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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It always surprises me how entrenched people are on the subject of memorising music, especially with regard to pianists, and it was probably a mistake on my part to argue on Twitter for a relaxation in playing from memory in concert (and elsewhere) with a professional pianist whose attitude and approach to memorisation was inculcated from a young age and reinforced during professional training in conservatoire.

There are sound reasons for playing from memory and it should not be regarded simply as a virtuoso affectation (the ability to memorise demonstrates a very high degree of skill and application). It can allow the performer greater physical freedom and peripheral vision, more varied expression and deeper communication with listeners. But the pressure to memorise can also lead to increased performance anxiety – I have come across a number of professional pianists who have given up solo work because of the unpleasant pressure to memorise and the attendant anxiety. I have also heard of promoters who won’t book a pianist who doesn’t play from memory. To play or not to play without the score should surely be a personal artistic decision?

The custom of the pianist playing an entire programme from memory was established in the mid-nineteenth century, Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt setting a trend for concert pianists which persists to this day. Beethoven disapproved of the practice, feeling it would make the performer lazy about the detailed markings on the score; and Chopin is reported to have been angry when he heard that one of his pupils was intending to play him a Nocturne from memory.  Today it’s considered de rigueur – for concerts, competitions and auditions – and is a significant aspect of the pianist’s skill set.

Somehow the idea persists that for a pianist to use a score in a performance suggests a lack of mastery or sufficient preparation

– Anthony Tommasini, New York Times

Audiences too have fairly trenchant views on the subject and expect a professional pianist to play an entire programme from memory. It’s all part of the virtuoso ‘persona’, and it’s almost as if they think the pianist who uses the score is not up to the job; yet more and more I am seeing pianists in concert playing from the score or using an iPad (a more discreet way of playing from the score). Notable examples include Alexandre Tharaud, Artur Pizzarro and Richard Goode (whose wife turns the pages for him). For some pianists (and, I suspect, many more than who would admit it openly) memorisation can actually limit the range of repertoire performed in concert as some soloists won’t commit themselves to more than a handful of works each season because of the burden memorization places upon them.

Playing with the score on the music desk of the piano doesn’t mean you don’t know the music. Far from it – and if you watch a well-prepared pianist playing “from the score” you will notice that they don’t actually look at the music that often. The entire work may be memorised but having the score there can remove a layer of anxiety which may enable one to play better. I don’t think it should be seen as some kind of crutch or security blanket. It is also common to see a performer using the score for very complex contemporary or new music, and one rarely encounters collaborative pianists playing from memory.

In amateur piano clubs and meetup groups, attitudes to memorisation are amongst the most fervent I have ever encountered, perhaps because many members of these groups revere the great pianists and aspire to their skills, of which playing from memory is seen as the apogee of pianistic brilliance. To these people a “proper” pianist plays from memory. (Those of who do not, such as myself, are therefore “improper pianists”?!). Such is the need to prove oneself in the (sometimes) competitive environment of the piano club, that members will attempt to play from memory, often failing dismally because of 1) lack of proper preparation; 2) anxiety; 3) ego (this is the person who doesn’t even have a copy of the score in her bag, just in case, at the meetup event).

As a regular concert-goer, I am less concerned with how the performer transmits the music to me, and more interested in the performer’s ability to communicate the music, to weave stories, create myriad musical colours, provoke an emotional response (for isn’t that the primary reason why we go to hear and enjoy music?). If you get that right, nothing else should matter…..

For me there was something touching about seeing a great pianist play a Bach prelude and fugue using the score. Every wondrous element of this complex music is right on the page. It looks almost as beautiful as it sounds.

– Anthony Tommasini, New York Times


Header image: the author’s 1913 Bechstein model A piano with scores of music by Fryderyk Chopin, Joseph Schwantner and John Adams on the desk

 

The late great Sviatoslav Richter playing Schubert from the score