Pianist

That's pi-ANN-ist, not PEE-anist. The latter sounds much too much like "penis."

At my piano lesson a couple of weeks ago, my teacher, my piano partner and I had an interesting and enlightening discussion about what separates the pros from the amateurs in performance. The day before there was a concert featuring music of Lee Hoiby. The composer himself was there and performed about half of the program; various faculty, students and a guest artist did the rest. My own teacher, who both played and sang in the concert, commented of the student pianist that she had done a lovely job but it was immediately apparent that this was "student playing." What separates "good student playing" from "professional" playing? This is not an easy question to answer. After all, the elements were there: technical proficiency, a mature sense of phrasing and musicality, and sensitive collaboration with the other musicians on stage. What was missing, my teacher decided, was a certain depth of sound, something she calls "musical profile."

Does that sound abstract? It is. It's a hard concept even for experienced musicians. I would liken it to writing. There is good writing, and then there is the writing that is so good, and with such a distinctive voice, that you know immediately who the author is and are entirely engaged. Writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Molly Ivins, Anne Lamott and Toni Morrison are all like that; these women could write about watching paint dry and I would read it.

Did that make sense? No? All right, then. Consider the theatre. How loud must actors speak, how carefully must they ennunciate to be heard in the back row of the audience? Microphone or no, it's more than you think. Performing classical music live is the same thing.

I once attended a master class by Murray Perahia. He is a rather conservative player, but one of my favorite living pianists nonetheless, and is of surprisingly small stature, given the sound he can bring out of an instrument simply by depressing one key. He plays a single melody line, piano, in a huge concert hall and the sound fills the room, yet somehow he is not forcing the instrument or sacrificing the quality of his sound.

Why is this so difficult? It's not a matter of physical strength. Small people play loud, no problem. Here's the answer my teacher gave: FEAR. We inexperienced pianists are afraid of making ugly sounds, of completely letting go physically to produce enough sound in a performance to project to the audience. Seasoned professionals know what it takes, while the rest of us have to be told time and time again to project, to play distinctively, to articulate ourselves musically. This is not a matter of playing loud enough. Actors don't shout to be heard, after all.

If you're still with me, bless you. I'm trying to explain what it means to articulate oneself musically, and I'm afraid this post is muddled and confusing. Bah.

That lesson was so informative for me, verging on epiphanal (did I spell that right? Probably not.) I've spent so much of my life playing the piano, I can barely remember what it was like before I started lessons in kindergarten. My technique is still far from perfect, and I will always have a lot to learn about the repertoire I choose to play. But now I know what's holding me back from playing like a real pianist. Fear. And little by little, I'm learning to let go.

Comments

andre said…
You don't know me (I'm a friend of Pam), but this is a *great* post and I wanted to say that. Mature playing in classical music, in any music, is really hard to come by, especially so with students, 'cause we spend so much time trying to get all the elements (notes, rhythms, dynamics, etc.) "correct" and in so doing, try to conform to a standard of excellence that is *outside* of ourselves. The playing I love is when a piece of music or a repertoire. . when the performer makes it personal. . when it's not about trying to impress your teacher or an audience or a committee or family or a spouse or friends. . the type of playing centered far away from ambition, as Robert Bly might say. .

That's exactly what I love about Morrison's early writing. . there's an intimate lyricism to her work that seems to come from going over her language over and over and over. . . but it's just for her.

So if you're able to play for people the way you play for yourself in your most private heart. . that's what I want to hear. . even if it's just scales up and down your instrument.

I guess Ani D. says it well when she sings "I don't need to tell you what this is about. . You just start on the inside and work. . your. . way. . out." All the other stuff will work itself out. so please keep trying.
Steph said…
Exactly. So well put.

I think this "eat your fear" theory applies to all the arts, performing and otherwise.

You have always been a fear-defying player to some degree, Suze, even when you were a kid. I always felt that was the thing that set you apart.
Anonymous said…
wow, fear does have a lot of power, and aren't we all so full of it lately?! fear can impede all kinds of life experiences, and it makes such a profound statement in our lives.

thanks, suze.
katie
pamigelsrud said…
I started a reply here, but then decided to just post on my own blog... I think you play the piano beautifully -- so musically, so "in the flow", so I'm very excited to hear what you sound like when you play without fear. That's exciting!
Jenn Hacker said…
The beginning of your post reminds me of the running jokes on Animaniacs. Yakko, Wakko and Dot are chimney sweeps who come to Beethoven's house to clean his chimneys. Beethoven is working at the piano. The Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister) are humming Beethoven's 5th and getting on Beethoven's nerves. He yells at them to leave because he's working. Dot asks "What'cha dooooooooooooooooooooin'?" Beethoven responds that he's working, that he's a pianist. Yakko responds, "Really, you admit that in public? I'd get that looked at if I were you!" or something to that effect. I'll be able to quote it verbatim once I buy myself Season 1 of Animaniacs for either my birthday present or Christmas present to myself this year. Anyway, you reminded me of that. And the rest of the post was good, too.
Becca said…
I think at some point, Yakko kisses his hand and says, "Good night, everybody!"

Yeah, my first thought, too. I'm such a child.
Jenn Hacker said…
I am sooooooooooooooooo buying myself vol. 1 and vol. 2 of Animaniacs for Christmas. Vol. 2 comes out Dec. 13, I think. They need to release Tiny Toon Adventures on DVD, as well.

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