I love to be able to play badly alone – pianist Mitusko Uchida (from an interview with journalist Joshua Barone)

Confined to our homes during the widespread lockdown to try and slow the spread of coronavirus, many of us are enjoying a period of enforced practising (a few of my pianist friends have teamed up using the Acapella app to play duets or 2-piano works, but it’s quite tricky to do this with successful results).  Pianists are very used to being alone; solitariness is a natural state to the pianist, unlike other musicians who may be missing their ensemble partners and orchestral colleagues during this time of social and physical distancing. However, this period of enforced sequestration, while offering extra time to learn new and finesse existing repertoire, may not be ideal for the professional pianist whose working life is so closely allied to a busy diary of concerts for which music must be learnt and prepared. “I’ve only dabbled at the keyboard” a concert pianist friend wrote in a recent email to me. Another pianist friend complained that without concerts to prepare for, there was “no point” in practising, and, sadly, I know she is not alone in feeling this.

Amateur pianists meanwhile are rejoicing in this extra time and “dabbling” at the keyboard – snatching precious time to practice in between the commitments of work and family life – has been replaced by, for some, serious amounts of practising. For me, and I am sure others like me, one of the great pleasures of sitting at one’s piano with a stack of music on the lid or in the bookcase, waiting to be explored, is the opportunity to ramble through music and, to quote Mitsuko Uchida, “play badly alone”.

632-03847995When it’s just you, the instrument and the music, there is no one to judge, critique or comment – and if you liberate yourself from the pressure to play perfectly and the toxic inner critic, you can play with abandon and as badly as you like. Curiously, I find being given to permission to play like this often produces surprisingly encouraging results: I cruise, seemingly effortlessly, through sections which previously seemed intractable; particularly finger-twisting passages are executed with technical ease, and the music comes to life surprisingly imaginatively. It’s as if by not overthinking the music and letting go, we can actually bring greater creativity and expression to it.

Playing badly might be regarded as negative practising, but I believe any time spent at the instrument is useful, so long as one is not playing mindlessly or mechanically. Playing badly alone also gives one the opportunity to play purely for pleasure – and even concert pianists of the calibre of Mitsuko Uchida need to feel less than perfect on occasion and to be reminded of the pleasure of playing the piano, without the burden of deliberate practising.

And finally, playing something badly alone is the first step towards playing something well in performance…..think about it 🙂

 

Advice from pianist Beth Levin

1. brew coffee

2. consider learning new repertoire

3. visualize a recital you would have given before the venues closed – imagine 4, 5, 6 encores! well with a little luck it might have gone that way!

4. imagine the dress you would have worn – consider it with different earrings

5. go to your music stacks, pick anything and start sight-reading (hopefully it won’t be Islamey!)

6. listen to a recording of yourself in recital to remind yourself that yes, you know how to play

7. brew more coffee

8. consider learning new repertoire

9. daydream about a tour of China when this is all over

10. brew more coffee

 


Brooklyn-based pianist Beth Levin is celebrated as a bold interpreter of challenging works, from the Romantic canon to leading modernist composers. The New York Times praised her “fire and originality,” while The New Yorker called her playing “revelatory.” Fanfare described Levin’s artistry as “fierce in its power,” with “a huge range of colors.”

Read more

The author Umberto Eco had a library of an astonishing 30,000+ books, most of which he had not, and probably never did read. Nassim Nicholas Talib (author of The Black Swan) calls this an “anti-library” and believes it represents an ongoing intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge, for all those unread books contain what one does not know yet. The more one reads, the more one’s knowledge increases; the books one hasn’t read are a research tool, a means to extend one’s knowledge further.

The same can perhaps be said for musical scores. On the bookcase in my piano room are many scores of music which I may never play, but I have acquired those scores out of curiosity, and many of them represent, for me at least, an acknowledgement that my musical knowledge continues to grow. Some scores are also research tools, purchased for their detailed notes and annotations rather than the music itself; others I bought because I simply wanted to possess them. Some I have been sent by composers, hopeful that I may play their music. All of them are the music I haven’t played yet.

Years ago, long before I started writing this blog and interviewing musicians on a regular basis, I went to interview a concert pianist at his home in the leafy suburbs. One wall of his piano room/office was filled with scores, floor to ceiling – dusky blue Henle, brick-red Weiner Urtext and pale green Peters editions and many more. This collection, including some very well-thumbed, much-used editions, represented a lifetime’s work in the profession, but I suspect there were more than a few scores that may never be opened, yet they had their place in this library as the music he hadn’t played yet.

In the world today, knowledge can be accrued incredibly easily and quickly via the internet, and this accrual of knowledge becomes a compulsive need to enable us to rise in the hierarchy of  perceived “intelligence” or “knowledgeability”. I am always rather suspicious of people who tell me they have played all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, this completist approach suggesting a certain lack of humility, as if to say “that’s it, I have mastered the instrument and its literature!”. I prefer to subscribe to a more humble approach, based on the knowledge that a piece of music is never truly “finished”. People who lack this humility may enjoy a sense of pride at having ‘conquered’ Beethoven, without acknowledging that learning is an ongoing process.

The music we haven’t played yet may well be the most interesting in our repertoire, for it offers new possibilities in broadening our musical knowledge, extending our technical and artistic facilities, and widening our cultural horizons. It is a sign of an ever-expanding understanding of our competence and a necessary spur to mastery.

In fact, all the music we haven’t played yet represents a wondrous opportunity – it is just waiting to be explored!

collections-music-scores

 

 

Piano

a large keyboard musical instrument with a wooden case enclosing a soundboard and metal strings, which are struck by hammers when the keys are depressed

The pianist Ivo Pogorelich is right: the piano is “a piece of furniture”. Not simply a musical instrument, it’s fine furniture, often the most expensive piece in a home and the focal point of whatever room it’s in. Browse through glossy interiors magazines, Pinterest or sites like Houzz and you will find beautiful grand pianos in beautiful settings, the instrument not intended to be played, but to bring elegance, class and grandeur to a room. My 1913 Bechstein A, bought for a song (relatively-speaking), the most I could afford at the time, is a thing of beauty with a polished rosewood case, turned legs and a fretwork music desk. Visitors to the house gasp in admiration when I throw open the door to my office-cum-music room and there she crouches in burnished antique splendour.

Your wonderful Bechstein has afforded me great joy.
Sviatoslav Richter

While upright pianos were two-a-penny in Victorian and Edwardian homes, as ubiquitous as the smart tv is today, the grand piano has always been a status symbol. A Picasso on the wall and a Steinway on the floor, the grand piano is an indicator of wealth and cultural cachet, for the grandest, most desirable pianos are as sleek, highly-engineered and expensive as a Maserati, owned, but not necessarily played, by those who value image and exclusivity above ultimate usability

The piano is also a machine, a miracle of invention, this contraption of metal, wood and wires capable of sustaining twenty-two tons of tension on its strings. Despite its industrial, apparently inaminate, construction, one is regularly reminded that this instrument is, like a violin or clarinet, created from materials which were once living: the slightest fluctuation in humidity will send my antique Bechstein into a stroppy fit of out-of-tune-ness as wood and ivory contract and expand.

You become elated, invigorated, and inspired….all through something built by a factory

– Menahem Pressler

The piano is a machine but it usually has soul, and a history too….. My Bechstein is Edwardian drawing rooms, overstuffed sofas, looking glasses, brocade and lace. It might have been sold out of the Bechstein piano showroom on Wigmore Street, next to Bechstein – now Wigmore – Hall, in that golden year when a carefree generation was teetering on the abyss of the First World War. A few years ago, I played a Steinway D with a special heritage. Formerly owned by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, it had been played by Sviatoslav Richter and Daniel Barenboim, amongst others – “and now you are playing it!” said its owner, for whose music society I was performing. I’ve also played a square piano owned and autographed by Edward Elgar, and a Pleyel said to have been played by Chopin, but one can invest too much in these associations, believing that the spirit of former owners and players haunts the keys and strings, and can influence the player. In fact, it is whoever is playing the piano now which sparks the soul of the instrument and brings it to life in sound.

As a pianist, one has a special relationship with the instrument one plays most often (usually the piano one owns), but unlike other instrumentalists, the pianist cannot carry his/her own instrument to concerts (though in the old days concert artists might travel with their piano, taking it across the ocean to a concert at Carnegie Hall, New York). Thus, while it is true that most concert instruments are pretty much the same across the international venues and halls, one must also be adaptable or lower one’s expectations – not all pianos as are well looked after and cossetted as a concert Steinway…..In such situations, a true professional will accept the situation and work with the instrument they are given. The pianist Gary Graffman, in his book I Really Should be Practising, relates an occasion where he arrived at a concert to find that one of the notes on the piano when depressed sounded with all the subtlety of a gunshot: to remedy this, Graffman simply replaced the action of that note with one seldom-used from the top of the register.

The piano ceases to be a piece of furniture, or a machine, when it is played. The player brings it to life, and the great thing about the piano is that even the most novice player can get a pleasant sound out of it (unlike the violin for which students (and their long-suffering parents and teachers) must endure years of scraping and screeching before a beautiful sound is mastered).

richter_hands
Enter a caption

The sound the pianist produces is determined by touch, by the finger’s contact with key. We call this “attack”, a curious descriptive word which suggests an aggressive connection with the instrument, when in fact the type of touch employed is often subtle, controlled, refined. Every pianist has a personal sound associated with their individual touch. Other instrumentalists, and physicists, may scoff at this, claiming that the only factor that determines the tone intensity and timbre is the speed of the hammer hitting the piano string, but studies have demonstrated that the subtleties of individual touch do influence timbre and quality of sound: pianists use a vast palette of timbral nuances to colour their performances and, importantly, to create a distinctly personal sound. Why else do we seek out the performances of certain pianists – Cortot, Lipatti, Gould, Lupu, Hough, Uchida – and can identify these pianists from a blind listening?

 

Arm weight, wrist flexibility and suppleness, lack of bodily tension – all these effect the sound, the mood and interpretation of every note and passage. A tense body creates a tense sound, for the music one produces inevitably imitates the state of the body. And the body responds to the mood of the music too: during passages of raging fury (Beethoven at his most declamatory), the heartbeat quickens and the body tenses.

A kind of synaesthesia comes into play (forgive the pun) in the most expressive and compelling performances. Timbre, an essential factor in the expressivity of performance, combined with touch and the pianist’s own temperament, their musicianship and intelligence – that is where the true magic occurs, a potent reminder that the production of sound is not simply mechanical nor technical. This is the great power of the pianist – to conjure sounds, and images, from that machine, that box of wood and wires, that piece of furniture.

And when the music is over, the lid is closed, and the piano returns to its somnolent position, silently crouching in a corner of the room, once again a piece of furniture.

Oh, but what a marvellous, magical piece of furniture!

img_1397
The author’s 1913 Bechstein model A

 

 

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?


If you enjoy the content of this site, please consider making a donation towards its upkeep:

Buy me a coffee

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.