between practice and play is also one of quantity. I play the piano far more now than I ever did when I was younger. I play every day when I’m at home. And when I’m not playing the instrument I’m listening to recordings of other people playing it. The piano is no longer a distraction but the thing from which I’m distracted.

And with this increased quantity of time at the keyboard has come an increased quantity – or at least variety – of music on the stand. The difference between practice and play has been for me a greater freedom to choose any piece I want, from any List, A or B, any piece by Liszt or otherwise, from the most simple to those that remain beyond me at the moment, and may well always stay out of reach. It is equally a greater freedom not to choose certain pieces and to abandon any work I want. If I find a work unrewarding (which is different to finding it difficult) I can simply take the music down and put it away without any sense of failure. There is no longer any merit or distinction in playing something that more than challenging me is making me unhappy.

This playing still does not come easy. I’m only moderately competent at the piano. I still have to work out which note is which when there are multiple leger lines. I still have to work hard to eliminate those wrong notes which multiply themselves across the keyboard. And I still patiently have to work my way through complex passages hands separately first and then hands together after, counting in my head as I go, one and two and… getting a feel for the cantabile melody line before adding the accompaniment.

And yet for all these difficulties it is still a joyful and intensely rewarding experience. And so I would recommend that everyone diligently practise the piano and then whenever possible also make time just to play it as well.

© James Holden 2014

Dr James Holden was born in Ashford and educated at Loughborough University. He graduated with his PhD in 2007. He is the author of, amongst other things, In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he posts on Twitter as @CulturalWriter

 

by Catherine Shefski

As adult pianists we all know how hard it is to carve out practice time every day. Our days slip by  full of errands, phone calls, appointments and chauffeuring kids. Sometimes whole weeks or even months fly by while we’re bombarded with family emergencies, travel, or job obligations. But we’re constantly nagged by that inner voice that tells us that consistency and time at the piano are required for steady improvement.

For the past few months I’ve been very lucky to have a lull in activity on the home front. With my daughter happily off studying abroad and two sons away at college, I chat with them often and know that they are safe, healthy and independent. For five months I was able to fill my non-teaching hours at the piano preparing for each week’s Go Play Project recording. But now things are heating up. I’m getting ready to launch a new website and learning everything I can about marketing, branding and book proposals. I’m preparing students for their annual National Guild Auditions and Spring recitals. And I’m getting excited about my daughter coming home to finish high school and start the college search and application process. My time at the piano these days is limited.

When I do find the time to sit down at the piano I aim for deliberate practice. But I also find that more often than not, simply finding the easiest way to play a difficult passage is often the best way. The shape of the phrase leads me to find the best fingering or hand movement. Awkward hand positions are  made more comfortable by simply moving the hand into the black keys. Large leaps are spot on when   I move my arm in an arc and look before I leap. Cantabile comes from the fingertips along with a freely suspended arm and close listening. Fast octaves? For me it’s all in the rebound. Playing the piano is not hard work. It’s not about getting in shape or building muscles. In fact it’s the opposite of the “no pain, no gain” rule of sports. When you’re doing it right, it feels good.

So to all those pianists who are bombarded by life’s obligations, take heart. Piano playing is not always about how regularly you practice or how long you practice or even how deliberate you practice. It just might be  about grabbing that half hour before a student arrives at the door, or those first minutes of daylight with your morning coffee, and ‘coming home’ to the piano. It’s about sinking into the keys and expressing yourself through your fingertips. It’s about deep listening and communication. And in the end it just might about the child leaving home for college or the military. Or about the recent break-up or new romance, the death in the family or the new baby’s birth.

 

Catherine Shefski is pianist, teacher and blogger who is currently recording one piano piece a week for The Go Play Project. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m flagging up this interesting project which a colleague of mine in the US (and contributor to this blog), Catherine Shefski, is undertaking this year, to learn and record one piece of piano music per week. As she says in the blurb to accompany her recordings on SoundCloud “Like many piano teachers, over the years my own piano playing has taken a back seat to teaching and all the administrative work that goes along with running a music studio. This year I’ve decided to change that. I am making a commitment to record and upload one piece each week. By setting these weekly deadlines, I’m hoping to overcome my tendency towards procrastination and perfectionism.”

I think Catherine’s comments probably chime with many piano teachers – that we don’t play enough as we focus more of our attention on teaching. If one runs a busy teaching studio, it can be hard to find the time to play oneself, and at the end of a long teaching session, one may not feel like sitting at the piano. However, I think it is crucially important for a teacher to play regularly, if possible. One should be constantly exploring new repertoire, and honing one’s techniques and skill-base. All useful in teaching, and to me, more useful than reading dry pedagogical texts and music theory away from the piano.

I admit I am very selfish about my piano playing: this is partly because having got one Diploma (with Distinction!) under my belt, I am now working towards the next one (LTCL). I learnt from my preparation for the first Diploma, that if I don’t put the hours in at the piano, I won’t be properly prepared – and preparedness is essential. On another level, I really really enjoy playing the piano. Even if I am working on some particularly knotty passages of Liszt or a finger-twisting Rachmaninov transcription of Bach, I get a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction from playing. I am rarely bored, because if there is nothing else to do, I will nearly always play the piano. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this – even a busy professional pianist has to love his or her job to do it well.

Take a look at Catherine’s accompanying blog to read more about the Go Play Project, and visit her SoundCloud to hear her pieces.

As for playing the piano, in the words of the slogan of a famous sportwear company – JUST DO IT!