Understanding The Species
After a season of “overload”—too many concerts, concurrent with other family commitments—I recently decided to take a sabbatical for a year. The moment I made that decision (it was to be my first “time off” since I was six years old), a strange thing happened. I began to think of myself as a person, not as a pianist! As disorienting as that was, it became clear that the piano had become an opiate, a substitute for many things, a shield, an excuse, a passport. And I am welcoming the shift of perspective for whatever further revelations may come to light.
I knew it would be a struggle to turn down invitations to play, but my plan was to use the year to learn new music and work on some recordings without the pressure of a deadline. Considering the number of pianists of every shape, size, and genre getting cranked out of conservatories and universities each semester, and the diminishing audiences for classical music, one must ask the glaringly inevitable question: Why? Why does pianist after pianist continue to believe the world needs yet another one? What could possibly be the seductive factor in the face of such odds. I believe that the answer lies in the fact that, in the end, to play the piano, with or without fame or recognition, is one of the most noble and beautiful endeavors. It is a calling in the deepest sense of the word, defying explanation. And we who have answered that call belong to a rarified and elite species: Homo pianisticus.
Solitary, lonely, driven, introspective, reclusive, overworked, thrashed, obsessive, narcissistic—these are some of the descriptions of the species, and although my own personal choice of adjectives would be privileged and joyful, I can still attest to all of the above.
In those countless hours alone we develop unique ways of being who we are. To be sure there are as many ways of approaching the instrument as there are pianists—hands flat or arched, wrists high, wrists low, benches elevated or almost at the floor, torsos fully locked into the seat or perched on the edge, hands creeping crablike along the keys, hands flailing high above, elbows out, elbows in, necks withdrawn, turtlelike, into shoulders, necks swanlike and regal, hunched backs, straight backs, faces screwed into taut grimaces, faces luminous in ecstasy, eyes opened, eyes closed, mouths open in vapid rapture, mouths locked shut with cheeks sucked in. In fact anyone who is not aware that the entire body is engaged in good piano playing has not watched too many pianists closely.
A recent incident underscored the complexities of the process. A teenaged girl came to audition for me, with her parents sitting close by. The girl played a nocturne not too cleanly, but musically, albeit accompanied by the sounds of her parents’ exasperated loud sighs. When she finished, each parent voiced disappointment, insisting to me that she could play the piece much better, and scolding the hapless girl to “get a grip.” The girl was at the brink of tears and fully expected me to decline to teach her. After a brief silence, I collected myself and said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I can see that you are very musical, even though you didn’t play as cleanly as you wanted to. The bad news is…” (whereupon I turned to face the parents), “I cannot teach her if I have to deal with this kind of response from the two of you. Can YOU do what she just did? Do either of you know what is involved in playing the piano? She has never been here before in my studio, and she is nervous. She has never touched my instrument before and each piano’s action feels and sounds different from the next, so she has had to make instantaneous adjustments. She is using her intellect, her ears, her eyes, her muscles, her emotions, all at once. This is rocket science, and she also has to deal with your apparent dismay, and her feelings of inadequacy. On top of that, she has memorized the piece, which means she has the fear of a mishap hanging over her head.”
The insistence on memorization of piano music has made nervous wrecks not only of teen-aged students, but of most pianists. Fear of a memory loss results in practice sessions that are reduced to instilling the notes for perfect replication—in other words, to becoming a computer. Nothing could be more antithetical to artistry. Artistry is related to love and life, which by nature are risky. The real struggle ought to be to get to the core of the music, while holding onto the excitement and spontaneity of the moment. Therefore the quest for artistry and the quest for technical perfection are, strangely, almost mutually exclusive. The ongoing struggle over this issue has existed ever since Franz Liszt invented the phenomenon of the solo piano recital, and Clara Schumann set the precedent of eschewing the music. Prior to those early forays, pianists with names such as Mozart, Clementi and Beethoven, read their scores, guilt-free, and fearless in front of their audiences. Can anyone today truly, in good conscience, begrudge the pianist who wishes to enjoy his or her own concert with the presence of a safety net, just in case?
Even without the goal of memorization, learning a piano score is hard work. Whenever I have been too long at the piano and feel incredibly spent, I remember Arthur Rubinstein’s discourse about all the physical energy we spend pushing and plying and pressing and pounding sounds out of that keyboard; he said that if we expressed all of those same motions on an obdurate object such as a tabletop, it would be apparent to the observer that a pianist is an athlete. It is no wonder that many get injured. The conductor, Colin Davis once described the plight of the pianist as having to stay in, alone, trying to conquer “a freak machine.”
Well, maybe not freak, but it sure is a complicated invention. As a pianist, I have had to crawl underneath the instrument in front of a large audience, in concert attire, to reattach the pedal mechanism that had dropped off. I once had to scoot forward, holding onto the black keys as the piano rolled across the stage because the brakes had not been secured. I have had to suffer the shock of a lid crashing down in the middle of a profoundly introspective Schubert movement because the large stick had been carelessly propped by a stagehand, and to forego using the essential una corda pedal when it became clear that its “strike point” was off, causing the hammers to hit two notes at a time. I have had to abide a persistent buzzing vibration on every F sharp of an entire concert program from a sympathetic vibration caused by any one of a million little screws in the instrument. Once, after being told that a certain piano had been “reconditioned,” I learned that the concert organizers had simply had the case varnished, and some of the varnish had dripped inside on the hammers. I have had my fingers lacerated on chipped ivories, bent over into the piano to release sticking dampers, unwound snapped strings from their pins to prevent them from twanging and flapping, and so and on.
But when we are blessed with a fine instrument, one able to speak and sing what we wish to express without the need to tinker with its parts, then it is the monarch of instruments with the broadest band of timbres, capable of the deepest sonorities.
By calling ourselves pianists, or musicians, a major part of our lives becomes defined. Those of us who wish to live beyond the piano as well have to struggle all the more, as a concert on the horizon dwarfs all else.
Not long after my decision to take a break from performance, I began to realize just how impossible it was, after all, to think of myself as an ordinary person instead of as a pianist. While on vacation this summer in Venice, I saw, upon entering a church, a harpsichord, lid open, in front of the altar, all prepared for an evening concert. I asked an elderly priest, in basic Italian, whether I could play it.
Signore, posso suonare il clavecino, per favore?
No, Signora, he replied emphatically.( I was not to touch it.)
Ma, io sono pianista, I ventured, with a plaintive tone. (I am a pianist! That statement made all the difference in the world.)
Veni, veni, signora, he beckoned with a more kindly voice.
I played some Bach and Scarlatti, and some visitors, worshippers, and a choral group from a back room gathered around to listen. Afterwards, the priest proudly took us on a tour of the most ancient parts of his church, not usually available to the public.
“Io sono pianista”—I am a pianist, even when I have resolved not to be one.
Carol Montparker is a pianist and author of four books, The Anatomy of a New York Debut Recital; A Pianist’s Landscape; The Blue Piano and Other Stories; and most recently, her new children’s book Polly and the Piano. She was Senior Editor of Clavier magazine for 15 years.
All content in this website is © Carol Montparker, 2001-2014. All rights reserved.