The Piano and I

Classical piano music is my life blood. It stops me in my tracks and compels me to listen. My involvement is physical, engaging more than my ears and my brain. The music finds a way of getting under my skin and grabbing my attention no matter what my mind might be occupied with at the time. The music shuts out the world as I submit to it and allow it to wash over and engulf me. It has the power to induce calm and optimism even in my most downcast or agitated moments.

I don’t want to create the impression I don’t go for orchestral, chamber and vocal music. I regularly immerse myself in the vast treasure trove of wonderful music that does not have a piano banging away in it. But, classical piano music is kinda special. First, the sound of the piano does something to me that other instruments don’t. I am even able to listen with pleasure, admittedly for only a little while, to the struggling efforts of a raw beginner. The piano captured my heart early in my childhood. My mother played the piano quite competently and my father loved the music of Chopin. Second, I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not like the music itself. It wasn’t something that grew on me. I loved it instantly, couldn’t have enough of it and wanted to play it. The essential elements of that love are very much alive in me today. What comes over me is still the same from as far back as I can remember.

My involvement with piano music includes playing it. I spend at least an hour practically every day working on my technique, learning new pieces and preparing pieces for forthcoming concerts. It is a serious, passionate, almost obsessive pursuit. I don’t know how good I am, and I have not yet learned how to control my nerves in concerts, but I will always practise, learn, and try to improve. The enjoyment is in the doing, although I suspect I could practise more efficiently and effectively.

What does playing the piano actually entail? How does one become good at it? There are many layers to penetrate, many dimensions to explore, many facets to develop. A note on the piano is never just another note to be banged with a finger to produce a sound. It needs to be played for a particular duration with a particular volume and quality of sound determined by its context. Which finger is used to play it depends on its adjacent notes and the best, usually the most comfortable, positions for your hand, forearm and upper arm. Economy of movement is essential. Generally, one needs to get the most out of every hand position by playing as many notes as possible before changing to another position.

Piano playing can be broadly divided into physical and the mental components. Both must move along and progress together. Piano technique often refers only to the physical part, the mechanical facility you need to play the piano. It is a limiting factor. Every piano piece has a technical requirement which you must possess. If you don’t, you cannot play it properly. I cannot play La Campanella, the Liszt-Paganini etude, simply because my technique is not up to the task.

What about the mental components? The struggle to develop manual dexterity can often mislead one into thinking that technique is everything. But, the quality of your playing is vitally affected by how well you understand the piece, how well you know, in minute detail, how to play it, and how well you can focus and concentrate while playing it.

Understanding a piece of music involves research and learning. It is important to know what the piece is about, what it is saying. It must speak to you or you will be unable to speak through it.The more you know about it the better. It helps greatly to know who composed it, if possible the circumstances in which it was written, what the title might suggest, and in which musical era was the piece composed. The era is of particular significance as it tells you some fundamental things about how a piece should sound. For instance preludes and fugues of the Well Tempered clavier by JS Bach were composed in the Baroque era when the piano was only a prototype. In fact Baroque keyboard music was normally written for the organ, harpsichord or clavichord, not the piano. Keyboard music of the Classical era,  chiefly that of Haydn and Mozart, was usually composed for the fortepiano, a delicate forerunner of the modern piano. Sparkling, crisp articulation brings out the best in this music. Beethoven then came along and by breaking free of the tightly shackled structure and limited emotional range of the Classical era, ushered in the era of Romanticism. Pianos had to be made more robust to enable his music to be played on them. Piano music proliferated during the Romantic era. Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Brahms and others composed lush, expansive, emotional music that is immensely popular today.

When I sit at the piano I try to pay close attention to a number of things, with varying success. How does it feel when I am playing a musical passage? Am I tense or relaxed? Are my forearms stiff or soft? Are my shoulders relaxed? Am I sitting tall, or am I hunched or slumped on the piano stool? Is every note being played comfortably? If not, which notes feel awkward? Can the awkwardness be fixed by changing the fingering or changing the hand position (which might involve shifting my arm)? How does it sound? Are the dynamics, phrasing, accents correct and convincing? What about the sound itself? Is it woody or does it resonate? In my childhood I used to imagine myself on the concert platform playing like a virtuoso, without really knowing how a virtuoso pianist played very difficult passages of music. Recently I have been trying to be more aware of the way I play, and how I can improve. As with everything else, gains are made only incrementally.

I don’t know where my obsession with the piano is going to take me. It doesn’t matter because the journey is so much fun.

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