This is a reprint of an article by Daniel Wnukowski in the Canadian Musician Magazine.
If you were to ask me about my strongest childhood memories, two things immediately come to mind: the piano and my school lunchbox with a blue penguin painted on its cover. All I can remember about the lunchbox was that it accompanied me everywhere I went and was made of tough tin metal, as were most lunchboxes back in the day. I distinctly remember it making quite the clangy sound when dropped inadvertently. The piano, however, has continued to dominate the core of my identity to this day. It is a unique instrument with a dynamic range like no other, capable of producing vulgar sounds of rage to heavenly whispers from an outer-worldly dimension. It is my ally and partner in crime for a couple hours each day and then again during a quick tryst at an evening concert.
Bring in a piano and in an instant, I’m possessed! I want to learn more about what makes it tick, its everyday emotional needs and understand why I’m so drawn to its magnetic charms, like bass fish to grub bait.
Yes, I could survive in the Antarctic with only a piano in sight and a few penguins roaming about. After all, pianists and penguins are both an endangered species: Penguins are dealing with the threat of global warming and melting sea ice, whereas we are battling with an unscrupulous, mass entertainment industry and the greatest foe of humanity: equal temperament tuning (at least according to Timothy Leary).
Here are the 10 commandments for surviving a career in music. They’ve been crafted with the professional pianist in mind, but can be of benefit to just about anyone studying the instrument.
1) Always remain faithful to the score.
Think of the score as a complex design, similar to the visual splendour of a butterfly’s wings. Every masterwork is filled with with a vibrant panoply of patterns, designs and colours. New patterns emerge out of familiar ones, creating a fragile interplay of wondrous beauty. Oftentimes, the underside patterns are entirely different, a feature of natural selection that has allowed the species to survive the attacks of predators over millennia.
Powerful microscopes have now revealed a butterfly’s wings to be nothing more than millions of colorless, translucent scales that work in sync to create the illusion of color. We pianists are faced with a similar phenomenon, having to read between the hundreds of thousands of two-dimensional black dots, lines, shapes and multitude of symbols that underlie our music scores. Musicologists continue to disprove each other’s musical theories, bringing us closer and closer to the true intentions of a composer’s musical thoughts. However, it is still the responsibility of the concert pianist to ultimately bring the music to life. “But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides.” Arthur Schnabel once remarked.
Approach: Take a score with you during a walk in the park and gaze at it for a couple of minutes at a time each day. You never know what mysteries you may unravel there.
2) When all else fails, read the manual.
Chamber music rehearsals are especially notorious for bouts of endless bickering and badgering, but sometimes it’s useful to simply ask what the composer had intended in the first place. “What would Beethoven have said in this situation?” Sometimes the answer to the question is blatantly obvious, especially if you are using a quality, urtext edition with a well-researched commentary. Other times, the message is less readily decrypted and it can help to demonstrate what you are after by singing out the text. Wagner’s book “On Conducting” goes into this in much more detail, providing specific examples of how entire orchestras can benefit from singing and its corresponding affect on melody and rhythm.
For example, the Moonlight sonata continues to be one of the most misinterpreted works of all piano literature, yet Beethoven provided specific instructions right from the start: to be performed delicately, pianissimo and without changing the pedal.
[Music example: L. van Beethoven, Piano Sonata “Moonlight”, Op. 27, No. 2]
Approach: When all else fails, read the manual and when the manual is not clear – sing it!
3) Don’t covet another pianist’s interpretation.
The bane of a music teacher’s existence: “But Horowitz pedals here…but Zimmerman did this…but Gould…!” In a fast-paced world such as ours, it’s easy to forget the very essence of what brought us to music in the first place: a childlike curiosity that was naturally instilled onto us during our youth. With the advent of YouTube, it’s become far too easy to snatch a few ideas from another pianist’s recording and claim them as our own. Many young pianists today have become expert imitators, which has essentially corrupted the cultural fabric and glutted the recording industry with cookie-cutter recordings.
Let’s not confuse being inspired by a recording with blatantly copying another musician’s interpretation. For example, Glenn Gould once remarked just how inspired he was by Arthur Schnabel’s 1933 recording of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, listening to it again and again in his youth. Yet, his own album of the work together with Leonard Bernstein in 1962 reveals a vastly different approach, honed by years of maturity and guarded by a distinctly “Gouldian” approach.
Approach: Work on constructing your own unique musical language and vocabulary in lieu of short-term gains.
4) Avoid excessive mannerisms.
Economical movements that employ a wide range of muscle groups are fine, so long as they serve the music. However, exaggerated physical expressions are not only counterproductive to your interpretation, but are actually warnings of a greater underlying problem. It’s actually easy to understand: we compensate whatever is missing in our interpretation with excessive movements of the body. Wailing back and forth? Check your rhythm. Kissing the keyboard? Learn to exhale. Flailing arms? Let’s talk about tone production.
Approach: Spare the facial expressions of orgasmic yearning, unless you are performing Scriabin.
Stay tuned for Part 2!